Addicts as Jaywalkers and Hitchhikers
We run along streets, cross roads, and catch rides to somewhere else.
Posted April 15, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
In the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the alcoholic is compared to a jaywalker. Since “jaywalking” is one of those concepts, like “yield,” that has gone by the wayside, let me offer a preliminary definition. To jaywalk is to step into a road or cross it without regard for traffic and without following the law. A jaywalker is the person who runs across a busy street, or doesn’t look one way or the other before stepping out. Jaywalkers don’t wait for the walk light at intersections. More and more people are jaywalking because they are too busy looking at their phones to notice when lights change or cars are zooming. More people are also “drunk walking,” with nearly 2000 pedestrians killed with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher in 2016.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, the jaywalker is introduced as a comparison to make sense of a person who has a passion for drinking. Jaywalkers and alcoholics share a penchant for bad decisions with dangerous consequences. Despite the consequences, the jaywalker keeps heading out into traffic. Each time the jaywalker is hit, the injuries become more severe. He pledges to stop but does not. Or cannot. And finally,
"he can no longer work, his wife gets a divorce and he is held up to ridicule. He tries every known means to get the jaywalking idea out of his head. He shuts himself up in an asylum, hoping to mend his ways. But the day he comes out he races in front of a fire engine, which breaks his back. Such a man would be crazy, wouldn’t he?
"You may think our illustration is too ridiculous. But is it? We, who have been through the wringer, have to admit if we substituted alcoholism or any addiction for jay-walking, the illustration would fit exactly. However intelligent we may have been in other respects, where alcohol has been involved, we have been strangely insane. It’s strong language but isn’t it true?"
For many people struggling with addiction, this is an accurate description. We know the risks and yet we still keep doing the same things. Our actions seem incomprehensible to others and even to our own selves. It is as if some passion or compulsion takes over our higher-order thinking. The jaywalker comparison highlights how some experience a compulsion over which they seemingly have no control. The picture of addiction as involving compulsions is dominant in much of the research on addiction. Some are challenging this picture in interesting and compelling ways. I am going to leave these issues by the side for now.
Another way to understand those of us who develop addictions is as hitchhikers. To hitchhike is to stand by the side of the road in order to catch a ride somewhere else. The familiar gesture of hitchhiking is putting one’s thumb up. Many people use alcohol and other drugs to escape from something. It might be shyness and awkwardness. It may be an unstable family. Or abuse. Or feeling different. Or depression or anxiety or so many other things. People find release and escape in alcohol and other drugs. We hitchhike and catch a ride outside of ourselves and our present situations to someplace better. It may actually be better for a good long while. Many addicts will say just this.
Those of us who make it into recovery and fundamentally alter our use of alcohol and other drugs remain hitchhikers in some important ways. Many of us really don’t know how to live when not in altered states. As much as we know and even accept that we cannot go back to our old life, we’re not sure how to live here and now. Our grasp on sobriety may seem tenuous. We may lack hope about our abilities to cope. We may be unable to imagine how life would be sober. We may not believe that someone like us will be able to do this. So what do we do? We can hitchhike because we do need to catch a ride somewhere else.
Hitchhiking in recovery has multiple forms. I may need to hitchhike with someone else’s belief in me that I can go another hour not drinking or using. You may need help imagining a sober life so you look at someone who used with you but has fundamentally altered his life. Someone else may be unable to see any positive character or moral traits in herself but can listen to someone else describe how they see her. Our stories are often the vehicles for helping people move a little further down the road. We can generously offer them as much as we can charitably listen to others’ stories and continue to learn. At times we provide the rides while at others, we need them. We are hitchhikers.
W., Bill. Alcoholics Anonymous (4th edition). 2001. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.