For a seed to achieve its greatest expression it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. For someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Cynthia Occelli
I opened my eyes, confused and unsure of where I was, I scanned the room. It took a moment before I realized I was laying on my kitchen floor. I looked over to the 3-foot step stool that was slid up against the stove. Then I noticed the open cupboard above it where I kept the unopened wine and liquor. My head was pounding, my face hurt bad, as did my right arm.
Although I was still very disoriented, I made my way up the stairs to the bathroom. I turned on the light and saw the right side of my face was swollen and bruised. It was the color of a ripened plum with faint shades navy blue and a tinge of pink. I turned my body to the left to get a look at my right arm. From my shoulder all the way to my elbow, it too was extremely bruised. What the hell happened I thought? The last thing I remember was coming home from the party I was at, making a drink for myself and lounging in my recliner, feeling quite comfortably numb as the song goes. I was happy that I hadn’t overshot the mark at the party and made it home without making a fool of myself or someone having to call my husband to come and pick me up.
The pain and throbbing in my head brought me back to the present moment; still staring in the mirror at my swollen face which was black and blue. The result of taking a drunken nose dive from the top of that step stool into the hard-ceramic tile floor in my kitchen. I didn’t even recognize who was staring back at me anymore. Not just because of the black eye but also because of how empty I felt inside. How did I get to this place? I backed up all the way to the wall to get a full look at myself in the mirror. Disgusted with what I saw I slid down the wall to the floor, hung my head and started sobbing. I felt so weary, hopeless and broken, I looked up and said “God if you are there, I beg you to please either end my suffering and take me from this earth or help me.”
Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations – Zig Ziglar
As far back as I can remember, even as a young child, I was extremely sensitive. I always felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I constantly felt fearful and anxiety ridden and I never felt like I belonged anywhere. Not even in my own family. I was born into a large Sicilian family, the youngest of 14 children. The environment growing up was chaotic at best.
At school, even though I had friends I felt like an outcast and like I never measured up. I was forever judging how I felt inside with how everyone else looked on the outside. This would become a theme throughout my life. I was continuously trying to gauge “normal” against what I saw in the other kids’ families which were far from what mine was in more than one way. It was a lonely feeling. So, in an effort to fit in and be liked I would show only fragments of myself. I was emotionally invested in making sure everyone liked and approved of me while I betrayed who I actually was and how I felt.
To add insult to injury, by the time I was 10 I had turned into the chubby kid, easy prey for relentless teasing both at home and at school. It was at that age that I started binging and purging. Food was a comfort but not nearly as comforting as what I would come across next. At the age of 11, I vividly remember taking my first drink, and feeling a sense of relief I did not know existed but that I wanted to experience as often as possible and did. The painful feelings of fear and anxiety were gone. What I did not know was that eventually over the next 23 years of my life, alcohol would lead me down a road filled with pain and despair. I drank a lot, but to write down all of my experiences would leave you with a book and this is already a bit longer than I wanted, so I am going to give you the abridged version of my story.
To give you an idea of how quickly the disease took hold in my life, when I was in 8th grade I was on occasion drinking before school. I remember getting caught with a bottle of booze in my locker. A week before my 16th birthday I was at a party and was so drunk I ended up jumping out of a 2nd floor window breaking my foot and rupturing my ACL. I drank a lot. In fact, that is what I looked forward to every weekend with my friends and if school was out, or it was summer, I drank even more.
These were just a few of the bad experiences I had as a result of my drinking and they never swayed me from doing it again as they would most people. My parents always minimizing these things didn’t help matters either. Not that I didn’t get in trouble but the worst was being grounded for a few weeks. Neither of my parents were drinkers. Other than my father having an occasional beer or glass of wine with dinner and my mother every once in a great while having a grasshopper after dinner, they did not drink. They were good people. My father a very hard working business owner, my mother a teacher.
By the time I was 21, I was in therapy and the therapist I was seeing was challenging me with the notion that he thought I had a drinking problem. He went on to suggest that I go to treatment. I had just lost my mother 2 months prior to this which is why I was in therapy in the first place. I certainly wasn’t there for help with a drinking problem. And really, if you looked at some of the people around me, comparatively speaking my drinking really wasn’t all that bad. One of my older brothers had even died from his alcohol and drug use (a cocaine overdose). That wasn’t me, at that point I was only drinking. Plus, I was in college. Who doesn’t party in college? At least that was my thinking. Additionally, if that therapist had the incessant never-ending thoughts that I had in his head coupled with the anxiety that I felt he might need a few drinks too.
Nonetheless, he did see that I wasn’t ready for the conversation he initiated, so he suggested that if I didn’t really think I had a problem to see if I could go without a drink between that day and the next therapy session. I think I made it 4 days. I admit his challenge, gave me cause to wonder (but still very seriously doubt) if I might have an issue with drinking. Eventually he did convince me to seek help through a support group of sorts and I did get sober for a short time.
In that time, I got married and divorced, became extremely sick and was diagnosed with Crohn’s (an auto-immune disease), became severely depressed and eventually drank again. I hadn’t gotten into enough emotional pain yet. This is not to say that my life wasn’t painful because it was very painful. But like my high tolerance for physical pain, I had an even higher tolerance for emotional pain.
Drinking or not, I was always able to hold a job. How I managed that I have no clue because my priority was partying. In my late 20’s I was married again to my current husband who I had actually met in recovery while I was briefly sober years before. By now though, he was drinking again right along with me. The disease brought us both down and quick.
That leads me to where I started, waking up on my kitchen floor and then in the bathroom staring in the mirror at a woman with a black and blue face who I no longer recognized. I was 33, my marriage was falling apart and we were losing our house. Everything seemed to be crumbling around me. In that moment in front of the mirror I knew that I had hit bottom. I was broken. Today I say, I was broken open. At that breaking point everything that wasn’t truly me fell away. I had surrendered. I quit thinking I knew everything and it allowed God to enter into my life and help me. Rock bottom was the solid foundation from which I was able to rebuild a meaningful life.
“Not until we are lost to we begin to find ourselves” – Henry David Thoreau
It was not easy trying to rebuild the life I had destroyed. Getting sober enabled me to stop doing any further damage however, I also became keenly aware of the horrendous mess I had made of my life and the hurt I caused myself and everyone around me.
It’s hard to explain the depth of the pain I felt at first but imagine you’re having surgery and the anesthesiologist turns off the anesthetic. You wake up while the surgeon is cutting into you and you feel everything. In this instance though, when you wake up, there is no surgeon cutting into you. You are the person cutting and wounding yourself. Removing the booze is like removing the anesthesia.
I did not know if I was going to be able to do this sobriety thing. I had only known one way of doing things and was very clear that had not worked. I had to depend on the thinking of the people who were staying sober and living meaningful lives. I had asked God for help and he put some amazing women in my life who loved me enough to tell me the things I did not always want to hear.
They shared with me the painful experiences they had faced and made it through. Seeing what they had overcome and gone on to achieve as a result of putting energy into their recovery gave me hope. I was told I could do the same, if I just kept doing the next right thing and taking action contrary to my fearful thinking.
You see, I used to think I had to be someone better or stronger before I could do hard things. I thought, once I mastered all those fears everything would fall into place and be great but I had it backwards. It was in doing the hard things, facing those fears and moving forward in spite of them, that I became a stronger person and the best version of who I am. My new-found friends saw the value in me that I could not see in myself and they would not allow me to discount my worth as a human being. It did not matter how many mistakes I had made in the past they showed me love and had compassion for me.
Pema Chodron a Buddhist Nun says “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between two equals. Only when we know our own darkness can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
That is what recovery is about. The people who surrounded me early on, were wounded healers and they saved my life. I never dreamed it would be my darkest moments that would catapult me into a life of being able to help other people.Never underestimate the hope you can inspire in others by showing up for your life and sharing your whole true self. Good and bad. We are all wounded healers when we do that.
Joseph Campbell, American writer and lecturer best known for his work in comparative religion and mythology says “The cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek.” Today I truly believe that.
As a result of staying the course in recovery and walking through the fearful and difficult situations I have an amazing life today. I have an awesome career, friends and family who love me, including the husband I almost lost. This is not to say that I am always happy, or that things always go my way or that life is perfect. No one is always happy, things don’t always go the way we think they should and life is never perfect for anyone. Being in recovery has given me the tools I need to walk through times of uncertainty and fear.
Today when I am sad, afraid or having a hard time, I don’t have to check out with things that will numb my discomfort. In fact, I do the opposite. I check in. I check in with friends who love me and I share my feelings honestly. I check in with my God. I pray (talk to God) and meditate (listen for God’s answer). When I feel unsettled one of my go to prayers is one we often hear in the rooms:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can.
And the wisdom to know the difference.
When I say that prayer, I am provided a moment of pause and am reminded that sometimes I’m powerless to change difficult situations, people, places and things. What I have also learned is that whether I accept them or not, often times the things I cannot change end up changing me and usually for the better.
Being a recovering alcoholic means that I don’t get to live an ordinary life. What It means is I get to live an extraordinary life. The gifts I have been given are beyond anything I could’ve ever thought up for myself because they are Divine. That feeling of belonging I wanted so badly has been given to me and I get to be of service to other people and give back to life. Recovery is most definitely about being abstinent from alcohol (or whatever you use to numb out). Even more importantly it’s about learning how to live a meaningful life sober. How to be a loyal friend, a good employee a loving spouse/partner and a contributing member of society.
Peace and love,