I can remember the first time I felt truly clean, and I think I went off and wrote a poem about waterfalls and the color blue. Nerd. I was trying my best to express what it meant, that feeling of a freshly scrubbed inner space. Like linens washed in lavender water, or what I imagine a baby’s lungs might look like – delicate, shimmering, brand new tissues. Beyond the images of it, there is the visceral experience: the capacity to feel deeply without effort or judgment, to shed joyful tears instead of suffocating within stuffed rage and biting anxiety, that humming, high vibe feeling that might very well be ineffable but if you know it, then you know it. It’s the experience of murky darkness having finally dissolved. The blinds opened. The unclenched chest, the deepest breath, the coolest breeze. It is light, water, air. It is boundless.
I got physically clean when I was twenty-five, meaning I completely stopped using drugs and alcohol as a means to try and manage and control my life. I didn’t do it to be good – I had no other choice. Not all of us are addicts and need to give up mind-altering substances in order to find peace and stability – but I sure did. I knew by sixteen that the way I drank was by no means normal, and I really knew by twenty-two that if I were going to have a shot at a happy, healthy, do no harm sort of life, I would have to be sober. As you often hear around recovery circles, to keep going with the substance abuse would eventually result in jails, institutions, or death, and I recognized this very clearly. The party was over. Addiction does not discriminate, and it did not matter that I meant well or had a decent heart or college degree or a car and an apartment – once I start drinking and using, I cannot stop, and I will obliterate myself and everything in my path in pursuit of more. So I got clean. In a few months, it will be six years since I drank or took any mind-altering drugs.
But this did not mean the clean I am talking about above, the poetic plummeting waterfalls and deep transcendent breaths type clean. That took a different sort of laundering. What actually happened was that, once the booze and drugs were removed, I was left with all I had been attempting to self-medicate away and shove deep down into my bones. It started to come up. It grew hot and sticky. It was like exhaust fumes billowing from a broken pipe. Toxic, rotten, putrid. I was (quite literally at times) suffocating on fear, rage, and deeply buried grief. I was forced to face very old ideas about myself and the world. I had to see and feel my hatred. I had to see and feel my terror at being alive on the planet without so-called defenses. Drugs and alcohol (and other coping mechanisms I had picked up along the way) had allowed me to feel a false sense of safety and well-being that I never cultivated in childhood. Now, sober, I had to release all the pent up emotions and then learn to cultivate inner peace authentically and from scratch. Sound fun? It was not. It was soul surgery, without anesthesia, and I felt every single slice of the knife.
But I did it, with plenty of support from others and various healing modalities, and I know many many others who have done the same. It can be done, and it will be done, if you have the courage and conviction and willingness. And if you, of course, allow it to imperfect. As one of my favorite singer/songwriter’s laments, “when you’re getting better, it’s a jagged line.” It isn’t really supposed to look like anyone thing, and everyone’s experience is different. It is certainly never fixed or static. I went in full force, ready to be stripped, because by twenty five I was done with all forms of checking out, including eating disorders, physical chronic pain, lengthy toxic relationships, cutting, and chain smoking. Some people go for the baby step variety when they first get physically clean, which is probably better, but this had been my third attempt to stay sober and get happy for god sakes, and I just wasn’t having anymore of half-assed recovery. I wanted to feel it all and heal it all. So I went for the jugular, and it hurt ten times more, but I believe the rewards I got in return were ten times larger. And I mean, OK, it was baby steps at times. It took probably four years to really truly have complete freedom from disordered eating and food issues. (Which I really truly do.) That is just an impossible overnight matter. The recovery from chronic pain was slow and extremely up and down. I still find myself attracted to unhealthy men who mirror back to me old beliefs. But what I didn’t do was ignore any of that stuff when I got physically clean way back in the beginning. I went for it all, incapable of denial, knowing it would all be a process (as if that word hasn’t been beaten to death! I’ll try using “undertaking.”)
About a year and a half in, I felt that cleanness for the first time, and it hit me out of the blue (blue!) while spending time with my little sister. I just wanted to hug her and kiss her smooth little forehead, and I couldn’t stop crying sweet happy tears. That was all I wanted and needed, and nothing else mattered. My chest opened. It was crying that came from reverence not grief, from gratitude not anger. No longer did I feel like a constant slave to self-hatred, rage, and fear. I started having these large gaps in the misery where I felt spacious and connected and so very serene. I began to experience my capacity for joy and self-love as well as my capacity to love others. My heart felt so large and swelling, like it would burst. It was a bit overwhelming but also so very welcomed. I knew it was my insides cleaning out. I knew it was the black sludge of trauma and suffering that was dissolving from my body. I knew it was about damn time.
Four years after that first profound experience of inner cleanness, I continue to grow, evolve, and expand. I see more and more how the practice of recovery for me today is about how much I can open my heart and stop defending it against the world. My heart still wants to wall itself and pull up the drawbridge, and I have to practice softening and trusting. Working with that good ol’ vulnerability (about which Brene Brown so eloquently talks and writes.) And through all that imperfection and trial and error, the practice is how much kinder and forgiving I can be. As a dear friend often says, “God” to her is how much more loving she can be to herself and to others. Cleanness has little to do with physical sobriety anymore (although I am of course forever grateful and aware of the necessity of my physical sobriety, and freedom from hellish hangovers and withdrawal is always a plus.) I barely think about that world, except to remember how lucky I am and how far I have come. I never consider going back. Why would I? It all seems so very long ago. The physical clean was the start, the first step on the yellow brick road, but for me, recovery is all about that internal clean and the limitless expansion of the spiritual path.
Am I right?!