Clean: 'Survivor's Guilt' (10/4/21) | Clean | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clean: 'Survivor's Guilt' (10/4/21) 

Published October 4, 2021 at 11:03 a.m.

click to enlarge Benjamin Lerner - JOSHUA SHERMAN PRODUCTIONS
  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner
Wispy clouds hovered over a lush green hillside as I walked through rows of marble tombstones in a picturesque rural cemetery. It was a gorgeous southern Vermont summer afternoon, and I had just celebrated three years of continuous sobriety.

After making arrangements with my boss and coworkers, I had taken the night off to make a pilgrimage to the gravesite of the founder of my recovery fellowship. As I made my way past ornately decorated mausoleums, I drifted off into solemn reflections as I thought back on the friends who had passed away over the course of the past several years. Memories of the smiling faces of lost friends whom I had met at treatment centers in times past flashed underneath my eyelids every time I blinked. I started to feel a sense of guilt as I felt the gloriously warm sun beat down on my forehead. I was alive, employed, sober and happy, but I still felt like I was undeserving of the freedom and serenity I had found in recovery. I couldn’t make sense of the fact that I was alive and able to experience such a spectacular day when so many of my friends were gone.

Thirty minutes into my trek through the cemetery, I came across the tombstone of the man who had created the recovery fellowship that had saved countless lives, including my own. I knelt down, folded my hands and bowed my head in a moment of silent prayer. Tears welled up in my eyes as I ran my fingers over the grass. I was overwhelmed with simultaneous feelings of gratitude and desperation. I knew that were it not for a mixture of determination, surrender, luck and fortunate happenstance, I would most likely have ended up under the ground in a similar cemetery due to the consequences of my addiction.

At the climax of my cathartic emotional moment, the scattered clouds gathered overhead and blocked out the sun. The timely moment of desolate darkness served as a perfect metaphor for my spiritual state. I was surrounded by beauty and grace, but I still felt held back by my feelings of self-condemnation. My recovery had taken me to places that I had never thought possible in my life and career, but the human cost of the addiction epidemic was weighing on my conscience like a 20-ton boulder. My hands began to tremble as I struggled to maintain my bearings. I didn’t know if I had the strength to get back on my feet and walk away from the tombstone, let alone continue to work towards my life goals.

It was then that the words of a friend who had once guided me through the earliest days of my recovery began to echo through my mind with the resonance of a stadium speaker:

“Recovery doesn’t just give us the ability to reclaim our sense of self and live in a better way. It also gives us the chance to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. If you ever find yourself doubting that you have the strength to keep going, just remember that you aren’t just staying sober for yourself – you’re doing it to honor the memory of every fallen friend who never got the chance to find the same grace and fulfillment that you did in sobriety.”

After taking a deep and restorative breath, I rose to my feet as the sun began to peek through the overhead clouds once again. Recovery had given me the chance to live life in the solution, and I knew that I owed it to every one of my lost friends to channel my pain and passion into my recovery advocacy work.

Always remember:

Keep moving forward.
Run towards the truth.
Don’t quit before the miracle happens.
Benjamin Lerner is a recovering addict, composer, writer, musician and radio host. He has been sober since June 13, 2016. In his weekly column "Clean," originally published in Vermont News Guide, he shares his personal journey and lessons learned from his life in recovery. Columns published before July 12, 2020, can be found here. Newer installments are available on
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About The Author

Benjamin Lerner

Benjamin Lerner

Columnist Benjamin Lerner is a recovering addict, composer, writer, musician, and radio host. He has been sober since June 13, 2016.


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