What if Heroin Taught Me Something?

Sep 26, 2015 by

“My mother used to say something that drove me nuts: ‘There’s a sunrise and a sunset every day, and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.’”

– Cheryl Strayed, Wild


          “Can you stop humming that song?” Cheryl snapped at her mom. “What is wrong with you?”

          “What’s wrong with you?” her mom giggled. “I’m happy! Happy people sing!”

          “Why are you happy? We have nothing, Mom. Nothing.”

          “Well, we’re rich in love,” her mom responded cheerfully.

          “Oh my God, please, don’t – don’t even start with that,” Cheryl replied in annoyance. “We’re both waitressing full time.”

          “Oh, we’re students!”

          “And we’re going to have loans for the rest of our lives,” Cheryl continued. “This house is falling apart.”

          Her mom sighed in amusement.

          “You’re all by yourself because you married some abusive, alcoholic asshole,” Cheryl went on. “And then I come home, and you’re singing? What part of it do you not get?”

          “There’s nothing I don’t get, believe me,” her mom said. “But then what? Cheryl, if there’s one thing I could teach you, it’s how to find your best self. And when you do, how to hold on to it for dear life.”

          “And this is your best self?” Cheryl retorted.

          “I’m trying. Do I regret marrying an abusive, alcoholic asshole? No,” her mom shrugged with a smile. “Not for one second. Because I got you. And your brother. See how it works? It isn’t easy. But, ah, it’s worth it. And there’s going to be a lot worse days than this, honey. And you can let them kill you, but – I don’t know. I want to live!” she beamed.




          One Saturday night a little over a month ago, my 17-year-old sister and I were researching travel and work abroad options for her when she’s done high school. She’s not sure what she wants to do after she graduates yet, and it’s my job as her older sister to tell her that she doesn’t have to know, that people in their twenties and beyond don’t know where they’re going either, and that’s okay. More importantly, it is my responsibility to make sure she knows she has options.

          When I was her age, I didn’t know I had options. I thought university was the only one, and not because of my parents. They never told me I had to go. My dad’s perspective on life is to just live it, and my mom didn’t even have to try to sway me because I had been self-motivated toward post-secondary school since elementary.


          That’s the wrong word.

          I was scared.

          I was university bound because teachers, television, and society in general relayed the message that university was the single route to success, and I was scared to know the alternative. I’ve made it my mission to ensure that my sister is not. I’ve made certain that she does not buy into such a narrow-minded view of life. I’ve done so by telling her stories – stories of my experiences, my friends’ experiences, and the experiences of inspiring people I’ve heard or read about – to show her that there are many ways she can choose to live her life, and university is only one possible next step. And whether she chooses that one or another, she can change course at any time according to what makes her happy. Based on the fact that she’s contemplating working abroad, I think I’m doing a pretty good job.

          In addition to researching working holiday visas with her that Saturday night last month, we were also looking up this year’s homecoming dates for the University of Guelph, where I went to school, and Queen’s University. She’s interested in both, so I’m taking her to visit them this fall. (We visited Western last year.) Like I said, I believe in making sure my sister knows she has options. I definitely don’t recommend university to anyone who doesn’t plan on entering a profession. Professions, like teaching or medicine or dentistry, absolutely require degrees, but Google can teach things like social sciences and history and women’s studies for free. However, that opinion is my own; and although I’ve definitely voiced it to her, I encourage my sister to form her own. Therefore, I’m taking her to visit schools even though I don’t promote post-secondary education, because I want to give her the resources she needs to make her own decision.

          While trying to figure out when to visit each school, I thought it’d be fun to go to Queen’s during homecoming. I never went to homecoming when I was a student, because I hated my school. I hope for my sister to have a different approach to university than I did if she decides to go, an open-minded approach. I hope she’ll go wherever she chooses, university or otherwise, with whole-heartedness and excitement. Homecoming seemed like a good way to show her the fun side of university culture that I opted out of. But in trying to get tickets to the 2015 homecoming game at Queen’s, I found that I couldn’t buy any because I’m not a Queen’s alumnus.

          “What the fuck? Homecoming is an alumni thing?” I rhetorically asked my little sister. “What does homecoming mean?” I wondered aloud as I Dictionary.comed the word to find this definition:

1. A return to one’s home; arrival at home
2. An annual event held by a college, university, or high school for visiting alumni

          “So Guelph is our only option to go to homecoming?” I sighed. (Thankfully, Guelph’s homecoming was last Saturday, the same day as my little sister’s friend’s birthday, so we’ll be visiting in October instead.) “Guelph isn’t my home!” I laughed.

          “If you had The Happiness Experiment while you were in Guelph, you probably would have loved it,” my little sister pointed out.

          “Yeah, I probably would have,” I agreed, “but it’s because I went through what I went through that The Happiness Experiment happened.”

          Had my life not played out the way it did, had I not felt so lost, I might not have gotten to the point of starting The Happiness Experiment. That’s why I think being lost is so valuable: it gives you motivation to navigate yourself toward beauty, leading you somewhere you wouldn’t have gotten to go if you didn’t get lost in the first place. I had no idea my previously lonely, boring, depressing life was leading to this incredible experiment in happiness. I had no idea I had it in me to get here. I had no idea here was where I’d come to. But since I’ve arrived, I’ve been unbelievably grateful for the more than four years I hoped to die, for every single night I cried on the bathroom floor, for the university I regretted going to, for the job that sucked my soul, for the guys that never turned into boyfriends, and for everyone that hurt me and I hurt. All of it drove me to take ownership over my life. I’ve been continuously exploring like a lost girl ever since, because there’s always more to find, because change is constant, and because there’s happiness in the adventure.

          I was reminded of all this last Saturday night, while watching the movie Wild with my dad. In it, Cheryl Strayed hikes the Pacific Crest Trail for 94 days to the Bridge of the Gods. The movie ended with these words:

There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another, what leads to what, what destroys what, what causes what to flourish or die or take another course. What if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry? But if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if I wanted to sleep with every single one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if all those things I did were the things that got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? It took me years to be the woman my mother raised. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it – without her. After I lost myself in the wilderness of my grief, I found my own way out of the woods. And I didn’t even know where I was going until I got there, on the last day of my hike. Thank you, I thought over and over again, for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know: how in four years I’d cross this very bridge and marry a man in a spot almost visible from where I was standing, how in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year later, a daughter named after my mother, Bobbi. I knew only that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore, that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough, that it was everything. My life, like all lives: mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be.

Happiness Tip: Put yourself in the way of beauty.

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  1. Cindy Morales

    Cheryl’s story struck a chord with me as well. All of the things we go through in life change us; but they also give us wonderful opportunities to learn and grow as a person. I, too, have had challenges in my life that i do not wish to repeat. But without those things i would not have the blessings i do. We can choose to dwell on the past or we can find our place in the “wild” where we are able to connect with who we really are and discover a whole new way of being. Blessings to you for creating this blog.

    • Absolutely, our experiences, good or bad, develop our characters. I’m so grateful for all of mine, regardless of whether or not I enjoyed them in the moment. Thank you so much for reading, Cindy.

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