I recently celebrated 13 years of sobriety. A sobriety birthday, or anniversary as its known in some parts of the country—take your pick—is a time for celebration, a day when we pat ourselves on the back for another 365 days of abstaining from mind-altering chemicals and cherish the freedom we’ve received as a result of this amazing commitment we’ve made to ourselves.
I spent my 13th anniversary in a prison of my mind, endlessly scratching at legs which had developed a sudden horrible rash, going from acupuncturist to regular doctor, trying to determine what had caused me—a person who’d never been allergic to a thing, who’d really never had the flu and suffered very few colds—to suddenly be covered in something that looked like hives.
Neither the doctor nor the acupuncturist had a clue. I mean, they—and everyone else I shared my condition with—all asked the same questions: Had I eaten anything strange—shellfish, perhaps? No? Well, had I bought a new detergent or soap? Anything? Um, okay. Spread some Cortisone on it and let’s hope it goes away. If you didn’t eat or use something new, it’s probably just stress.
It’s probably just stress—four words that have come up again and again in my life.
See, I’m really quite a healthy person. I don’t really get sick, per se. But I’ve had chronic backaches, headaches and insomnia throughout my life. I’ve had acupuncturists feel my pulse and beg me to find a way to relax. (When I tell them I meditate 40 minutes a day, they only tend to nod and tell me to keep doing it.) I’ve been advised to take a deep breath more often than I want to recall. I’m just high-strung, I’ll say, assuming there’s nothing I can really do about it.
It’s now a few days after my anniversary and the red, itchy bumps haven’t gone anyway. But they haven’t really gotten any worse, either. And with them—along with the dark thoughts that have clouded my mind for the past few days—has come a new epiphany:
I cannot afford to continue to have the reactions that I do.
The fact is, even at 13 years of sobriety, I’m a big reactor. You could argue that part of this is good: I have a near childlike exuberance for things at times. Yay, I’m fun! But you could also argue that most of this is bad—and when I say bad, I mean bad for me more than anyone or anything else. At the end of last week, I had a few stressful things come up—things that a person with a very calm sensibility might have taken in, nodded at and gone about their business.
I don’t do that. Stressful things feel like death knells to me. I still have the most dramatic brain ever. It produces thoughts like: It’s all over. This has been a disaster. I’ve been wasting my time. My life is a joke. And so on, ad infinitum. I’ve spent a large part of my sobriety learning how to handle myself—which is to say how to pick myself up off the proverbial floor once I’ve had one of these reactions. But the way I’m currently feeling, and the red bumps covering my body, are leading me to a perhaps far easier solution: how about I try to learn how to not have those reactions so that there’s nothing to pick myself up from?
It makes sense, of course. I mean, isn’t the point of what we do in sobriety to create a life that we don’t feel we need to escape from? Increasingly, that seems to be the point of all the steps and spiritual work I do: to make me comfortable enough that it never occurs to me that a drink or a drug might ease the pain.
And so why can’t I, at this point in my sobriety, try to stop myself from having big reactions? Why can’t I challenge those thoughts that come—often first thing when I wake up—about how big or bad or pointless my life or something I’m doing is? Why can’t I practice this new form of self-love where I remind myself before and not after I react that there are no big deals and that everything works out the way it’s meant to? I have a magnet on my fridge that declares: “Everything works out in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” I may see it every day but that doesn’t mean I behave like it’s true.
A related epiphany: I still pretty much think the rules don’t apply to me, that I shouldn’t have to put up with certain things. Part of this is the result of the way I was raised and things that happened that showed me I didn’t have to follow the rules but at this point it doesn’t matter why I’m like that; the point is that believing this only causes me pain. Right now I have a piano player who lives above me, a guy I’ve attempted to reason with about how much his musical theater act upstairs at all hours interferes with my wellbeing and ability to work. We’ve come to no resolution. But the one thing I’m realizing that I haven’t tried is to just see if I can tolerate it—to see if I can remind myself when I hear it that this is the risk you take when living in an apartment building, that I can move out when my lease is up (and always, from now on, take an upper unit) and that I can leave when the noise gets to be intolerable. I’ve noticed that I jump right to This is a disaster which makes me believe I need a dramatic solution, skipping through humbly trying out various ways of making a situation more tolerable.
So right here and now I’m declaring that I’m sick of my body and brain and system reacting like it’s “the end” when that’s simply not the truth. I don’t want little red bumps on my legs, headaches, insomnia or to have to pick myself up from having curled up in the fetal position after a so-called disaster. In the same way that I can’t afford a shopping spree at Barneys, I can’t afford to react the way I always have.
Can I do this? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? I have no idea. But I figure if 13 years ago, I could stop doing something I couldn’t seem to go a day or even a few hours without, anything’s possible.