This post was originally published on June 5, 2014.
Sometimes the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous gives addicts the idea that once we have completed the steps, we will be “happy, joyous and free” ever after. Yippee! Let’s all skip through the marigolds sipping nothing but pineapple juice with our newfound sense of freedom. Sounds great and even though I’m allergic to marigolds, sign me up!
I’m not denying that each time I have done the steps, I have gained some kind of spiritual awakening, specifically a more accurate sense of where my own character flaws have led to unpleasant outcomes. Taking responsibility for your own actions is a powerful tool for growth, and so is praying to your Higher Power to please remove that horrible character trait you have of chewing with your mouth open (or, of course, more serious issues).
However the idea of “one and done” when it comes to awakening spiritually seems a little reductive. Sure we have to be sober to write those inventories and digest the “chunks of truth about ourselves” we find hard to masticate. (Too much gristle.) But in my experience, when it comes to transforming on a psychic or spiritual level, one measly awakening is not enough. They talk about peeling the onion in recovery, but what happens when each progressive layer of that onion makes you cry, certainly more than the nice intact onion you had when you started—that is, the one with skin?
Several months back, I walked into a psychiatric facility and asked to be admitted. I had not attempted suicide, I had not broken my sobriety, nor had I committed any grievous act of bodily harm on myself or anyone else. However, due to all of the therapy, step work and miscellaneous spiritual hooey I’d undertaken in the last decade, I was keenly aware that if I didn’t take action now, somebody was getting harmed, and it would likely be me. Just as I would report any kind of attacker to a potential victim, I chose to turn myself into the authorities, thus taking care of attacker and victim in one shot. Ironically, in realizing I was insane, I made the only sane move I could think of—to check myself in amongst the insane to regain my sanity.
I dropped my kids at Little League and warned them that Mommy wasn’t feeling well, and would likely have to go to the hospital to get better. I am lucky to have an ex-husband I am on good enough terms with to make sure the kids would be looked after (once he realized I wasn’t just being dramatic). I needed help, and it went beyond hitting another meeting and texting a newcomer. In my state, I would have frightened a newcomer. I was frightening myself.
I had gone through a bad breakup several months earlier and was just not healing from it. Every day was a cry-fest, and worse still was my complete lack of motivation and overall negative outlook. Coupled with the breakdown of my marriage the year before, I had accumulated too much grief, guilt and self-loathing to move forward. And I was tired of telling my kids that Mommy was “just sad again, guys, it’s okay, nothing to do with you.” They had taken to looking at me with the wary look people reserve for the insane, and backing away slowly, saying things like, “Sure thing Mommy, I’ll be in my room playing Xbox.” Much as they loved my lack of attention to whether they’d completed their homework and brushed their teeth during those months, I knew it was ultimately harmful. I was checked out and so I had to check in.
I had been in the psych ward only once before a few years back, but at that time had been 5150’d. That experience had taught me many things, chief among them that if you come into the ward through an emergency room or on a gurney, you are considered a danger to yourself or others and automatically held for 72 hours. This time, I parked my own car, smoked a cigarette on the smoke-free grounds and walked myself in.
The perky blonde intake nurse lauded me for taking charge of my mental health. “Good for you,” she chirped as if I were booking in for a spa weekend. “I’m glad you came in.” As once again my belongings were scanned for sharp objects, electronics or anything else potentially fun to have around, I began to doubt my “mature decision.” I had packed a bag for this loony bin stay, but had forgotten the stupid “no underwire in the bra” rule, not to mention the stupid “no drawstring in the pants” rule. Ugh. I shuddered as I let them debone my bra and ruin my velour sweats. Didn’t they know I could fashion a noose perfectly well out of a pajama top? And that if I’d wanted to do that, I would have, about an hour before, when I’d still been in the comfort of my own home?
The previous time I’d been in the bin, I had become the Mayor of the Mental Ward, taking in the insomniacs, depressives and neurotics like they were my flock. I was there after group to process their feelings with them, and give advice as necessary. (They didn’t know better than to not take advice from someone locked up in the psych ward with them.)
This time, I resolved that things would be different. I was going to keep to myself as much as I could, knowing that, as an extrovert, this could prove challenging. I would help no one but myself. On my first evening in the ward, when I met my new compatriots, I resisted getting into any conversations other than the standard, “What meds are you on?” (Except the glassy-eyed hallway shufflers, whose demeanor and gait screamed “Thorazine.” Yeah, I ignored them.)
The first night was scary, but mostly because I was still scared I would harm myself. I ended up staying in the hallway for parts of the night, within view of the nurses’ station, because it made me feel safe. I tried to unpack and digest my grief in a productive way, without the burdens of cooking dinner for small people or ferrying them to a sports event. Also without writing. I wanted to live-tweet my nervous breakdown, but my best friend vetoed the idea. “Just get better,” she said, on one of her daily phone calls. “Make it about healing yourself.” I balked—no healing through social media?—but acquiesced.
Five days later, I emerged from the ward, blinking in the sunlight, ready for my first cigarette after almost a week of doled-out Nicorette. I had spent the time doing lots of group therapy, individual therapy, collage-ing and even led a guided meditation for one group. I also hijacked any person in scrubs to help me digest my shame, sadness and pain. People who work in mental health—at least those who have not yet burned out, those who still have the spirit in their eyes of truly wanting to help people get better—are incredible. I was lucky to find such people, and because I wasn’t recovering from an overdose or suicide attempt like many in the ward, I hope I was able to voice that gratitude sufficiently. I also hoped I was going to be able to carry that sense of gratitude into my daily life, and back into my program, so that once again I could “practice these principles in all my affairs.”
I emerged from the ward feeling not necessarily positive that life was worth living without my ex, but at least ready to accept that possibility. I may not have been ready for my close up, but I was ready to be ready, and that was already better. Happy, joyous and free may not describe where I arrived but hey, I’ll take what I can get.