by Joan R. Shepherd, FNP
There’s an old story about an elderly Chinese woman who has two large pots, which she carries with a pole balanced across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. Precious water always dripped onto the ground.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.
After 2 years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream. 'I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.' The old woman smiled, 'Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side?
I have always loved this story, probably because of all my own “cracks”. The older I get, the more I accept them. When I see this quality in patients, accepting and loving themselves as they are, their recovery is a continual unfolding.
I’m thinking of Penney, who fits the profile of many people who become addicted to opiates and alcohol: she was sexually abused as a child and continued to repeat the pattern of abuse in her own marriages and relationships. After the third stormy marriage and some broken bones as the result of physical abuse resulting in chronic pain due to permanent hardware placed in her hip, something else happened to Penney.
The years of therapy and the commitment to a sometimes painfully slow, courageous process of learning to love herself allowed Penney to let go of self destructive behaviors. She told me instead of looking for another person to ‘treat her right’, she asks herself daily: if I was going to treat someone as the perfect date, what would I do? And then, she does it for herself. For Penney, that could mean shopping for and cooking a great seafood meal, spending time with her grandchild, going to a movie, or cutting off the world for a little while and watching her favorite TV show.
Her life is by no means without problems….she lives with some degree of physical pain, but has found without the opiates, her own endorphins which help block pain are kicking in. Becoming physically active has helped her lose some pounds and further reduced her pain. There are financial stresses and family members with health problems. But today Penney is living her life as the wonderful, imperfect person she is, without the need to shut down every painful emotion with a drink or a pill.
The path of flowers that Penney’s cracked pot has produced includes a great sense of humor and the ability to laugh at herself, real friendships, a son with a steady job who is buying his own home, 2 beautiful grandchildren, the opportunity to care for her dying mother, and so much more.
It’s the cracks that give us our uniqueness and character, and embracing them requires honest self-inquiry. This is only possible without the mind numbing effects of drugs and alcohol.