How I Claimed My Place in Recovery to Gain Long Term Sobriety
*** A SPECIAL EDITION TIR RECOVERY POST ***
by Claire Rudy Foster
There is no recovery by osmosis.
I know this because I got sober in near isolation. There was no treatment center for me at the end of my drinking. No circle of metal folding chairs in a classroom decorated with construction paper rainbows. There was no court ordered AA or diversion classes.
For many people, the beginning of recovery is the beginning of contact with other people. For me, it was the beginning of a deep and profound connection to a God that existed in and around me at all times. Recovery introduced me to my true self. But first, I had to be alone with her.
My last was a double shot of Jameson, rocks, and it went down like a swig of kerosene.
I remember looking down into my highball glass and steadying myself, as though for a long fall off a high dive. I was so tired of drinking. My body hurt. The daily blackouts were getting to me. My hangovers were chronic, to the point where I only noticed when the wave of pain receded for an hour or so.
I didn’t think that May 20, 2007 was going to be any different from the sodden days that preceded it. On the outside, it looked the same. I was at a bar in a tiny red dress, sitting in a booth with a stranger I didn’t know or like, drinking whiskey that I didn’t want to drink.
I was 23 and sick to my bones. My drinking and drug use dulled the outside world and turned other people into cartoonish speech bubbles or vague shapes that floated through my vision. I felt alone because I’d lost my ability to perceive reality. At the end, I couldn’t trust anything I felt, smelled, tasted, or even saw.
Once, I watched my lover’s face vanish into a smooth, skin colored mask, only to be replaced by a different person’s features. And then back again, as though a hand had smoothed the expression back into place. I didn’t know when I was dreaming and when I was awake.
The nightmare of detoxing physically lasted somewhere between 12 hours and 3 days. I could not swear to it, because I was not well. I do not remember leaving the Murphy bed, even to vomit or use the toilet. There was a tall trash can with a liner in it next to the head of the bed, and I believe that I used this receptacle indiscriminately as my body rejected the poison I’d been pouring into it.
I remember my lover standing over me, disgusted. The apartment smelled like grilled cheese. Bile. I wanted a cigarette, but the smell of smoke sickened me. I couldn’t move. My body was tacked to the mattress.
And after that?
Once I could walk again, go back to work, and string together coherent sentences, people started to leave me. My drinking friends disappeared; so did the men who’d lingered hopefully around me , knowing how pliable I could be when I was intoxicated.
I quit my job because I hated it, and I was getting married. I got a job working in a kitchen, baking pies, and then I could see only two or three people a day instead of fifty. I didn’t know how to connect with other people without alcohol, and one by one, without that liquid bond, they slipped away.
The first three years I spent in recovery were bewildering, a tunnel of funhouse mirrors. Without other people to compare myself to or learn from, I had no sense of proportion. I didn’t know how real people talked, or argued, or were kind to each other. I didn’t know how to have friendships because I had few people to practice on—my relationships were conducted online, mostly, or via infrequent emails with girls I’d met back in college and hadn’t kept up with. I read a lot of magazines. My self-care was impeccable.
Since I was home all day with my new baby, I spent all my time taking care of him, cleaning, doing yoga, and reading articles about how to do those things better. I did at-home cleanses for my digestive system. I experimented with my hair. I ordered clothes online so that I wouldn’t have to leave the house. I was alone with myself, and it took three years for me to realize how painfully lonely I was.
My first AA meeting introduced me to a fellowship of people like me—the ones who were damaged, scared, dying. I wasn’t new to recovery but I was new to myself. I learned that when I was around other people, I could watch them and learn how they did things. In many cases, I was able to avoid a relapse or a serious mistake because I listened to what other people shared in meetings. They’re doing my research for me, I realized. I collected data, got less shy about asking questions, and learned to tell the truth. To cut corners and try to make myself sound better than I was, was risky. I didn’t know the inner me well enough to not fool myself.
As my connection to my inner self got stronger, and I stopped acting the role I thought life had assigned me, I also began to sense something else, outside of me. I heard other people describe this other thing as God, which is what I call it, too.
God is never further from me than my own breath...
I felt the world breathing around me and I inhaled, deeply. If other people were a mirror for me, or a petri dish, then God was the cloud that filled the collapsing places inside me. God was the wind in my sails. The breeze, tugging my coat and turning my umbrella inside out, making me laugh. In God, I discovered my true self and its nature. I was relieved to learn that I was not so different from anyone else.
That meant that, like anyone else, I needed my own recovery. I couldn’t rely on other people to carry me or keep me sober. In my AA meetings, I saw the importance of taking responsibility for myself. Hanging out with sober people wasn’t enough. Neither was doing the bare minimum for my program, checking the suggested boxes of service, self-care, Step work, and meetings.
There had to be depth in my program, a genuine relationship with God that gave my life meaning. I saw many people relapse, people who seemed to have all the right, magic ingredients. They went to a ton of meetings, made lots of friends, had a sponsor and a home group, said all the right things, and still did not keep their sobriety.
I began to suspect that the service they were doing was to the people in their sober clique; that their fellowship had become an echo chamber that drowned out the quiet signals God sent. Too many voices, too many fruitless commitments, too many platitudes. I kept the fellowship at arms’ length and worked with the people on the outside of the golden circle. The people I spent time with were the chronic relapsers, jerks, lonely know-it-alls, sex workers, queers, shy people, and stutterers.
Was this the right thing to do? I don’t know. I am still sober, and many of the people I knew who were holding the banner of recovery are not.
Recovery is not a pill or a yoga pose. It’s not a prescription. Despite the rigid structure of the 12 Steps—which are in the order they’re in for a reason—I found that AA is incredibly fluid. Adaptable. When I went against the grain of what the people around me were doing and trusted my intuition, I found serenity. I experienced new aspects of myself, and I learned was I was really like, because I was alone with God. There was nobody to witness to me about the miracle of sobriety. I was living it; I was my own proof.
When I need a meeting, I go to a meeting—but I take God with me, always. When I need to be by myself, I can close my eyes and go deep to experience the presence of my Higher Power. I am solitary, but not alone.
My recovery has taught me to trust myself to be alone, to use the tools I’m given to maintain my own life. Nobody can do that for me. AA provided me with the skills I need to help another alcoholic or addict, and to help myself stay sober and safe until that opportunity comes.
When it does, I have a gift to share: my recovery, which is the most precious thing I own.
But it was never for me, for my healing and enjoyment. It was always so that I could help other people. When I came to my senses and found lasting sobriety, I discovered that other people were all around me—and that the best way to help them was by being my whole, flawed, lovely, recovered self.
About the Author
Claire Rudy Foster is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. For a list of her other writing on TIR, click here.
Her critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Dan's Note: If you've grown to love Claire's writing as much as I have, you'll do well to get her book for yourself. Believe me, you'll be glad you did.