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May 22, 2024

Abstinence in Recovery: How to Make Space for Mistakes.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about words—definitions we use on this path of recovery.

Whether it’s sobriety, abstinence, or relapse, addict, alcoholic, or alcohol-free living, who decides how we identify?

The recent astrological energies have shone a lovely spotlight on some of my wounds. One being this feeling of perfection that seeps into everything I do.

I live an alcohol-free life. I have dedicated myself to this path for five years and five months, and yet, I’ve slipped a few times. Something I only shared recently with my husband; a reveal that felt shameful, as if I had cheated on us and our commitment to alcohol-free living. I admitted that I had been tested by the demon, that a few situations “broke me,” but overall, I felt okay with the lapses in judgment. They had strengthened me.

But secretly, there has been this internal struggle of questioning my integrity. I’m wondering if I’m allowed to celebrate my journey, because it hasn’t been 100 percent abstinent. Who decides if I’m “recovered” anyway? If I’ve “relapsed”? If I’ve done enough work to claim “sobriety”?

How do we discern if moments of temptation or experiences with other substances are signs of a weakness instead of tests of strength? In AA, these few slips would be considered relapses. My days would have restarted at zero. This would have crumbled my resolve. I would feel awful about my lack of self-control and worried about the judgment of my loved ones. And even though I feel stronger than ever, I wonder if I have cheated myself. Am I truly being honest about my journey?

In my recovery coaching course, I was one of two participants who was not affiliated with AA. I felt fraudulent, as if I scammed a ticket to gain access backstage. I’ve never “done” the steps and I’ve never attended a meeting. I fully support the organization and honor every single soul who does, but it did not resonate with me. I did not feel helpless against a substance; I felt helpless against myself. My sad, suffering self who was unable to make a drastic shift in her life because her brain was addicted and her life revolved around a socially accepted substance. I didn’t like the feeling of shame that there was something inherently wrong with me. I did not associate with the disease model, or the titles of addict or alcoholic.

I actually feel this labeling is harmful and prevents people from attempting a new life. From taking a step toward something different, especially when it involves claiming an identity that is thrown around in our world with such disgust. You derelict, you addict, you who can’t control your addiction. Excuse me then, I will not ask for help. The judgment is lethal. The image of dark basements full of cigarette smoke and people sitting in a circle was prevalent for me, and even though I was dying for connection, and I desperately wanted help, I was not going to put myself in that environment. What if someone saw me?

I did quit cold turkey and was fortunate enough to have a ton of support—mostly the conscious choice of my husband and best friend who quit with me. I created a tool box of resources that I still use today, but having a network of loved ones who walked with me through that rocky first year was imperative. Community is key. AA provides that for a lot of people, but I couldn’t get over the labels to take a step toward their support.

And now I feel these labels of relapse infiltrating my current world, despite my lack of participation. Their messages are loud and bold. You chose one day at a time, but the moment you choose wrong, you go backward. No. That model does not empower me. It does not encourage me to courageously choose this path that is already different and challenging. I will not agree to a path that blames me for making mistakes, as if my failures instead of my triumphs define me.

I want the perfectionist in me to see that those slips do not devalue my journey. Abstinence is and will be the most important choice for me. But those few mistakes only strengthened my resolve to keep going. They help me see that I am exactly where and how I want to be. To know that I am choosing myself and that alcohol does not have power over me. I quit drinking on January 2, 2019, and every single day since I made that decision, I have been in recovery. My energy and my efforts are devoted to living a better life, one where I feel proud, inspired, and motivated to create change and live dynamically.

We’re allowed. We’re allowed to make mistakes! And no one can take away our journeys or our days. We all get to have our experiences and label them adequately. Someone who has had zero drinks since claiming their path is incredible. And so am I, having fumbled and been challenged to commit even deeper and clearer to this life.

May you find your way and feel confident in your ability to create change. For yourself, without labels or expectations of how to do it perfectly.

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