Reader's Letter: Your Real Self is Waiting
This week, I got a beautiful, thoughtful letter from L. in Melbourne, Australia, that told her story, a familiar one of a woman who knows her drinking is keeping her from something, but also isn't quite ready for what comes next. It was a moving letter, and I'm so grateful she reached out. At the crux of it was something I desperately needed to know early in recovery, too. L. says:
So for now, while I’m working on gathering the courage to go somewhere, if you have the time, space and inclination, I'd be really curious to hear your reflections on how it was for you to start the journey of healing and recovery and what you found hard/amazing/helpful/what got in the way.
L., I feel like I could write you books back about this. Here's my attempt at an answer.
Dear L. in Australia:
When I think back to those early months in recovery, I see myself as a raw nerve thrumming with the agony of exposure. By the time I'd made an actual decision to abstain, I'd been on the path toward sobriety for at least 5 years. I just didn't know it.
Way before I entered recovery, my then-therapist talked me into attending an AA women's meeting in the classroom annex of a stone church. I was still smoking then, and I pulled up in slick darkness and chain-smoked, eyeing women in small groups converse as they went inside. What was I afraid of? These mostly matronly, nurturing women who offered their phone numbers and soft words as I entered?
I was terrified of what came next. Shaking in the face of the complete unknown. Who was I without the protective armor of my vices? Who was I without the swagger of too much booze? I attended that meeting, but didn't go to another for at least 2 or 3 more years. I wasn't ready to find out.
Recovery is not a linear path, at least not for me.
In the meantime, I read. Mindful Recovery, A Gentle Path Through the 12 Steps, A Woman's Way through the 12 Steps. So many people easily dismissed the idea that I could be an alcoholic that I hungrily looked for women who might look like me. Because, deep down, I knew.
The first time I met myself as an addict was in Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story. In a lot of ways, this book saved my life. I recognized my heart on nearly every page, my copy underlined and annotated and worn as thin as onion skin. Afraid to lose Knapp's words, I wrote my favorite passages on index cards and flipped through them at night to remind myself of what I couldn't seem to hold onto: I was an alcoholic. Each day brought a new battle to remember because at the core of addiction is our own denial, a denial of our full self.
In your letter, you ask me what got in the way of my recovery early on, and I think it's the same thing that's getting in yours.
You so beautifully articulate your heart's call for truth when you say that alcohol is "a dissolver of difficult memories and unanswered yearnings and questions." I felt like that, too. And because I was so new and so raw, I didn't know that alcohol didn't dissolve anything. Those memories lay dormant in the sludge of my unconscious until I dove deep to deal with them. Those unanswered yearnings and questions waited, growing larger and louder the longer I put them off, my fear of them growing in proportion.
Once you turn away from what comes so easily from the bottle, you must face your yearning and answer for its neglect. That time is coming for you, and you're rightfully afraid. Answering for our actions is never easy.
What I couldn't know early on is how effortlessly those yearnings rise to the surface in sobriety, things that seemed once impossible almost second nature. I dreamed for so long of writing and connecting to other people, but I wasted my hours drunk or hungover. It wasn't until I could pull my weight that the Universe chose to collaborate with me. This blog came. My writing came. My deepest yearning answered without much fanfare at all. This is a healing, two parts fusing back together.
What I hear most in your letter is that you're ready. You think you need the courage, but you already have it. You reached out, wrote the hard letter, said the hard things. You're ready to step out from what is holding you back and seek clarity. I've learned that the doubting and fearing never stop, but you learn how to work with, around or through them, and you find your tribe along the way who wrestle with the same doubt and fears. They offer advice or hold your hand as you walk together. These people are waiting, and you're waiting, too.
Recovery: Mostly (but not all) Awesome
That's not to say you'll get to wherever your recovery community is and group hug while unicorns gallop near the cookie tray and coffee machine. I went to dozens of meetings and met no one. I had coffee with dozens of women and felt nothing.
But I kept looking and again the Universe conspired in my favor. I ended up in a meeting that attracted women my age, vessels of light that showed up and told stories and forgave my eccentricities. I relapsed and disappeared for months, and they welcomed me back without comment. I found my sponsor there, and today we walked in a dense forest dappled with light while she told me a story of old things long put away rearing back up. As I listened, I realized I'd been avoiding some hard emotions about my family. Avoiding means the anger comes out sideways at the wrong people. Avoiding doesn't mean it's not there.
It's time to find the people with whom you can share stories. That can be online, but I hear the recovery community in Melbourne is vast and welcoming. If you know anyone sober, write to them. They'll put you in touch with someone you're meant to meet, who will put you in touch with the next person in your journey and so on. At least that's how it's been for me.
Recovery is winding. It's meant to teach you to tune in to your inner guide. That guide will lead where you need to go when you're ready.