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Recovery, Redemption and Professional Wrestling - One-Dimensional Scoundrels and Mystified Addicts

10/29/2013 02:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

I'm a huge wrestling fan. No, I don't mean the proper Olympic sport. I mean the show: good versus evil, heroes versus villains and, for the purpose of this post, redemption versus infamy. Say what you will, but pro wrestling is a window into the American soul.

As I watch the drama unfold, I think back to the 1980s, when an evil pair fought as a tag team. One supposedly Iranian (The Iron Sheik), the other supposedly Russian (Nikolai Volkoff), this crew was tailor-made to infuriate North American viewers.

But wrestling fans are remarkably forgiving: If you're a good guy today, they love you, no matter how evil you may have been last week. So when the USA and the Soviet Union started to get chummy, Nikolai quickly turned hero, and near the end of his career was in tears when American children honored him for all the work he had done on behalf of world peace.

So the former scoundrel made good, found redemption and a place in the hearts of wrestling fans everywhere.

Currently, the former villain C. M. Punk is in a feud with the former hero (now a villain): Ryback.

Is there a lesson here for those of us interested in recovery from addiction? Yes, so long as we refrain from reading too much into it all. A balanced appreciation of pro wrestling can offer some perspective. In the Land of the Free, Christian redemption has been important to us for centuries. It really is a part of who we are, and we do love our reformed sinners.

There is a problem here as well. Okay, more than just one problem, but this is a short article. Sinners are redeemed by juxtaposition to the horrors of being fallen. Their glory shines in contrast to what they once were.

So, in our own recovery climate, addicts often mystify their own pasts, and their own (former) perfidy. One-dimensional bad guys make for fine entertainment, but very few substance addicts in the real world fit that mold. You wouldn't know it, though, if all you had to go on were some of the recovery sessions found on this continent.

And on it goes. You can't con a con -- or so they say. Of course, anyone can be conned now and then. But many addicts in recovery like to perceive themselves as in possession of strange, special, unique abilities. Of course, we addicts possess no such strange powers. But if people can believe in wrestling, then why not mystical addicts with special abilities?

Only an addict can understand another addict -- more nonsense and, again, it serves to mystify the person with a history of substance use problems.

As a historian of addiction, I've written about the origins of this demonization of the addict -- mostly it emerged in the early 20th century. And, for a host of self-serving reasons, addicts often played along. They still do.

As an alcoholic and crack addict, I can tell you this much: We're really not all that different from others. Some of us may lie and steal, but these behaviors are not endemic to addiction.

As a wrestling fan, I understand that there is a time and a place for nonsense and for one-dimensional scoundrels: The place is TV, and the time is after dinner when my workday is over.

And here is something to consider: If we addicts want to make real changes for ourselves -- socially, politically -- we must stop participating in our own degradation. Painting ourselves as uncanny abominations who see things that normal people cannot see -- all of this simply plays into the ongoing marginalization of addicts and drug users everywhere.

If you want to view a window into the absurd, and a parody of some of the mystical nonsense governing today's recovery culture, tune in to pro wrestling and you'll learn a bit.

It's fun to watch, too. Right now the greatest hero in the world of wrestling is a 5' 8" vegan named Daniel Bryan, who on a good day can clobber two 300-pound missing links at a time. The corporate big-shots keep trying to suppress Daniel -- they don't want him to be champ -- but he's the little guy who just won't quit. And the fans adore him. Is he really a vegan?

Well, that's what he says, and wrestlers -- like addicts -- never lie.