Alcoholism Pt. 5: An Awakening

It took about 11 days to go through all of the prescriptions I stole from my mom, and she had plenty. Leftovers from surgeries and sicknesses – she never bothered to take more than a couple. Vicodin and Percocet and Ativan and codeine cough syrup. Delish. When those were gone, I was back with the old crew of lower companions, spending all my money on Norcos and Oxy and coke and wine. Drinking daily. Smoking weed. Snorting cocaine. Driving drunk. Throwing up. Stealing pills. Sleeping around. Same old charade.

How am I back here I thought to myself most days. How am I back here. 

I never thought I would be back there.

But upon reflection, of course I ended up there. It was either that or straight to committing suicide. I was in the throes of alcoholism, even before I relapsed. Mentally ill. Spiritually void. And it was manifesting physically, in a dozen different forms of aches and pains and chemical dependency. It didn’t matter that I had a college degree and a brand new car and a closet full of designer clothes and a relatively sweet disposition. It didn’t matter that I was intelligent and insightful and witty and perceptive. It didn’t matter that my parents were successful, decent people. And it didn’t matter that I was white, female, young, and privileged. Alcoholism does not discriminate and it does not look like any one thing. Just like evil doesn’t have a face. Alcoholism will attempt to destroy and ruin whoever it prays upon, whether it’s the president of the United States or the homeless blind man on the corner.

But there is a solution. I am living breathing proof of that. Millions of us are.

Not only have I recovered from a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body,” but I walk today with an open and joyous heart and an unbreakable faith in God.

I stopped trying to submit and comply to the principles of AA. I finally surrendered. And here’s how:

During that final relapse, I was brought to my knees in a way I never had been before. And it made the early stages of getting sober again quite daunting.

It was the first time that I was seriously chemically dependent on drugs. I had never gotten so hooked on opiates before; I had always taken them throughout the years, but I hadn’t developed a habit of needing upwards of twenty five pills a day just to avoid withdrawals and depending on what I could afford and (literally) stomach. (Most prescription opiates are also filled with acetaminophen, the drug they put in Tylenol, and it can wreak havoc on your gut.) If you don’t already know, opiates like Vicodin and Percocet and Oxy-Contin are really just heroin in a pill. Heroin is profoundly physically addicting, and withdrawals are exactly as dramatic as the movies makes them out to be. It’s like having ten thousand flus and ants crawling all over your skin and debilitating anxiety, depression, and insomnia. And NOTHING makes it go away unless you take more opiates or get a prescription for Suboxone. (Which I did on the second go around.) Withdrawals can last anywhere from three days to a week. I withdrew from opiate dependency twice. The first time I stopped cold turkey. It was like touring a few circles of Dante’s Inferno. I drank liquor and took Valium in an attempt to survive it, but I might as well have taken nothing. Three days of sweating and crying and kicking and screaming in my bed. Three days of seriously contemplating jumping off a cliff.

The second time I stopped, I knew I could not go through that again. I took Suboxone for about a week, as prescribed by a doctor, and it was a lifesaver. I had very minimal symptoms, and I was so relieved to be free from such an all-consuming addiction.

But the hard part was yet to begin.

You could liken stages of true and deep and authentic early recovery to having to re-break a bone in order for it to fuse correctly. The bone is clearly broken, and it won’t heal completely unless broken again. The only way in is in, the only way out is through.

You could liken setting a foundation in recovery to having to really get down there in the dirt and mud and sand with hammers and nails and wood and brick, your back aching, the sun blinding, your whole being desiring to quit and let someone else build it. The foundation is always harder and dirtier and uglier and can seem to take forever to build.

Early recovery is like that: it can be brutal at times. It’s work.

Let me be clear, that when I say recovery, I mean authentic, surrendered, down to guts and bones and soul recovery. Not mere physical sobriety, but emotional sobriety and spiritual awakening. That was what I had never had before. I had physical sobriety and some external achievements, but I lacked that sturdy foundation that would allow me to live freely and comfortably in my skin, infused with divine joy and faith. I never let myself re-break the bone in order to heal right, because I didn’t even want to acknowledge that the bone was broken.

But after that last relapse, I was willing to do anything and everything and to Face. It. All. All of it. The addiction. The eating disorders. The chronic pain. The codependency. The emotional problems. The anger. The self-hatred. The fear. I was willing. I was also blessed with some kind of grace, because I finally felt a teeny tiny little glimmer of light within me that whispered – you can be free of all of this that haunts you and makes you want to die. 

So where did I start? At the beginning, where you always have to start. Back to basics, as they say in AA, which usually means attending meetings, getting a sponsor, embarking on the 12 steps.

But that was too vague a direction to follow – it’s easy to hide in the compliance to “attending meetings, getting a sponsor, and embarking on the steps,” but not experience the necessary surrender and psychic change. That’s what I had always done, and it left me with an inability to achieve quality and lasting sobriety. What needed to be different this time? I knew I needed something larger. I knew it would not be enough to sit in the back of speaker meetings and blindly follow my sponsor’s direction, reverting back to the same silent, pretending, smile on her face good girl like I had always done in the past. I knew I could not get into relationship. I knew I needed to go to therapy. I knew I needed to seek legitimate healing for my chronic pain and eating disorders. I could not address only one piece of the puzzle. I could not build a foundation on two legs. Lucky for me, I was completely willing to do all of this. Put me in, coach. Sometimes willingness is the greatest gift, because some people don’t get it.

I began to attend to very small and intimate women’s meetings where I was encouraged to share and let women get to know me. I hated them at first, but I started to speak. I felt so on the outside and so not good enough and so judgmental and so scared. But then something happened. I started to cry in those meetings. I started to confess that I hated myself and wanted to die. I started to share about my relationship with my father and my lack of self-esteem and how I always felt afraid. I was determined to keep going to those meetings until I felt a part of those meetings. And after about six to nine months, I did. When I went to those meetings, it was like coming home. I let those women love me, as best I could. I went to dinner with them and to coffee and spoke to some of them on the phone. I attempted with as much courage as I could muster to be honest and open. It wasn’t perfect. But it was real good.

I began to see a therapist who specialized in chronic pain, addiction, and eating disorders and had insight into how they all often come together. When I had only a couple of days sober I began googling more about chronic pain and its relation to addiction. Something told me that there was a piece of the puzzle was still missing in terms of how I understood the physical pain in my body. I stumbled upon this website that spoke of pain being associated with something called Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS.) The theory of TMS is that pain is not caused because of actual physical problems in the body but is stemming from the autonomic nervous system (ANS) going haywire due to mental and emotional problems, chronic stress, and trauma and restricting blood flow to various tendons, nerves, muscles, and ligaments. The pain is very real and not at all psychosomatic, but it is initially stemming from the mind (and spirit.) There is no actual disease or deformity in the body. That was eye-opening for me. It made sense to me. I didn’t entirely believe it at first, but it resonated nevertheless. It was miraculous actually; I had scoured the internet for years seeking doctors and healers and practitioners to diagnose and fix me, and on day two of this new sobriety, I found what was imperative to ensuring my recovery. (I go into greater detail about my journey through chronic pain and TMS in the piece Inside Job: Health and Chronic Pain.)

My therapist, Jill, was incredible. She was loving, patient, and completely accepting of whatever I was experiencing. It didn’t happen right away, but I did start to open up and let a world of thoughts and feelings come spilling out. I saw her at least once a week, and she was a lifesaver during that first year sober. Sometimes it was all I could do to throw on a pair of sweatpants and plop myself down on her couch, agitated, frightened, bursting with hot and heavy toxic emotion. I began to let it seep out of me through my work with her.

Most importantly, I began to work the steps again with my sponsor at the time, Ryan. But I didn’t work them like I had in the past, like a student works at school. I experienced them. I let them work me. And I became very interested in building a new God.

Ryan is one of those women who radiates Light. She is warm and kind and walks the walk. She showed me the passageway to a spiritual life, one filled with unconditional love and stillness and peace and connection. In AA we talk about the importance of attraction over promotion – we don’t try to convince others of anything (at least, we shouldn’t.) Ryan attracted me to meditation and books on God that had never occurred to me before – not religious books per se, but books brimming with a path that was connected to the Divine. I used my addict traits of always wanting more and focused determination to seek and find, and I applied them to coming to know God.

I read everything. Paul Ferrini and Pema Chodron and Thich Nat Hanh and Tara Brach and Mother Theresa and the Bible. I read books about Buddhism and Christianity and mysticism and metaphysics and all different forms of meditation and prayer. They nourished my soul. They wrapped me up like warm blankets and rocked me to sleep. All the books had essentially the same message. Trust that everything is alright. Love yourself no matter what. Share that Love with others. What other way is there?

I started to sit in meditation in the mornings. At first, two minutes felt like my insides were boiling. It was hell. But slowly, I could do three minutes. Then five. Sometimes even ten or fifteen! I started to see the monkey in my brain. The insanity of my thinking. The old tapes that played over and over and over. And over. I started to understand that I wasn’t thinking my thoughts – they were thinking me! But we can make our minds like still water. Not forever, but for a moment. And we don’t have to be monks to do it. It’s not some sit on a lily pad on a mountaintop in the Himalayas and only eat rice to become enlightened kind of spiel. It’s you on a cushion or a chair, coming back to your breath through the thousands of wonky thoughts and feelings that arise and not getting up. So simple. So challenging. I’m no pro. Fifteen minutes is a feat for me, and sometimes I squirm through five. But I sit every morning. Even if I get up after ten seconds. It has transformed my entire life.

And I started praying. I talked to God constantly. Out loud. In my head. In my car. On my knees. Under my breath. In my journal. I asked questions and I spoke the truth and I shared my fears. I wasn’t praying for anything really. Just to be guided. To stay sober. To be helpful. To be helped. God help me is a beautiful prayer, and one I still say often.

I look back now and I realize what I was doing: I was building a relationship with God.

It’s just like when you start dating someone: you learn about them. You get to know them through a bunch of different ways. You hang out with them. You sit with them. You talk to them. It’s awkward at first. Can be uncomfortable. Can feel so vulnerable. And then…eventually…you’re in a relationship.

When you get down to the sole (soul!) purpose of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the main idea is to put you in touch with a Higher Power. That’s really what the whole deal is about. Everything else stems from there. It’s a spiritual program. Not a religious one. Not a cult. Not a club. It’s a program about finding your own personal God that can work in your life. It can be a tree. A song. The ocean. Jesus. Buddha. A Group Of Drunks (G.O.D) getting sober. Whatever works for you.

I found mine. I found mine, and it transformed my life. It gave me a real shot at this thing. A real shot at recovery. A chance to heal. A chance to awaken.

I hope I never go back to sleep.

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