I’ve had a new moment of clarity, folks.
That real recovery might be about growing up into a mature, balanced, healthy adult. I don’t mean looking like an adult, with a suit and briefcase and big fancy job, or a brood of kids and busy appointment book. But one who is able to live moderately, free from addiction and the need for extreme highs and lows, able to feel all feelings without shame but not act on them, able to be completely responsible for oneself, able to stop trying to fix and change others, able to accept imperfections and humanness, and from this, able to connect authentically and freely with other human beings.
First, I thought recovery was just about staying sober. Yes, but no, not at all. That is merely the very beginning.
Then I thought it was about stopping other forms of self-destruction and addiction. Yes, that is good, too, but that is a lot like staying sober. The beginning.
Then, I thought it was about loving yourself. OK, yes, it is A LOT about that. My experience has been that until you really begin to heal codependency (the inability to love and take yourself, by yourself) you can’t really grow up.
Then I thought it was about feeling and expressing every single feeling in your body. This is necessary, especially in the earlier stages. You’ve got to unfreeze the grief in your system, feel it, and let it emerge, especially if it left over from childhood.
But then, once you’ve learned how to stop abusing yourself, once you have learned how to love yourself, take care of yourself, nurture yourself, feel your feelings, and stop completely the expectation that some magical person is going to appear and fix you (and you stop trying to fix others) this incredible freedom emerges – because you no longer feel, think, and behave like a helpless child or enable others to act like helpless children (unless of course, they are children.) And… drum roll please… here comes buckets of self-esteem and self-respect! What a feeling. I like it a lot.
I will always have my little girl inside of me. I will always have to dialogue with her when she feels scared and sad. I am a human being, and I can still sometimes be triggered by what seems like a big scary mean world or a big scary mean person. But I have really started to accept that it is no one else’s job to do this for me. Nor do I want it to be. Nor do I want to be responsible to “save” another adult. As if I am that powerful anyway!
Yes, my parents didn’t give me great tools when I was growing up. There was neglect, abuse, trauma. Most of us deal with this in some form, whether it is relatively mild or extremely toxic. Some of us are more affected by it then others. Some of us become wildly codependent while others more or less grow and mature without experiencing immense suffering. Some of us become addicts, others don’t. Regardless of the hand you are dealt and how you play it, letting go of the fantasy that someone will come along and fix your life is a true mark of maturity, and from it comes true capacity for joy and contentment. This usually takes time and dedication to recovery. We don’t heal magically. For me, it took addressing various addictions and stopping them (especially drugs and alcohol, first) and then slowly beginning to unravel the sickness within. It took being a part of different twelve step programs (Al-Anon being the most helpful), a few years of constructive therapy, journal writing, reading about codependency, addiction, and recovery, talking and sharing with others in recovery, prayer, meditation, and a whole lot of patience and faith. It took practicing loving myself and being my own best friend through this process, which is sometimes so painful and heartbreaking. We have to grieve what we didn’t get in our childhoods. We start to understand that it wasn’t our fault that our needs weren’t met – there was nothing wrong with us – it was just the way things were. When we can accept this, we can re-parent ourselves and move to forgiving those we perceived as having failed us.
Grief was a very important part of the process for me, and still sometimes is. I had to give myself permission to feel very sad, disappointed, and angry. I had to really hold that little child inside of me and tell her I was so sorry, but that I would be her parent now and that I wouldn’t abandon her. I had to practice not abandoning her.
But in order to not abandon that little child within, we eventually have to stop identifying with her. We have to grow up, and that means we have to stop blaming anyone (even people who may have been to blame) for our feelings or so-called problems. We have to stop the cycle of feeling like a victim and wallowing in self-pity. This cannot be rushed, though, because it would be too traumatic for the inner child. It can be too shaming at first, to make that inner child feel guilty for having self-pity. It is normal for children to feel self-pity. For a time in recovery, I needed to just feel devastated and blame my so-called villains. Only we can gauge when we are really ready to let go of our sad stories. I believe it comes over time, in bits and pieces and small steps. (Nothing in recovery is overnight, get used to it.)
I believe most, if not all of this is done internally. The outsides do sometimes reflect the insides, but just because one appears to be mature and able to take care of herself on the outside does not mean that she feels that way within. And yet: acting as if can be helpful. I know it was a huge step toward learning to take care of myself was when I started working full time as a teacher, because a big job like that forced me to start taking care of myself – otherwise I would have drank again or spiraled into some sort of self-destruction, because the stress was so intense. But looking and acting like a grown-up does not mean you have actually grown up. This is why addiction in all its forms runs amok in our “adult” culture. Everywhere you turn, seemingly successful men and women are suffering.
So yes, mostly, becoming a healthy adult is within. I recently went through a breakup, and nothing has shown me my recovery more than this experience. The love addiction at play in the relationship was very mild compared to previous relationships, but it was still there. The belief that simply being with someone was an answer, that my problems would be taken care of by this person was still there. It showed me places in my heart and mind where I still want my parents (or someone) to step in and clean up my messes. It showed me how I ignored red flags because I wanted what I wanted and places where I could still feel real sorry for myself. Let me be clear that I do not regret for one moment the relationship or my experience with this man. I don’t at all think I did anything “wrong”, I am not beating myself up, and I am so grateful for the entire experience – most of all, I am proud of how well I have taken care of myself since he broke up with me. Awareness is a tremendous gift, especially if we are willing to grow from it and not beat ourselves up. There is no way I could have gotten through this in such a healthy way had I not built an internal parent. I give myself what parents are supposed to give their children: unconditional love, freedom and space to feel feelings without shame or judgement, time to reflect, permission to talk about it, and most of all the TRUTH that how a person feels about me, treats me, etc. says nothing about my actual worth or goodness. That is there completely, no matter what. I give it to myself.
I didn’t realize just how codependent I was until going through this experience. I always knew, but it really hit home recently. I walked around looking at you, because I wanted to see myself through your eyes. I needed the world to give me unconditional love and positive regard, because I couldn’t give it to myself. Of course, the world could not deliver this and I took it personally, and then it reaffirmed the story that there was something wrong with me, something unlovable about me. No longer. I might still do this occasionally, but I truly understand now, in my bones, that it is my job and my job only to love myself unconditionally and be responsible for my life. What freedom!
This doesn’t mean living in a sterile and friendless world without help and support – the opposite, actually. If I can take care of myself, I don’t have to rely so heavily on others, have expectations, or end up resenting people for not giving me what I think I need from them. It allows space to relate and connect with others freely and offer, as they say in twelve step rooms, experience, strength, and hope. But I don’t think we are meant to rely on other adults for internal love, despite what Disney and advertising and the whole darn culture tells us – we are meant to connect with others to shine up the love that is already within us, that we give ourselves.
I remember when I wanted the high and lows of drama and addiction and wanted desperately for my prince to come or daddy to fix it all or some magical Santa Claus god to just give me what I wanted. I see how much of this was fueled by a refusal to face reality and become a healthy, integrated adult. It takes work to become one. In this culture with its backward values and the stresses of modern living, I think many of us just don’t organically grow into healthy adults, and if we really want serenity and internal calm, we have to do the work to get there. But what an opportunity, what a privilege – to have a solution to the very real pain of staying stuck in a broken childhood.