It’s 3 on a Monday afternoon, and I am taking part in the daily ritual where I stand around with other moms and talk about the weather, waiting to walk my boys home. We chatter away about the humidity, as we wait for the doors to open and release the hounds our way. Perhaps the humidity reminds her, because my friend asks, “Hey! How was Florida?” I just returned from speaking at a conference where sunny Florida and a swanky hotel had been an additional bonus to my trip.
“It was awesome! And I think the speech went well. But I can never remember. I totally blank out whenever I speak. But they clapped at the end, so there’s that.” Another friend pipes up: “You spoke at a conference? What about?” Evidently she is one of the last residents of my small town that hasn’t heard about me. News travels fast around here. I go for the short and simple explanation: “I’m an alcoholic, in recovery. I wrote a book about it, to help moms who want to get sober, and I speak about it. Sometimes I even get to go to Florida to do so.”
She blinks rapidly. I know the look. She’s crazily filing through all the possible reactions to this information and trying to come up with the acceptable response. And then, she chirps at me, “Yea! That’s so great! Good for you! You’re an alcoholic. In recovery!” She was so enthusiastic about my news that if she had a Girl Scout badge for the occasion, I would have it on my sash.
It was a bit awkward.
There’s not a lot more that I can do with this conversation. Thankfully, my two boys, the world’s best distractions, show up. I say my goodbyes, and we start on the walk home. And with each step, I start to feel a little bit…confused. I am told in recovery that I need to say thank you to my Higher Power for the bad in life, and the good in it. And lately, there have been a lot of really, really good things. And that has me right back at feeling really, really bad.
When I first got sober, everything about me was very, very awful. I was a bad parent, a bad wife, and a very bad person in general, lugging around a lot of anger and lousy communication skills. Once, I had a total meltdown over a burned grilled cheese at dinner, because now, sober, I couldn’t even put together a decent meal for my children. Clearly, they were going to starve. Back when I was drinking my meals were often very elaborate, or mainly I was too blitzed to care if dinner was burnt to a crisp.
But, as time passed, the rough edges of me rubbing up against life seemed to soften a bit, and it really did get better, even my cooking. And I started to do something I had always dreamed about: Actually living. Really living meant my life got a lot simpler. I learned to say no when I needed to. I learned to say yes to self care. I learned a lot about myself and that it wasn’t all that bad, or boring, or catastrophic. Self-knowledge was like oil to my inner rusty Tin Man. And as months, then years passed, my road to recovery seemed smoother and shinier.
But, can things get too shiny? I wonder this when I catch a picture of a Kardashian. There’s so much highlighter slathered on those cheekbones that the image nearly blinds me. Shiny things can corrode. And my shiny, happy recovery was starting to wear on me. After all this time in recovery, and a lot of hard work, my self-awareness had me at “Yea, me!” Family and friends often joined in on the cheerleading for my recovery, which is kind of nice, actually. When you work really hard at something and slave to basically overhaul your entire life, it’s nice to be noticed. But after a while, all those pats on the back can leave me in a scary place called ‘I Am So Totally Awesome!’ And I just might forget what got me here in the first place.
So, now I sometimes find the compliments about my recovery jarring. Yes, recovery takes some moral reconfiguring and a lot of grit, and that merits some validation. But lately for me the compliments have taken a seat in my ego and are festering a bit. I often take stuff that should be good and virtuous, like kind-hearted compliments, and bend it into a twisted version of itself. Like, about six months after I got sober, I decided to take up running and conquered a half marathon, much to my total joy and amazement. But then, the running became a sort of rigid requirement for each day. If I was unable to make at least five miles a day I was filled with self loathing. What had started out as a fun activity had taken a detour somewhere into something unhealthy.
It’s the old all-or-nothing game. I play often. I don’t win much, though.
I started to regard my ego as a toddler. I loved her, and even, at times, found the little bugger to be cute and cuddly. We would hang out, my ego and I. But, since I am a mother of actual toddlers, I know this: If I give the toddler everything she desires, I will be rearing a future monster (one who might end up with her own reality show, and that’s not good). If a three-year-old gets adulation for every move she makes—eventually the toddler will implode. They get spoiled. Tantrums happen. It’s ugly. The ego needs to be told “No!” to be put in timeout, to learn the rules. And one rule for me and my precious little ego?
My ego is so not the boss of me.
When I saw my mom friends the next day, there was the usual weather analysis and general chit-chat. But I noticed my friend from yesterday had little to say. And my ego started clanging away, like a toddler with tin drum. “She’s judging me,” ego pointed fingers. “She thinks I’m a menace.” My toddler-ego ran screaming about in my head with these thoughts, until I sent her to her room, and grabbed my real kids. My friend’s real compliments or imagined judgements were not the problem. How my brain filtered the comments is the problem.
So, as I walked home with two boys chattering away about their day, I took a break and congratulated myself. “Good job, Dana! You are rocking it in recovery! It’s super hard and you are doing it, and here is a big ‘hooray!’ You are a sober rock star!” I took a breath, and noticed the sunshine, and the wonder that is the daily miracle of living sober. Then, I said, for all the world (or just our neighborhood) to hear, “I remember who I was, and what happened, and who I am now.”
My name is Dana, and I’m an alcoholic.