Across from the house where I grew up is a dead-end street called Rauland Road. As kids, my brother and I would ride our bikes up and down the short drive. We’d peddle as hard as we could, launching ourselves over the steep hill in the middle and careening into the cul-de-sac at the bottom, where we’d turn around to do it again. Because it was a dead-end, there were rarely ever cars; we felt safe racing in the middle of the street. In those seconds suspended in mid-air, I felt weightless and serene. It was an out-of-body experience, my first high.
Before discovering drugs and alcohol, I knew plenty of tricks to escape my experience. In the back cooler at the Dairy Queen where I worked at 15 years old, we’d take turns doing whip-its, sucking down the nitrogen left in the can when the cream had run out. A slightly more hardcore version of inhaling helium out of a balloon, which is slightly above spinning in circles or simply holding your breath until you turned blue. What kid hasn’t done stuff like this? Simple. Harmless. Fun. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t harmless. (Lots of times, it wasn’t even fun.)
In recovery, I’ve learned that getting high, for me, is mostly about avoiding feelings. Before the grown up pressures of being an adult—holding a job, participating in meaningful relationships, managing your own life—feeling your feelings was what it was supposed to be about. Sure, being a kid is confusing. Differentiating right from wrong, good and bad. Rapid physical development and deep emotional changes make the teenage years particularly exciting as well as uncomfortable. But that excitement and discomfort is temporary. As children we can begin to learn that feelings are okay, that “negative” feelings are bound to occur, and that—however powerful they are— you can survive them. I didn’t learn this as a kid. Instead, I learned a myriad ways of escaping discomfort. In doing so, I now realize, I set myself up for a lot of pain.
My favorite form of escape as a child was fantasy. Sitting on the back of a school bus, pretending I was a princess. Wanting to be rescued. Wanting a boyfriend (what kindergartener longs for a boyfriend?) Imagining a prince, someone like my father. Handsome and powerful. Imaginary. Far away. In my fantasy, I’m in a tower, out of reach. As if I’m Rapunzel, he climbs to me. He cares for me. I am his prisoner. He is keeping me protected from something unnamed— something within myself too horrendously dark to be named. His name becomes all that matters, my love, my light. My higher power. This was my earliest conception of God.
I was a lovable kid but I didn’t see myself this way. Kids like me didn’t drink or do drugs (until, of course, we did). Over-involved and eager to please, my self worth was reliant on achieving. As a child, I was more intent on impressing my parents than my peers. And yet, like most adolescents, I craved excitement and experience.
Experimentation is a part of growing up and it is in search of autonomy that we take risks. Some kids play sports, perform in the school play, travel abroad. Others smoke pot, get drunk, have sex. As a teen, I wanted it both ways. I wanted to rebel—to demonstrate separation, to differentiate myself from my parents and from authority figures (who I had already learned to mistrust) all while gaining the acceptance of my peers; at the same time, I clung to my mother’s approval. I thought I could cure her depression, that I could fix anything if only I was good enough and did everything right.
When my father walked out, one month shy of my high school graduation, I didn’t give it a second thought. I didn’t allow myself to. Instead, I focused on my future, my goals. I went away to college. As in high school, I excelled. My second semester, I studied abroad. Alone, broke and lonely, I started working as a stripper—a solution, I thought, to more problems than one. Increasingly isolated, I eventually sold sex.
For years, I kept my story—my very self—a secret, even from me. While most kids were figuring out who they were, I was still trying to be everything to everybody, distracting myself from my fears about my true nature by smoking pot and getting drunk, attracting negative attention in a desperate effort to be seen, inviting strangers close as a means of relief from loneliness while avoiding the risks associated with intimacy. All along, it was intimacy that I was after: an honest feeling of love.
When my friends and I first started driving, we’d do something similar to what my brother and I had done on our bikes, this time in my mother’s car. At night, with the radio turned up, car filled with smoke, we’d drive recklessly down small-town back roads. On the wrong side of the road, out past curfew, breaking every rule is as close as I came to finding the feeling I was after. In these moments, I felt a sense of connection, a feeling of belonging, a sense of self. As I had felt earlier, with my brother, I felt, if only for this moment, invincible.
In these moments, I got it half right. Recovery—in my experience—is built on restoring connection. It’s about feeling feelings and recognizing them as universal. In recovery, I have come to believe that even in my darkest moments, I was never alone. But, also—and here’s where I got it wrong—I was never invincible. Today I recognize the fragility of life in the way a child doesn’t.
At this very moment, I am going through a breakup. At times, I feel out of control. Sometimes it feels as if the pain of loss might actually kill me. As in: I am literally afraid I might actually die. Feelings I have never learned to name feel so out of control, I am afraid I just might lose my shit. Like I might never stop crying. I’ll have to stop going to work. And then what? I think.
Commuting home from work, I consider tossing myself into the oncoming 6 train. The feeling passes. I board my train. I go home and feed my dog. At seven years of sobriety, the old ways of avoiding my experience are not an option. I have come too far to turn back.
What works: being with my friends—people who love me, people telling me that what I’m experiencing is completely normal, that these feelings are what make us human and that there’s no way around them, the only one way forward is through them, that I’m going to be okay. Even in the midst of it, I know that the pain I feel has less to do with what’s happening today but, rather, all the pain in my lifetime that I could never bring myself to bear. This suffering today is the consequence of stuffing down experience and of never learning how to be present and to sit through feelings. Feelings, I’ve discovered, have texture. Sometimes pain is the flipside of love. Even in the midst of pain, I’m not sorry to have loved. I feel grateful. When I think of the dangerous situations I’ve put myself in and the trust I’ve put in untrustworthy people—other children, literally or emotionally—I feel lucky to be alive.
I wish I could go back and have a talk with the young woman I once was. I’d talk to her like my friends talk to me now. Today, when I’m going through a tough time, I know I’m not alone. I have true friends who love me as I am learning to love myself. I’d hold her hand, as they hold mine. I’d just listen. I’d let her cry. The first time some dude broke my heart. The time I didn’t get a part in the school play. When I didn’t make varsity. These losses, I realize today, were just practice. And maybe they all are. When my dad walked out, I wish I had been there for me, as I am here for myself now, and not out somewhere getting high.
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