Driving home from class in Doylestown three nights a week is a litmus test for my emotional regulatory skills — still a bit of a shortcoming at 3+ years sober. More often than not, I end up at max acidity, raging behind the bumper of a car doing 25 mph in a 45 zone and braking to 20 at every bend, all the way down 413 to Newtown.
And other times, hallelujah, it’s smooth sailing. This past Tuesday, there was not a car nor a deer in sight, and the U2 station on the free-trial Sirius radio service in my new (Cubbie-blue) Jeep was playing “Angel of Harlem,” after which the Lithium station was playing STP’s “Big Empty,” and “Low” by Cracker, and I felt a glorious sense of freedom as I cruised along the open road, singing my heart out to the same 90s hits that used to pump from the tape deck in my teenage bedroom.
Those two contrasting scenarios are a pretty good illustration of how much my life changed between October 2021 and today. I went from a tired, bitter commuter sitting in rush-hour traffic twice a day, working and going to school full-time, to about as free-spirited as a Type-A gal can be, enjoying plenty of the open space and self-care time that has been such a huge key to my mental health and recovery.
This charmed life is, of course, about to end. I’m in a surreal calm-before-the-storm period with no idea what the future will bring. All the growth I’ve undergone in the past four years is about to be put to the test.
Music has a way of transporting you across time and space, and when I hear the soundtrack of my teens, I think about a sheltered, privileged young girl, approaching a pivotal crossroads. Like most college-bound kids, she had romantic notions about the new world laid out before her — I’m going to cover the Cubs for the Tribune! — and her head was full of ideas about how things were “supposed” to go — I’m going to graduate and get A JOB, and that will be that, forever and ever! But in reality, she had no friggin’ clue what she was truly in for and no real coping skills to help navigate the inevitable twists, turns and pitfalls on the path.
A quarter-century later, I am back there again — but this time, with a hint of wisdom and a dash of maturity. These days, I think I might actually, finally, resemble an adult.
Alcohol wasn’t/isn’t a factor in either era depicted above. I didn’t take my first sip until late in my freshman year of college, when I felt like a stranger, lost in a strange land, no longer able to define myself or prove my worth through extraordinary academic or athletic achievement. I found myself looking around for ways to escape that intense discomfort.
I was a journalism major at one of the top journalism schools in the country with no journalism experience, and a walk-on to a Division I softball team filled with California girls who were playing elite travel ball when I was still waving around cartoonishly large whiffle bats in my parents’ front yard and chucking rock-hard 16-inch missiles at other kids — and breaking the occasional finger 😬 — in gym class.
That was a time before therapy had been really “normalized” in society at large, let alone in my fiercely self-sufficient, “deal-with-it” family. And in the midst of an identity crisis, with an avalanche of complicated emotions I could not name, much less process, I was primed for falling into the self-medication trap.
I’m back in transition mode today, but the difference — thank goodness — is that I legitimately know better. Yes, we’ve established that dealing with feelings is still not my strong suit, but I have actually learned a few things from decades of bitter experience. I’ve added quite a few tried-and-true tools to my coping toolbox, and the more space I put between me and my substance, the more practice I get in using them.
I’m going to need every bit of it on the road ahead. Next semester, I’m set to start my first counseling internship, an unpaid gig at a drug treatment center in West Philly, and while “go time” is not yet close enough to put me in full panic mode, my mind occasionally wanders into a minefield of anxiety…
This is gonna be a rude f*cking awakening, just like freshman year at Northwestern, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to hack it and this whole reinvention plan will be for naught!
As much as I’ve grown — and grown up — over the past 39 months (Friday the 7th was my actual “anniversary”), I have ZERO experience in the field of addiction treatment or behavioral health. The only counseling I’ve done is in a role-play format and laboratory setting. Heck, I’ve been writing about dance costumes for the past 10 months, enjoying the freedom of a remote, part-time schedule that affords me ample opportunities to focus on school and practice self-care.
…Funny how my definition of indulgence has changed. Go back four years, and the “space” in my world amounted to the patch of sky above my patio as I wiled away every free moment, sitting drunk in a lawn chair and messing around on my phone. 🙄
In case I haven’t mentioned it enough, getting laid off from my last full-time office job in the fall of 2021 (Wednesday was the actual anniversary) is quite literally “the gift that keeps on giving,” serving me a fresh helping of joy and gratitude every single day.
At my current job, I can clock in whenever inspiration strikes, whether that’s 2AM on a Tuesday or a lazy Sunday afternoon, and clock out whenever I don’t have a meeting or pressing deadline and I need to take a nap (because I was up working at 2AM) or do homework or run to CVS or go for a run on the canal path/hike in the woods.
Unemployment wasn’t a picnic; I LOATHE searching for work. But it’s easy for me, now, to say “good riddance” to that old gig, watching the long line of cars back up on Almshouse Road every morning. I make my way down the walking path outside the state park wearing a self-satisfied smile, knowing that I can earn a paycheck and not have to deal with that madness. 🙏🏻
And yet, I know there’s a whole other, potentially maddening challenge awaiting me in my next professional chapter.
Not really sure what I thought would happen when I decided that taking AA’s 12th step meant leaving a thriving career in marketing (🤣…that’s total sarcasm) to enter a helping profession in a time of unprecedented mental health demand. I do know that the classmates who are actually working in mental health right now seem noticeably fatigued and frazzled, and my academic advisor says he typically tells concerned interns: “I don’t want to sound like an ass, but that’s the field!”
This is the part of the blog when it hits me: I have been pretty darn spoiled!
My definition of indulgence, hallelujah, no longer involves alcohol. But I still have a natural inclination toward intoxication, and ensconcing myself in creature comforts over the past year definitely has had that effect. I don’t want to burrow too deep into that cozy hole or get so complacent that I lose sight of what recovery is really all about. I don’t want to stall, or worse, negate all this supposed growth.
I mean, there’s no doubt that self-care is crucial, and being able to treat it as a necessity, as opposed to a luxury, is not something to necessarily feel guilty about or apologize for. I’m extremely grateful for the gift that 2022 has turned out to be; I’ve spent every day at home with my hubby, taking two-hour nature hikes, lounging on my deck listening to true crime podcasts or “self-help” audiobooks, partaking in midday yoga programs, ordering Door Dash sushi for dinner, lighting Yankee candles in seasonal scents, going to bed early, and celebrating my sober anniversaries by scheduling massages or splurging on the Hunter boots I’ve wanted for a long time…
This has all been positively lovely, but it’s important to remember: The path I’m on is pointing toward service — toward care, of something outside the self.
So, new to the routine: I just started attending 12-step meetings for the first time in more than a year.
Truth be told, my impetus for going back was an addictions class assignment. I had to do it for school. And then, my motives were selfish for continuing to go. On the threshold of another big life change, not knowing WTF to expect from my internship schedule, the commute, or what kind of potential new triggers could arise from being in a methadone clinic every day, I felt like my recovery toolbox could use some reinforcements. I knew I could benefit from an expanded sober support system.
If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that there really is no substitute for a sober community. And with that lesson came a realization: Others in my community need me to be one of those people for them.
I have a responsibility to give back to the community that cared for me in my most vulnerable days, when my sobriety was in its infancy. The people at those early meetings did so much to help just by showing up; what made me think I could just put in my time and drive off on cruise control, using the power of fellowship as fuel for my solo “career”?
As indicated by the recent bouts of road rage described at the beginning of this blog, I haven’t “grown up” as much as I sometimes like to believe.
Being able to sail along, singing a song, with 39 months of sober time behind me and a world of possibility up ahead, is indeed a privilege and a gift that came into my life after plenty of struggle, pain and hard work.
But I think real growth comes by acknowledging that I didn’t get here alone, and my journey is far from over, and the real purpose of this trip is not to have an entire flat, open road all to myself where my poor little sensitive emotions (and childish self-importance) won’t get triggered. It’s to respect the space/honor the presence of other drivers, and when the opportunity arises, pick up any struggling passengers who might need a lift.