Do you have a path of recovery?
I was so exhausted. Mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually spent. And so demoralized. I just could not figure out a path of recovery to stay sober. With every relapse I became more and more convinced that I was doomed to the hell of an alcoholic death. Long, slow, lonely, and certain. I did not know that I had to find my own path of recovery.
What was so incredibly frustrating was that I did everything that I was told to do. Go to AA meetings -check. Get a job at the meeting – check. Get a sponsor -check. Suit-up, show-up, and shut-up – check. Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth – check. Go to ninety meetings in ninety days – check. And still I relapsed.
I tried living the slogans: meeting makers make it; one day at a time; let go and let God. Still I relapsed.
There were so many caring, nice, thoughtful people along the way in the halls of AA. They really wanted to help. And I really wanted what they had. Yet it seemed unattainable to me for reasons I could not fully grasp or understand. It was so frustrating!
I was tempted to think that I was somehow uniquely broken and outside the bubble of lasting help and sobriety. But I heard the stories of so many others who had come before me and I realized that I actually had a pretty high “bottom.” I did not lose my job, go to jail, or get divorced. Don’t get me wrong. I was suffering from isolation, lack of confidence, and intense feelings of anxiety, discontent, fear, and anger. Yet my ending was not as harsh as many others.
It was very confusing to try and figure out why I kept relapsing and the person in the seat next to me in the AA hall did not. We were doing the very same recovery path yet I was always somehow deficient and picked-up a drink.
I started to see that I was going to need something either instead of AA meetings and my twelve-step work or in addition to those efforts. I was desperate to find out what it was that kept me turning to alcohol to take away the reality of the present moment. This was not a sudden “aha” moment. I cannot even say for sure when it actually dawned on me. It sort of snuck up on me. This slight inclination began to take roots and grow as I become more and more convinced that something more than AA was necessary for me to stay sober.
Many people in AA talked about seeing a therapist. That sounded like a good idea to supplement my attempts at sobriety. So I found someone who took my insurance and made an appointment. The first couple of visits were exhausting as I went through my life history including events that I had not talked about or thought about in years.
Then I started discussing my day-to-day ups and downs not realizing at the time that I was avoiding looking at and talking about the patterns of thinking and feeling that made a drink look like a good idea. I was reluctant to go for the deep dive that was keeping me stuck. This reluctance was not showing itself to me at all. I thought I was just supposed go in and talk about my day. Eventually, my therapist slowly began to pry open my willingness to be vulnerable and the past revealed itself like a ragged and sharp edge rock. Over time, I began to see one major characteristic that kept me in an insane people-pleasing loop – a lack of boundaries. I had no ability to say no to anyone for fear you might not like me. Without adequate boundaries, self-care was virtually impossible. Like a dog chasing his tail. The major gift those therapy sessions and that skilled therapist taught me was how to have healthy boundaries.
As I started to put together a little bit of sober time, I decided to try yoga. I was gaining weight from having my appetite back and I thought yoga would help lose some weight. What I actually found was that with regular practice I started to feel strong and was getting my balance back. Both figuratively and literally. Over time, I began to be acutely aware of the nuances in my emotional demeanor. When I was drinking I either felt good or bad. And both were an excuse to drink. Now, I was noticing that fear felt different than anxiety and anger felt different than sadness. They seemed to penetrate different areas of my body with various sensations. For so long I had numbed myself to the wisdom of my body. With yoga I was starting the journey of making peace with my emotions. I started to notice when my emotions were rising up and I could calm myself or reach for acceptance. As a result, I entered a whole new world of deep healing.
One of my yoga teachers always ended class with a seated meditation. His cues were so specific and clear. He would lead the class on a path of awareness that created incredible clarity for me. I began to notice that most of thoughts throughout the day were either in the past or in the future. I found that I was quite uncomfortable in the present moment! With the guidance of this teacher, many books, lectures, and eventually silent retreats, I found a penetrating inner peace deep in my body and my mind. I was ecstatic! Finally I had a place inside of me that I could access and dwell in without wanting to run away.
Skills For A Lifetime
Perhaps if I had known that I had to find my own authentic path of recovery I would not have lived through the hell of multiple relapses. Not to mention the pain and suffering I would have spared my family. It is possible that even if someone did tell me, I would not have been ready to hear it. I know now that I had to find a path that was unique to me and only I could discover.
I know that if I take the time and make a serious commitment to discovering my own supports to sobriety, then I have a much better shot at staying sober. And I have not collected anymore twenty-four hour coins in quite awhile!
What I have learned is that no one can tell me what to do to stay clean and sober. I should listen to all suggestions; however, I must go have the direct personal experience myself in order to know what works and what does not work for me.
Photo by Adrien Tutin on Unsplash
Recently I went out for a kayak ride and was immediately engulfed in a fairly thick fog. I knew the sun was peeking its way out and would eventually win the battle and burn off the fog. What I didn’t know was how long it would take and if it would be an immediate victory or a slow process. I was wondering when the fog lifts if I could see clearly.
Often I experience nature as a way to help me gain insight, realize my truth, and deepen my perspective. I intentionally look for ways to read the Earth around me for reflections that might be useful in my day-today life. This has certainly been a gift of living clean and sober.
While paddling, I had a fleeting boost of gratitude for my years of sobriety. I was very aware that I would not be on vacation in a place that I absolutely love and paddling a kayak on a beautiful bay without it. I rode the wave of gratitude for a bit and downloaded it while I paddled. Let it sink into me rather than scamper on to the next attention grabbing sensation, observation, or distraction. I began to see the fog as representing the late stages of my substance abuse and the early stages of living clean and sober.
The Late Stages of Substance Abuse
The late stage of substance abuse was a time full of confusion for me. I thought I could control my drinking and drugging and I absolutely could not. Each day I would say that “This day will be different.” It never was.
Sometimes I could make it until noon without using or until my stomach was settled down enough to drink some more. Part of the fog I was paddling in manifested as this lie that I had control over my addiction. Eventually though, the sun bore through just enough and I saw clearly that I could not control the alcohol and drug addiction that had taken over my life. With this realization, a true surrender began to gain momentum. But unfortunately I had to suffer a lot and cause a lot of suffering around me to cut through this thick and all consuming fog.
There was another aspect of this fogginess toward the end of my last run. I thought no one knew how much I was drinking. It turns out that they knew all along. It is the strangest sensation to realize that I had a make believe world going on. I thought everyone was totally faked out. My mind told me that no one knew and I went with that as reality. When the fog lifted it became clear that everyone knew. Frankly, all you had to do was take one look at me and it was evident. Puffy eyes, bloated stomach but underweight, and always on the move. Couldn’t stay still for long. As I look back I can actually chuckle at my make believe world and how strong my addiction was in my body and in my head.
In early sobriety I felt fogged in as well. All I wanted to do was stop drinking. That’s it. I didn’t want new friends or to become part of a group. I just wanted one day in which I did not pick up a drink or a drug. Here is where I was in the fog: I discovered that quitting, as hard as it was to put together even just 24 hours free from drugs and alcohol, was actually the easy part. Yup. The easy part. I realized that staying quit was the hard part. Learning to live clean and sober through all the ups and downs in life would require a skill set and a faith I had yet to develop.
You see, I thought the booze was my problem. Turns out, it was actually my solution. In early sobriety I thought it was my alcoholism that caused all my troubles. That turned out to be wrong. The alcohol was my coping strategy. And dammit – it stopped working! With this realization I accepted I was in need of support from others.
Without my coping strategy I was left totally in the fog. And I was clean and sober. My physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual condition was decimated by years of neglect. Fear, anger, and the constant state of being totally overwhelmed clung to me like a cloak of weights. It took time, patience, and guidance from those who had succeeded where I had not before the first few rays of sunlight appeared. It also took lots of prayer and making time to just be still. I had to take it easy in those first few months.
Coming Out of the Fog
On this morning’s kayak paddle it did not take long for the sun to burn off the fog and find its victory in the mid-day sky. The end of addiction was a much slower process for me. Today, I am grateful for those who stood by me and did not give up on me. I realize that being free from addiction is not a do-it-alone endeavor.
Sobriety has taught me to be more open-minded. I accept that there are times I need to turn inward and tend to my internal condition. This lesson has been learned the hard way. People pleasing was eating me up in early sobriety. A trait that I did not realize was sucking the life right out of me.
Silence has become a necessary verb that I practice daily and it used to scare the hell out of me. I could not stand being quiet with myself. The voices in my head and the nervous, anxious energy in my body felt like they would kill me. This took time and practice.
About an hour later I quietly paddled back in my kayak. The sun had taken full command of the sky and the fog had completely lifted. “I stood in the sunlight at last” is a memorable line in AA’s Big Book. Today, what that means to me is that the sunshine of gratitude has conquered the fog of addiction in my life, in this moment. I am at peace. And very, very grateful.
When I got sober I was living in a residential treatment facility and my life wasn’t going so great. I didn’t grow up with aspirations to one day call a program my home. As a matter of fact, I didn’t grow up with many aspirations at all. I grew up in a city and remember feeling like I didn’t want to be there from a young age. I would isolate and only let a few people in behind my mask. I found alcohol and drugs at the beginning of my teenage years and it was like I found the answer to my isolation. I became the egomaniac with an inferiority complex that I hear about in meetings today. I no longer isolated because I thought that I was better than everyone else and had to show the world that I was important. I now know today that everyone is equal – no one is better than or less than anyone else.
My drinking career started innocently enough at a holiday party surrounded by family. I remember sneaking downstairs to pour a beer into a soda can. I did this for a couple of reasons. One being that no one at this party would let a twelve-year-old drink a beer. The second, and more important to me, was that I wanted the thrill of getting over on these people by drinking out of this “soda” can out in the open. That one day established patterns in my life that would dictate how my using career would escalate out of control years later.
One of those patterns was discovered by the fact that I didn’t like to be told what to do by anyone. What do you do when you don’t like authority? Simple, run away from it. I spent years blaming other people for my problems and running away from them. Now I realize that this is called the geographical cure – and that it doesn’t work. I remember moving out of my parent’s house at fourteen and living with other family members. When things didn’t work out there (because I was the problem) I moved back in with my parents. When things didn’t work out in this state, I went to another one. And when the same problems started happening fifteen hundred miles away, I came back here. Basically, the saying “everywhere I went, there I was” summed up this portion of my life.
One of the ways this authority problem affected my life was the fact that I was getting in trouble a lot. It started with my parents trying to help me change my behavior. Then it gradually got worse until the police were a regular part of my life. I got arrested often in my using days; even a half dozen times over one summer. I would wear this like a badge of honor of how tough I was. I once had a lawyer tell me that I was doing “life on the instalment plan.” All told, I spent two years of my life incarcerated. I describe it as being forced to live in a bathroom with a stranger. It was not a preferred way to live and today I enjoy helping others in recovery out of that way of life into a much more satisfying one.
Another pattern that I established was the searching for solutions to my life’s problems in relationships. I changed relationships almost as often as I did zip codes. It was always the same story, things would start out promising and end up in shambles. Again, little did I realize that I was the common denominator in these problems! I had no clue that I was trying to fill the God-sized hole in my heart with anything I could; whether it was substances or relationships.
So here I am at the rehab facility and in walks a commitment from an AA Big Book Workshop. I knew next to nothing about the textbook of Alcoholics Anonymous. I asked one of the commitment members to be my sponsor and he walked me through the clear-cut directions for the twelve steps found in the Big Book. I had my very first spiritual experience during this time. There wasn’t a bright light and I didn’t hear any voice that wasn’t mine but it was a much welcomed change of pace from the way my life had been going. Slowly, the way that I lived for over twenty years was disappearing and I was learning a new way of life.
During this time a local church came into the facility and held weekly Spirituality meetings. I liked the music and eventually started attending the church on Sunday mornings. What had initially attracted me was their “come as you are” mantra. Little did I know that it would awaken my faith that I had long abandoned from childhood. But something was different this time, I had personal investment in this faith journey. I wasn’t that child that was forced to attend church. I met a group of people that invested time, energy and help in my sobriety.
There is a line in a song called Uncomfortable that goes like this, “If you want to live a comfortable life, make sure you never love anybody, be selfish, and never sacrifice.” This is a clear picture of what my life was like when I was using. I didn’t care about other people or their needs. This was my “comfort zone.” I was familiar with looking out for number one. Recovery has taught me to step out of my comfort zone and get uncomfortable. The Big Book describes the program as altruistic. My sponsor defined that as selfless giving as a group. I no longer look out for number one today, because my Higher Power has that job. I simply ask for direction to be of service to others and somehow my needs stay constantly met.
One more pattern that I realized I had was the need for instant gratification. Whether it was a drug, alcohol, or relationships, I craved the most intense feelings as soon as possible. Once leaving that program, I was forced to break this pattern by taking baby steps in my early recovery. I had done a great deal of emotional damage to my family and loved ones. They weren’t exactly “all in” on this new version of me and had their reservations about how much I really changed. However, through Step Nine amends people soon realized that I was serious about this “recovery thing.”
I always thought that success was measured by material possessions and bank account statements. That was the lie that I chose to believe from a very young age because we didn’t have much growing up. We learned to live with less and I looked to others that had more as being “rich.” I so desperately craved to say those lines out of Bill’s Story in the Big Book, “For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way. I had arrived.” Today, I realized that my worth really has little to do with material wealth. True wealth is measured by undeserved love and grace from others around me. I value the friendships that I have formed with others in recovery; true friendships devoid of any masks or pretending to be something I’m not.
Someone once told me at a meeting that “there was no such thing as a coincidence, it’s God’s way of staying anonymous.” Looking at life through this new way of thinking helped me realize all the ways that God has protected me until this point in my life. Even when I didn’t notice these things, my Higher Power was there looking out for me. Again, by thinking of others’ needs before my own, I am always taking care of. Things just have a way of working out. I’m not sure exactly how it works but I am certain that if I constantly think of how I can be of service, I will be taken care of in my own life.
Six years sober today; I still attend this church and regular AA meetings. It works for my connection to my Higher Power and keeps me grounded in sobriety one day at a time. What I have found is that there is a life worth living out there for me and many others that have dealt with substance abuse in their lives. That child that grew up without many aspirations and isolated is now a man of purpose and direction. There are still wrong turns in this journey, but there is a network of sober men and women that I can consult as needed.
Taking this new lease on life slowly and one baby step in front of another has resulted in a content and fulfilling way of living. Drugs and alcohol were a solution to a purpose problem. Have no purpose? Take a drink. Still have no purpose? Get high. Today this program has given life purpose and meaning. No longer is an outside substance needed for direction or purpose in life. Walking on this path of recovery one day at a time is guided by a Higher Power that I keep in daily contact with. If there is a question of direction or purpose, prayer is the first step to finding an answer. After prayer, there is a conversation with my sponsor who knows every single thing about me. No crevice or dark alley in life has gone unmentioned. This helps greatly because there is nothing that is hidden – everything is in the light.
The motivation to get up every day and do this thing called recovery is pretty simple. Witnessing miracles all around me has been the drive for continued recovery. I used to think as a miracle as a major life change or super religious thing. Today, a miracle can be something as simple as a conversation with someone in my network that bears fruit for one of us on our journeys. The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous has the ability to mass-produce these miracles.