By Tami J.
Recovery is, by far, the most interesting thing I have ever done in my life.
Partying in Miami, designer fashion shows in New York City, school in Los Angeles, travel to foreign and exotic locales were all super-fun in my twenties, but, by the time I hit my mid-thirties, I was living in my dad’s basement, my skin was grey, my hair was falling out and my immune system was failing. I had no career and no significant relationships. I had decided that I didn’t need to be happy so long as I had my drug. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Jump back to 1965. I was born in Vancouver, BC to a comfortable, middle-class Jewish family, with a mom, dad, two older sisters and a brother who was adopted less than one year before I was born. My mom took care of us and the house while dad ran a couple of clothing stores. Like all my siblings, I attended Hebrew private school through Grade 7, transferring over to public high school in Grade 8. We lived in a tight-knit community where everybody seemed to know each other and I was the kid sister or the baby. It was the 1960s and 1970s; drinking and driving was not yet against the law, sex didn’t need to be safe because it was not yet fatal and cigarettes were smoked just about everywhere. My mom used to threaten to send us to rehab treatment if she ever caught us doing drugs, and I swore I would never smoke because it just seemed disgusting.
By the 1980s, I’d gone from being a sheltered kid in private school of less than 300 to attending a huge public school with more than that many kids in grade 8 alone. I was drinking on weekends, skipping school to smoke pot, stealing mom’s pain meds and generally on the lookout for whatever fun escape came my way. I was already a creative liar by the time I was 13, and living one life with family and another life with new friends just came naturally. In Grade 10, I had a falling out with a friend in our group and, in a split-second, I made the extreme decision to cut them all off and start partying with my older sister and her friends. After high school, I enthusiastically joined the family business, buying and selling men’s and women’s clothing. My dad pushed me to further my education and I moved to Los Angeles, where I spent equal amounts of time at school, working at various jobs and partying. After three years of that rollercoaster ride, I moved back home to resume my position in the family biz.
My mom, always an eccentric and after years of acting “strangely”, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease and began her slow downward spiral toward catatonia. I remember sitting with my family in the doctor’s office while he spoke about the different supports available to us and thinking, “I could use some help with this,” but because no one in the family put their hand up, I was certainly not going to put mine up. I threw myself into my work. I loved working with my dad and my sister, and the job had its perks. In between the good times, I had bouts with depression and anxiety, seeking help from psychiatrists and psychologists. But, when they inevitably suggested I stop smoking pot, I would stop seeing them. I had friends and relationships but could never really let anybody in for long. I couldn’t get honest because I didn’t know I was being dishonest, and my favoured relationship was the one I shared with my drug because it never challenged me and seemed to make everything feel tolerable. Every once in a while, I would come clean with my dad and tell him I had a problem, but, as soon as I saw the worry in his eyes, I would back it all up and tell him I was okay.
All along, I entertained the guilty idea that I had things too good. I was so fortunate and I couldn’t possibly ever work hard enough to deserve any of it. Self-pity’s a funny thing. First of all, it feels shameful. Secondly, it was a big blind for the anger, sadness and fear that I’d been stuffing since I was a little kid. All that apparent good fortune that I’d done nothing to deserve was the big stick with which I whipped myself, because I believed that there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t like other people, that I wasn’t as good as other people. Oh, the self-involvement and self-conscious effort it took to appear normal. I’d spent my whole life up to that point playing the part of a person that didn’t actually exist, and there was no great impediment to my slow retreat into invisibility. The drugs, alcohol and work that I’d used for so long to be ok with people turned into drugs that allowed me to be ok alone.
So, at 42, in October of 2008, when I landed on Edgewood’s treatment center doorstep, I was a fully-grown woman with the emotional awareness of a 10-year-old. I thought of myself — all the time — as past my sell-by date, like produce gone bad.
The first thing I can remember learning in treatment was what self-pity sounded like, and that I had it bad. The second thing I can remember learning is that, although I didn’t like waking up at 7 a.m. every day, it turned out that I was happy when I did get out of bed, and I was amazed at the amount of things a person could get done before 9 a.m.. I also learned that getting out of bed in the morning was easier if I didn’t eat the sugary snack the kitchen provided for us the night before.
I learned that I was ready in an instant to forgo my first phone call with dad if it meant that I had to ask one of my peers to help me out by covering the last five minutes of my kitchen duty. I learned that it hurt when I was called dramatic. I learned that people thought I was beautiful when I cried — gross! — and that, sometimes, I liked how it felt to be me in front of people.
I learned that I was looking for a mom figure and, not only did my roommate, after knowing me for six days, not want to be my mother, she didn’t appreciate the manipulative and resentful ways in which I tried to ensnare her into the role. Oh, gawd! I learned so much in treatment that I didn’t necessarily appreciate while I was in rehab.
I asked for extended at four weeks because I knew that eight weeks was not going to be long enough to change whatever it was that needed changing. The night before I was set to go into extended, I spent the entire Living Sober hour planning my escape the next morning. In extended, I learned to call people and ask for rides to A.A. meetings. On guy restrictions in extended, I learned that, when I walked through a room full of men without saying hello, I worried that they thought I was being bitchy. I learned that I was manipulative and that I was a liar, but it took me more than a year to own up to being a liar.
On a home trip to Vancouver, I learned that it might be a good idea if I stayed in Nanaimo a little longer. I struggled in extended treatment and wanted to run several times, but, thank goodness, I stayed.
Months five through twelve outside of rehab treatment were insane. The denial and isolation were thick. Chief among the things that stopped me from relapsing with drugs or alcohol were my decision to stay close to the people I’d met at Edgewood treatment center, weekly aftercare groups, driving extended women to A.A. meetings, the occasional 3 a.m. phone call to Claire on the nurse’s desk — thanks Claire — and what I’d like to call luck, but was actually the learned ability to get honest when it was absolutely necessary. Some people would call that Higher Power, but, long before I had any real and sincere appreciation for step two, it was step one that kept me clean. My fear of going back to the misery and loneliness was so much greater than any sort of real or perceived faith I might have been experiencing.
In the meantime, I was miserable. I couldn’t get out of bed, and apart from my attendance in recovery, I was not leaving the house. I was holding on to guilt and shame, regret and self-pity that life wasn’t what it was supposed to be. I thought about me all the time. I wondered aloud why I wasn’t better yet. I did step work and consistent service work in A.A., but I still felt different and alone. I also had real moments of connectedness and relief, and I hung onto those. Every attack of anxiety or self-doubt I survived made me a little less scared of the next one. The fear I’d lived with my whole life was slowly, ever so slowly, replaced with the learned experience of being supported. I began to feel as if my recovery community, service and membership in my 12 Step groups were a soft pillow surrounding me and keeping me safe.
The big shift happened in year three. My dad’s health went downhill that year and he passed away on the morning of my three-year cake. I became a homeowner in that year, my menopausal movement was in full swing and I’d quit smoking. All of a sudden, I found myself faced with real life challenges and reaching out for support as if I’d been doing it my whole life. I went to my dad’s funeral with a presence that I’d never known before, and found a joy in the loss of someone that I loved so much. I had this unarguable proof that sobriety and recovery were working in my life.
Growing up in a traditional Jewish home encouraged me to believe in God. Something created the world, the trees, mountains, oceans and all of us, it might as well be God. I just had no idea what that had to do with me. I still believe in God and creation, but it is a higher, or deeper power that keeps me supported and cared for. Steps two and three are so interesting to me because, until I could become acquainted with my insanity, I couldn’t truly appreciate what sanity felt like. It wasn’t until I could gently process those states that I could start to identify the choices that were leading me to either sanity or insanity.
My continued experiences with steps four and five showed me the gifts of honesty and courage and trust. I have never been hurt in the working of those steps. I felt angry after one particular step five, but I was able to quickly identify and look at that anger with curiosity. Steps four and five nourish my understanding of steps two and three, which is great because, without two and three, I have only powerlessness, and powerlessness on its own just sucks. Steps six and seven are magic; they are grace. There is no point for me in trying to figure them out. Step eight is simply an honest list of my willingness and my unwillingness. Step nine is not undertaken alone, rashly or without humility. Ten is daily, and, if not daily, I find myself out-of-control and am reminded to make it daily. Eleven is attached to ten and is a practice of mindfulness and gratitude. Twelve is what keeps me coming back, because, without others in recovery, my self-centred propensity for entitlement and self-pity eventually turns back into that old familiar pain. What I want from these steps is what they offer me, and my continued goal is to remove the dogma from them and live them naturally.
Today, I do not miss alcohol and drugs. My disease can manifest itself in thoughts of dissatisfaction, but, the longer I stay sober in recovery, the less sick I feel and the more human I become. I have learned to dream, set goals and plan and, most importantly, to live each day as it comes. What I have gained is far greater than what I ever gave up. I have a faith born of experience that, through it all, if I ask, I will be supported and cared for.
My sponsors are mentors. They are my friends and I walk beside them. They do not call me. It is my job to call them. I have learned that the hard way by not calling them, but they are there when I do. I have one active sponsee right now and she continues to remind me of me. I am consistently surrounded by remarkable people of all levels of sobriety and recovery. It is where I can find hope and humility: in the middle of a community of outstanding people and the idea that maybe I am just like them.
Recovery is progressive; it gets easier and better.