The day that I got to my sober house is a day I could never forget. I was still very much in early recovery at 7 months clean and sober. There was excitement and some fear for being sober for so long. It was a record for me by about 6 months. The feelings I felt as I sat on that unmade bed, in that mostly empty room are ones that I can still feel when remembering that time. I had never felt so alone, afraid and eager to pick up a drink or drug.
This really baffled me. Here I was, 7 months sober and nothing had changed! Well, not nothing. After all, I was no longer homeless, I was eating three meals a day and I even had a job. The baffling part was that my internal condition hadn’t changed one bit. I was just as afraid, fearful and lost as I was the day I stepped into treatment a few months earlier.
While in active addiction, I spent time imagining the circumstances I needed to be present in order to stop using. I needed a job, an apartment, a nicer boyfriend, more money, And of course I needed my family to love me more. How could someone stay clean and sober without these conditions? If only I could arrange all of these external factors, the insides would surely follow (or so i thought).
I sat on my rented mattress and decided I would just keep saving my money and if I still wanted to use when I had enough money for a large supply of drugs I would use then. That night I walked into an AA meeting. Looking back I can’t help but see how my higher power was leading me when I truly couldn’t see clearly. I walked into this meeting for the first time and with no plans on doing this, I found myself a sponsor. Although I knew nothing about this woman or her background, when I heard her speak and I thought maybe, just maybe, she could help me.
I met with my new sponsor every week for a couple months. She read to me from the big book and we talked a lot. Periodically I got instructions to do some praying or writing. I did what I was told even though I was not convinced someone like me could get better. How could someone who was living under a bridge, eating at soup kitchens, stealing from anyone possible, lying about everything and showering on a very rare basis get better? I wasn’t even sure I deserved a good life, after all I had spent years living in survival mode and burned every bridge I had every built.
How could someone like me recover?
I spent the next few months doing everything I was told to do in an effort to prove to everyone that it wasn’t going to work for me. Well, guess what happened? At some point during those months the obsession and desire to drink and drug went completely away. I woke up one day and realized that it had been many days since I had thought about a drink or a drug.
That was all I ever wanted in life: a day of freedom from that burning desire to use. That happened and so much more. I began to have less hate for myself. The shame that I carried around began to dissipate. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in many years. There were still moments of self doubt where something inside of me wondered how could someone like me recover?
I kept moving forward on this journey of the 12 steps because I became afraid to stop. The fear of what would happen if I picked up again was overwhelming at times early on. Relationships with people from my past began to be repaired. Not everyone was lining up to be in my life again, but in most cases I was able to make things right where I had wronged people. It was so powerful and life-changing to watch relationships completely transform. I had no idea how to be the healthy half to any relationship when I got sober. Learning how to be a good daughter, sister, girlfriend etc. was brand new for me. When it came to intimate relationships, I was a jealous, insecure and needy girlfriend. The steps taught me how to not be like that. They taught me how to trust in others and how to have faith.
It’s hard not to go on about the transformative process of the steps forever. I truly believe I would not be alive, let alone sober if I never found them. They gave me the ability to identify my feelings, to feel joy, and to be grateful. I had tried so many other things in previous attempts at recovery. These included new relationships, new apartments, new states of residence, different drugs etc. I could never put any time together no matter what I tried to change. Early recovery was challenging in so many ways, but the 12 steps gave me freedom and peace I never thought possible.
I spent many years going to AA meetings where I never heard about the 12 steps. It was never explained to me that there was a solution. I heard all the classic slogans like, “Suit up, show up and shut up” and “Do 90 in 90” and “Just don’t drink.” If it was as simple as just not drinking I just wouldn’t drink! For me, doing 90 meetings in 90 days wasn’t always attainable with work or school schedules. I would miss one meeting and then beat myself up for not being perfect. It was helpful to find quality meetings. Instead of going to a meeting just to say I went to one, I found a few that were really powerful and full of great recovery. I didn’t show up and shut up. People answered my questions and really wanted to get to know me. For the first time in as long as I could remember I began building meaningful connections with people.
My point here is that everyone’s path to recovery can look different. It is not a one size fits all. What worked for me was going to quality 12 step meetings, finding a sponsor, and making a commitment to get through the steps.
This is the first layer of me creating my authentic path to recovery. Doing the steps and really beginning to change the person I was erased that doubtful voice in my head that always questioned if a person like me could recover.
Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash
Chaos and Confusion into Confidence and Courage
I am not sure when it actually happened. It was this long process that revealed itself as slowly as a New England winter transforms into spring. It takes awhile and unfolds at its own pace. It cannot be rushed. A few steps forward and a couple of steps back. Slowly, progress is made. Chaos and Confusion
At some point, I realized “Ah. I. Can. Do. This.” I can live happily clean and sober. It occurred to me that the chaos and confusion I was once living in addiction transformed in to confidence and courage. And this is how.
Physical and Mental Transformation
Cravings for my drink and drug lasted long after detox. The physically cravings had subsided but the mental ones were screaming like megaphones in my ears. It was so loud that it drowned out every other thought and all other noise. In many moments, it seemed near impossible not to pick-up to once again experience the comfort that comes from having that drink or drug ride the jet stream of my blood flow.
I knew what I had to do though. Chaos and Confusion
This time I knew I just had to wait it out. The intensity of the cravings at times threatened to overwhelm me and win the battle. I learned to just simply wait. Sometimes with clinched fists and a tight jaw. But waiting always won.
Occasionally, I picked up the phone and called someone that I trusted just to say hello, to vent, or to distract my mind. I prayed too. Pleaded really. Going to an AA meeting helped most times. I had to find those meetings where the topic of conversation was more than just war stories about the trials and tribulations of addiction. I knew how to live addicted. The meetings that focused on living in the solution and provided tips on how to stay clean and sober were a lot more helpful.
Physically, I felt lousy, had no energy, and was awake when I should have been asleep and asleep when I should have been awake. This fed the chaos and confusion of my daily existence for many months in early sobriety.
I clearly saw that physically and mentally I needed to transform chaos and confusion into confidence and courage.
Emotional Mixed Bag
There was also a deep sadness that resided inside of me. For the longest time, I really could not figure out why I felt this way. Then I heard someone explain that she felt like she had lost her best friend when she stopped drinking. Me too! I was experiencing the grief of missing my companion of drugs and alcohol that had been with me since I was a teenager. We hung out together pretty much daily for literally decades. And now my friend and companion was suddenly gone. Knowing that this grief was real helped me to transform the emotional chaos and confusion I was experiencing into confidence and courage.
It seemed as though every little tip and piece of wisdom was another piece in the puzzle of sober living. I was gaining traction in putting the puzzle pieces together to create a unified whole.
Keep It Simple
I heard the slogan “Keep it simple” before and never really understood exactly what it meant. Actually, I never really gave it much thought. It was only in the rearview mirror that I realized that is exactly what was helping me to stay sober. I had to keep every thing very, very simple. In order to do that, I followed three rules that really helped in that first year:
1. Avoid Drama at all costs
2. Talk less and listen more (in other words stop having an opinion about everything)
3. Develop basic routines & rituals and be consistent
It seemed as though every relationship in my life had some level of drama to it. Both spoken and unspoken drama played at the edge of every conversation, silent glance, and the body language of those around me. So much havoc had been created by my addiction that I no longer knew what was real and what was imagined between others and myself. I was often caught up in the drama of friends too that really had nothing to do with me. I lacked boundaries and stayed silent when I should have spoken up and spoke up when I should have stayed silent.
It occurred to me that one effective drama-killing tool was practicing contentment. Just being with things as they are rather than trying to make them be what I thought they should be. This practice relieved a lot of suffering for myself and for others.
Getting through that first year of sobriety meant I had to take stock of what was causing me to be so upset all the time and redirect my attention and my efforts.
Learning to observe what I pay attention to and feed with my thoughts and actions became a very helpful skill.
Drama in my life got the boot.
Accepting things as they are takes a lot of practice. But slowly, over time, it became easier and “I stopped fighting everyone and everything “ (AA Big Book).
Talk Less & Listen More
It also helped for me to stop having an opinion about everything and everyone. It was as if I had to be the defender of all of my opinions in order to feel worthy. My serenity was the price I was paying and it was costing way too much. So I simply started to shut up. When tempted to speak up I would ask myself “What am I defending?” Usually it was so trivial it was not even worth the breath required to utter a word. I found staying quiet made people want to engage with me more. And it spared me lots of unnecessary physical and emotional energy.
This simple, but not always easy, practice was a huge benefit in transforming chaos and confusion into courage and confidence.
Routines & Rituals
The routines and rituals created by my active addiction were significant. The certainty of particular ways of preparing and using drugs, the habits involved in daily drinking, and the thought, preparation, and energy needed for these activities oddly enough brings satisfaction and comfort. Feeling in control and a sense of competency, even those it is injurious, provide a structure that brings familiarity and an odd sense of safety.
For those people that do not battle substance use disorder, it is likely astonishing to hear that there is comfort that comes from the routines and rituals of active addiction. But for those of us that have lived the hell of addiction, this makes total and complete sense.
I replaced those harmful routines and rituals with more healthy ones. I started walking daily. My phone counted and tracked my steps. I found it helped to create structure in my day and also was a boost for me mentally.
I also started with small things like making sure I was drinking enough water and trying to get to bed at the same time every night. Self-destruction was replaced with self-care.
The process of moving from chaos and confusion to confidence and courage takes commitment, attention, and patience. Letting go of the idea that I was doing things perfectly helped too. Eventually, living clean and sober became easier than living in addiction.
Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash
Transforming Chaos and Confusion into Confidence and Courage
“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.”
― Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
This quote caught my attention. In fact the whole book rocked my world. In part, I knew that my addiction and belonging were connected. Or more accurately, that deep hole created by a sense of not belonging.
Using drugs and alcohol masked the deep sense of not belonging inside of me; of not being a part of; being separate and alone. Somehow other than and less than. I had this inner pool of insecurity that kept me constantly trying to measure up to what I thought everyone’s expectation of me was. A sure recipe for disaster as it is actually not attainable. Slowly, over time, I began to realize that all my relationships, interactions, and connections were predicated on whether or not the other person felt I measured up to their expectations. And everyone was using a different measuring stick.
Realizing that this never ending quest to be a part of – to fit in – to belong – was evolutionary helped me to accept this aspect of myself. After all, we are wired to connect. The only way our species has survived has been to band together and help each other. My desire for belonging was not the problem. In fact, it is actually one of the most natural aspects of being human. Understanding that this deep well of longing to be a part of was natural actually helped me to get to the next level of understanding.
It has been said that this lack of connection is particularly acute in those who suffer from substance use disorder. Based on my experience and that of the many people I have encountered in the battle for sobriety, I believe this to be true.
Being A Part Of vs. Being Authentic
I recognized that this desire to be a part of was not the problem. This realization created the environment for me to be open minded enough to explore further. I begin to wonder how do I navigate that sense of not being a part of, not being good enough, of letting people down or not being liked?
With the understanding that my desire for belonging is to some degree very natural, I begin to examine why it was such a major driver in my life and why when I felt the perceived sting of rejection I could barely breath let alone stay sober.
Digging into my past was an option but I realized that knowing why I had such intensity with this issue would not mitigate the effects of it. So I decided to do the only thing that I have found ever truly works, which is to try to create a shift in perception within me.
Brené Brown’s book was an excellent starting point. Her ”call to courage” to stand-alone and be ok with it gave me permission to begin to explore how I value me. What do I think about myself? Can I stand-alone and still have meaningful connection? At first, this seemed too daunting.
My conditioning, which at times feels like it is cast in cement, demands that I be liked, fit in, make you happy, feel a sense of belonging. Yet my integrity, self-knowledge, values, and heart make me want to stand-alone too.
In the beginning of trying on this new way of being it feels very awkward. There are times when I know what I am expected to say, to look like, to show up as. And I don’t. I stay true to myself. Grounded in my own authenticity. I feel the immense burden of separateness. My heart pulsates while my throat starts to close. Air becomes scarce. Then I practice stillness. “Just be” I tell myself. “Just breath.” Awareness begins to soften the fierce intensity of being authentic.
It is very strange to have the physical sensations of being other, of not belonging, and at the same time have the mental agility to be ok with it. To know that I have been true to myself even though you may not like it or want it to be different is a learned skill. It is standing in the gap between the bullshit of my conditioning and the “quest for true belonging.”
Tips for Practicing True Belonging
Learning to “not negotiate my own self worth,” as Brene Brown says, is a work in progress. The following tips have helped to put me on the path of discovering the experience of true belonging.
1. Be comfortable being uncomfortable
Sobriety, particularly early sobriety, is a never-ending ride of being uncomfortable. As it relates to Brown’s definition of true belonging, I realized that in order to belong to myself and belong to the World I have to be comfortable with some level of being uncomfortable. It is rarely ever comfortable for me to know that I have displeased you, that you don’t like me, or that I have let you down. I have learned it is even more uncomfortable to pretend just so I can make you happy, to say what I do not truly mean, or to act in a way that makes you happy and me unhappy.
2. Being separate from you but true myself pays off
Standing on my own without the psychological support I want (and sometime think I need) from you takes courage. It also takes the awareness to ride the emotional roller coaster of not fitting in when I desperately want to. Knowing these intense sensations will pass helps to get me through. The work involved here is recognizing what is my truth and then adjusting my thoughts, actions, and words accordingly. This is a practice that takes time and patience. I notice that if I am compromised in any way, for example, hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or already experiencing an emotional upset, then this path is much more difficult to travel.
When I am able to stand-alone and belong to myself and be ok with it the benefits are amazing! I notice that my confidence increases and I feel ok with me. Even with all my imperfections I have started to even like me. In being ok with me, I have started to be ok with everyone else too. It seems as those the harsh edges of some relationships have started to soften. I no longer have a need to prove myself or make sure you know that I am worthy. That worth is now coming from inside of me rather than seeking it outside of me.
3. Perfectly Imperfect
I do not always stand in my own true belonging. There are times I sell myself out to feel a part of and feel connected to another. Sometimes I do not even realize I have done this until well after the interaction. It is a work in progress and I am ok with being a student of True Belonging. The important part is that I remain aware of my intention to practice True Belonging and let go of any notion that I will do it perfectly. There is an ease and comfort that comes with being authentic in my relationship even with myself.
In early sobriety this practice of True Belonging has removed the feeling that I am constantly walking on eggshells. I am a little more relaxed and feel like I am getting to know myself. I am also becoming more comfortable in sharing my true self with others. The relief is amazing!