In the 82 years since the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous, the granddaddy of all twelve step programs, a lot has changed. There is generally a better understanding of what addiction is and how one recovers. There are movies as well as series on regular and cable channels in which twelve step groups are depicted, sometimes fairly accurately. One thing however, that seems to remain the same is the idea of what Recovery looks like. We (including the general public and those who are going in for the first time) think that one goes into a rehab or recovery centre for a month or two and they are cured! To many people, recovery looks like the illustration below.
And, it doesn’t. A far truer representation of recovery is this:
Recovery is messy. It doesn’t last for a month, or two, or a year. It’s a lifetime commitment to staying clean and sober. Sometimes we fall off the page and find our way back on, and sometimes, we just drop off and are never heard from again. It’s a constant struggle to learn new skills, a new design for living that is as strange and foreign to us as using chopsticks for the first time: we understand the concept but we just can’t get our fingers, our minds and the sticks to work together. Food drops off before we get it to our mouth, we splash our new white shirt, and we just want to go back to what we know. We drugged and drank because that was what we knew how to do; that is how we had learned to cope with everything. And now we just want to scream out like a newbie in a Chinese restaurant: “Give me a bloody fork now!”
It takes time. I recall my first year. I can see now that I was still certifiably insane. I owned a business, but didn’t want to answer the phone or open the mail. It was all I could do to attend to clients, get through the day, make it to a meeting and head to bed early. Once a day I would listen to the phone messages. And it took a real effort to make myself open an envelope or go to the bank. Just doing regular, normal things that running a business entailed were monumental feats. Oh, and I felt I deserved a medal every day for doing what little I did do, because I was finally acting like a normal human being doing what normal human beings do. Yup, the elevator wasn’t making it all the way to the top floor.
Like everyone else, I thought that when I went clean everything would be fine, would go back to normal, life would be beautiful and there would be rainbows, and unicorns, and butterflies, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing in the background. Only, I had been out of it for so long that I had no idea what normal life was supposed to be like. I had badly twisted and damaged my mind and that of those around me as well. I still had all of my faults and character flaws and now that I was sober, I was acutely aware of them. Some days weren’t pretty at all. Early recovery wasn’t what I had expected to it to be.
I am fortunate that I was ready to give myself to the program. I didn’t want to go back to the irrepressible demoralization that was my life. But I complained about it. I remember one member asking me at a meeting, “Do you have a sponsor?” When I said I did, he responded, “I suggest you use him!” Our program has so many tools that help in early sobriety when everything is so new. The meetings, home groups, steps, slogans, sponsors, phone lists and just not drinking the first drink were the first tools that I was given. Gradually I learned to use these tools.
One of the things I learned was that in order to get a year in sobriety I had to go through a whole year in sobriety. It takes time. There are plenty of firsts in that first year: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, festivals, outdoor patios, beaches, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the list goes on. Making it through each one of these firsts added to my resolve to continue. My sponsor guided me through the steps, listened to my B.S. and gave me advice from his own experience. When I made it through that first year, I did it all over again, this time knowing that if I could do it once, I can do it again.
There are still plenty of dips and dives in sobriety. But with time, there is more of a balance in my life. I suggest that new members to give themselves time. It took years reach my bottom and I didn’t climb out of it in a few weeks. Remember the rooms are full of people who will help you to grow and understand and show you how they worked the steps. If recovery were easy everyone would do it. It takes a decision and dedication to make it through that tangled mess of a life, sober.
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