This might sound silly, but an incident that happened on my high school volleyball team effectively poisoned me against women for most of my adult life. Burned in the recesses of my mind from age 17 on was the notion that even if they seemed agreeable, they were probably out to get me, and they definitely weren’t to be trusted or “let in” as a potential friend. Yes, I fancied myself one of those “guy’s girls” who just didn’t get along with other women, and that was OK. 🙄
All it took was 25 years spent developing an alcohol addiction and f*cking up my life to discover how wrong I was and how much I had been missing.
Entering recovery back in July 2019 has opened up a whole new world to me, in general, and a beyond-amazing community of women, in particular. “Amazing” is an overused word now — and I hate feeling uncreative — but there just is no other way I can think of to describe the spiritual and emotional experience I’ve been through over my first six months of sobriety.
I marked my half-year “anniversary” this past weekend at a sober women’s retreat at the St. Raphaela Center in Haverford, PA. Which means I — the one who “doesn’t like women” (and really isn’t all that fond of people), is scared of big groups and is a complete slave to my schedule and habits to the point where I freak out when I can’t control what I eat or when/where I exercise — voluntarily stayed overnight in a dormitory with 50-some women I had never met before and ate buffet-style meals and did a circuit workout in a dark parking lot and yoga in the mud. I even stood up and swayed — a little bit — when the retreat leader played some — what would my dad call it? Hippie dippy? — music and everyone began cavorting around the room and singing/chanting.
The old me would have declared, “I’m not nearly drunk enough for this,” but in this case I suppose I wasn’t sober enough?
The point is, I was miles away from my comfort zone at this retreat. And really, that was my whole point in going. The idea of immersing myself in a community of women who, like the ladies in my recovery meetings back in Bucks County, shared the same inner turmoil and tumultuous past was more attractive to me than the prospect of extended socializing — and I guess swaying — with a bunch of strangers was scary. I knew the retreat would take me out of my element, but I also desperately wanted to connect and relate to other alcoholics who really understand the specific brand of insanity that makes it impossible for me to ever have “just one” of anything, and makes living without “that one thing” such a monumental (and rewarding) struggle.
I also knew I needed to reinforce my resolve, to hammer home even harder that everything good in my life at this moment, I have because I am sober. I returned from my holiday vacation last week and heard a few terrifying stories about people within my recovery community relapsing, or “going back out/picking back up.”
All relapse stories terrify me, because it’s so EASY. It’s so easy to pick up a drink; that’s what alcoholics do. It’s so easy to forget how bad things used to be; that’s what humans do.
It’s so easy to get complacent when the novelty of new sobriety wears off and you think you’ve learned as much as the program has to teach. It’s so easy to stop going to meetings and isolate yourself when being alone is where you’ve always felt most at home.
I mean, if I’m being honest, I probably would have preferred to be alone at home this weekend instead of walking up and down the halls of an old Main Line mansion clanging an old-school hand bell, over and over and over, to wake up my fellow retreatants or alert them that it was time to eat or start a new session. But “Bell Ringer” was the job I was assigned as a newcomer — recovery groups aren’t above rookie hazing, apparently — and what was I going to do, whine that “I don’t want to?”
Eschewing service work is a huge no-no in a 12-step program, so even if the service you’re being asked to perform is, “Take this obnoxious instrument that will annoy everyone and thus irrevocably label you The Annoying New Girl, and go be obnoxious with it,” you just have to put your head down and go rupture some eardrums.
So I did my job, and to my surprise, instead of getting nothing but dirty looks in return, or people running the other way when they saw me coming, these women embraced me like I’ve never been embraced before. Like, literally, I’ve never been wrapped up in warmer hugs by people who weren’t related or married to me.
These ladies also listened to me — the well-worn explanation of how I made it from Chicago to Philly, the meandering story of my career as a journalist and what became of it, the textbook ‘rock bottom’ tales from my drinking days, the stream-of-consciousness ramblings about the roller coaster of early sobriety, even a few boastful rants about my blog (I’m like a proud mom with this thing; sorry) — and I could tell they actually cared about what I said. They shared their own experiences and wisdom with me in a way that made me feel deeply connected, empowered, accepted — even loved.
Yes, loved. I’m not just being sappy, I swear. In fact, a tradition at this retreat is for the woman in the group with the longest run of continuous sobriety to present a little St. Francis of Assisi medallion to the woman with the shortest run, at the Saturday night grand finale session.
The latter, at six months, was me. The former was an absolutely adorable 79-year-old former nun (47 years sober) who ALSO happened to be the spitting image of my great aunt, Mickey, who has always been like a second mom to me. As we stood at the front of the conference room and I bawled and blubbered because I was so moved (and I’m becoming my mom), she said to the group:
“When I first saw Jen, I thought she was absolutely beautiful, and something about her really reminded me of myself at her age.”
And then she turned to me and said, “I love you.”
It’s almost 24 hours later, and I’m still crying. But I’m not even kidding; this is the kind of thing that happens ALL THE TIME when sober women get together. It is not at all unusual for someone you just met to reach deep into your soul and give it a life-affirming squeeze. It’s the norm to come into a group as a scared, confused stranger and leave feeling a kind of strength that really can’t be explained in Earthly terms.
The craziest thing is, you don’t even have to do anything to earn that strength. You just have to stay sober and show up.
I didn’t do anything to earn that medallion, other than stay away from alcohol for 190 days. I didn’t do anything to earn all the love except…be me!
Asking nothing but a few seconds of bell-clanging in return, the women at my retreat did more for a newcomer — new to recovery and real life — than can possibly be repaid.
I gave them a headache, and they gave me hope.