sober lifestyle


I attended a panel discussion on prison reform at DelVal U. this past week for a grad school class, and one of the guest experts was a straight-shooting ex-con and recovering addict named Dan, who “graduated” from a life behind bars to become a criminal justice educator, researcher and community leader down in Delaware. (He used the old “Penn State and the State Pen.” joke to describe his background, but I won’t count that against him. 😉)

The second Dan began talking, I felt instantly close to him, like I’d known him a long time. He had the down-to-Earth attitude and weathered, “f^cked around and found out” look of well-earned wisdom you get from the school of hard knocks. It’s a look I’ve seen time and again on sports fields and in 12-step meetings at various points over the past 20 years, and one I’ve come to associate with “my kind of people.”

When Dan spoke about waking up in jail on his 30th birthday and just feeling tired — as in, done with the whole in-and-out vicious cycle of the repeat-offender lifestyle and unable to fathom doing the same old shit for the rest of his life…I felt it, big-time, like a punch in the gut mixed with a nice warm hug.

That’s exactly the feeling that hit me on that June morning in 2019 on my parents’ back deck when my drunk-chick act officially got old. It’s the same kind of “come-to-Jesus” moment that started my recovery story more than three years ago.

It’s the sentiment expressed by Holly Whitaker in her fantastic book, “Quit Like a Woman,” which I just started listening to on Audible for the third time and realizing I didn’t listen hard enough the first two. I can’t cite her words verbatim, because it’s an audiobook and I’m not going to stop in the middle of hiking in the woods to transcribe quotes, but she basically describes the familiar hamster wheel of the wandering seeker/restless soul — all the shit you do to try to make yourself “good enough,” or dull the pain of feeling not enough, never enough. The diets, the cleanses, the workouts, the whiskey, the workaholism, the…whatever you call the madness that happens when you’re trying to attract sexual attention — she was over it. She had an epiphany, realizing, she could just walk away.

Similarly, the hilarious hosts of the “Maintenance Phase” podcast I recently discovered, talk about being fed up with wellness culture and the anti-fat bias we’ve all been programmed to buy into…and how we can all choose to opt out. They’re fat, they say, and they don’t want to lose weight, and who says that’s wrong? Who says we all can’t go about enjoying our lives just as we are, no longer subscribing to the toxic “I’ll be happy when…” mentality?

This scratches me right where I’m itching right now, at this exciting/terrifying transitional stage in my life.

At 44 years old, in my second year of grad school and fourth year post-alcohol, a few months before I’m scheduled to start my counseling career — at the bottom, as an unpaid intern in an outpatient drug rehab — I’ve reached a crucial point of reckoning. You can’t enroll in the Social Justice track of a mental health counseling grad program in 2022 and not re-think everything you were ever taught, or not confront how racism, sexism, ableism, classism, capitalism, patriarchy, your own privilege and the myth of meritocracy have woven themselves into your life, and how you can — nay, must — begin to un-weave them.

I’ve reached a safe enough distance from my drug and freed up enough mental space by not always being drunk to gauge where I’m at, where I’ve been and where I want to be. I’ve learned enough from my own hard-knock life experiences and in my studies, both required and recreational, to understand what I really want out of my remaining time on Earth.

I do NOT want to live on autopilot anymore. I’m TIRED — of being a slave to my socialization, blindly obeying internalized messages I absorbed from all the WASPy, middle-class, suburban American propaganda I was exposed to in the course of my upbringing, and subscribing to arbitrary standards I set for myself, based on what I thought the world expected me to be: smart, pretty, thin, sporty, cool, fun, independent and driven yet still social and agreeable, and above all, “successful.” And then, there’s everything the world expects you NOT to be: big, loud, emotional, mercurial, needy, too confident, too much….

Oof, I’m exhausted just trying to flesh out this concept!

Specifically, at the moment, what I’m most tired of is this deeply ingrained obsession I have with the size and shape of my body, and all the f^cked-up eating and exercising behaviors and attitudes that go along with that. Honestly, my body image issues are older and more potent than my (former) dependence on alcohol, and they continue to hold me back from tackling more important subject matter. I mean, the constant nagging feeling that I’m too large, and therefore not worthy, and the never-good-enough mentality that drives negative self-talk and punitive attitudes toward every activity (“You don’t deserve to sit here and be still and feel OK; get your ass up and go do something notable!”)…I’ve been carrying this shit around with me since the age of 19! It’s way past time I moved from the “awareness” stage into action, to start applying some of these CBT techniques I’m being trained to use on others.

My actual physical struggles with anorexia and bulimia are, thankfully, far behind me…and yet the psychological remnants cling like a piece of gum stuck in a clump of hair. I’m in this weird limbo between understanding that bodies change as we age, and as our lifestyle, schedule and priorities shift, and yet still believing deep down that any changes in my body mean that I’m lazy or failed at life.

When you’re constantly consumed by this type of internal dialogue, you don’t have much energy left to look outward and be useful to others. Here I am, going into a helping profession in which being useful is the entire job description, and takes LOTS of energy. NOW is the time to get the scissors out and start cutting away that pesky wad of goo (the peanut butter trick never worked for me!)

I don’t HAVE to buy into any “ideal” of what I “should” look like, or how much space I “should” take up…and the same goes for any other rules and norms I was fed in my little white, middle-class, Christian, 1980s/90s bubble, about the way the world “should” work.

Sorry, but speaking of clinging to outdated ideas, I can’t resist…what I just wrote reminded me of Eric The Clown yelling at George on “Seinfeld.”

I kid, but this rut I’ve been living in isn’t funny anymore. My weariness with the old ways is real. And I guess that’s what it takes sometimes to initiate change. “Rock bottom” doesn’t always hit like a car crash or a jail sentence; it can just, like, present itself one day when, as they say in the recovery community, you get tired and “decide to stop digging.” Your “wake-up call” comes in the form of overwhelming fatigue.

If my buddy Dan from Delaware could wake up one day, behind bars, feeling done with “the game,” and harness enough hope to pull a 180 with his life, I can break free of this self-imposed psychological prison and pick up my pace toward progress. I’m going to count this blog post as Step One, because good lord, I’ve been sitting here for four hours now, deconstructing my entire existence, and I am ready for a nap. 😴

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