This week’s traditional Sunday walk took me through my literal old stomping grounds, from my parents’ house down to the Morton Grove Forest Preserve, where I snapped the attached picture to mark the dawn of Day 365. Along the way, I passed my former elementary school and the park across the street, which together made up the “small pond” for the “big fish” I was as a child.
My name is on a plaque in the main school hallway, as the 1992 female American Legion Award winner, which basically cemented my status as an eighth-grade achiever. I didn’t make the record board in the big gym, which was reserved for the fastest shuttle-runners and longest flexed-arm-hangers, but I did make a graduation speech themed “Be Your Own Person” in that high-ceilinged, yellow-tinted room. I stood in front of the whole student body and botched the word “wreckage” in the spelling bee finals. I sang a solo at an all-school concert (the intro to “Show Me The Way” by Styx 😂). I discovered the power of my right arm by smashing overhand volleyball serves into many an unsuspecting opposing player (and occasionally the opposite wall.) I finished third overall in our co-ed gym class mile run, wearing basic canvas Keds… 😂 😂
I think you get the point. I “achieved” a lot of stuff when I was younger that doesn’t matter anymore — if it ever did.
My life now is nothing like I thought it would be back then.
At 42, I return to my hometown a recovering alcoholic in the middle of a career transition — this is like my fifth since leaving Illinois in the spring of 2000 for a newspaper job in Georgia, and the entry-level marketing job I just left paid less than that one did.
I don’t say any of that to poor-mouth my journey; in fact, I’m proud of my ability — or at least my willingness — to start from scratch and reinvent myself when the path I’m on isn’t working, or appears to be careening off a cliff. I’ll have one full year of sobriety after today, then one day to bask in that tremendous achievement before another set of professional challenges smacks me in the face on Tuesday morning.
Reflecting on my first sober “birthday,” hanging here in a hammock under a tree in my sister’s yard, after an emotional week and an up-and-down year, I feel utterly exhausted. I feel relaxed. I feel very warm (hello, Chicago heat wave.) I also feel a little…let down?
My natural instinct is to look at everything like a race, a performance, a test, a game — a finite journey of a measurable distance that eventually reaches a finish line. Get there, and you win. What a relief! All your hard work and constant worry over the outcome has paid off! You made it! You can finally relax! You can finally breathe!
That was how I used to view every story I covered as a journalist, then every 9-hour block of time I spent in the office. Until July 7, 2019, I celebrated “winning” each “race” with the sweet release alcohol always gave me.
I’ve been counting, literally marking, the days ever since that day, with the one-year milestone as my subconscious destination. Now that it’s here, there’s a little bit of “OK, now what?”
Of course, I’ve always known, deep down, that 365 is not a destination. It’s just another day in a lifetime of days. And when you reach that day, you don’t get to hit that release valve and celebrate the way you always did, by rote, for the previous 20 years. All you get to do is, as one of my sober Twitter buddies always commands me, “Get another day.” You get to keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing.
That’s it. That’s the reward.
Welcome to the realities of sobriety. Welcome to grown-up life. The only finish line comes when your time is up.
You can see why a change in mindset is just as important as a change in behavior when it comes to battling an addiction — if not moreso. You have to find joy in the journey or you won’t ever really find it. You have to etch “One Day At A Time” on your brain, or that one-year recovery tattoo you’re contemplating will amount to nothing but unnecessary torture, a permanent physical change without the mental evolution to match.
It’s an ongoing process, this shift in thinking, and the rigid little achiever in me still pipes up from time to time when I want to celebrate the miracle of a single, simple moment.
“What’s the big deal?” she says. “You’re not ‘there’ yet, and you never will be! This challenge will never be tackled! This assignment will never end! You have a passing grade in life so far…and you’re supposed to be proud of that?”
One year of sobriety does not magically change you, so I don’t really know how to answer that voice. She means well; she just got hung up on a “big fish” definition of success and happiness that only works if you stay stuck in a small pond.
Recovery promises a life that’s huge and expansive — built on millions of tiny miraculous moments that, instead of rushing through them to get to some grand achievement that (you think) means you “made it,” you stop and notice and experience them. I had so many moments during my family’s 4th of July barbecue yesterday: dancing and singing with my nieces, belly-laughing with my sisters, realizing I hadn’t even thought about booze all day (to that point), getting behind the wheel to drive home — from a party, with my husband in the passenger seat, a scene completely unheard of one year ago — opening a perfect greeting card from my aunt that unleashed a tidal wave of pent-up emotion, staying awake long enough to play a personalized trivia game for my dad’s 70th birthday, and waking up today REMEMBERING ALL OF IT.
Day 365 might be just another day, but all things considered, it’s really the best day of my life. Time to go enjoy it…by taking a nice nap. 😴