Life lessons come to us from many sources. But who would expect to receive a message relevant, even central, to the recovery process from drug and alcohol addiction at an elementary school graduation?
Delivered by, of all people, a woman dressed as the title character from a hit animated Disney film.
My eldest offspring Sarah, a beautiful, funny and creative soon-to-be middle-schooler, just graduated from fifth grade. As I moved about the auditorium, trying to give my vertically challenged self a clear view of my proud graduate, the keynote speaker took the stage. It was Elsa, the Snow Queen of Arendelle, based on the title character from "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen, recently brought to life in the wildly popular "Frozen."
There she was, Elsa the Snow Queen, in full regalia, with white flowing locks and white gloves, standing before a rapt audience of matriculating fifth-graders. Who knew the tuition could be stretched that far? But sure enough, Elsa, one of the biggest movie stars in the demographic, delivered the keynote speech to the graduates, their families and the entire school.
Elsa's Powerful Message
Elsa shared her experience, strength and hope that stemmed from all the years she had lived in fear. Listening to her message, I knew I would write this blog.
For those who have not seen "Frozen," Elsa is blessed, or perhaps afflicted, with an unusual superpower. Her touch turns everything around her into ice. The power causes her great pain and loneliness until she learns to control it, even use it for good, and sees the good in herself.
The connection between addicts and Elsa is stark. Although some people consider "holding one's liquor" to be a superpower, even addicts with an amazing tolerance wouldn't be admitted to the Justice League. But it is Elsa's fear and isolation that we can relate to. You see, an addict's fear and isolation about being different and powerless over something so damaging and potentially fatal (either chemicals or processes), line up with Elsa's solitude and self-conscious fear surrounding her out-of-control ice power.
Elsa's power became so unmanageable that she nearly killed her best friend and younger sister, Anna. As a result, she withdrew from her sibling and the world at large. Her father admonished, "Conceal, don't feel," before locking her away from the world.
Addiction is often misunderstood as a personal weakness. Perhaps "Frozen," and Elsa's transformational change, can teach us all to pause before rushing to judgment. Is the addict in your life (partner, child, friend or co-worker) acting out from a place of evil? Or is it fear? Is the drunk living under the bridge choosing to beg for money or escaping the pain of hurting his or her loved ones?
Elsa pointed out to the fifth-graders that things are not always as they appear. She looked normal, confident, even regal. She went through the motions of life that were expected of her. She opened the gates to the public during her coronation and wore the clothes of the queen of Arendelle. Little did anyone know how she struggled with the pain of feeling like a freak, and the sadness of living in isolation. Addicts so often feel lost and alone -- like freaks -- and it seems no one can help them escape from their hell. Elsa shared how she feared morphing into the monster people were accusing her of being, which again drew me to the similarities addicts face in trying to find love and support in a system that mislabels them as misfits and mistreats them.
Recent musicals and movies, such as "Wicked" and "Maleficent," retell popular children's stories from the perspective of the so-called "bad" witches. This movement, stemming from a gentler and softer, more mature society, allows the audience to question previously held beliefs about the nature of absolute evil, or at least asks us to reexamine our initial judgments. The larger implication is to ponder that perhaps many more things are not what they seem.
Arendelle and the Frozen Hell of Addiction
Apart from discovering how our judgments are often misplaced, Elsa's personal transformation teaches us important lessons applicable to recovery. Elsa wastes a great deal of time afraid and alone. Instead of embracing her power, she hides from it, wearing gloves and trying to pretend it's just not there. Recovery from the frozen hell of addiction requires that we admit it's there and that we cannot manage our lives living this way. Likewise, Elsa grows as soon as she throws off her gloves and embraces her true nature. She literally lets her hair down, and becomes free, and, I dare say, happy. Addicts cannot thrive in recovery without acceptance: who they are, what they have, and what they value.
Another "Elsa lesson" is to heed Shakespeare's advice "to thine own self be true." You see, she imparted some wisdom to the fifth-graders about listening to one's inner voice. She encouraged the fledgling middle-schoolers to follow their passion, despite convention. She warned them that if they were to live their lives in order to fit in or to please others, they would fail to discover their own magical power. In that respect, happiness comes from within -- it comes from the self. It's nice to fit in and it's an achievement to be powerful, but it's more important to live authentically. It's important to achieve, but it's most powerful when achievement results from personally valuable goals. To psychologists, these are known as self-concordant or intrinsically motivated goals (PDF).
That day, Elsa taught many valuable life lessons to a squirming assemblage of fifth-grade graduates, but could not have known how clear her message came through to many of the adults in attendance, particularly those in recovery. Get yourself together. Accept who you are, connect to others, love and be true to yourself and take the gloves off! Once that happens, it's magical.
It all doesn't have to turn to ice.
Dr. Jason Powers, M.D., is certified by the American Board of Addiction and holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin, "Dr. P" is the recipient of Sierra Tucson's Compassion Award and has been recognized four times as a top addiction doctor by H Texas Magazine. Dr. Powers is also the author of "When the Servant Becomes the Master," published in April 2012.