March 14, 2022

A Reminder for those in Recovery: You’re Not a F*ck-Up—it’s just Hard.


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My eyes shot a glance at the clock in the lower right-hand side of my laptop with its conspicuous 0.05 font.

There were less than 10 minutes left for me to pour my heart out to my therapist.

“How do you feel about maybe going to an AA meeting?” she asked.

“Bah humbug.”

She laughed. We’ve had plenty of discussion in the past about my relationship with the 12 Steps. It began as ambivalence and grew into disdain.

I say disdain because I can’t stand the way that people who use again after many years are basically dressed down like AWOL soldiers. As if, after 10 years of abstinence, these four-star generals deserved to be busted down to private. Just like that. No longer able to sponsor anyone and no longer even considered a viable source of advice. The overarching attitude in “the rooms” is “what advice could they possibly give you if they took a pill or drank a glass of wine?”

And I use the word ambivalent because I know, in one respect, that the shame of being knocked down the hierarchy for one single lapse in judgment was likely what kept many people on the straight and narrow—but at the same time, this whole process of people being stripped of their hard-won identity and essentially excommunicated was terribly painful to watch.

Alcoholics Anonymous groups don’t track data as a rule (that would, of course, foul the whole anonymity portion of the program), but anecdotally speaking, what I have noticed over the past decade is that people tend to relapse right after their first year or right after their tenth year.

People with five or six years are usually under the impression that they “know everything” and, although they will never admit it, generally feel like they will live happily ever after, enjoying their seniority in this exclusive club. They’ve got a half dozen friends who have upwards of 20 years of solid sobriety and they imagine they’re heading right in that direction. What they don’t see is that those six people are a fortunate minority. For those six, there are likely 26 that didn’t make it that far. Some, not wanting to face the shame, never come back.

But that’s not even the whole point. Let me give you an inside look at my own sobriety to illustrate what I’m trying to convey. I got myself to a meeting as summer was ending in 2010 and within a few months, I began to feel better—physically, at least. Financially, I was in a world of pain; emotionally, I was a wreck; and spiritually, I had a sh*t ton of work to do.

A year and a half in, I began to learn a viable trade and found a partner I can still honestly say I loved. We moved in together and set out to start a family. My life was honestly surpassing my most audacious expectations. By the time I graduated from trucking school, which is only a six-week proposition, I landed a job where I immediately doubled my income.

When me and my partner started having children, I hit a brick wall. It’s common that men usually lose their place in the order of priorities when babies are in the picture, but this felt extreme and untenable. After almost three years of sleeping in a separate room and carrying on emotional affairs and micro-cheating with a half dozen women, I had to leave.

My sobriety remained intact, but my behaviors were not spiritual in the least. I would start dating someone and shortly after the physical relationship was established, I’d find something bad enough to end things. There were about 11 different women in four years. Not exactly Wilt Chamberlain, but not really healthy, either.

The point I am getting at is that once I put the drugs and the alcohol down, my issues—with no safe place to go—began to manifest in other somewhat unhealthy, although more legal, ways. Women, friendships, incessant social media scrolling, and anything else I could shove in my face to dull the pain were the substitute. Now, the core belief in AA is that working the steps is supposed to address these issues, but, for me, that never quite got off the ground.

I do not, in the least bit, regret these 11-plus years of abstinence. If I did not put my whole heart into recovery, I would never have accomplished the career, financial, and creative goals that I did. But I learned just as much in my 11 years of life experience as I did in my 11 years of recovery. Harm was definitely reduced, but like many people, I have past trauma that shows up in a lot of disappointing ways and I am not shy about punishing myself for every perceived transgression I commit.

I truly thank God that I have a beautiful therapist who reminds me every week to ease up on myself. That is probably one of my most valuable resources right now. So valuable, I feel compelled to share it with every person who happens to read this. There is no person on Earth who goes from substance issues to saintly perfection with three or four years of sobriety. We can only hope to heal and divert our attention to less harmful activities.

Finally, my most important message is this: if you are trying, but find yourself starting over time and time again, don’t pay any mind to the people who try to make you feel “less than.” Whether they realize it or not, there’s a better than average chance that they are engaged in substitutions and other nefarious activities they are keeping to themselves.

Recovery from substance and alcohol use is never a linear process. At best, it’s always a work in progress. So never stop working, and never stop reminding yourself that you are not a f*ck up—you’re a rock star.


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