“Don’t you know what everyone else is doing?”
The boy who asked me that, in a parked car outside my parents’ house during my junior year in high school, meant to coerce me. He wanted me to do that thing “everyone else was doing,” with him, and thought resorting to peer pressure would help seal the deal.
Obviously, he didn’t really know Jenni Wielgus or that she had, like, a severe allergy to groupthink, and furthermore didn’t give a 🤬 about being cool. He clearly didn’t know his attempt at persuasion would actually have the opposite effect, and the teenage girl in that car would take such offense to his question that she’d hold onto the memory for decades and eventually write about it (with gusto!) in her blog at age 42.
In fairness, none of us really knows ourselves — much less each other — when we’re 17. For all my cluelessness regarding the birds/bees/“facts of life,” I was absolutely sure of one thing: I was not a follower. And no amount of coaxing was going to sway me toward something I didn’t think was right.
Here’s another example that just popped into my head: In seventh grade, I was heavily involved in my church youth group, and we went on a retreat where the pastor had us do some…I guess you would call them morality exercises, where she’d ask a yes/no question and we had to move to one side of the room if our answer was “yes” and the other side if “no.”
“Do you think God wants you to have sex?”
(She meant “at our age.”)
I was already seated in the “NO” section, and I stayed put, watching as my fellow young Lutherans all lined up along the opposite wall. I actually don’t recall if I was alone on my side, but it certainly felt that way.
Pastor asked us to explain our answers, and true to form, good little Type-A Jenni Wielgus piped up.
“I think God wants us to do what we feel is right for us,” I said.
I mean…honestly, guys? I initially told that story for a laugh, but it’s triggering a different kind of emotion. I’m really proud of that girl! I wish I could go back and give her a big hug and tell her she’s on the right track, and that she might not ever be a “cool kid,” but she’s still a pretty cool kid.
The kid is an adult now, but still living out a coming-of-age tale featuring familiar subject matter. The growing up process never ends, nor does it get easier. Especially when you’re trying to beat an addiction.
In recovery, you’re constantly weighing the perceived value of “what everyone else is doing” versus the “rightness” of your own path, and a strong sense of individuality can be both a wonderful asset and a powerful hindrance, maybe even a liability.
You have to stay strong in your personal convictions, regardless of what’s happening in the outside world, while also “letting go” and accepting: You are a small part of something much bigger, and you are not running the show. You are responsible for your own recovery, but trying to impose your strong will on the process at every turn will only lead to misery.
You think it’s difficult to be a late-blooming high school kid with an impatient boyfriend and a peer group that’s in a hurry to grow up? Ha! Try tackling your control-freak tendencies and putting your trust in a higher power!
As a recovering alcoholic, you not only grapple with the omnipresence of booze in society at large, or even within your family unit, but from time to time, you also watch fellow addicts “go back out.” You see friends start drinking again after years of sobriety, for whatever reason, and as much as you wish you could just throw caution to the wind and let loose just like they have, you can’t allow their choices to weaken your resolve.
Let me tell you, it was much easier to stand my ground on the topic of teenage sex than it can be, sometimes, to resist saying “f*ck it!” and give in to the mighty lure of intoxication.
Good thing I’ve spent my entire life working that individuality muscle. Good thing I never lost that aversion to — in truth, it borders on disdain for — following the crowd.
It hurts to see friends and mentors fall back into the pit of addiction. You’re at once concerned, confused, angry, and yeah, even a little jealous. But the challenge, again, is to find balance. Be a source of strength and support for others who are struggling, and help when needed, but realize their actions have nothing to do with you. Resist the urge to judge, and instead use each experience with relapse as fuel. Renew your resolve. Do whatever it takes to avoid those same pitfalls.
I take most — OK, too many — things personally, but the subject of relapse weighs particularly heavy on my heart. I know myself, finally, after 42 years, and I’m certain of this: Even if drinking is A-OK for every other human on this planet, it is 💯 a death sentence for me.
Even if I sometimes think, in my most self-indulgent, self-pitying moments, that every other human on the planet is over on the other side of the room, getting drunk, while I’m stuck here saying “NO,” and fighting for my life, I have to stay put, say prayers, remember that this too shall pass.
I’m not so proud of that girl, BTW. I think she could use a smack in the head to go with the loving hug. 🖐🏻💥🤕
Living sober is a gift, not a punishment, and with everything I have to be grateful for today (Day 525!) I have absolutely no business feeling sorry for myself.
So, in summary: The challenge, at exactly 17 1/2 months sober today, is to stay true to the truest quality I’ve possessed since childhood — that fierce individuality and unshakable sense of what’s right for me — without being a gigantic baby about it. 👶🏼🚫😉