For many, if not most, of the people in my day-to-day life I am the only alcoholic - at least self-admitted alcoholic - they know.
Or, perhaps more accurately, I am the only alcoholic in recovery they know. Over half the population in the United States has been directly or indirectly impacted by addiction, and many people are familiar only with the ugly, destructive face of alcoholism; the one that rips apart families, destroys childhoods and brings so much sorrow and fear.
In 2008 I decided to start blogging about my journey in recovery. It's the truth that I never thought many people would read it. I wrote it for myself, to stay close to my truth, to heal the woman that drank her feelings away for so long. As I healed and met so many incredible recovering people, and so many suffering people, it became clear to me that the stigma of addiction - the shame - keeps far too many people stuck and alone.
I also realized that I never met one single person who was ashamed of their recovery.
This was the spark behind why I continued to write about my journey, why I started the non-profit Shining Strong and why I have been so determined, for as long as I have been on this path, to bring voices together in honesty and truth to break through this stigma and shame. Recovering people are nothing short of amazing. They have stared their own demons dead in the face, put down the substance that numbed the fear and learned how to embrace their frailties, their vulnerabilities - their own humanity- in ways you don't see often in this fast-paced, shiny, perfection-driven world.
I was truly humbled and proud (turns out those emotions can cohabitate) to be one of the pioneering women online who were sharing their experience, strength and hope to heal themselves and let the struggling alcoholic know she's not alone.
My war cry was that I would continue to write until it no longer helped me and then I would step down.
Here's the thing about a war cry: it implies that you're in battle. In my case more like a crusade. It is nearly impossible to ride out in front on a white horse waving the flag for a mission you believe strongly in and not lose yourself in the process.
I lost myself.
The past two years have been difficult. Losing my Dad so suddenly followed quickly by my cancer diagnosis were a one-two punch that I never fully recovered from, although I was the last one to figure this out.
Instead of doing some hard work and facing the grief, anxiety, depression and PTSD that was growing worse, I threw myself into work, into the cause, into helping others... into anything that took me out of myself.
To me and the rest of the world I seemed very, very busy but content. Every now and then a good friend would say "are you doing too much?" and I would say that I am doing a lot but that I love everything I'm doing and couldn't imagine giving up anything. I was so convincing because I believed this myself.
Slowly but surely the foundation of self-care and recovery I had built for myself began to erode. I stopped going to cancer support groups. I stopped yoga. And eventually I stopped recovery meetings. When asked about this my reply was invariably: "I speak to dozens of people in recovery every day! I'm fine!"
I wasn't working my own program of recovery, though.
There were signs. Insomnia. Panic attacks. Exhaustion that led to sleeping at odd times of the day. Recurring nightmares. Bouts of fear so crippling I could barely breathe. Crying jags I couldn't stop.
If anyone peered too closely at me, inquired as to whether I was okay, I would admit to some of the things that were happening, but deliver this information all wrapped up in a nice little package with a proverbial bow on it, implying that because I was aware of these problems that I was fine, that I had a handle on everything.
I informed people, but I didn't ask for help. The truth is I didn't know how badly off I was.
I'm scrappy. I have always lived by the motto "when the going gets tough, the tough get going". It works really well for me in many areas of my life... including cancer. To get through cancer treatments you have to be a fighter.
Recovery, however, is not about fighting. It's about daily surrender. It's about having the courage to be vulnerable, to sit with hard feelings, to tackle hardships as they arise because anything that festers in an recovering alcoholic's brain can lead to a drink.
I stopped surrendering. I tucked my chin and squared my shoulders and I ran. I ran as hard and as fast as I could, hoping (without even consciously knowing this) that I could outfox fear through sheer determination.
This is the biggest mistake an alcoholic can make because I can't think my way out of a feeling. I can't distract myself from it through any means - including workaholism. The thing about workaholism is it looks healthy from the outside. Our society rewards the over-worked and exhausted
Without a program of recovery, without asking for help, without offering the same love I give others so freely to myself I ended up a shell of a person ... full of fear and sadness for all the un-dealt-with things.
I was in so much emotional pain that I relapsed. I didn't think I could drink in safety; I knew I couldn't. I just wanted the pain to stop. I didn't call anyone. I didn't ask for help. I didn't get honest. I curled up into a ball and gave up.
It took me down fast, and it took me down hard. It lasted one week - in November - and I ended up in treatment for 30 days.
I would love to say I went gracefully and willingly. I didn't. I was so full of shame and misguided pride that I wanted desperately to stop without having to go away.
My family and friends did the only thing they could do: they told me to go get help or to get out. They saved my life, because it fanned that tiny little flame in me - my recovery pilot light - that told me I deserve to be well. It overcame the self-destructive shame just long enough for me to surrender and accept help. They loved me when I couldn't love myself.
Back to my original statement - that I am, in many cases, the only recovering person (at least the only public one) people know. Most of the people in my day-to-day life have never seen the addict that rages in me. Not even my children, who were very young when I first got sober. Not most of my friends, because I kept her carefully hidden away for so many years.
This time, though. she came out. My family and friends saw the face of alcoholism. It's not pretty.
And this time. my disease tells me, I should have known better. I forget all the compassion and love I give others who relapse. Self-centered fear of rejection and judgment takes over and I hate myself. Shame comes over me like a tidal wave, and I start to drown.
My world is reduced to two choices: ask for help and live, or curl up in shame and drown.
I chose life.
This is the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder than cancer, because it involves surrender and so, so much shame. In order to live I have to stare this shame (and fear) in the face every single day and that makes me feel very. very vulnerable.
I feel judged. I know the people in my town - most of them at least - are aware of what happened (if they weren't they are now!). Suddenly I don't want to be the face of recovery anymore. I want to disappear. I want to pull a cloak of invisibility over my shame and pretend nothing happened. Everyone I see I think: "do they know?" That's my precious ego rearing its ugly head; the very-much-human part of me that is so scared of not being liked or respected.
But I didn't come this far to shut up now. This relapse - as painful and humiliating as it is - is part of my journey. It is part of my Recovery Story because - Thank GOD - I am still in recovery. I made it back, not because of my own will but in spite of it. I got back to recovery through the love of others, and for this I will always be grateful.
I have a lot of hard work to do. I am in the process of figuring out where writing fits into my life now. I put my whole life into the very, very capable hands of other recovering women who are running Shining Strong while I sort myself out. I put my jewelry businesses on hold.
Recovery is full time job. I have a lot of changes to make, but I am taking in one day at a time. I don't have any set notion of how my life should be anymore. I am doing my best and letting go of the outcome. I surrender, and get out of my own way.
I have started and stopped this post dozens of times. I sought counsel from others in recovery about whether I wanted to - or even should - write anything about it.
Every day I am healing a little more. growing stronger. I pray every day - at least twice a day - and ask for openness, honesty, willingness and gratitude. I pray for forgiveness from others and from myself. I pray for the release from the bondage of self-centered fear. I ask for guidance, and for God's will - not mine - to be done.
I embrace my humanity - that trembling scared little girl that never feels like a grown-up - and I tell her I love her.
I am telling myself that I'm worth it, even if I don't always feel that in my heart. I am trying to give myself the same gift of compassion I would give to anyone I know who relapses.
Shame and guilt are not the same thing. Guilt says "I did a bad thing". Shame says "I am a bad person".
I have done things I feel guilty about. and for those I will make amends when I'm stronger. I am not a bad person. I made poor choices, and I will face the consequences of those choices.
If there is one thing I want my kids to learn about life it is that it is not our mistakes that define us. It's how we deal with them that matters. Shame is a killer of dreams, of hope, of self-esteem, of love.
I am a woman in recovery, and I am not ashamed of that. Not one bit.
Ironically, I am turning to the message of Shining Strong for help. I watch this video we published exactly one year ago today, and see my kids holding signs that say "Your Voice Matters" and I want to believe that not just in my head, but in my heart: