January 26, 2012

Welcome to the 10-and-Older Club

Posted by Diane Cameron on Jan. 25, 2012
Family_circleWhen we were “younger” in recovery, we heard the disclaimers about length of time. Things like: “The person who got up earliest this morning is the one with the most sobriety,” or “All anyone has are these 24 hours.” 
We were cautioned to not be fooled into false security based on the number of years sober. They said, “While you’re in meetings, your addiction is over in the corner doing push-ups,” or “The longer you are sober the closer you are to a drink.”
These sayings are intended to remind us to not take stock in days or numbers. We were warned against hubris and pride. So why make a point of the ten-year mark in recovery? Why a special blog for men and women who’ve been sober ten, or 15, or more years? Because while the basics remain: “Pray,” “Don’t Drink” and “Work the Steps,” some things, after ten years, really are different.
Those of us in “double-digit” recovery have learned that the Twelve Steps and a recovery program are part of a good life but that even these do not protect us from illness, job troubles, problems with kids and family, all manner of loss—the things that fall in the basket called “life happens.”
Plenty of “life” still happens to recovering people and sometimes, when you have a few years of sobriety, it can feel like life hits harder or hurts more simply because we have fewer “helpers” to ameliorate our pain. We also know, in our wiser moments, that not having painkillers—either the chemical or human kind—helps us get through things faster even though we can still hurt like hell some days.
What people in long recovery have, however, is a set of skills and a richness of sober experience to fall back on. 
We recognize our patterns; we are able to cut through our defenses sooner; we learn not to fight the inevitable. We surrender when we see the wall approaching, instead of waiting, as we did in the past, to slam into it.
We are also able to see the things that happen to us with just a tiny bit more perspective. By the time we reach double-digit recovery, most of us have had at least one or two experiences of something we were sure wasn’t supposed to happen. And in many cases, we have the experience of finding that these turn out to be spiritual lessons or stepping-stones to something really great. 
But ten-plus years can have glitches and questions. This blog is to help all of us compare notes, to see that there is common ground, and to reassure ourselves that there is no one right way to be recovering. 
Some of us still go to three meetings a week while others go once a week or once a month, and yet others simply attend retreats a couple of times a year. For some of us meetings take place in new ways. Yes, that’s officially unofficial, but we know it happens.
Recovering folks meet for lunch or dinner or take walks together. While these gatherings lack the preamble or a prayer, the conversations offer the continuity of community with other recovering people.
But what about service? Giving back? All those things we did to get well or that we aspired to when we were “growing up” in AA? 
Some of us do bake cakes and chair meetings for our home group while others have taken the slogan: “Service is gratitude in action” and extended it out into the broader community. The words and settings may be different and we may not read the steps out loud but when we teach adults to read or counsel teens after school or coach someone with mental retardation to compete in the Special Olympics, it’s still service and gratitude. 
The God question, which was there on our first day in recovery, remains. We learned early on that we had to figure out who, or what, we were turning our lives over to. That desire has led us down some pretty interesting paths. You can find Twelve Step people in Quaker meetings, yoga classes, meditation workshops and in every kind of church or synagogue. We’re probably disproportionately represented in alternative forms of worship and New Age studies: we pray, meditate, chant and participate in rituals. We’ve taken many a road less traveled on our way out of the woods. 
When we were new to recovery, we measured time much like parents do with a new baby. We gave our recovery “age” in numbers of weeks or months, and then we turned two and began to count in years. Very likely, in those “younger” years of recovery someone with more time said to us, “It will take three to five years to get out of the woods” and we wondered how we’d ever survive. As we closed in on that crucial five-year mark we realized that while we had more stability and a new set of habits, that “edge of the forest” we’d been hoping for was still a long way off. 
In the five- to six-year stage we begin to understand that it actually takes five years just to get into the woods. At that stage we can start to tell “forest from the trees.” 
The newcomer might be surprised to learn that “old timers” still have problems and struggles. 
At the same time, our lives outside of AA grow. Our careers develop, we have kids, become better parents and reclaim relationships with family. We find ourselves welcome at holidays and sometimes we are even the hosts for special family events. Humor returns for us and for those around us. Enough of our amends are done so that we can laugh when we talk about the past with those who witnessed it up close. Our lives are rich and full.
Many of us change jobs and sometimes careers in these years. Going back to school is not uncommon. It’s a consequence of learning more about ourselves. We choose new careers—and new fields—based on who we really are and what we really like, rather than what would please or impress someone else. 
The day comes, however, when we realize that the world outside is as engaging as the one inside the rooms. 
Our confidence in chairing Twelve Step meetings allows us to say “Yes” to chair the PTA or the Rotary. Our comfort at public speaking, developed from years of standing at the AA podium, has prepared us to speak at meetings and conferences of our professional groups. Our human relations skills, honed by dealing with so many different kinds of people in AA, allow us to rise as leaders in our business or community. Life gets bigger thanks to AA, but at the end of our first decade in recovery we use these keys, which we cut in Twelve Step rooms, to open the door leading out of them.
This is not an easy stage. But it’s important to remember that it is in fact a stage.  We wonder if we’re bad or wrong. Certainly there are people in the rooms wonder: “Where are all the old timers?” and “Where are the people with ten or 20 years?” 
When we hear those questions we wonder; we doubt ourselves; we feel shame. But when we look closely at our lives, we seem okay. It’s true we don’t go to as many meetings and we don’t make coffee at our home group anymore, but life is good. We want to be sure that we’re not kidding ourselves, that doing our recovery differently is a move toward growth and not toward denial or relapse. 
This blog is for you—enjoying your recovery and the blessings it brings—but also enjoy the challenges of “practicing these principles in all your affairs” years later. 
Join me at What Comes Next every week as I raise questions, share my story and ask for your wisdom on a life of recovery.
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