Resetting My Day Count: A Full Surrender
The first time I got sober, I held on to a just-in-case Xanax prescription for the panic I thought would come. We feel all of our emotions when we're new, pain and worry and sadness and grief and fear. We are like the exposed nerve in a rotten tooth, except walking around in the world.
When I stopped drinking, I still had a heart caged by worry. Each night I devoured a single Xanax to make bearable what was not, to sustain energy I didn't have. Addiction feels to me like a streetcar clicking into place on the tracks, the destination predetermined and inevitable. How many of us have known we didn't want to do whatever compels us only to find ourselves face deep in a whole sheet of cake, knee deep in a lover's drama, or, in my case, heading for two bottles of wine and pack of cigarettes? It all happens without our intervention.
It was the same with my anti-anxiety medication, and I knew. I was kicking off the same chain reaction in my brain and that was the problem. I was taking them when I didn't need them.
My sponsor, a wise, no-nonsense Texan for whom I have great respect, told me she loved me then suggested I pick up a desire chip, also called a 24-hour chip. I had nine months in, white-knuckled sobriety hard won on sheer will, and the thought of walking in to all those familiar faces and tossing my nine months in the trash felt like I was being asked to publicly admit I'd robbed my own grandmother at gunpoint.
So, I didn't. I kept going and counting time and nine months connected to a year then almost two. I didn't pick up any more chips, but I kept my nine-month chip in my wallet, a flash of purple each time I pulled it out. I let go of the Xanax prescription because it was the healthy, right thing to do. I kept a counter on my phone but rarely checked it.
Closing in on an Anniversary
My first sober birthday took place over dinner with old friends who'd adjusted how we spent our time to best support me. In a friend's living room flooded with dusk light from a wall of windows, their love and pride in me filled me with a confidence I had never known.
My second birthday wasn't like this. Actually, it didn't take place. Around 20 months in, I started looking for a shore on which to wreck my sea-ravaged sobriety.
There is a voice with which I will always reckon, and this is the voice of contemplation, a dance of what-ifs. What if I'd been sober long enough and could now go back to drinking like a normal person? Or, what if it had all been a fluke? This voice--rational, somber, bolstered with critically analyzed evidence--seemed so much more attuned to reality than I felt. Maybe it was right.
A Relapse is the Journey is the Relapse
At a wedding, I impulsively grabbed a flute of champagne off a platter and toyed with my edges for the next six months. The toll was a soft, quiet kind we only discern in our most fearlessly truthful moments.
Most people called this a relapse. I was sober, I drank, therefore I relapsed. Until recently, I considered my six-month drinking experiment just a small dust-trampled pit stop on my 3-year journey of sobriety. A winding, curving journey that began on June 6th, 2014 and didn't end the moment I pressed that champagne flute to my lips. I didn't unlearn everything the year 2014 had taught me. I didn't un-know all the valuable patience and care my sponsors had modeled. Relapse was not a starting over point for me but yet another valuable lesson learned in my recovery.
Until very, very recently, I considered June 6th my 3-year anniversary. Now I'm not so sure.
Between Me and No other
Surrender is non-negotiable for sobriety. We have to let go. Clawing at what is impermanent begins our deepest suffering. But, the act of surrender is embedded in my cells as a dangerous one. When I was sixteen, my mother sent me to treatment for five days, a place called a behavioral health center. A honey-skinned man with a toothy smile sat me down in his office so we could list the single friendship I had that didn't involve drugs or alcohol. (Had he included sex, the white board would have stood empty.) Look at you, he said. I was coiled at my center, legs crossed, arms crossed, heart folding in. Look at you, you can't even let go to take a single breath.
Let go. To truly concede that someone or something else is in charge. And for-real in charge, not that farce I can perform of allowing other people to believe they are charting our course while I hover nearby, fingernails between teeth. No, like, seriously in charge. When I say this is difficult for me, I mean impossible. What is that like for those of you who can do this?
When I think of the moments that galvanized this belief in me, I think of myself at five years old lying in bed near midnight. My mom is out again, and I'm sure I have a babysitter in the house, but I don't remember who that might have been. I am clutching an overstuffed koala bear, my prized possession, and I am praying to it. Dear Papa Bear, I say, my arms squeezing his neck, please bring my mom home safe tonight, please don't let anything happen to her, please let her come home soon. In the shadowy darkness of my room, I am the child keeping the chaos confined to night. Through the power of my tender-hearted child will, I am keeping my mother and me safe.
Sober in the Light of Day
What I could not do early in my sobriety was comprehend or perform surrender. I still struggle with it. It helps if I'm on my knees in the shower, something about the humility of both making the idea of surrender more accessible to me. I don't often know what or to whom I am surrendering, but I'm practicing the act. I'm practicing believing that I'm not in charge of keeping everyone I love safe, the climate adequate to support all of life, and my bank account from overdrawing.
Okay, maybe I am responsible for that last part. But the other things, while they worry me, require that I hand over my worry to something more powerful than me.
This has never been more useful than the past few weeks. My family, chosen and blood, are experiencing separate crises that activate every fixer cell in my body. I want to DO, all action, force my mother into treatment, my husband into exercise, marching around like the little general that I am barking orders at everyone.
But this is not sobriety. It's not surrender. This belief that I hold the weight of the world - how other people feel about me, whether or not my mom will get better, how my husband treats his body - is what often drove me to drink.
Picking up a Chip
Until last week, I had only one chip, my 9-month chip, purple and gleaming in my wallet. Talking to a beloved sponsee about my time and what it meant to me made me realize I was holding on to my ego. It was far easier to say I had 3 years than 8 months, even though both have equal value if I'm sober today.
So, in one of my favorite meetings, I hopped out of my seat when they called out 8 months. I replaced that old chip with this new one. One that feels more congruent with where I am now. I may still believe my entire journey was necessary, but I was holding so much of myself back before. These past 8 months have been different. I feel like I've rocketed through my recovery, taking it all in and really investigating the kind of life I want to live.
This is not quite the birthday post I thought I'd be writing this year. But this is the birthday post I'd rather have. Happy 8 months to me.