On my way to work yesterday I drove by some maple trees showing off their fall colors, brilliantly highlighted by the morning sun. I’d noticed them before and thought I’d like a picture of them to enjoy later. I almost continued on my way as I thought, “I’ll have to photograph them before it’s too late”.
Then I pulled the car to the side of the street and took my phone from my purse. I knew that if I waited a day, it may be cloudy. If I put it off until next week, the leaves may be falling. I snapped (do iPhones “snap”?) a couple of shots.
On the way to work today, the sky was gray. I’m happy that I seized a moment in time to stop and appreciate one of life’s many simple pleasures.
As I’ve embraced a life that revolves around recovery, I’ve suspected that I’m missing something by not connecting in person with others who are doing the same.
I decided yesterday to look up a meeting. There are so many available. I selected one close to home (though not the one at the end of the block, which feels too close) and I chose one that is for women only, thinking it may feel a bit less intimidating for my first visit.
I’ve read a lot of AA literature and testimonials, and I had an idea of what to expect, but I was nervous as I pulled tentatively into the church parking lot. There were a few other cars parked and I watched a couple of women walk into a side door of this building that I’d never entered. I followed, staying close enough not to lose sight of them as they made their way to the “fireside room”.
As I walked in, the woman who turned out to be the meeting chair asked if I was new and we introduced ourselves. I took a seat on a chair set up in a circle. This could have been a Tupperware party in a neighbor’s living room. It felt cozy and familiar as a dozen or so women filtered in and took their seats.
The discussion was organized but not formal. The topic was the 12th Step – reaching out to others and being of service. A couple of women did readings and then one by one, each person made comments.
One voice at a time, I heard bravery, sincerity, humility, maturity, faith, and loving kindness. Each face was like a textured canvas painted with subtle colors, inviting me to take notice of the nuances and enter an open landscape. Then I spoke, and the eyes around me responded. They knew me.
The voices and the faces. In real time. That’s what I’ve been missing.
The meeting opened and closed with us standing in a circle, holding hands, reciting the Serenity Prayer. Then came the hugs, and the “welcomes” and “glad you’re heres” and “come backs”.
I didn’t turn to AA to get sober 22 months ago.
I haven’t relied on the 12 Steps to stay sober.
But I think I’m going to include the program and fellowship of AA to grow in my recovery.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll come back”.
When I first quit drinking, I installed a simple free app on my phone called “Quitter”. It allows me to track the time elapsed since my last drink and the money I’ve saved. I made a guess that I was spending $6 per day when I set it up, which is probably pretty close to accurate. That’s the equivalent of one bottle of inexpensive wine, two bottles of Trader Joe’s 3 Buck wine, half of a fifth (would that be a tenth?) of Canadian whiskey or vodka, or a 6 pack of beer.
In the beginning, I checked my progress on this app a lot as reinforcement. I also kept a small notebook with me and wrote each day how I was feeling, any triggers I encountered, and rated myself on a “craving scale”, complete with little hand-drawn smiley or sad faces. These tools helped through some long, uncomfortable days.
It’s been a long time now since I’ve looked at the app or used the daily notebook. Over time, success in sobriety becomes its own reinforcement and widget-dependence diminishes.
Today I noticed that as the days tick along, the savings have become significant! Since I don’t actually have those dollars sitting in a savings account or a piggy bank, I’m reflecting on what I’ve done with the money I formerly invested in poisoning myself.
-Ingestible substitutes – I have to admit that for a time I became a little bit addicted to a beverage called Sparkling Ice. At $1/bottle, it satisfied the need to have something fizzy or fruity to sip in the evening. Then there was the ice cream, candy and other assorted sweets, but altogether, I’d call it a reasonable financial trade-off. And even with the junk eating, I’ve lost weight.
-Travel – I LOVE to travel but could never find the extra money for it so I rarely went anywhere. Since I quit drinking, I’ve taken two road trips with my kids and two plane trips to see my dad. I was also able to finance a trip for my dad and step-mom to attend a family wedding before she died of cancer.
-Debt reduction – I’m not debt-free by any means, but at least I’m able to keep up with payments, eliminating a huge source of stress.
-Rewards – If I see something I want to buy for myself – jewelry, clothing, shoes, books – I give myself permission to do it! I’m worth it.
Of course, it’s not about the money. That’s just a nice side benefit.
The sense of peace and the growth I’ve experienced as a human being?
Well, that’s priceless.
On Saturday I joined hundreds of other people for an annual 3-mile Recovery Walk, one of many such events held nationwide as September is recognized as Recovery Month.
It was a beautiful morning for walking, the turnout was great, and the city lake where the event was held is just 15 minutes from my home.
I went alone, walked alone, and didn’t really “connect” with anyone, but that was ok. I’m still dipping my toes into this pool of real life sober people. As a participant/observer, I felt completely at ease and fully present if somewhat invisible.
As I walked quietly alongside groups and pairs, I took in a couple of memorable slices of conversation.
“I used to think I had so many small problems in life, until I figured out that I really just had one big problem.” Yeah. I can relate to that.
Members of the “honor guard” wore purple sashes with numbers attached representing 10 or more years of recovery: 36, 28, 11, 15, etc.
A younger woman congratulated an older woman on her 10-year achievement, adding, “I would have had 6 years, but I messed up.”
The woman in the purple sash replied, “You didn’t mess up, sweetie. You just needed to go back and do some more research.” “No”, said the young one. “I really MESSED UP. I’m looking at doing 5-10 years now.” A poignant reminder of how serious this can be.
The variety of participants represented a true cross-section of our community. These were people I would expect to see at the grocery store, the mall, the movie theater, the county fair; normal people, living every day in recovery, coming together with friends and strangers on this day to honor the journey and show their faces.
I had my photo taken in a Fun Photo Booth labeled “Show The Faces of Recovery”, and I’ve posted it on my About Me page. Yes, I’m still hiding behind sunglasses, and I’m still a work in progress, but one baby step at a time, without fanfare, I’m getting out there – sharing myself, my face and my story of recovery.
Recovery works, and I’m living proof.
Last week, my husband and I went to see a screening of the film “The Anonymous People” (which I recommend), sponsored by a local recovery support organization. The theater was packed and I felt bathed in a warm and welcoming vibe.
This was the first gathering of sober people that I’ve been a part of and I loved the sense of belonging. (Yeah, we’re all sober, dammit, and we’re proud!)
Walking away from the movie that night, hubby and I weighed in on its message. Not surprisingly, we had different viewpoints. I felt inspired and agreed with the premise of the film – that it’s time for people in long-term recovery to speak out and become advocates. Hubby, recently stung by an idiot’s judgment after “outing” himself as an ex-drinker, thinks it may be better to just quietly carry on.
He compared it to quitting smoking. He was dependent on cigarettes, quit 15 years ago, went through a tough withdrawal, and then moved on to life as an ex-smoker. He explained that he’s not a “smoker in long-term recovery”. He doesn’t feel a need to be a non-smoking advocate or part of an ex-smoker community. Smoking is simply a part of his past and he’s done with it.
This is the way my husband quit drinking. He decided to stop, he declared to his family one day that he was done with alcohol, and that was it. He never looked back.
It was different for me. After deciding (for the final time) to quit, I white-knuckled it for the first week or two, then connected with an online group of lovely people who were also struggling or had recently been there. That forum became my lifeline and today, almost 21 months later, I still check in regularly. For further reinforcement, I read sobriety-focused books and articles and I follow a number of blogs. More importantly, I had to grow out of my addiction by learning to interact differently with myself and everyone around me.
I’m a different person now, shaped by the journey I was forced to take in order to live a happily sober life. I don’t think there will be a day when I feel that recovery is behind me, nor would I want that. In fact, I feel a need to continue to grow in my recovery by helping others who are trying to get to the other side.
The older I get, the less I know. There are many different paths to recovery, and I don’t judge anyone else’s methods. AA continues to work miracles for many. Alternative support groups, online and in real life, are abundant and effective. Just putting down the bottle and walking away works for some. I admire everyone who has succeeded in building a new life without alcohol, however they’ve been able to do it.
Reluctance to take one’s recovery public is widespread and understandable. No one wants to be branded a drunk, even in the past tense.
For me, I think it’s time to open up and reach out as situations present themselves. As Kristen Johnston said in “The Anonymous People”, “The shame and secrecy are just as deadly as the disease itself…I refuse to feel ashamed of who I am. I most certainly will not be embarrassed that I’m an addict. I’m gonna tell whoever I damn well want to. ”
Last weekend I took a trip to another state to visit my dad. I found a super cheap fare on a no-frills airline. The catch: you pay for anything extra, including carry-on luggage. Knowing this in advance and relishing the challenge, I found a backpack that fit the “1 free personal item” size requirements and made sure that everything I needed for the 4-day trip fit nicely inside of it.
I had to decide what was worth having with me. Clothing, makeup, an extra pair of shoes, an iPad, phone, chargers, purse and grooming supplies all came along. Extra stuff that I never really need stayed at home.
It felt liberating to carry my essential possessions on my back and leave behind the stuff that doesn’t matter.
I also left behind the excess worries, doubts and frustrations that weave themselves into everyday life. For 84 hours I wasn’t a mom, wife, employee or debtor. During my visit, I wasn’t even one of my dad’s 8 (10, counting step) kids. I was just a daughter-companion, shadowing the new life of a widower in a senior community, going to church, listening to stories, playing cards, ordering the $4 meal at Denny’s, observing friendships, being there. Sober every minute of every day.
This trip was a gift I never would have given to myself or my dad during my drinking days. He has been a friend of Bill W. for over 25 years.
Simple times like these help me to realize that I’ve complicated my life unnecessarily. The best things, the essential things, really are free.
I read this today on Belle’s blog and it spoke loudly to me.
“JM (day 153): I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between ‘giving up’ alcohol and ‘embracing a sober life’. I tend to think that even for people with no addiction to booze there is that buzz from drinking that is intended to adjust your perception of life. Either to pep you up if you are low/tired or to enhance if you are feeling celebratory. It’s like in both cases life itself isn’t quite enough without the drug. For problem drinkers like us this obviously also becomes a habit – we drink because we drink so we drink. In no way do we work on our life to make sure that we can create our own pep ups or enhancements through other actions…”
When I started depending on alcohol, I stopped relying on myself to feel ok. It was exactly like “life itself wasn’t quite enough”.
What a shame that it took over 58 years for me to feel at peace with reality. But here I am.
There are things happening, to people I care about and at work, which formerly would have caused great discomfort. Anxiety, worry and regret were ever present. Instead of examining the feelings and thoughtfully weighing my options for doing the next best thing for each situation, I drank. Poof: feelings subdued, if not gone.
Building sobriety muscle is a lot like exercising the body. You show up and make a habit of going through the motions, even when you don’t feel like it. Even when it hurts and you think you can’t do it or don’t want to. You hang in there. You observe others who are a step or two ahead of you. One day you realize that you’re stronger. You can do this without fighting yourself. In fact, it feels good.
In the clarity of sober light I now understand my potential as well as my limitations. I can make so much more of my life than I thought I could. I cannot, however, change the course of other people’s lives.
So today I continue rowing, gently, loving the boat I’m in, taking in the scenery, and grateful that I finally made it to the other side.
“I like your necklace. Are you a friend of Bill W.?”
Knowing that this is a reference to AA, and although I’ve never gone to meetings, instinctively I answered, “Yes”. I’m a former drinker and I’ve worked hard to stay that way, pretty much on my own.
Tim, offering that he is 19 years sober and still goes to meetings 5 days a week, seemed to want to talk.
I told him the story of the pendant. Last year, almost 8 months after I quit drinking, I took a road trip with my son. On that trip, the first I can recall without alcohol, I made a point of buying myself little rewards to celebrate my sobriety.
On our last day I found myself in a Native American shop looking at sterling silver jewelry. As I browsed, one piece with an unusual design caught my eye. I asked the shopkeeper if he knew the significance of the symbol, and he said he didn’t. I was drawn to it and it was reasonably priced, so I bought it.
Back at the hotel room with my iPad, I did a search for “triangle in circle symbol”. I learned that it’s widely used in AA. What? Wow. Seriously.
I’ve worn this pendant a lot. Tim was the first person who approached me and acknowledged its connection to AA and recovery. I felt proud to be wearing it and happy that it helped me connect to a kindred spirit.
Afterward, I wondered about my response to the “Bill W.” question. Am I a “friend of Bill” if I embrace a life of recovery but I don’t go to AA? Is it unauthentic to wear a symbol of a movement that I support but to which I don’t “belong”?
Here’s what I think: the sober community is diverse and no matter how we got here, we share a common bond. Code words and symbolism that help us to connect to one another can only be a good thing.