Last week my family crammed into my husband’s Prius for the 4-hour drive on Interstate I-70 to St. Louis to visit my Mom, “Grandma Rhetta.” My kids are 16 and 18 and they insisted we make the trip because it might be the last opportunity for my daughter to see Grandma Rhetta before she leaves home for the first time to start college. Although we have made this trip more than 100 times, my heart was full of pride and wistfulness over this visit, especially because the kids are nearly grown and Mom is very frail at this time of her life. She is confined to her bed with only her imagination, visits from friends and family and the television to comfort and occupy her. Sometimes a short visit with Grandma Rhetta is best, even though the grueling drive on the highway suggests a longer stay.
When people love one another, they willingly take time from their “journey” to be together. As Mom’s health declines and my teenagers approach adulthood, their journeys are polar opposite. Yet my kids keep wanting to go back and love their Grandma. Even though it was a conscious effort by me to foster a bond between my children and their Grandparents, discovering that at the busiest and most self-centered part of their journey they choose to spend time with their Grandma Rhetta overwhelms me with joy and sadness (because I am perimenopausal now!).
We enter Mom’s world – her room – and she lights up with love and reaches from her bed for Isa and Mario. Before each visit, she tells me many times to inform them she is expecting many warm hugs – and she gets them! The kids adore Grandma Rhetta’s Southern accent and the warmth and charm it exudes. Imitating her characteristic sayings has always been funny to them (in a loving way): “My Stars!” and “Iced tay with lots of lemons!” are among their favorites. Grandma Rhetta “southernizes” the pronunciation of Isa’s name (pronounced “Eesa”) so it sounds like “Eaze-a-Bella!”.
All those mornings at Grandma Rhetta’s kitchen table being lavished with her love and her special buttermilk pancakes mean something to Isa and Mario, and nothing thrills me more. I’ll never forget the first time Mom visited Kansas City after Isa was born. She rushed in the house after her long drive and, without putting her purse or keys down, walked straight to Baby Isa and cooed, “Are we gonna be friends?”. Indeed they are.
Next week I will celebrate my 2nd consecutive year living in long-term recovery from alcohol use disorder. Notice my language. It is very specific for a reason: I believe that I will spend the rest of my life working to develop deeper understanding of my need to numb feelings and, hopefully, will be granted the Grace and inspiration to pursue ever-deeper practices for managing and maintaining a healthy, well-rounded life without relying on alcohol.
I am so proud of this achievement yet I know that I could “slip” at any time if I begin to neglect the positive practices that keep me humble and eager for continued sobriety. Just like a person who has changed jobs, my openness about my struggles is just one of many facts about my life – in other words, sobriety will never define me as a person. Yet, surprisingly, maybe because of tv shows like “celebrity rehab” or the heavy infiltration of 12-step type phrases in popular culture, it has been my experience that people automatically have their own sets of expectations of what your recovery should look and feel like.
It is impossible to convey to a person who does not have addiction controlling their life the excitement and liberation you feel once you decide to change, accept your limitations, and work everyday to seek newer and better ways to live “a normal life” without obsessing over wanting to numb. That’s why I write about it. But it makes people feel “awkward,” it seems. So I am supposed to confine and limit my experience to groups of other “users.” This does not make sense to me. You wouldn’t avoid talking to a person about their new “job,” so why would the topic of pursuing a life without addiction be any different? This is why maintaining sobriety can be difficult – it is more “polite” to ignore the addiction monster in casual conversation. This kind of sweeping under the rug behavior is bad for our children. They need to hear us talking about and showing them what a life built on zero reliance on alcohol looks and feels like. Just like we introduce our children to the concept of work by taking them to work with us, we should not be afraid to declare our commitment to sobriety to our friends, family and community.
The reality is that the younger a person is when they first experience alcohol, the more likely it will cause an addiction problem later in life. We don’t perpetuate self-sabotaging cycles in other health-related concerns (for instance, heart disease), so why are we reluctant to openly discuss and support addiction and sobriety?
I have a suspicion it is because many of us believe one of two things: that we are already slipping into bad habits of relying on alcohol to “numb” difficult emotional situations or we mistakenly believe we are immune to addiction. Those are highly dangerous beliefs. I think another reason people don’t want to talk about their feelings related to numbing and alcohol is because there is a widespread misunderstanding of what a sober life looks and feels like. I will definitely admit (if you have not already ascertained this fact!) that I am a much more sensitive person sober than drinking. I have to work hard to process my thoughts, feelings and responses to everyone and everything around me to avoid falling into old patterns of numbing. But that doesn’t mean my life is no longer fun or that I will not tolerate others’ drinking around me (everybody has their own barometer of tolerance about this, so it is always thoughtful to ask).
Over the weekend, I felt so many “feels” as we celebrated our first-born child’s Graduation from High School. At once sentimental and fearful, the onslaught of well-wishing from people in your life you may still be reconciling with, the entire weekend was challenging and tiring for me to navigate. And the past two nights, my poorly trained brain with only 2 years of sober thinking under its belt, even began telling me “You should go ahead and enjoy a drink or 2 or 10. You don’t really have a problem.” This is proof to me that I will spend every waking moment for the rest of my life “managing” this enormous force that lives inside of me that wants to numb everything.
Finally, some thoughts about people in Recovery that might help others better understand this journey:
Sober people are fun people;
Getting sober means the party is just beginning, not ending.
Sober People do not intend to make you feel uncomfortable ;
Sober People would rather you throw out all your old ideas about Recovery and learn by engaging with them rather than avoiding the topic altogether;
Just like becoming confident about one’s performance in a new job, living comfortably in your own skin as a sober person takes time, and you should not have any unrealistic expectations about what this should look like – every sober person is unique.
It has been an honor and a pleasure sharing the past 24 months with Readers. I have received so much love, grace and appreciation from the many people who want to understand addiction. This propels me forward, especially after my 99th cup of coffee during absolutely perfect cold Heineken or margarita weather!
Today, my precious first-born graduates from High School. My God, wasn’t I just at her kindergarten graduation? All of us parents share the same wistful feeling about time with our children – it goes by much too quickly. She’s a healthy, balanced, focused, driven, joyful, beautiful and brilliant young woman now. What more could I ask for? I must step aside and watch her grow.
If there is one thing I have learned from my recovery, it is there is no shame in starting over. I do it everyday. We all do. The previous 48 years of “all or nothing” thinking really limited my growth and perspective and that hindrance ultimately led to a dependence which became an addiction. Now I know. To paraphrase the brilliant Maya Angelou famously, “Once you know better, do better.”
People ask me all the time, “How have you stayed sober?”. The answer is simple: each morning when I open my eyes, I thank God for another day of life and I commit to not drinking that day. I have other things I do, and attending a 12-step program is not one of them. I did for the first 12 months and decided I needed to broaden my resources and thinking, and have happily managed a workable – if not patchwork – program on my own. I am enjoying life today instead of enduring it.
Here’s the point I want to make today: you can change at any time and begin a new path. My 18-year old daughter is graduating from High School tonight with beautiful dreams of her own. There were days when she was very young when I would find myself in a heap of laundry and tears on the telephone with my oldest sister saying, “I can’t even take care of myself. I am so afraid and overwhelmed.” But life marched on, didn’t it?.
The takeaway I want anybody reading this today to receive is this:
Never Be Afraid Of Starting Over
Perfection is an unrealistic expectation and illusion that does nothing but create resentment and discontent. Wouldn’t you be happier saying you tried something and enjoyed the moment rather than standing still in perfect silence, terrified by the prospect you can never be perfect? Motherhood taught me so many things, and especially raising such a determined little character as my daughter, Isabella Bernadette. When she was 3 and just starting out hosting “play-dates,” I would be so desperate to please the other Mothers, I would constantly intervene and scold her, telling her repeatedly to “share” with the other children. Her response?
“I want to share with ME!”
Don’t we ALL? Who can argue with the brilliant logic of a 3-year-old little girl?!
The thing is, we all have to learn to be our own cheerleaders and personal life coaches. Instead of looking in all the wrong places (e.g., malls, catalogs, bars, escapes), the answer can be found within. I guess I was too skeptical, cynical and afraid to trust myself. I know better now, so I am doing better.
Oh, Girlfriends! How would a woman survive life without them? They come to our aid before we even know we need to be rescued. They understand our innermost feelings and needs in the deepest way. They refrain from judgment. Like Momma Bear protecting her cub, a great girlfriend will work wonders in your life and expect nothing in return.
I reach for my Mom’s handmade quilts every single day of my life for comfort. Tattered and ragged, sometimes I drag my favorite one like Linus, as if the quilt could make me invincible. Magical powers sewn into every square, crafted and pieced together by my Mother’s hands with abundant love and the greatest of hopes for a life well lived. I literally can cover myself in her protection any time I want. The girlfriends who have sustained me through life’s toughest challenges are exactly like my favorite quilts.
In this picture, I am in the most miserable physical pain you could imagine. I had been laboring for over 2 days with my first child and was waiting the last few hours before heading to the hospital to begin the terrifying birthing process. I am sitting on a heating pad because I have lovely back labor. And draped across my knees is the “Cotton Boll” quilt my Mom made for me more than twenty years ago. “Don’t machine wash this,” she cautioned. “It will fall apart.” Nope. This thing might as well be made of kryptonite. Virtually indestructible. Just like my ties to my girlfriends, one in particular, my Pammy.
Pam took this picture of me when she delivered a beautiful Wendy’s lunch of french fries and a Frosty. She had had her daughter the year before, I had been her “birth coach.” I did not even know I needed her to check on me that day, my mind was swirling with nesting details and anxiety about the future. I am sure we laughed about the indignity of the last day pregnant – I was hobbling around, grunting and moaning in my hugeness. Pam’s presence was comforting, though, and nothing really needed to be said. There was history between us (at the time we had been friends over 10 years, thinking we knew everything about life, love, family and careers!).
We both moved away from Kansas City for many years and hardly stayed in touch, but fate reunited us a few years ago, and we have both returned HOME: to Kansas City and our friendship. I can look at her and imagine what she is thinking and we both erupt in raucous laughter! We have the comfort of each other’s company and support and a very long history of experience together to sustain us. Friendship is, indeed, a joyous thing. As a woman grows older, the comfort of a close girlfriend is one of the greatest treasures she can have. Nobody knows us better or would go farther to show us who we are when we are lost. And midlife, I am discovering, is a bit of a “curious wonderland” where one can get very lost, indeed. I am finishing the intensive Mom phase and looking ahead to the second act (actually, it has begun, I am just in denial). Pam helps me laugh away the embarrassment of my arthritic hips and knees when I try to get up gracefully from a restaurant chair. She will be there with me, locked arm in arm, for the second act, and there will be laughter, joy and comfort. And I am one grateful woman of a certain age!
My one and only daughter, my beautiful Isabella, has recently turned 18 years old. I want to have profound things to say to her but every time I try, just a huge gush of emotion rushes forth. One thing I do keep thinking about is the time I let her Dad travel halfway across the country with her at six months of age to visit his cousin in Los Angeles. They were gone for four days, an eternity to this new Momma. We had no social media in 1999 so I could feel like I was a part of the adventure, only occasional phone calls to hear the cooing sound of her voice.
Through that little separation, I learned many things about my love for Isa and the kind of Mother I hoped to be for her. I wanted her childhood to be:
Full of adventures she could call her own, without me helicopter parenting in the background;
Grounded in a strong sense of family and self, so she would trust herself to make big decisions knowing that the love of her family would always support her;
Joyful enough so she would look forward to spreading her wings as an adult and sorrowful enough for her to understand that tears shed are a beautiful part of life’s journey and a reminder to be true to oneself and surrender love completely while the opportunity is given;
Magical in her own unique way, a time of exploring everything the senses could reach within the safety of a loving home;
Solidly anchored in self-love and a sense of personal competence and the ability to reject shame.
Over the years, my Isa’s comings and goings have been very bittersweet. When she returned home from her Los Angeles adventure, I played with her on the sofa all afternoon and cherished my good fortune to be the temporary guardian of her being. She hugged me and said “Mama!” when she first saw me after that separation, so I knew then that we would be lifelong friends. Today, I am awestruck by the beauty, strength and tenderness of her character and humbled to be her Mother.
James Taylor recorded a song in 1979 called “Honey, Don’t Leave L.A.”. It is his friend’s story about a French woman he fell in love with who ultimately left. Her spirit was indomitable. Just like my Isa.
So happy to bring you this insightful piece from my Recovery Friend, Rose Lockinger. If you are new in your Recovery or simply in need of a fresh perspective, Rose’s piece reminds us to expect a journey full of twists, turns, surprises and mini-victories. In short, like all things in life, when doing the work of Recovery, expect the unexpected and welcome the lessons as they unfold. xoxo Joan
You know how people always say that we take two steps forward, one step back, well in no other place in my life have I found that truer than with my recovery.
See, I have found that the healing process is never linear, although sometimes I would like it to be. Sometimes I want to believe that it will be achieved perfectly but this is never the case. Like it says, progress not perfection, this process of healing involves progress. It never just continues in a straight and logical manner but rather it ebbs and flows, and there are times when I feel like I’m actually healing and other times when I feel like I am completely regressing.
I didn’t understand that this was the way of things when I first got sober and I guess I sort of believed that my life would just get exponentially better day in and day out. The reason why I thought this way is because my life changed so dramatically and so suddenly that I just thought it would continue in this manner forever. The Steps seemed to work perfectly and the further I got into them the better off I became.
I found that I stopped lying as much. I stopped craving drugs and alcohol, and I even started to believe in God, in fact so much healing occurred in that first year of recovery that to a certain degree I kind of felt like I was destined to become the most spiritual being on the planet. That I was destined to be free from all of my character defects within the next year or so, but then reality kicked in and coming down from my little spiritual hilltop, I settled into my new way of life and I began to see that not everything was being healed as quickly as my alcoholism was. I began to see that many of the things in my life that were particularly ingrained were going to take a lot of work to get over and possibly more pain before they were ready to be healed.
I have also found that certain times in my recovery, I thought that I was healed from something, or that I had finally overcome some trauma or defect of character only to be reminded a couple of weeks later that it was still there and there was more healing to be done. I’d get these epiphanies and believe that I understood something that would allow me to change or heal, and to a certain extent I would, but then it would just lead me to more parts of myself that need to be healed.
Without getting too far into the abstract, I sort of believe that this is the way that life works. We are born whole and pure, without any attachment or damage and then through the process of our life we pick up damage and get hurt by people or things. Then once we are ready, we begin the process of healing from this hurt, attempting to get back to a place of wholeness, but the process is unique and there is no set road map. With each layer of healing that occurs another is revealed just like the peeling of an onion, and so the job is never done It is always ongoing.
I’ll give you a recent example from my own life to help illustrate this point. It is something that I have written about a lot and talked about even more, but has been probably the most important thing that has occurred in my recovery and has been one of the greatest sources of healing for me.
For years I hated my ex-husband, but after working my Steps I healed a little bit from the pain that I felt he inflicted on me, and so for a time I was okay. I believed that I had achieved peace with this part of my life and in all honesty for some time, I had. I wasn’t yet ready to really dive into that situation and experience true healing and so I only peeled back the first layer of the onion.
Then I moved back to my home state so that I could be with my kids and in doing so, I had to invite him back into my life. Not in the sense that we were getting back together, but in the sense that we had children together which required regular interaction with him.
Being home and being around him brought up things in me that were tremendously painful and I really struggled for a number of months with this. There were some days where I’d thought I found peace in the situation, only to have it destroyed the following day when he’d make some offhanded comment to me, or I’d find out something he said about me to our kids.
I’d go to meetings and I’d hear bits and pieces of information that I needed in order to heal from the situation and I’d leave these meetings thinking I had finally found the secret that would unlock my healing and allow me to act neutrally towards him, but this just didn’t happen. As the months went on and the pain got greater, I continued my lurch towards healing by taking two steps forward and one step back.
Then something happened that allowed me to know that I truly had healed from the wounds of this part of my life. I finally felt the true acceptance of who he is as a person and what the situation was. I no longer felt anger towards him. In fact, I just felt compassion and realized that he was doing the best he could.
So that’s been the story of my healing, a process that is messy sometimes and seems to move in directions that don’t make sense to me, but in the end, work towards my greater good. Sometimes I am aware that I am moving in the right direction, while other times I’m not even sure where I’m going, but through it all, I usually wind up feeling better.
Of all the adjectives one could choose to describe my personality, “Gentle” would most definitely not be among even the first twenty that come to mind. I have a very tender heart, but years of burying and covering up my vulnerabilities have created a somewhat tough exterior. This happens to many of us in life. It usually takes nearly half a century of living before you start to think about yourself as not merely a physical being but a spiritual one. I am almost one year past the mid-century mark in physical years and this is certainly true for me. More than anything, I want to prioritize spiritual growth over other pursuits right now. So my “Word of the Year” for 2017 is GENTLE.
The death of a beloved classmate last summer reminded me of a guiding principle for my High School education, a quote by Francis de Sales, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” Weeks before Lori’s passing, several of my classmates and I were in daily contact with her via group text messaging. She reached out to us in her most frightened, vulnerable state for support as she awaited news and guidance about her recent diagnosis of breast cancer. The outpouring of “gentle strength” from my group of High School friends was, at times, mind-blowing. We walked hand in hand with Lori through her life’s most harrowing journey until it was time for her to leave her physical body. It was the most beautiful, intimate, raw experience of my adult life so far.
The courage it took for Lori to open herself up to so many friends from so long ago dismays me. I will be forever humbled and convinced that gentleness is the ultimate spiritual practice.
Everybody knows compromise is a good thing to practice in business and ultimately in life. Bending one’s will to move toward another’s best interests leads to successful relationships and a satisfying life. Nobody likes a stubborn old goat!!! Learning to practice gentleness begins with ME: embracing an open, courageous, accepting heart means I also have to be vulnerable when I don’t necessarily want to face it. Approaching a life of gentleness as a practice rather than a goal allows me to make small choices on a daily basis that ultimately lead to the value of gentleness. Before letting myself become completely angry, for instance, I try to think less of what I want from any situation or person and more about how wonderful it is the other person crossed my path. I can think about people and things this way because of gentleness – I am learning to accept what is and forget the rest. This practice leads to alot less brooding about what ought to be and frees up lots of time to just be in the moment.
So, in 2017, I will continue to joyfully pursue the practice of gentleness in my life. Earlier today, I read a beautiful reflection on gentleness, and I share it here with you as a special gift for you to take on your 2017 journey:
“It’s the hard things that break; soft things don’t break. It took me so very, very long to see it! You can waste so many years of your life trying to become something hard in order not to break; but it’s the soft things that can’t break! The hard things are the ones that shatter into a million pieces.” C. JoyBell C.
HAPPY NEW YEAR and may you joyfully experience the softness of a bigger, fuller, gentler life of authenticity this year!!!!