September 14, 2020

Keith Howard

As a little boy I was very small. I know, I know. All little boys are small—except for those with “Jack Disease” who are hairy and look like Robin Williams, but I was extraordinarily small, so tiny that when I started kindergarten my mother brought out a step-stool for me to spare me the embarrassment of having her lift me onto the first step of the bus. When I got a bit older, I dreamed of being, in those far less sensitive times, a midget. As a little person I could work the circus, travel the country and not have to worry about 4th grade. Alas, I finally grew into the relatively short, but not remarkably so, man I am today.  

Having spent so much time little, though, I got used to always looking up at people, adults, classmates, even kids way younger than me. There’s a reason very few portraits are taken from below. Humans are at their ugliest when you’re looking up at their chins and gazing into their nostrils. Even the loveliest of women—Jessica Lange circa 1983, say—could not hold up to the invasive nature of photographs of internal nasal passages. 

No, looking up at humans is disturbing at best. 

Few people in my life have looked up to me.

Years later I was a second-grade teacher (really) and spent my days looking down at skulls, except when I was able to squat to look students eye-to-eye. Because I was teaching in an upper-middle-class school with wealthy stay-at-home moms, my kids’ scalps were always clean and their hair combed and beribboned. Still, looking at whorls of hair and the tops of noses all day was a challenge. As with photographs of faces from below, picturing nasal bones and part lines does not leave anyone at his or her best. 

 No, looking down on humans is disturbing at best. 

 You may well wonder, in a column about recovery, why I’m talking about noses and chins and hair. I’ll try to explain. 

Not my best side.

I’ve been down many times in my life, looking up at people in the power structure, whether case managers, or food pantry workers or just someone to bum enough money for smokes off of. That stinks. They didn’t seem fully human to me when I gazed up the nostrils of privilege or stared hopefully at the chin of pride and arrogance. At least, that’s how people above me always appeared, no matter what they did to try to establish “rapport,” which all too often just made me more suspicious of them. 

I’ve also been above others in the power structure, been the one who has the cookies to dole out or the request to be granted. At Hope, much as I hate to admit it, I still am today. Still, my goal at Hope—and in my life in general—is to approach everyone as an equal and to try to navigate each situation demonstrating respect and empathy. I don’t know how successful I am—perhaps I come off as another man of power trying to make a connection—but I know my goal and I know my heart.  

Recovery begins, I think, with one person with addictions talking with another person who’s overcome those same addictions. Eyeball to eyeball, I and thou (not I and it), two equals trying to muddle through life without resorting to chemical solutions—that’s what my recovery has looked like for me, and, I hope, for you.