Barn’s burnt down — now I can see the moon.Mizuta Masahide
It’s said of parenting that the days are long and the years are short. While that math may not make sense to someone who’s never sat through a Pokemon marathon or trudged through the endless days of Legos and laundry – parents get it. You spend a lot of time just trying to keep your head above water in the middle of raising your kids, and then you look up and your baby is wearing a cap and gown or a wedding dress and you think, “How? How did it go by so fast??? They just got here!!!”
It’s pretty true of sobriety as well. It’s why I’m honestly more impressed by thirty days than thirty years. The years mostly go by quickly and get easier, but days – especially early days – can be brutally hard and long.
Not all years are equal, though. Some years are different. Some years are longer than other years. For me, this was a long, hard year, marked by relentless change and unimaginable loss. Nevertheless, I woke up this morning with a clear head, a mostly-healed heart, and to a life that bears no resemblance to the one I was living when I posted on my anniversary last year.
I woke up happy.
Today is day 1827. Five years today.
thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou. Thank you, God.
That only feels like a miracle because it absolutely is.
Early sobriety was hard and I was miserable. I spent a fair amount of time crying at meetings. Like, a lot. I was determined to keep my life exactly as it was and just not drink. Same people, same places, same things – just no alcohol. I would go and do my time in meetings if I had to, but I didn’t truly want to add recovery to my life and I was certainly not prepared to subtract anything that didn’t support it. I treated my life like a Lunchable. Recovery over here, relationships over there, work over there. Each thing kept separate in its little compartment. Nothing touching. No cross-contamination. Tidy. I wasn’t going to let being sober bleed into my regular life.
At the end of yet another tear soaked meeting late that summer, an older woman took me aside and made an observation and a recommendation to me. Because I was a contrarian and deeply committed to my own super-secret, preciously unique plan of recovery, I was still un-teachable. I had yet to abandon the idea that the worth of a thing was increased by doing it the hardest way imaginable.
Anyway, I balked and asked her if she thought I had to do what she was suggesting.
She cocked her head, looked at me keenly and said,
“Well, I don’t know, baby girl – how free do you want to be?”
It was, in fact, a great question.
As it turned out, I was not yet willing to be completely free. Historically, I’ve been a woman who grows deeply attached to her prisons. I tend them and defend them. I hang curtains and decorate. I’ve fought valiantly for my right to remain un-free.
Her question did motivate me at the time, although not to take her particular suggestion. It persuaded me to start doing my work. There’s a saying if you have a drunken horse thief and you remove alcohol from the equation, you are left with a horse thief. Still not awesome. In the absence of doing your work, things might stop getting worse but they do not get better.
I leaned into recovery, examined behaviors and fears and resentments. I began to learn more about the way my character traits present when I am healthy and not healthy. I was taught simple tools to use to navigate the world without running and numbing. I got better. But not entirely free.
My drinking first began to spiral when my marriage blew up. I spent a lot of time telling myself – and others – that my drinking became what it became because I was betrayed and had my life yanked out from under me like a cheap tablecloth in the hands of a two-bit magician.
I drank because my marriage ended. I drank because I’d been deceived. I drank because I was lonely and heartbroken. I drank because people were stressing me out. I drank because of financial uncertainty. I drank because I’d been a stay-at-home mom for 13 years and I had no idea what to do with my life. I drank because I had to move out of my dream home.
None of that was true, and on some level, I always knew it.
I did not become an alcoholic because of those things, I drank in response to them because I’m an alcoholic. It’s an important distinction. I have always been an alcoholic. I drank alcoholically at eleven years old. My alcoholism has been an immutable fact of my life since I was a terrified, traumatized little girl. Alcohol was my solution in a world that offered no help and no relief from the pain I was in. As is the case with most people who struggle with addiction, alcohol was my tool long before it was ever my weapon.
My marriage ending the way it did was devastating. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, but I also know I would not have left that marriage. I just would not have. I’d either still be married or dead. Those are the options.
I got divorced and I bought a cute little home. I fell in love again. Got a job I adored. Moved across the country to be closer to the new man in my life. Away from the people I felt were judging me. Made new friends who weren’t pissed at me (yet.) Started this blog. Felt creatively inspired and motivated.
And my drinking got worse.
I told myself I drank because I was abused and was carrying around that secret. I drank because I was broken. I drank because there was no justice and because I wasn’t believed or it was largely ignored. I drank because I felt alone in it and no one understood.
Then I reunited with Mary and redeemed that story. We reported our abuse to Officer Paul and had him take it seriously. We told our story publicly and had an enormous and validating and healing response to the telling.
And my drinking got worse. Much, much worse. Disastrous.
If there are years that ask questions and there are years that offer answers, then perhaps there are also years of addition and years of subtraction. This past year has been a year of subtraction, very much like my last year of drinking.
During that last year before I got sober, it felt like God removed every single excuse for drinking and every single barrier for recovery. My life got smaller and simpler and darker until it was just me. Nothing and no one else. No one else to blame or point my finger at. Nothing bad was happening. Nothing other than me, that is. Just me and my alcoholism. I existed in a tiny, cold, invisible prison. I felt lonely every minute of every day even though my life was filled with good people who tried to help. Addiction is solitary confinement in a crowd.
Rock bottom was awful and bleak and excruciating, and it needed to be. I have always had a high tolerance for pain, which saved my life right up until it almost ended it. In the absence of that level of pain, that degree of loss and despair, I am still drinking. Or dead. That’s the thing – it’s only rock bottom if you get better or if you die. Those are the choices.
This past year was devastating. Loss after loss after loss. It was a season of removal. Much of it was necessary. I have this quote from Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed and my response to it on a Post-it on my computer:
“Our next life will always cost us this one.”Glennon Doyle
“Fuck.”Laura Parrott Perry
My fifth year of sobriety resulted in an emotional rock bottom that felt like it would kill me. Once again, my life got small, simple, and dark. Just me. Everything else stripped away. Home. Partner. Family. Friends. Pets. Places. Dreams for the future. Stories from the past.
When my relationship ended I lay alone, grief stricken, night after night thinking, “I’m just not sure I want to be here anymore. Maybe I’m done. Maybe being done would be okay.” The thing is, those thoughts felt so rational. Calming, even. I understand in a way I didn’t before how despair can work on your ability to discern between invitations and threats. So, once more, a choice. Get better or die.
Even in that dark place, I think I knew I would survive. I have learned in recovery that I don’t have to act on every thought, that grief is not a problem to be solved, and that pain has a purpose. I’ve watched enough people in recovery weather the unimaginable and not drink and not die to know surviving is an option. So I did. I surrendered to the facts of what was happening and had faith I would come out the other side, even when that did not feel true.
The thing about surrender is this – it feels like the end. It feels like all is lost, but really the moment of letting go of the idea you can beat or figure it out, manage or conquer it, fix or control it, is the beginning of being found. Rock bottom is a tipping point. There’s your life before and your life after, and they are different- because if they’re not, what is the actual point? It’s what redemption looks like, in the end. You must exchange the life you were living in order to be free to live the new one.
crappy awesome thing about healing and doing your work is the self-awareness. So now I see the pattern, the one where I bend and fold myself to remain in relationships that simply don’t fit.
I said multiple times in the past few years, “If you put me in a position of having to choose between you and me, I will choose me.”
Sounds good, right? Empowered, even. Only problem is, it was a lie. Not once, not one single time, did I choose me. God, I am furious about that. The only promise I kept to myself was to stay sober. I prayed incessantly and I showed up in church basements with a broken heart and was held and counseled and seen and heard. I am only now learning how worried my people have been about me. My community carried me much of the way.
I just wasn’t willing to be free. And now, three quarters of a year later I have to admit that in the absence of having my life blown up again, I would still be there. Small prison. Open door. Variations on a theme.
I’ve spent much of my adult life being protective of my partners, but something has shifted. For the first time in my life, I feel fiercely, wildly protective of me.
I am in a new relationship. It’s good. Historically, when I became involved with someone, I would write a story about how it should go and adjust myself accordingly – I’d make myself smaller, quieter, or more malleable. I’d compromise on things I’d have said were deal breakers because it turns out the only person I was ever willing to break deals with was me. My prayer was always that it work out – that we stay together at all costs. That is not my prayer today. My prayer today is that if the time comes when that still, small voice, the one that has never been wrong, the one that has always been my true north, says, “No. This is not right for you,” that I will heed it in real time. That I will choose me and walk away.
I do not ever again want to require the decimation of my life by someone or something external for me to change or grow or save myself. I would rather have no relationship than have one that requires me to lose myself. I would rather be alone than lonely with company. Let me be clear, this is a me issue, it’s got nothing to do with anybody else.
No more praying for someone else to change or grow or heal. No more having the unbelievable arrogance to think I know what someone else’s path through this world should look like. No more waiting or wishing or begging or orchestrating.
My path. My growth. My life.
The word addict is derived from the Latin word addicere, two definitions of which are ‘to betray’ and ‘to enslave.’ If addiction is enslavement and betrayal, then sobriety for me has come to mean freedom and being loyal to the woman I have fought so hard to become, and who could so easily not be here today. I have betrayed her over and over again.
I hit my knees and say the same prayer every morning and every night.
Thank you, God, for every gift you’ve given me.
Thank you, God, for every thing you’ve taken away.
Thank you, God, for everything that remains.
If I’m being honest, I used to only feel grateful for the first and the third line. Not today. Today I am grateful for all of it.
In math, the term for what is left after subtraction is the difference.
I am so grateful for the difference this year has made.
Thank you, God, for removing my obsession to drink. Thank you for clear-headed mornings and nights I remember. Thank you for a wider, brighter, truer life. Thank you for a shameless heart. Thank you for boundaries. Thank you for my broken heart. Thank you for sunrise walks with Dog, as I understand Her. Thank you for church basements and beaches and laptop screens. Thank you for a job I love. Thank you for a peaceful home. Thank you for sleep. Thank you for breathing easy. Thank you for new beginnings and laughter and fun. Thank you for joy and connection. Thank you for purpose and passion.
Thank you for my friends’ peace of mind. Thank you for mine.
If you are in early sobriety and grieving the losses that come with that, I need you to know that subtraction does not always leave you with less than you had. Sometimes the things taken away, once grieved, leave space for more than you’d dared dream for yourself. Sometimes subtraction leaves you with space to grow. Subtraction can lead to abundance.
I don’t see the woman who asked me that pointed question early on at meetings anymore. I think she moved away. I wish I remembered her name or could reach out to her, because I finally have an answer.
I woke up this morning and took stock of what I had, what was taken, and what remains and I am achingly grateful for all of it. Even the removals. Even the heartbreaking subtractions.
Today, five years in, on this beautiful June morning, a morning that was never guaranteed, it feels like an exchange worth making. The math makes sense to me, because I finally want to be