February 22, 2012

Recovery is a Subtle Game

My favorite bumper sticker has always been, “I didn’t quit, I surrendered,” and I loved sayings like, “Give time time” and “Trust the process.” But now, at 25 years sober, I feel a kind of sadness that time has indeed passed and that the doors that opened so widely and generously years ago to welcome me into AA now open again and deliver me—sober, sane, healed and still healing—back into the world. It’s like one of those elevators that open on both sides, you get in, and it goes up but you have to turn around and face the other way to get out. This is what it feels like to be a sober woman who is in recovery more than ten years.

There is, and this is the nice part, an ease and grace to it. It’s what the newcomers mostly see when they say, “I want what you have.” Not that there aren’t days that I hurt like hell, or act like a brat or can still find myself breathless with emotional pain. The difference is that on those days—like when my brother died or when I learned that my husband was very ill—even then, crying and lying on the floor, there was a part of me who could watch and say, “Go ahead, cry, it’s OK; you’ll be OK.”

Another plus of having longer recovery: I no longer automatically assume that when something bad happens—and recovery doesn’t stop life from happening— that I did something wrong or that I am being punished or that God is testing me.

Years ago, before I came into these rooms, when something bad happened it was very likely that it did have to do with something I had done. I drank to excess, lied about it, made crummy decisions about everything and drank more to tolerate the shame and guilt. On top of that, I swung back and forth between compulsive work and sloth, tried bulimia and compulsive eating, got into fits of financial trouble and made a mess of most relationships. My first attempt at fixing what ailed me was men. I tried hard to make people love me. But even love and romance were of little comfort.

I remember going to see a therapist in those painful days just before I got sober. She listened to me pour out my pain, asked a few questions and then looked me in the eye and said that I would need to do a lot of work. She thought I ought to be in therapy twice a week and maybe for about five years. I left her office in tears. Something she said did get through my defenses but I was hopeless with her prescription. I thought I might as well just die because I couldn’t possibly do anything for five years. Five years? Just shoot me.

Then one day at work I heard some women gossiping about a board member, a woman I admired. I didn’t know her well but she seemed smart and kind and had a refreshing sense of humor. The gals at work were whispering, “Well, you know she goes to AA.” I know they thought they were saying something awful about her, but I thought, “Oh my God, she goes to AA, she goes to AA!” It was my first experience of “If you want what we have…” I wanted what she had and I hadn’t even been to a meeting yet. I think of that experience whenever I hear someone say, “You may be the only Big Book someone reads.” It was a gift. I was Twelve-Stepped by gossip!

And so I went to my first AA meeting. In a church basement, of course, and the rest is history. My history, actually. I remember how in those first months I would hear people with three years and five years talk about their lives and “working a program.” I could see that they had so much that I wanted: they smiled and laughed and told stories about themselves.

I look at my friends today. So many years later I am gifted with a group of women friends who are all in the 20 to 30 years of sobriety class. Sometimes when we have dinner or take walks we talk about the changes, the tools we still use and those we depend on less now. We talk about what stays the same and what doesn’t.

I notice how subtle recovery can be. After a period of ten years we really are different people. Sometimes we tell stories about the things we struggle with today—yes; struggle remains as long as our commitment to growth remains. I laugh about how shopping has replaced all other drugs. I see that my ways in the workplace still have the echo of the addict. The big glaring chunks have been removed, shifted and rearranged.

What remains? Questions. There are still so many: how do we keep growing? The good news and the bad is that with double-digit recovery there is a lot less pain. The bad news is that pain has always been what motivated me. Motivated me to change, toward truth, to spiritual growth and motivated me to just plain cut out the crap. So when we get better, and life is easier, and there is less pain, we just might drift in a way we might not have done in early recovery.

There is also the subtlety of separating what we know from what we feel or believe. It’s very easy for me to think on a given day that I am “over” my shame or guilt. I certainly have a lot more knowledge about it now. I’ve read so many books and spent time in ACOA and Al-Anon—and I did way more than that original five years of therapy that sounded impossible 30 years ago. I have a good understanding of the difference between guilt and shame, and humility and humiliation. But I forget—and I get caught in this trap so often—that just because I understand something doesn’t mean it no longer affects me.

In earlier stages of recovery our shifts of mind and attitude were mirrored by external changes. We saw people gain or lose weight or cut and color their hair. We dressed differently, dated differently, took jobs, quit jobs, changed fields, got married and got divorced and sometimes got married again. Change was obvious and dramatic. If you laid the photos of our first year next to the photos from year five and seven you could see that growth and change had taken place.

In later recovery the work we do is less obvious from the outside. In a sense we find our stride and our style, but if we could X-ray the mind, heart and soul of a woman in later recovery we’d see that dramatic change still continues and now more than ever, it’s an inside job.

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