Recovery is the most overwhelming experience I’ve ever had. Whether in a meeting room of complete strangers or in a treatment center learning to live among people of all backgrounds, the fear and uncertainty I dealt with was extraordinary. I remember doing my best to participate in conversations with others yet never fully understanding all this recovery stuff they were talking about.
People kept repeating certain words and phrases which they said were “suggestions” yet I had no idea how to piece them together to make sense. I just wanted someone to tell me, in very simple terms, how to keep from taking a drink. There were countless moments I wanted to yell out, “STOP! This is too much. Just tell me how I’m supposed to get through the next hour without wanting to have a drink!”
I assumed there has to be a “how to” somewhere. After all, this idea of recovery has been around for a really long time. I was given a book and told to read the first several pages, preferably with intention. I didn’t take that advice. I looked at the table of contents, flew open the chapter identified as how this whole thing works only to find the pages did not contain how I was to get through the day without having a glass of wine or ten; how I was supposed to handle a social function, business dinner or when the clock struck “happy hour.” After assuring I had done my due diligence, making sure I had given the book a thorough read, I wanted to throw that damn book out the window. I was really angry because I didn’t find what I was hoping to.
As long as I’m putting all my cards on the table, I really wasn’t all that thrilled about being in a group setting to talk about all this. I didn’t know these people. I didn’t want to have to reveal every little internal thought and feeling I had in front of a total strangers. Are you kidding me? No way! What I really wanted was the “at-home-study” course.
I believed I’d be far more comfortable in the privacy of my own home, fully vested in a self-help program. I had yet to understand the process of recovery requires hearing other people share their insight and experience in addition to the written word. The problem was I didn’t want to share mine. If I did, I’d have to reveal the woman I truly was, a woman in desperate need of refining.
I was told to go to meetings so I did. Upon entering, I’d scan the room identifying certain men and women as “cool” because they appeared to have an assuredness about them which I immediately envied. I wanted what they had. I wanted to appear “cool” enough to claim a seat next to them. Yet deep down, I felt like I didn’t have the secret code they shared so I couldn’t possibly fit in. Was I expected to speak up, and if so, what was I supposed to say? I was utterly terrified I’d be required to tell them how much I drank, how little I remembered and how much I’d lied.
My fears were eliminated as soon as the person leading the meeting said anyone could talk, but certainly not a requirement. I don’t know how long I had been holding my breath but at that moment, I finally exhaled. Over time I came to understand the option to share personal information is completely up to me and once I figured that out, I felt a real connection to every other person in the room.
The more meetings I attended the more I heard answers to the questions I had asked in silence for years before admitting I needed help. I was rather astonished to find these answers were rather consistently being provided by the very same people I’d perceived to be at peace with themselves and those around them. I wanted what they had; a life that made sense because at the time, my life didn’t make any sense at all.
I was still so tempted to run from everything and everyone associated with recovery. The laundry list of things I had to do, learn and accept seemed never-ending. I felt sorry for myself more than I felt sorry for all I had done or not done. Many days I just wanted to pull the covers over my head, and keep the world at bay. I began to feel like a little girl again, terrified of what awaited me outside the safety and comfort of my bed.
Yet for some reason I didn’t stay in bed and I didn’t run from what was being asked of me. I can’t say I skipped and hummed with excitement as I made my way to meetings or as I dialed phone numbers to talk with other recovering people (as was suggested I do on a daily basis). In truth, I would have rather had root canal without Novocain. I couldn’t understand why I was being asked to do the opposite of everything I had taught myself would work for me. I wanted to keep my personal business to myself, never disclosing more than I absolutely had to. Many times I found myself wondering if the people speaking are aware we all heard what they had just said. Although I was embarrassed for them, I was intrigued by how open other people were being. Didn’t they fear being judged? Didn’t they wonder if everyone else was pointing out their faulty way of managing their lives? Once again I could not piece this puzzle together.
As I continued to listen to what others were saying, I came to understand there are a lot of people who had gone through some of the same things I had. I took in well-spoken advice, intentionally listening with gratitude, not judgment. I remember hearing stories of DUI’s, time spent in jail, money lost and relationships shattered. My blood ran cold as I thought, “Thank God that didn’t happen to me.” I would soon add the word, “yet” to the end of that thought because unless I remain free from unhealthy substances and behaviors, I may very well find myself in those seemingly awful situations.
From that point on I didn’t listen just for compatibility, I listened for the forewarned messages.
This doesn’t mean I was free from confusion. There were still many words and references used which threw me for a loop. I’d try to figure my way through the overall message yet my only point of reference was what I held in my own head. I didn’t dare to ask someone for clarification. The more I denied the insight of others, the more confused I got. Admittedly I was intimidated to ask someone. I thought by doing so I’d sound naïve, or even worse, stupid. I mean, my God, if there was at least one thing I could put in the positive column about myself I always presumed I was bright and intelligent. I had proven to myself I was capable of getting myself through a lot of really hard things in life. If I could find my way through to a college degree, a well-paying job and a marriage, surely I should be able to figure out what someone was trying to convey during a recovery meeting. Yet in reality, if I were able to do that, I would not be laying claim to the seat I sat in.
In the beginning, I just wanted to just feel better. I wanted all my guilt, shame, remorse and fear to be stripped away immediately. I had no idea recovery was a process requiring patience and time versus a project with a beginning and an end. I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to wait to fully understand how to repurpose and refine my life. And I most certainly had no idea how in the world I was supposed to figure out what was the next “right” thing for me to do.
I remember so vividly how I kept thinking there was so much to take in all at once. I can say with complete confidence that what I couldn’t initially comprehend has eventually become clear. I just needed to give myself and the program of recovery some time. Recovery means change and change requires action, not intention. I had to gather the data about what I needed to recover from practical experience, not base on theoretical information provided by someone who only studied the subject. To this day I know I need some sort of tactical experience in addition to what I read or hear from people in order to fully embrace what being in recovery means.
In 2002 Alison Smela sought in-patient treatment for alcoholism and in 2008 entered a residential treatment center to combat anorexia. In addition to sponsoring/mentoring women in both recovery fellowships, Alison speaks to groups around the country to encourage mid-life recovery, offering her recovery story to be an example of hope. She’s been a participating resource for educational webinars, conferences and teleconferences and is a contributing writer for several online communities. She’s been featured in several articles about mid-life recovery in publications such as Vogue, Forbes.com, ABC News, HealthDay News and Renew Magazine. Alison has been an active board member for a 12-Step fellowship club where she attends meetings on a regular basis. Learn more at www.alisonsmela.com