Four years sober last week and guess what? It still takes effort.
This comes as a surprise. I thought it would be easy-breezey-nothing-to-it by now, and more often than not it is easy and enjoyable to live alcohol-free. But sometimes….sometimes….I feel a sucker punch of emotion: anger, jealousy, fear, resentment. I’ve spent the past few weeks in a mental stagger – that rocking feeling that something is off yet nothing is really wrong.
I hear from hundreds of people each week in various stages of recovery, and I am honoured to give help and encouragement whenever possible. Often this correspondence comes from people who are struggling with chronic relapse or who give up on recovery because it is harder than they expected. I’ll be honest – I’ve been finding those kinds of messages harder to handle lately. I want to instantly “fix” them…and not entirely out of kindness.
I want them to stop failing because it bugs me. I want them to keep their failure out of my face because if I can see it, it’s real and I don’t want failure to exist. I want us to all hold hands and skip together into recoveryland. I want everyone to love their lives and get better, dammit. Just. GET. BETTER. It scares the shit out of me that failure is even an option.
(See what I did there? I made someone else’s pain about ME.)
This is where I am going wrong and I know it. I understand full well that other people’s actions are about them, not me. I’ve learned the value in the recovery adage “Keep to your own side of the street”. The moment I view someone else’s story through the lens of my own feelings, I am setting myself up for trouble.
I have found myself saying, “I am sorry you are hurting, this is hard stuff” and meanwhile thinking, “How come you get to fall apart and I have to keep being strong? It is hard for me, too but I don’t get to relapse.” (I am literally cringing as I type this brutal truth.)
A better response to these situations is compassion – my heart aches for those who want recovery and can’t seem to grab on, and I feel for people who would rather tolerate an unhappy relationship with alcohol than work through the discomfort of breaking up with booze. Over the past four years I have learned to feel for others while allowing them full ownership of their situation, knowing that the pathways to recovery are available for those who are ready.
So why the backwards shift in my thinking? Why is my knee-jerk reaction suddenly the opposite of what I know to be good and useful? Why revert to the old self-centered patterns that contributed to my drinking in the first place?
My friend Ellie reminded me to take my gloomy mood seriously, since this type of discontent can be one of the early signs of relapse. Me, relapse? Never! (Hah, denial is the next stage.) I dug through the Bubble Hour archives for the most recent episode on Relapse, remembering that I’d been shocked during the show to learn that relapse is preceded long before the event by 11 various warning signs. This has been researched and documented in the work of Terence Gorski and can be read here.
Am I subconsciously looking for an excuse to relapse? Possibly. My husband and I are leaving soon for a dream trip to Italy and I am anticipating the abundance of wine that will be offered. There is plenty to see, do, eat and enjoy in Italy without wine, but I am bracing for at least a little discomfort. Some corner of my psyche must be considering whether it is truly possible (or necessary) to stay sober on this trip. Much as I hate admitting to imperfection, this bit of doubt is worth acknowledging, considering, and working through.
So keep writing and posting here about your ups and downs, because your journey is your journey. I will do my best to let you own it, and I do hope you will. For those who are struggling, I think you will find Gorski’s work a tremendous resource.
Try doing this assessment called the Aware Score, which stands for “Advanced Warning of Relapse” and consider if you need to boost your recovery efforts. I scored an 85, indicating to me that I need to do some serious work on self care and reach out to my support network.
I am in awe of the changes and insights the past four years have given me. Even more so, I am amazed that at this point in my recovery I still find things that need attention. It is a gentle reminder that recovery is never over, but is more like a garden; as long as we keep to the task of tending it, good things grow in abundance.