February 15, 2012

Looking My Best in Recovery

hairMaybe this is a recovering woman’s issue. Or maybe men have a version of it and I don’t yet know about it. What I do know is that throughout my recovery, I’ve had a running internal debate that goes something like this:

Voice One: I’m becoming a spiritual person now so my clothing and make-up and hair color does not matter.

Voice Two: But I’m a happier person now, too, because of recovery and I’m confident and I’m feeling good about myself, so I want my outsides to match my insides.

Voice One: But God doesn’t care about your hair color …

Voice Two: God does care about beauty and happiness so if being a blonde or having “warm” highlights makes me happy, what’s the big deal?

Even after 25 years this internal debate continues. And throughout my years of recovery I’ve tried following each voice … each to an extreme perhaps … and then let the appearance-pendulum swing the other way.

In my first months of attending Twelve Step meetings I went shopping for “meeting clothes.” I had this idea that I needed “outfits” for meetings. All of my life I had medicated with substances—food, booze, drugs and every relationship required a corresponding adjustment to my appearance, so why wouldn’t recovery need its own attire?

Over the years I have met women who began AA in areas where sponsors told sponsees to dress up to go to meetings— “suit up and show up” was the slogan. They were taught to “comb your hair and put on lipstick” when you go to a meeting” —to work recovery from the outside in.

I suspect that for the addicted woman who got to the stage of never bathing or leaving her sweats, that’s a good suggestion, but I was of the breed overly invested in my appearance. So rather than learning to “suit up and show up,” I really needed to experiment with “come as you are” and even “come at your worst” and to see that I’d still be liked and accepted.

In very early recovery, on my pink-holier-than-thou cloud, I decided to give up all make-up and hair color, shop at thrift stores as some weird penance or way to reveal the “real” me. Luckily I had a sponsor who spent the equivalent of my weekly salary on her hair each month. When I professed my spiritual breakthrough of giving up self-care she said, “I don’t think so … you didn’t get sober to wear sackcloth and ashes. Go make an appointment for a haircut.” Oh.

Then, a few years later I was in the throes of some success at work. Promotions came and I was in a good job and enjoying secular success as well as success in sobriety and recovery. I spent some big money on a personal shopper who advised that I needed a power suit, a silky red dress for dating and who went through my closet with me in a kind of sartorial personal inventory. (I did get to tell her all my clothing stories and it was a kind of closet catharsis.) But after buying all those shiny new clothes I felt a bit too exposed and well, too shiny, and found that those new items belonged more to an idea I had about myself than to the real self standing in front of the mirror. So the pendulum swung again.

Back and forth it’s gone over these recovering years. I have a great wardrobe and now most of it looks like it belongs to the same person … the stages of rock star, tweedy intellectual, corporate power leader and cute girlfriend have gradually integrated into a closet that—for the most part—reflects who I really am 90 percent of the time.

The hook is still there though. My first thought when I contemplate an inner change is always to wonder what the external equivalent would be.

What does a sober, sane, happy woman look like? I think she mostly looks like herself and her best self. And sometimes that could mean high heels and great hair highlights.

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