Recovery Has Meant Changing Everything

Recovery Has Meant Changing Everything

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recovery has meant changing everyythingThis post was originally published on October 13, 2013.

If I was not in recovery and heard someone say that recovery has meant that they’ve had to change everything, I would assume the person was talking about switching up their friends and activities. And while sure, I’ve also done that, I’ve been thinking lately about the fact that I had all my basic life values backwards before.

Not all of this can be blamed on my addiction, of course. I was raised by upwardly mobile folks who were interested in getting even more upwardly mobile and even though that really just describes my dad, he was the louder of my two parents and so his messages were the ones I heard. These messages were very specific and they were constant. In short, they were: Be the best because if you’re not the best, you’re worthless. Get straight A’s and as close to a 1600 as possible on your SAT’s. Go to an Ivy League school and aim to make $100,000 a year at your first job. Sue them before they can sue you, even if the person is a family member.

My dad got an 800 on his math SAT, went to Harvard and made a lot of money soon after graduating. I was an okay but not great student who did so poorly on the SAT’s that my dad went and found a guy who wrote SAT books to be my personal tutor. This man taught me a bunch of tricks that had nothing to do with learning anything and my score jumped 200 points. Though this man wanted to use me in an infomercial touting his services, the leap was not enough for Harvard: despite the fact that my brother was already enrolled there and my father and grandmother were alumni, I was rejected. The school sent my dad a letter informing him of this before they contacted me but I was the one that saw the mail before he did so I’d already opened it, heard the news and broke it to him gently. He was really the one who needed consoling.

I don’t think I really cared all that much. I mean I knew I wasn’t Harvard material. I pretty much accepted the fact that everyone in my family was superior in certain ways that I was not. I was much more interested in going out than studying and was fine with enrolling at Trinity College, which had far less rigorous academic standards and had received an honorable mention on Playboy’s lists of Top 40 party schools.

That was on the outside, anyway. Thinking back now, I believe I was actually inwardly eviscerated by the fact that I felt so unable to measure up to the rest of my family. Before I found drinking, drugs and smoking, I used whatever I could find to help me cope with my shame over this—picking at my cuticle skin, fantasizing, leaving my body to escape the present moment and whatever else could help me avoid dealing with the fact that I didn’t feel remarkable in a family whose only value was that you had to be remarkable.

When I got sober, I remember my rehab counselor telling me that what I was learning was so different from what I’d been doing that it was going to be “like walking on the moon.” He was right. And after three decades of thinking I had to subscribe to a belief system that only reinforced how much I didn’t measure up, I was indescribably relieved to hear about new rules for living. Rules like: Thinking about other people and being of service to them would help me feel better. And that I should look for the part I played in my resentments so that I could let them go. It had never occurred to me that I was unhappy so much of the time because I thought about myself 24-7. It had never occurred to me that I could forgive those who I felt had wronged me.

I think that’s probably why I’ve taken to recovery as strongly as I have—the fact that I wasn’t only dying because I was inhaling lethal quantities of cocaine and drowning that with alcohol, pills and cigarettes but also because I had a belief system that was on its way to choking me to death.

Of course, this is a belief system that much of the western world subscribes to—the idea that we have to achieve and acquire and be successful and most of all look successful in order to have happiness. I’m not sure I would have realized what a sham that was if I hadn’t gotten sober; I still have trouble realizing it’s a sham now. I still want success and chase it every day with everything I have. But I understand that it is not going to get me the mythical it that I want—that there’s a reason that some of the most successful people I know are also the most miserable and that, to use one of 100 examples, director Tony Scott jumped off a bridge despite his commercial and creative triumphs.

It was only when I got sober that I was able to actually get out of my own way and start finding some of the success that had escaped me for so long. For a long time, I kept trying to impress my family with it: I would send them articles I’d written and tell them when I was going to be on TV. It would hurt me that they didn’t seem to care until I realized that nothing they said or did would change the fact that I’d felt like such a loser in their eyes for so long. And some people are just never going to give you what you want, anyway; in my last conversation with my dad, he told me that even though I’d managed to scrape out a living as a writer, I’d have made much more money if I’d just listened to him and become a lawyer. Over the years, I’ve learned that looking for any sort of validation from people who aren’t able to give it is, as the Alanon expression goes, like going to the hardware store for milk.

But starting off with values so askew has meant that it’s taken a lot of work to just try to enjoy what life has to offer. It’s very challenging for me to stay in the moment, even though I know that’s where contentment lies. I regularly want to duck my sponsees’ calls. I often forget that, as the St. Francis prayer tells us, it is better to understand than to be understood and regularly find myself growing frustrated if I feel a friend or family member isn’t listening to me while I try to explain some usually inconsequential detail about my day. I still find myself seeing someone in an extremely expensive car and making up a story in my head about how perfect that person’s life is.

And there’s another thing: I have to concentrate in order to relax. Isn’t that supposed to come naturally? During Shavasana in yoga, unless I’m using my meditation mantra, I’m probably thinking of article ideas or grocery lists. (When I was writing my second novel and felt stuck, I’d actually get a massage because that would help me brainstorm; I’d duck out of the massage room afterwards and, still in my robe, jot down the plot twists and turns I’d thought of.) Social media—the fact that I now have an easy way to escape the moment, even if that escape is simply capturing it and broadcasting it to a world I’ve convinced myself cares—has been a dangerous development for someone like me. I mean I love it, but that’s sort of my point: moment escaping is now so easy that the person who’s not photographing and then madly punching keys on their phone is often regarded as the unusual one. That’s okay; we’re all doing the best we can in a world that isn’t always or even often easy. And I’m grateful to be learning any of this at all; if I’d stayed on the path my dad seemed to think was the only one, I would have spent my whole life feeling like I didn’t measure up. Though I can’t change the past, I do have some power over my attitude about the present—even if I do have some trouble staying in it.

Photo courtesy of RelaxingMusic (Flickr: Meditate) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via WikimediaCommons (resized and cropped)

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2 Comments

  1. I was told I was stupid and worthless every day until my grandmother stroked out and couldn’t talk any more – 20 years. There was no reason for me to try to become anything. Until I got sober I never thought of myself as being talented, not really, because I was wired not to allow myself to. I’m not sure that if I’d never started drinking that I still wouldn’t have sabotaged my life in other ways. Accepting that at the very least I’m not a horrible person has been a major chore, even with being only 12 credits away from an AA in Science, and a growing stack of local writing awards. I’ve been sober coming up on 7 years, but it has been a battle to like myself as a person. Nobody can give me those tools, I read a lot of stuff in books and online, but in the end I just have to dig myself out. It’s not easy but I make progress. I celebrate the small victories and keep moving forward.

    My brother has been successful, and this has been held over my head for a long time. Not by him, but by my mother. He is much more cynical than I am, and doesn’t have a lot of joy in his life. I point out to my mother that the main reason he had any success at all was because he joined the Air Force and got the hell out of the house and away from the family. He’ll call her on the phone once in a while but he has not been seen mother since 1989. My Facebook page is full of “sucessful” high school friends who are on their third or fourth marriage, drinking heavily, and one even committed suicide last year (He worked in advertising). Not all of them, but the ones who are happy seem to have different priorities that don’t involve making more money.

    As I rediscover who I can be I’ve changed things. My wardrobe is different, my diet is healthier, I take care of things promptly, and I am present in my own life. I’ve let the past go and I’m letting the future take take of itself letting me deal with “now”, and right now I’m okay. Maybe even kinda cool.

  2. Nice. I come from it’s everybody else’s fault land, so much so that it is a way of life, there’s great power in unaccountability. I would make a great internet Troll.. vicious. I learned very young I can be a big fat nothing and selfishly proclaim myself the King of the world simply by finding fault in others. It’s not for those who suffer from low self esteem issues, it’s for the extreme who have no self esteem at all. Like well, me.

    Yup, is was definitely Daddy on the marque but also my always loving mother who was best supporting actor. It was a dynamic, a creation they made together based on acceptable scripts from others they identified with. I’m sure they didn’t decide one day to be evil, they simply passed their chosen ways on to me. Live and learn, make choices, survive. As it became clear to me in recovery I found as much as I may have wanted to I could not play the part that was written for me. It was killing me, I was constantly being written out, I had lost all hope.. I was constantly living and dying day to day, I could not go on.
    The transition has at times been very difficult and has also taken time. Of course my first reaction to living with no script at all was horrific.. I was for a short time worse off than ever, lost and alone, I even though the security of what was killing me was better than what I had chosen. At least it was familiar?. In time I became convinced my real hope was in the building a Spiritual foundation as suggested in the Big Book 12 Steps. I could no longer rely on people for the validation of my character. If others could? fine, it didn’t matter. I knew I could no longer take on the beliefs of others as my own. So my life began. It’s like the problem wasn’t what I had learned it was how I learned it. My way of thinking and processing is what needed to change not so much the content of information in my mind. I was a walking talking dishonest motive. Dishonest with myself.

    Oddly, I have my mothers 3 piece granite Bird Bath grave stone I designed in the back of my truck right now at this writing. I’m waiting for the cemetery guy to get back to me with the foundation he puts in first on the site.. Weird huh? How this could come to be? I have no explanation.. Maybe just to say I have changed. But that does not seem to do myself justice. Maybe I’m free is closer to the truth. I’m free to be the adult, free from the bondage of myself. My parents have left my Grandparents unmarked graves. I am different than my parents, I can trust my thinking? I have different values. I have broken the chain of selfishness that binds me today, right now..I woke up this morning with Step 11 in the Big Book, it’s been over 30 years everyday. It works for me.

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About Author

Anna David is the founder and former CEO/Editor-in-Chief of After Party. She hosts the Light Hustler podcast, formerly known as the AfterPartyPod. She's also the New York Times-bestselling author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and the non-fiction books Reality Matters, Falling For Me, By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There and True Tales of Lust and Love. She's written for numerous magazines, including Playboy, Cosmo and Details, and appeared repeatedly on the TV shows Attack of the Show, The Today Show and The Talk, among many others.