“I don’t want to go,” I told my husband. “I’m feeling really vulnerable.”
He looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean?”
Oh boy…how could I put it into black-and-white words? How could I even sift through the avalanche of thoughts that had been rumbling through my brain all morning, as I contemplated the sober women’s retreat I was scheduled to attend?
My mind had been busier than usual, churning out potential excuses. Looking for an out. Strenuously chipping away at my resolve…
Such rumination is par for the course, whenever I make plans. I’m torn between knowing I need to branch out, foster human connection and seek new experiences, and yearning to keep myself cocooned in solitude and safety. Intellectually, I understand that opening up to possibility — or, what a higher power is trying to reveal to me — is the key to a fulfilling and purposeful life in recovery. And yet, it seems that every fiber of my being is programmed to coil up, or close off, when I feel uncertain, unprotected, wounded and/or afraid.
Vulnerability always offers us two options: Open or closed?
I was leaning especially hard toward the latter after learning — via email 😐 — that I was being let go from my job.
That news came Thursday. The retreat kicked off Friday. And even though I had paid a sizable deposit when I enthusiastically signed up back in November, my shaky confidence and fragile emotional state were overriding rationality. I was OK losing the money, breaking the commitment and missing the opportunity, I told myself, because it was just too scary to leave my comfort zone right now.
Post-alcohol life has uncovered something rather troubling: When it comes to social interaction, I’m very Costanza-esque. My natural instinct — to isolate, rather than extend myself — is almost always 180 degrees off.
“Do the opposite,” in 12-step parlance, is “Act as if,” which basically means building the life you want to live by role-playing the person you want to be. And wouldn’t you know it? That very maxim showed up in one of the daily reflection readings at the retreat, which brought about 50 women — yes, including me — to the secluded and serene St. Raphaela Center for a booze-free slumber party filled with fellowship and self-discovery.
The mystical coincidences kept coming over the course of the weekend. Once I decided to shut off my inner overthinker and activate my “open” side, packing up my Jeep and hitting the turnpike toward Haverford, it was like the universe wouldn’t stop winking at me.
There were signs popping up, left and right: You belong here.
Pulling up in the parking lot just before sunset, I felt instantly at home, even though I hadn’t been here in three very long years.
It was my second time at this particular retreat; as it turns out, the last time they held it was in January 2020, when I was a mere infant at six months sober. COVID messed everything up after that, and who knows what happened in the lives of the ladies I met back then, but I recognized only a handful of faces this time around.
I made sure my face was smiling, and my body planted in a public space, rather than sequestered in my cozy little single on the third floor (would you believe they “randomly” assigned me Room #17? That’s been my number since Little League!) Sure enough, I found “my people” — a few old acquaintances, some new kindred spirits — and shared common ground, both in cafeteria small talk and deeper small group discussions.
Oh, I definitely didn’t morph from an introverted caterpillar into a social butterfly, but I struck a nice balance between togetherness and alone time. Between fraternization and reflection. Between pre-dawn adventures on the narrow, hilly, Main Line streets and long, late afternoon conferences in a crowded meeting room.
I celebrated 3 1/2 years sober on Saturday (7/7/2019 ➡️ 1/7/2023 = 42 months) by getting up at 3:30, brewing coffee and doing yoga (quietly) in the little patch of floor next to my twin bed, then donning a headlamp and dodging tree branches and oncoming traffic along a 5-mile round-trip jog to Villanova University and back.
Our retreat leader was a gregarious, 80-year-old former nun and recovering alcoholic named Linda, who spoke of feeling like “a square peg in a round hole” throughout her childhood (🙋🏼♀️), described traveling by car from Pennsylvania to Chicago for speaking engagements because she prefers driving to flying (🙋🏼♀️🙋🏼♀️) , and even read the story of “The Two Wolves” during one of her talks, after which a woman in the audience called out, “Doesn’t someone here have that as a tattoo? I thought I saw it at dinner yesterday!”
Those are just a few of the magical moments I experienced over the course of 48 hours. It boggles my mind that I was willing to miss out, just so I could stay home and lick my wounds. Why would I choose to wallow in self-doubt, to imprison myself in catastrophic thinking patterns, when I know that the only way through the misery of addiction is to GET OUT OF YOUR OWN DAMN HEAD?!?!
It’s familiar, of course. That’s why. It’s the “devil you know” — completely fucked-up, but oh, so comfortable. And no matter how much sober time you celebrate, there’s always going to be that “dark wolf” inside you, telling you the world is too much. Coaxing you to close the door, pull the curtains, and avoid the anxiety of uncertainty, the pain of rejection, the patience and effort it takes to keep waiting for, looking for light.
That, to me, was the whole point of this retreat. Linda’s entire presentation was aimed at highlighting “the promises” that come true as you work the 12 steps: Freedom, serenity, peace, a new attitude and outlook on life, the ability to manage adversity without needing to numb out, an end to the enslavement of regret and self-pity…
And my personal favorite, as a recreational blogger and aspiring counselor: “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
You don’t have to be deeply immersed in the world of AA — I’ve always considered “the program” to be just one part of a diverse and well-rounded recovery — to take something meaningful from that message. “Working the steps” is, in essence, being open to growth and change. It’s being willing to let go of control and take a risk, whether or not you feel ready or able. It’s making an effort to shift, stretch, pivot, do something different, little by little, one “next right thing” after another.
I’ve found that the promise of a full sober life starts with openness, while addiction sticks you in a suffocating hole. Putting down the drink doesn’t automatically cure the claustrophobia; sure, I stopped trying to fill the emptiness inside with booze, but as long as I continue to respond to vulnerability with avoidance, to hide from the world as protection from uncertainty and pain, I will never become whole. And how can I hope to help others unwrap the gifts of recovery, if I’m too uptight and closed off to access my own?
I do believe that my experience can benefit others, that my mistakes and failures and 20 years of “wasted time” can be used for good going forward. That’s why I went back to school in midlife to get my Master’s in a completely new field, and why I’m starting again, at 44, on the bottom rung of the counseling industry with an unpaid internship that, holy shit, is supposed to start very soon!! 😳
And that’s why I’m sitting here writing this, instead of trawling LinkedIn and Indeed in search of yet another stopgap paying gig to replace the one I just lost. Or, instead of curling up in a ball and crying, because looking for decent copywriting roles in the “TLDR” era/age of AI is depressing, demoralizing, and a huge flipping trigger if you’re prone to low self-worth.
This shit makes me feel hella vulnerable, and you know what that means! Co…stanza! 😂
In other words, I “did the opposite” of what “square peg” Jen would normally do. With gritted teeth and the false veneer of confidence, I spent the last couple days “putting myself out there,” reconnecting with old professional contacts in pursuit of resources and references. Lo and behold, I received warm greetings, kind words, and some promising job leads in return.
(Honestly, I was shocked to get responses at all, but I have to think that the little spurts of positive energy I’ve been giving to others since I got sober had something to do with it!)
You guys, I know it’s cheesy to keep talking about “God shots,” but this pattern can’t be denied. In the years since I freed my system from the trap of alcohol, every time I’ve chosen to take my head out of my ass and open my heart and mind, I can’t stop spotting beauty, love and hope, everywhere I look.