When I signed up for AA*, it was with the understanding that they were going to fix me. Although I’d mostly pulled my shit together from the outside, on the inside I was a mess. I felt suffocated by shame, terrified of actually experiencing real emotion, and mostly just broken. Oh, and I was completely devoid of effective coping mechanisms.
Drinking was my coping mechanism, and it landed me in meetings with an oddball bunch of folks who drank bad coffee.
I liked those oddballs though, because they didn’t find my obsession with alcohol or my inability to stop drinking once I’d started strange in the slightest. And they told me I never again had to be the person I’d been when I was drinking.
That felt like being born again.
Part of what they laid out for me was that I never had to pick up a drink again, as long as I followed the 12-steps. And continued going to meetings. Like, forever.
A couple competing things were going on for me during the first 2 years of sobriety: I never felt really at-home in AA (which made me feel like a complete loser, because folks are always saying how they never felt at home anywhere until they walked in the rooms of AA. Huh. I didn’t feel at home there, either. So what was wrong with me?), and I had a couple sponsor relationships that were pretty damaging (which is tough because your sponsor is supposed to walk you through the 12-steps, and you have to trust them in order for that to be a possibility). Oh, and I was hella stubborn… as I’ve always been.
So, after 2 years I quit AA. Cold-turkey. No sponsor. No meetings.
But here’s the thing: I’ve always been a spiritually-oriented person, so I stayed committed to spiritual practice. I’ve also been in and out of therapy since I got sober. And I talk about recovery a lot.
I never neglected my recovery. I wasn’t “white knuckling it.” I was working to stay sober by constantly examining the patterns in my life, exploring my lack of coping mechanisms and trying to implement ones that wouldn’t blow up my life, and taking a hard look at the need for escape that made me want to drink in the first place.
But even after 11 years, I don’t consider myself “recovered.” Because, although I’ve never picked up a drink or drug again, I’ve got these addict behaviors that can creep out from time to time. I think of them as relapse light. They can be incredibly destructive. And they’re insidious.
When I was about 5 years sober, I had been a stay-at-home mom for 3 years. For me, staying at home was one of the most beautiful, mind-numbing, joyful, isolating experiences of my life. It was so beautiful and so horrible at the same time that my mind almost melts when I think about it even now.
I am grateful for the time I got with our daughter. And I wouldn’t trade it. But it was excruciatingly hard.
I think we’ve already covered the idea that my coping mechanisms can be iffy. During the hard and seemingly interminable toddler years, I did not pick up a drink. But what I did do was lose myself in an incredibly emotionally entangling toxic friendship. This friendship was obsessive escapism–and it fed this minor messiah complex I’ve nursed since I was a kid.
Instead of dealing with my shit, I was escaping. And getting unentangled from that relationship was emotionally messy, logistically awkward, and shame-inducing.
It also showed me I had more work to do in my recovery.
I don’t think it’s inevitable that relapse is part of recovery. If I’d ever believed it was, I don’t think I would’ve put in the work to get sober. But building a recovery that is joyful and full of growth and exploration means looking at the other ways that relapse light can happen–and addressing those openly and without shame when they arise.
And just acknowledging the way that old behaviors have caused chaos in my life makes me more compassionate towards folks for whom relapse with drugs or alcohol is part of the journey.
AA did fix me. Or, maybe more accurately, AA helped me face the idea that I was powerless over alcohol. And that’s a fact for me.
But I do find power in taking control of my own recovery, in finding what works, and in creating real coping mechanisms that allow me to move through the world with more grace and ease.
And god knows I surely needed more grace and ease. Don’t we all?
*You don’t really have to sign up. But you do have to show up.
**I’m reading The 12-Step Buddhist, which spawned all these recovery musings.