Today I celebrated 1 full year of abstention from alcohol and other mood-altering substances. I am very grateful that I no longer have the compulsion to escape my experience through drugs and alcohol. A lot of really neat things have happened this year, as often happens to addicts and alcoholics when we put down the substance and begin working a program of recovery. I've chronicled these events over the past year in this blog, but the biggest thing that has happened this year is that I have been relieved of the habit of sabotaging my recovery, the symptoms of major depressive disorder, and have experienced more emotional healing than ever before. This past year has been the best year of my life so far.
As you might know, this isn't my first rodeo. I've been trying to recover, with various levels of effort, for 38 years. I've experienced many periods of sobriety, ranging from several months to a little more than 3 years. About 7 years ago, I began addressing my mental health disorder, major depressive disorder, in earnest. I've experienced this mood disorder for most of my life, and it was around before I started drinking. For a lot of reasons, I was in denial that I have a mood disorder, and this denial greatly diminished my chances of recovery - from anything. When I began to accept it and really start addressing it, I was able to attain 3 years of sobriety. Then the journey to relapse began again, and I began drinking again, with all the attendant problems of relationship damage, job loss, homelessness, and legal issues. I sought treatment yet again, and found out that I also have to learn to deal effectively with trauma. (Everybody who experiences trauma deals with it, one way or another - it's just that what I could come up with on my own did not work very well). So for the 6 months or so before my last relapse, I began to work on that as well. I didn't realize that I had begun making progress until after the last relapse, when I was able to stop suicidal ideation and the desire to die. I began to have enough ambition toward healing that I was able to begin to consistently apply to my life the tools I've been learning over the past 4 decades.
So here's the deal: I have a problem with sobriety 'birthdays'. I know that it's important to note milestones in recovery, but I think - well, I know, in my case - that the quantity (time) of sobriety does not necessarily have very much to do at all with the quality of sobriety. Yes, if I've been sober a year, I must be doing something right, but the same is true if I've been sober a day. Just putting the plug in the jug, as they used to say, does not reverse the psychological and emotional damage my addiction and my mental illness have done to me.
By the way, I didn't stay sober a year. I stayed sober each day that I woke up and desired another day of healing and recovery. So far, that's been the past 365 days.
There is a lot of outer evidence that my addiction is arrested: first of all, I haven't been (arrested)! But I've also managed to maintain good steady employment, I'm homeful again (as opposed to homeless), I have a valid driver's license again, and I haven't been broke in at least 9 months. Like time in sobriety, however, these things don't necessarily attest to what is going inside of me, and that's where I really live.
I heard something a number of years ago that was a revelation to me - that when everybody in my life (family, employer, probation officer, counselor, doctor, banker, friends) said I had a problem with my drinking, they didn't know that drinking was not my problem - drinking was my solution. I won't begin to accept sobriety until I accept that my solution no longer works, and surrender to the fact that because of the damage my disease has done to me, I'm unable to come up with a better solution. I must have help on the journey of recovery.
And therein lies the problem of addiction recovery - eventually, hopefully more sooner than later, I have to take responsibility for my own recovery. Because I've stopped drinking, and because I've got people in my life encouraging me and supporting me in my recovery, my life gets better - alcoholics and addicts get their job back, their woman back, their truck back, their probation officer tells them they're doing great and puts them on the lowest level of supervision, their mama's stopped worrying, and on and on and on. They get congratulated on a year's sobriety. That's awesome! But if the alcoholic/addict in recovery is not aware, and has not assumed responsibility for their own recovery, relapse will happen. It's not the stuff on the outside that made us use; it's the stuff on the inside. And nobody but the person in recovery knows what's going on on their insides. A human being's subconscious, addict or not, drives 90% of the human's behavior, until they become aware or conscious. This is perfectly fine, unless there's stuff in the subconscious that is counterproductive to living a decent life and, again, because of the wounds we've inflicted upon ourselves through our addiction, there is inner stuff that needs to be healed in order to stay out of active addiction. And nobody, not even your closest girlfriend, can tell you what's going on in your subconscious. That's something each individual has to find out for themselves, through whatever means are available.
This is why I mentioned earlier that the biggest miracle in my life has not been that I've been able to abstain for a year, but that I have stopped experiencing the symptoms of major depressive disorder. My recovery from depression fuels my sobriety, because when I don't hate myself, when I don't think I'm a piece of shit, when I don't want to die - in other words, when I like myself enough - I have no desire to drink, and I know how to stay away from drinking. I do understand that, as an alcoholic in recovery, I will need to work a program of recovery for the rest of my life in order to stay sober. I've been around long enough to see what happens to people who stop working their program, no matter how much 'time' they have in. But, by the same token, if I want to stay in recovery from alcoholism, I also need to learn what I need to do to stay in recovery from depression, and that's what I've been doing this past year. And, for me, recovery from depression involves a whole lot more than "taking my medication." That's what makes my psychiatrist happy when I talk to her every 3 months, but it's not what necessarily makes me happy.
In conclusion, dear friends, it's nice to enjoy the outer rewards of recovery, and to be recognized as being in recovery. Recovery wouldn't look too attractive if there weren't some hope that someone or Something could pull us out of the gutter. I know how to put the pieces back together and how to get approval from others, but this year I've been learning something I never learned before in this lifetime - how to approve of and respect myself, and how to like myself and love myself and love life. That's something nobody else can give me, no matter what I do or how hard I try. It can only come from inside.