"Wouldn't it be freeing, Ellie, to relinquish control?" she asked. "You're hanging on tighter and tighter, because to let go is uncertain, unknown, and that makes you afraid."
I'm not afraid of anything, I thought. I left out the most important caveat, though: I'm not afraid of anything when I'm drinking.
"You think surrendering is cowardly, when in fact the opposite is true." she said, and I felt a hot flash of anger. "You're chickenshit. You want control over people, places and things, and because you don't have that control you settle for the next best thing and use alcohol to alter your reality."
I clenched my hands into fists and glared at her.
She glared right back. "You want to know what real courage is? Real courage is facing whatever life has to offer, not hiding in a bottle. You think you have all the answers? You think you know what's best? Then how did you end up here? You're here because you're too afraid to be present in your own life. You're afraid to live life on life's terms. It takes real courage to trust in a power greater than yourself."
I hated all the Higher Power talk. I need boots-on-the-ground help, not pie-in-the-sky help, I thought
"Give it over, Ellie," she said quietly. "Get out of your own way."
When I stumbled into my first recovery meetings, there was all this talk about surrendering, and it made me bristle. To me surrendering meant giving up. I pictured a bloodied and broken army, waving the white flag, turning themselves over to the opposition. Brave soldiers who were willing to fight to the death, becoming prisoners of the victors. Surrender meant one thing to me: you lost.
I'm strong, I thought. I just have to fight harder.
With time, though, I realized what was really going through my head: the right to drink is MINE. Nobody is going to take it away from me. I was determined to figure out how to control my drinking, because defeat meant a life sentence of joyless boredom. If I lost, I thought would never have fun again.
At one year sober, after going to many, many meetings and opening up to other alcoholics in recovery, I had accepted that I was powerless over alcohol. I finally understood that when I drank I gave all my power to alcohol, and in return it gave me the illusion that I was in control. Not a fair trade. I still didn't understand the talk about a Higher Power, nor did I care to, but I could navigate through most days without wanting to drink.
But I still wanted to hide.
I wanted to hide from the tough feelings: anger, resentment, boredom and sadness. I had lost my anesthesia, but I found other ways to work around the tough stuff. I hid from anger by pushing my opinions to the bottom of the pile. I hid from resentment by being easy, agreeable, letting other peoples' needs come before mine. I hid from boredom by keeping busy, avoiding moments of silence and reflection by rushing onward to the next thing, and the next. I hid from sadness by immersing myself in other peoples' pain and ignoring my own.
I was still trying to control my emotions, except this time not with alcohol, but by stuffing everything down, keeping busy, investing my energy into other people and deflecting my own fears.
One year sober and I was just as lost, confused and empty as before, only now I couldn't drink to hide from it.
I talked about it with other people in recovery, and the advice I got was to let it go, to surrender. Again.
One day, about fourteen months sober, I got desperate. All the problems in my life that I drank around were still there. My marriage was still rocky, being a mother still terrified me, I still didn't know who I was or what I wanted from life. And now the damndest thing had happened: I didn't want to drink. There I was, successfully sober and completely miserable.
So I faked it.
I got down on my knees, feeling like a fraud. I'm really unhappy, I whispered. I'm afraid. I'm afraid all the time.
I waited. I waited for some sign - a beam of light? An inner awakening? A vision from above?
After a moment I heard a voice- a baritone version of my own (of course) - echoing in my head: What are you so afraid of?
Out of nowhere, it hit me. The truth, I whispered. I'm afraid of the truth. That maybe I'm not cut out to be a full time mother, maybe I want more from life, and is that okay? That I'm afraid to stand up for myself, because I fear that people will leave me if I'm not giving them exactly what they want.
And then I cried. I cried for half an hour - big, ugly, snuffling sobs. All the tears I had held back, the sadness I had stuffed down, came pouring out. I felt better. I felt a loosening, a kind of letting go.
Where did that come from? A Higher Power? The Fates? The Universe? A truer, more divine part of self?
Does it matter where it came from?
My problems weren't solved in that moment; solutions didn't pour from the sky like magic raindrops. Something more helpful, more important, happened. In that moment I stopped running, hiding, stuffing; I got down on my knees and out of myself. I loosened the death grip I had on my pain, just for a moment. Getting out of my own way allowed some of the truth peek through.
Surrendering isn't giving up, it's giving over. Surrendering yourself to whatever is next, not by your design, but to whatever life has in store for you.
I try to give over the feelings that threaten my sobriety and my sanity. I take my pain, sadness and fear and carve them away from myself, drag them into the light, and give them over. I still don't know what or who I'm giving them over to, but it doesn't matter. As long as it's not me. And it's not you, either. It's something bigger than any one person, an energy that flows around us and, of course, through us.
Sometimes I'm on my knees, but not always. Sometimes I'm lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep, and my mind won't leave me alone. Perhaps I'm in the car, thinking horrible thoughts about the person who just cut me off, or standing in my kitchen with my face in my hands because the kids are driving me crazy.
Here, take it, I think. Take this anger, frustration and pain and get it away from me, until I'm ready to handle it.