My OPINION on the 12 steps, my journey, and making and losing friends.
I want to talk about my OPINION on the 12-steps and how they have shaped my journey out of suffering (at least when I am applying them correctly). There is a 12-step fellowship out there for just about everyone on the planet, so before you think that they are not for you because you are not an addict, I would urge you to look again. There’s Smokers Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Al-anon (for families and friends of alcoholics), Codependents anonymous (ahem), Food Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics anonymous, heck there is probably a knitting anonymous. Everyone has their poison, and the good news is, there is a step for that. It was designed as a non-religious, path to enlightenment. It is only a path to enlightenment however, when applied properly. It will take a person from acute suffering and pain into a happy, joyous, and free state. No, not ALL the time, but more often than not. Underneath all the ups and downs of the day, there is an underlying contentedness. Yes, the 12-step writers did pull tenets from Christianity, but it left out the dogma. And, if you think The Christ was real, or even as a symbol, he was basically an enlightened being, like Muhammad, or buddha, or Mother Theresa or Ram Dass, or insert your favorite guru, who was trying to teach us something profound about our inner world. It is okay for me to listen to his teachings even if I do not agree with all aspects of the religion known as Christianity. If you take Christ out of Christianity, he seems like he would be a pretty cool dude to be around. I want to make clear; I am not a Christian. I am not an anything. I made up my own version of a Higher Power almost 14 years ago when I got sober, and my Higher Power and I have been merrily skipping down the road of life, hand in hand, ever since. I do not believe you HAVE to believe in any ONE God to find enlightenment, purpose, love, or enjoy all life has to offer. Amen
I only have my experience. I cannot tell you how to find happiness through Buddhism because I am not a Buddhist, but I hear it can be done. I cannot tell you how to find your purpose through any church or volunteer program, though I have heard they can contribute to a purpose-filled life. All I have is an imperfect attempt to stay sober, and figure out how to be reasonably okay, and even something akin to happy on most days. Before I found my path (12-steps), happiness was laughing with friends, new clothes, making money, traveling, and the excitement of going to parties or bars. Now, it’s my 18 month old saying “up” and throwing her arms in the air so she can sit on my lap, hearing the poetry of God/Gratitude come out of the mouth of another alcoholic who has reconnected with their child after years of silence and my heart jumps into my throat witnessing miracle after miracle, It is finding an extra watermelon in my patch that was hiding and watching the radishes go to flower, it is finishing a 31 mile race with my husband 11 minutes before the cutoff time, and the feeling of home I get when I dive through the waves in the ocean when it is so warm and lovely. Being okay, has taken time and it continues to take a good amount of work. Work has a lot of negative connotations to it, but here, I mean the kind of work that makes you feel accomplished and proud. Not the kind that sucks the life out of you. More on that later.
If I talked about my journey from not-okay to more-okay without talking about running, I would be leaving out a big part of it. I am going to detail my journey through the 12 steps too, but I want to talk about running first. I started running a few months after I started working the 12-step program and they have gone hand in hand throughout my sobriety. I do not think running can get anyone sober, nor do I think alcoholism discriminates based on physical abilities, race, socioeconomic status, or any other denominator. For me though, running was the only meditation, or meditative type of activity I could say I did for a long time. I did throw in some bouts of formal sitting-quiet meditation throughout, but nothing consistent. And though I got enormous gain from sitting quietly for long periods of time, it terrified me, and I did not practice it regularly until I was about 5 years sober. So back to running. It started with walking when I quit smoking when I was about 4 months sober. After Indy and I got back from Hawaii, we decided to quit together. I wanted to stave off cravings and wanted to not gain weight from over eating and so I took up walking. I would walk a couple of miles a few times a week and one day I was running late (lol) so I had to run a little at the end of a walk. I enjoyed it and I saw all these other people running, I thought to myself, “maybe I could do this on purpose next time.” And so, I did. I would run until I had to walk. I relished the time alone. And here is the important realization I had early on in my running. I thought to myself at about 6 months sober, “I may be a total failure in my life, but I can finish a run. I am really proud of myself for this. I can’t do much, but I am running 3-5 miles a few times a week and that is more than most people ever do.” I could not see at the time that, perhaps, comparing myself to others was not the best route to take here, but my ego needed it at the time. I felt like I was lower than dirt, and I needed something to hold my head high about. Every time I finished the run, I would say mentally “victory,” because some days it was the only thing I thought I was doing right, staying sober, and finishing a run. And I prayed on my runs, I would ask God to get me to the next bridge, or the next tree, or to give me strength. I would talk to God like my friend and I would cry sometimes when I was running while talking to God. I would talk about my grief with my friends and Indy. I would talk to God about Ryan and my parents and what the hell I should do with my life. I would ask God if I was doing the right things and often times, I would talk to God about all the things I was grateful for and I would cry some more. Running is where I would work it all out. I have seen running shirts that say, “I run so I don’t kill people,” or “I run to burn off the crazy” and I would laugh in recognition. I would not, and have not actually killed anyone, just so we are clear. I am one of those running people. I love the trees and the people, and how hard it is. I tap into something other worldly and I know other people do too, otherwise why the heck would we all be out there chasing the miles? There is something spiritual to be found in the pain and the work. I want to pause here, re-read that last sentence, slowly. Plus, I love food, so I need a way to make it all balance out. I mean, let’s be real, my initial reason to start walking and running was to stay slim. It was not for the dharma. Vanity has been a tough mountain to surmount, as I am sure it is for a lot of others. Vanity is the reason I went mostly plant-based when I started my Eat-to-Live (Dr, Furhman) journey after my Ranger break-up. The good news for me has been, that when I do things for my health and for the planet, things tend to work out better for all parties. Also, for my non-vegan friends, Eat-to-Live is about health and not a guilt trip about harming animals. It is not a vegan diet plan at all. It allows for the consumption of meat and is a healthy option for those who want to maintain a healthy weight and are done with “portion control.” I always eat until I am full. I am so glad I am done starving myself. Even after two kiddos, I can stay around my high-school weight (I graduated at 135, and I weigh about 140 now, and have maintained this weight for many years). And I used to do this by smoking to suppress cravings for food (all food), coffee to suppress cravings for food, doing drugs to squelch my desire for food, purging my food, starving myself, exercising excessively and basically suffering after binging on foods that were not good for my body, mind, or spirit.
When I decided to quit smoking, I also decided to go back to school. When I got sober, my GPA was a 0.9. That is 12 F’s and a few other letters scattered in. That level of failure is hard to do. The only place I could go back to was my local community college. I was very scared to go back. I had never been “good at school” my entire life. I always felt people were either naturally smart and made good grades, or it was a struggle, and you still did poorly. I do not want to harp on my childhood or belittle the job my parents did raising me, but we had a rough go of it a lot of the time, at least from my perspective. My mother had untreated bipolar disorder until she got on medications when I was 10 or so. Prior to that she was on and off meds. She attempted suicide when I was 5. She spent time in a hospital for her depression. My father worked 2 full-time jobs until I was 5 and then started his own restaurant and worked just as much. I was bullied in school for being nerdy, I had a lot of anxiety and struggled with authority figures including teachers. I do not think my childhood was more traumatic than most. It was traumatic, and my ability to handle it was underdeveloped. I know a lot of people who had “worse” stories than mine and did not develop an addiction to substances. I do not pretend to be an expert on trauma and substance abuse. There are schools of thought out there that say addiction is separate and is inherited the way you inherit eye color and is irrespective of environmental factors. There is another school of thought that the trauma “turns on” the gene. These are two over-simplified summations of these two schools of thought. I am not going to debate them or really do much speculation on what I think happened in my situation. I have alcoholism on both sides of my family, as do most people. It can skip generations from what I have seen, and it can also be in sequential generations. I know people who claim there are no other alcoholics in their family except for them, and I know people where everyone is. It is so multifaceted that it is hard to pinpoint what it is or where it comes from. It centers in the mind and thought patterns, and it is also a physical reaction in the body. The remission of the disease in my case (as there is no cure), depends upon my continual spiritual growth and service to the world and others. I do not know many other diseases (if any) that can be in complete remission from spiritual help alone. The curative powers of community, true fellowship amongst peers, supportive guides and friends, and daily, repeated, action toward the person you always wanted to be have been perplexingly transformative.
As I talk about my personal journey through each step, I need to give the disclaimer that I do not represent any of the 12-step fellowships, nor should my experience be taken as a definitive guide or seen as the example of how to work or do the steps. There is a large population of people in recovery. I am only one person. I am breaking my own anonymity, against the better guidance of the 12-step traditions. If you need to seek help for addiction or support for being in a relationship with an addicted person, I recommend seeking your own fellowship group which can easily be found by googling “12-step recovery meetings in _______ (insert your town or city).” Treatment is different from the fellowship, which is free (although we do give dues if we want to support a group’s continuing to be there for others as we often rent spaces from churches or other places that collect fees for use of the facilities. This is a completely optional form of giving and is not required to attend). If you need treatment there are many to choose from and many are specialized in different areas such as addiction to substances only, addiction to substances with trauma work, substances and eating disorder, and many other combinations and approaches. I recommend you do thorough research as all places look and sound the same on the internet. Call and talk to a staff member. You will know when you find the right fit. Treatment centers are as good at the people who work there, so if they are available and kind on the phone, chances are they have good availability for you or a loved one. If they are hurried, impersonal, or just icky in any other way, trust your senses and call around.
I will start around the time I started thinking about drinking and experimenting with drugs. I saw some joints when I was in middle school and heard about people smoking and having sex, but I was wholly uninterested. I like to joke that I peaked in middle school when I am trying to get a laugh out of some self-deprecating humor. I was co-captain of the cheerleading squad, played second chair cello, the lead in all the school plays, I was in honors classes and I had friends. I also ran track and played basketball. Life at the top was good, I did not want to mess that up with drugs or boys. My people-pleasing, however, was over the top. I wanted everyone to like me. Popularity began to come into view around this time but did not hit hard until freshman year of high school. I went from popular, to very unpopular. I went from one of the smallest middle schools to one of the largest high schools. I went from a low socioeconomic middle school to an affluent-dominated campus. I went to Austin High School. I think our freshman class was 900 people. I was nervous on my first day because I did not know what to expect. My four years at Austin High had highs and lows, but overall was the perfect breeding ground for my budding alcoholism, codependency and “bad behavior.” It was easy to find a party, get lost in the crowd, and pushed through the mill. It was impersonal, big, loud, and overwhelming in its variety of clubs, sports, and activities. It had everything from photography to AV club, to student government and so forth. I skipped my first class, smoked weed, and drank to get drunk my sophomore year. It seemed like the way to fit in. I was not popular, had little to no individual attention in my classrooms or at home and so I sought out my peers. People like me that did not fit in anywhere. Outcasts who wanted to buck authority like me and get away from all the confident, smarter, shinier people. We banded together and experimented with drugs, sex, and partying. Finding the party, buying drugs and whoever I was crushing on at the time were the focus of my life. We belonged to each other and nothing else. We were lost, but we were together. I made these friends, and eventually said goodbye to them after my good friend’s wedding debacle that I mentioned earlier.
The fact that other kids were not doing these things to the extent I was did not enter my perception. I know now that there were kids who were focused on their life’s path and making their life what they wanted it to be. There were kids who said no to drugs and sex because they believed they deserved better. There were kids who cared more about themselves than they did about how they were perceived by others. These same kids did not get caught shoplifting, defacing public property or tickets for “criminal mischief” or “minors in possession of tobacco or alcohol” charges. I did not know those kids, at least not very well. They were foreigners to me. Living in a different world. My ego judged them as “nerds”, but underneath I was anxious, felt less than, was constantly in a state of vigilant fear and used drugs and attractiveness as my currency for attention. My grades began to dwindle after my introduction to drugs and alcohol began. I though I was stupid. My mind constantly berated me for being a failure, ugly, unpopular, and dumb. I hated being at home. My relationship with my mother had deteriorated to next to nothing. The only communication we had was yelling and crying. I spent most of my time at my friend’s houses.
My brother is 3 years older than me and left for college after my freshman year of high-school. I was an only child for 3 years and it was awful. My brother and my mother always got along. He never did things to upset her. With him gone, there was no buffer for our growing hatred of one another. My Dad tried to keep the peace, but he and my mother’s marriage had been over for many years and they did not get along either, so he mostly worked and stared at his computer or the TV when he was home. It was a dark time. My friends were my solace, but I never told them about what happened in my home. No one really knew me that well. I was sure that if I told you the truth about who I was and where I came from, I would be rejected and then I would really be alone, and the thought and feeling were unbearable, so I stayed silent, but smiling. My inner rage toward my family, and myself fueled my drinking and my need for a relationship. Subconsciously I thought that a boyfriend would save me from the hell of my mind, not knowing that no, one person, would be able to handle the avalanche of baggage that I was bringing to a partnership. I would not learn for many years that I would be the one to save myself. Well, myself and a Higher Power. You see, drinking and drugging, and seduction and rom coms, are all just Band-Aids. They plug up the little holes of self-hatred and the endless barrage from the inner bully I had cultivated over my youth, but they never lasted.