This post was originally published on July 18, 2013.
While I was recently having coffee with an old friend—a friend who cannot fathom why alcoholics are alcoholics—he asked me how I would define my recovery to date. My reply, without even having to ponder the question, was “I’m in the process of learning how to be an adult.” I was taken aback by my own response to this question because really, without me fully realizing it, that is exactly what my journey in recovery has been. The quizzical look on his face clearly showed that he thought I was insane, even after I proceeded to explain to him the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of my disease. He is still none the wiser.
Put me in the middle of the simplest of situations without a drink or a recovery program and I can almost guarantee you that I will spontaneously combust from the panic of having nothing to hold my hand. I remember being in a supermarket in very early recovery and realizing that I didn’t have enough money to pay for what I needed. Instead of just putting one item back, I started to cry because I simply didn’t know how to cope with this. Blind panic struck me and the cashier looked at me in complete dismay, asking if I was okay. I’d done this on numerous occasions during active addiction and handled the situation smoothly but without a drink and not yet being submerged in my program deeply enough to reap its benefits, I was left with no comprehension of how to deal with this most menial of tasks. I need guidance or I need oblivion—that is the simple fact of what it means to be me.
Before recovery, starting at the age of 13, I drank my way through life. Alcohol enabled me to be anything you wanted me to be. It was an essential part of my life to be anything but myself—a self I believed was totally substandard. If anyone caught a glimpse of who I really was, I was certain they would run from me screaming. I feared rejection, pain, emotions and life in general.
My coffee companion was baffled by the fact that I was consumed with such self-hatred and obsession at such a young age and asked me how, thinking like that, I managed to stay sane all those years. My reply was that I didn’t manage to stay sane but that drinking enabled me to calm the terrors that life conjured up inside of me.
I continued to explain to my friend that abusing alcohol is only a symptom of alcoholism and behind the drinking is a much deeper and more complex disease. When I put down the substances, I was still left with a very broken, bewildered and sick me—a girl who had no idea how to cope with life. I hear all the time in the rooms of recovery that when alcoholics or addicts pick up their substance of choice, they stop developing—mentally and emotionally. When we begin to recover, we basically have to start all over again at that age. That would make me 16-and-a-half right now and believe me when I tell you that I know 16-year-olds who would be better able to deal with some situations than I am.
I began to grow not when I put down my drug of choice but when I entered the rooms of recovery. It is in these rooms that I became acutely aware of how different my thinking and behavior is compared to that of a non-addict or non-alcoholic. I began to understand why I often couldn’t relate to the rest of the world and why some things that were part of everyday routine for most people were completely baffling to me. Life, something that had for so long been a complete mystery to me, was starting to make sense and I found all these rooms full of people who were exactly like me and who understood the way I’d always perceived my experiences.
I began to feel like I belonged somewhere and that, in fact, I wasn’t all bad. Yes, there were things about me that had to be changed but I also discovered that I had some very good qualities and talents that had been hidden by my illness; these things have only become more evident and continue to grow as I work my program and stay sober.
Of course I am still learning how to wear my big girl pants comfortably and there are days when fear strikes and panic sets in. The difference now is that I know that I can live clean and sober and every challenge is an opportunity for growth. I feel empowered and strong today. I accept my weirdness and the fact that most of my family and friends outside the rooms don’t get me. I know that it’s okay because there are a whole lot of other people who do.