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The 12 Gifts of Recovery

About a year before I got sober, I made a list in my journal of all the ways I thought stopping drinking could help me.  I use the term “journal” rather loosely, as I was not exactly doing a whole lot of deep self-reflection at the time.  In fact, this list may have been the first entry in yet another empty journal that served as little more than decoration on pretty shelf, along with the 50 or so unread self-help books I had purchased during tipsy online shopping benders.  I apparently thought the mere purchase of these items would somehow magically fix me given the lack of follow-through on actually using them! But I digress.  The point being, this “journal” list included items like the following:

  • Getting rid of hangovers that spanned days instead of a glass of water and a couple Tylenol;
  • Achieving a hefty financial savings from stopping believing that alcoholics don’t buy top shelf booze (They do and my credit card bills proved it!);
  • Revealing a prettier face sans blood shot eyes and water retention bloat (so hot);
  • Fewer stuffed feelings pouring down my tipsy face;
  • Less “oops, I can’t take that back” spilling out of my not exactly sober mouth;
  • More energy to run that marathon I kept pretending I’d start training for when I was drunk;
  • Less regrettable “please tell me that didn’t actually happen” on awakening moments; and
  • In the spirit of the season, no more ruined holidays.

We will just call this the pretty bloody obvious list of items logically improved by stopping using alcohol, disordered eating, and work to cope with my feelings and internal dialogue. While this list was great and all these things did indeed happen by finding recovery, the actual rewards of recovery went far deeper than I could have imagined. Maybe it is all that festive fun and the upcoming new year that has me reflecting, but I figured I might as well put all this season mulling to good use.  So, without further ado, here is my take on the 12 Days of Christmas, recovery gifts style.

  1. You find internal solutions to internal problems.

About a decade before I entered recovery, I had a counsellor tell me he was worried I was going to get to the top of the ladder of life only to realize I had leaned it up against the wrong wall. Turned out he was right.  I was constantly seeking external solutions to an internal problem.  I tried to date, drink, achieve, buy, exercise, eat, and starve my way to happiness. I assure you, it did not work, at least not in any lasting way. Recovery changed all that.  I stopped looking outside myself for a solution to slow my New York Stock Ticker brain and numb my seemingly unbearable feelings.  I developed mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellness practices that allowed me to ground myself and to move through whatever challenges arise internally.  The most beautiful thing is that because the solutions I have developed are internal, they don’t go away, no one can take them from me, and there is an endless supply, which beats regular trips to the liquor store any day.

2. You learn to react proportionally.

Before I got sober, my addictions provided a perpetual escape hatch on my pain.  It was seemingly great in the moment, but the problem was, I never actually stayed with the pain long enough to move through it and bring it to resolution. Therefore, I was the walking wounded with a packed bomb of historic pain on my back, which was heavily masked with some hefty anger armor. Someone would say or do something hurtful, and rather than reacting in proportion to that one event, I was reacting in proportion to three decades of unresolved pain.  This does not lead to the most ideal interactions with your fellow human beings.  Getting sober forced me so confront all these past feelings and allow the wounds to heal.  So now when someone does something a little sideways, I can actually behave like a sane adult in addressing the behavior.  I assure you, the novelty of this has still not worn off almost seven years later for myself or those around me.

3. You allow pain to be your teacher.

I’m sure given number two, you’re not surprised to hear I didn’t exactly move towards anything painful or scary in my immediate present or near future when I was drinking either. I just didn’t have the capacity for more hurt given I was already at overmaxed from all the unresolved muck in the past. Needless to say, this meant avoiding, well, everything.  Sober, it ain’t like that! Without anything from the past redlining my emotional engine, I have a seriously healthy reserve to deal with anything painful that shows up in the present.  This means, I’ll take on a risky project at work that I may fail at,  I’ll try that new activity that may result in my mortification, or ask my crush on a date even though I might get rejected. Why? Because I know I can handle the pain when it comes.  Not only do I know how to handle it, I have the capacity to stand erect in my pain and ask what it is trying to teach me.  When the agony comes, as it will inevitably with being alive, I have the ability to learn from it, which puts that kind of pressure to good use.

4. You find your people.

With all that pain avoiding pre-recovery, obviously I also avoided other people since they seemed to be the biggest hurt causing machines.  This meant minimizing relationships, friendships, and frankly human interactions at all costs.  I did this under the guise of being  “independent” and “solitary.”  The real truth was I was terrified.  I had no ability to trust myself to pick the right people, and I had a rather lengthy history of picking all the wrong ones.  I also lacked the confidence to believe that I could handle whatever they would do to me.  This should not be surprising given my complete and utter lack of coping skills.  However, once the past pain got healed and the present pain became less scary, I tip toed back into the peopling arena again.  Now, I’m not going to tell you it was all pretty and perfect. Turns out, humans can be, well, human.  Also, I still did pick a few lemons early on. Pain happened, but I grew and I grew some more. Sure enough, the more sober I got, the better my picker.  Now I have more people than I know what to do with.  Brave, vulnerable, intelligent, recovering people who chose to show up for me over and over again. It’s a bit mind blowing to be honest, but the benefits from connection are endless.

5. You get unstuck.

I like to call alcohol the great glue, because it left me so incredibly stuck.  Nothing ever got different.  Eventually, I was going to get drunk.  It might be a day, maybe a week, sometimes a month or even several months, but it was going to happen.  It was just a matter of time, and when it did, all my most painful memories would be right there waiting for me.  Sounds like a good time, no?!  When I put down the booze, I finally got free.  I had the ability to move and grow in ways I’ve never experienced before.  In fact, I am 100% confident based on my lived experience and those I’ve witnessed in saying that whatever you are going through in the moment will get different if you just stay sober.  Whatever you are feeling, thinking, and experiencing will change.  It is inevitable, just as long as you don’t pick up that glue that will bond you to feeling your worst moments of life over and over again.

6. You stop wishing your life away.

When I was drinking, my life was always going to happen at some magical point in the future when I got what I was wishing for.  It was going to happen when I got the job, or the raise, or the partner, or the house, or the whatever the gaping hole du jour was.  If I wasn’t off wishing for a different future, I was wishing for a different past.  My life wouldn’t be so bad if this trauma or that event hadn’t happened to me.  Needless to say, I was never mentally where my life was happening, which was right there in the present.  Today, there’s no place else I’d want to be.  That doesn’t mean my life is perfect by any means, but I’m showing up for it, those I love, and even those I don’t love so much, on the regular.  Having this level of integrity is priceless.

7. You find out there is enough

Insanity is thinking that you need something you don’t currently have.  I used to constantly crave more. More alcohol, more achievements, more validation, more food (or conversely more thinness), more money, more attention…I just needed more.  I was addicted to anything they make two or more of.    The problem with more is once you have whatever more is, the benchmark just moves.  For example, that 1200 square foot apartment somehow morphs into the need for a house once obtained. The thing is, there is never enough to fill the void created by unresolved trauma, obsessive thinking, and a lack of ability to survive feelings.  However,  if I’m alive, sitting here, writing to you all, there would seem to be ample evidence that I’m doing alright and have enough. I have a good life today.  I have a great job, amazing friends, a beautiful inside and out partner (hey babe!), a mind blowingly loving family, and a fantastic community to call home.  I have lost the constant craving for more, because I’m all the way filled up inside in a way I didn’t know was possible.

8. You find what you are looking for.

Pre-recovery, needless to say, the glass was always half empty. In fact, not only was it empty, but it was your fault that my glass was empty. I also hated you for not filling my glass. I really needed you to do fill it right now, so I could be okay. And there was a very long list I had created of all the reasons I was not okay.  I looked for the negative and I found it.  Regularly.  I made Debbie Downer look like an optimist.  Today, I also find what I’m looking for, but now I am able hunt the good.  Instead of a list of all the terrible things in my life broken by my addiction, I have a chalkboard in my house with a stunningly long list of everything going right in my world.  Not only does it look like something that is on one of those perfect people’s Pinterests, it actually makes me smile on the inside every day.

9. You find out who you really are.

When I was in the Extended Care program, I went for a walk down the road from the treatment centre. I was probably trying to burn off the 100 extra calories I had eaten at dinner. (Note: Recovery is a sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly kind of thing!).  While I was walking, I looked up at the second storey of the brick building lit with soft paper lanterns and saw these beautiful women doing yoga.  I thought to myself, “I could never be like those silly hippie girls and their airy fairy yoga.”  Secretly, I was longing to be exactly like each and every one of them.  Fast forward three years sober, and I was finally brave enough to try. Three years after that, I am a regular practitioner of a discipline that feeds my body, mind, and my soul.  I never thought I could be that woman in the window and now I am.  This is just one tiny example of how I find out who I really am every day that I stay sober, simply because I can show up and dare to figure it out.

10. You experience real intimacy.

Given that I used to use my eating disorder to detach from and punish my body, I wasn’t exactly familiar with the idea of intimacy. I’m not just talking about the in the sexy kind here people, although recovery skills are brilliant for deeper connection there too. When you show up with no filter, no numbing agent, no chemical glaze to muddy relationships, you end up being seen. Really and truly seen. It is the most wildly unnerving thing on the freaking planet at first, and then it will rock your world in a way you cannot even imagine. Whether you have a problem with alcohol/processes or not, I highly recommend showing up for life, even just for a month, without an instant off switch of any kind and see just how wildly free, congruent, and fully in your skin you are really capable of feeling.  It is better than any glass (read: bottle) of top shelf, fancy liquor ever made me feel.

11. You know real peace.

One day, I called up my sponsor and complained that I was feeling incredibly bored.  She curiously asked whether that boredom I was complaining about couldn’t possibly be serenity and peace of mind?! Turns out that it was! It had been so long since I had experienced that level of calm, that I didn’t even recognize it.  Frankly, given I had been using food or books to numb out since I was a small child, I may never have actually been able to experience that level of serenity. Now, that peaceful, blissed out feeling is what I chase, not the next high.  I strive to be able to achieve that country kind of silence in my brain and body daily.  Just picture it.  Sitting on a porch, in a rocking chair, staring out across a field at the mountains in the distance. Then imagine being able to access that feeling at will, based on taking some simple steps on a weekly basis to maintain that wellness.   Think this it isn’t possible?! Try recovery.  If you don’t like it, you are more than welcome to have your misery back at any time.

12. You have a sense of impending happiness.

Before recovery, I had an incessant sense of impending doom, which, frankly, was an accurate reflection of the state of affairs.  I was laying waste to every dimension of health with the way I was drinking.  Getting sober, I now have a sense that something good is going to happen even in the midst of difficult circumstances.  If I just do the next right thing, it will all work out eventually.  The reason I can be so sure, is that if I take the 10,000 foot view of the almost past seven years of my life, my overall trajectory has been nothing but upwards.  Sure there were plateaus or valleys before climbing again. However, never again have I been anywhere near the low of where I was before I entered recovery.

So, fast forward to today and those 50 books are getting read, and I’ve been through multiple journals over the past almost seven years. However, that list of reasons to get sober is still the only entry in that one particular journal.  That list is dated March 10, 2014.  At the bottom of that list was the question “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”  The answer was most definitely “no, “as I laid in bed hungover writing reasons not to go to the liquor store. Sadly, it would be another 377 days until what I can only hope was my last drink.  It was another 381 days until I entered treatment.   During that year, I found a new circle of hell that Dante clearly forgot to write about.  However, when I wrote that list, I honestly thought I could do it on my own.  I thought I could control it.  I thought I didn’t need professional help.  So, I spent the next year proving myself wrong.  That year included one more utterly trashed holiday season for my family.

If you’re reading this, and wondering whether you have a problem with alcohol, substances, or processes, you probably do.  Perhaps the lesser mentioned 13th gift of recovery was when I realized that no normal drinker ever wonders if they have a problem with alcohol, when they drink their half glass of wine and dump the rest down the sink because it got too warm (Who does that?! Not I says the utterly shocked alcoholic!).  So, if I could give you one teeny tiny piece of advice, please don’t wait another 381 days to solidify the belief that your substance use is problematic.  Pick up the phone and call us.  It’ll be the best gift you ever gave to yourself and those who love you. Promise.