sober lifestyle


The other day, while sitting in my office trying to take deep breaths and clear my head between back-to-back therapy sessions, my phone vibrated with a text message. It was a marketing blast from a local gym I used to belong to in a former life.

Hey Jen! How are you doing with your fitness goals since we last saw you? If we can help, give us a call!

I let out a guffaw. “Fitness goals”…ha!

The Jen they “last saw” four or five long years ago, bears such little resemblance to the person I am today that I doubt anyone at the gym — or any of my old haunts from the pre-2019 era — would even recognize me. And I’m not just talking about the physical effects of aging and a sedentary lifestyle.

Jen circa 2023 needs professional help, for sure, but it ain’t so I can improve my clean-and-jerk numbers or learn butterfly pull-ups.

How I feel driving home after every shift…

In the past half-decade, I went from sprinting around sports arenas with a video camera every evening, competing in CrossFit events on the weekends, and being so obsessed with my “leanness” that I weighed and measured all my food, to navigating a string of stressful desk jobs and full-time enrollment in grad school, while having no more time or energy for restrictive Paleo/Zone diet plans and rigid, intense workout routines.

I also went from drinking (at least) a handle of tequila every weekend and finding new and different ways to embarrass/debase myself online and IRL, to a stone-cold sober “student of recovery.” I’ve spent nearly four years attending AA meetings and therapy sessions and poring over “quit lit” and psych textbooks, addiction podcasts, documentaries and blog entries.

The result of that change process, and shift in priorities: I’m currently at Step One of a brand new career path. I’m employed as a part-time therapist at a drug and alcohol treatment center while working toward my master’s degree in counseling and LPC certification. My only “fitness goals” at the moment are to do right by my clients, get along with my coworkers, and keep from drowning in an avalanche of confusing case management paperwork.

I also need to pass my three grad classes (nine credits), and most importantly, keep myself sober and sane…

That isn’t as simple as it might sound.

The feedback I’ve received at work thus far has been mixed. On the one hand, I’ve been told my clinical skills are “right where they should be,” given my level of experience (😃). On the other hand, my energy around the office has been deemed “way too anxious,” and someone even commented on the speed with which I walk down the hallway (🫤).

Funny, isn’t it? My body moves a lot slower these days, in general, with my preferred modes of exercise being long walks, leisurely jogs and beginner-level yoga, and the only opportunity I have to move it on work/school days is between 3 and 6AM. But when it comes to the workplace, they’re like, “Whoa, killer! Chill out! This isn’t a race!…or a WOD!” 😂

Never mind I have like one minute to pee and/or bang out session notes between leading groups, seeing clients, scheduling appointments, filing forms and attending meetings — all while not really knowing what the #%^* I’m doing!

But, apparently, it’s OK to run a little late in this job. For therapists, a peaceful aura is more important than strict punctuality. 🤯

“You need to learn how to manage your anxiety,” was the verbatim directive from my supervisor. Receiving it, in the moment, sent me into an instant shame spiral. Upon further reflection, I think it’s exactly what I needed to hear.

I have been darting around that place on autopilot, like a squirrel on crack, letting nerves and fear and a desperate desire to “be good” take the wheel. I lost my office keys TWICE, for Pete’s sake! I’ve had numerous emotional breakdowns (not in public, but still…) I’ve got to do this job for at least another full year. Something’s got to give!

Sitting here now, though, this all makes perfect sense. I’ve been anxious on the job because a) it’s the most challenging job I’ve ever had, and b) anxious is my work persona. In terms of dealing with other people in any kind of group setting or social situation, anxiety has always been my #1 Achilles heel. It was there in my early days, when I acted out daily in the first-grade classroom. It manifested in the panic attacks I experienced covering sporting events as a journalist (players on the Macon Braves minor league baseball team used to make fun of me for being nervous). It shows up in the super-frustrating mid-sentence brain cramps I occasionally suffer today, in grad classes, therapy sessions, and AA and staff meetings.

Anxiety naturally, habitually kicks in when I feel like I’m under pressure. It hijacks my brain and overpowers my personality. It’s like my authentic, higher self goes into hiding the second I leave the house, or encounter another human (besides my husband). So, nobody out there in society ever gets to know the real me. They just see a frazzled Nervous Nellie whose obvious discomfort makes them uncomfortable.

It’s no surprise that I learned to love alcohol. Anxiety is the #1 reason I drank, and drank, and drank…until it almost destroyed me. Drinking “fixed” me. It freed me. It made the anxiety melt away the second I took my first sip. It made me feel “right” in the world, if only for a little while. And that is the universal addict experience, connecting me to my clients and 12-step fellows and people “sick and suffering” all over the globe: The magic pill works, in the beginning, and you never want to let that initial euphoria go!

“Fitness,” for me, as a therapist, will require more than physical sobriety. It will require greater psychological strength and better self-regulation skills. I have to be able to self-soothe on the spot — something most people struggle with, but especially those of us coming off a 20-year addiction.

Even with almost 44 months of booze-free life under my belt, I know my emotional maturity is still running a bit behind. It’s what happens when you reach for a substance to ease your pain, over and over, for your whole adult life! That shit is hard to unlearn!

You can’t create a calm, safe, nurturing space for clients if your own system is stuck in fight-flight-freeze all the time, but snapping out of that cycle takes practice, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve got awareness of the issue, motivation to change, a good therapist, and a supportive community of fellow counselors and recovering addicts. Now, I just need to get to work.

Becoming good at your job is very much like getting fit! You gotta put in your reps, spill your sweat (and tears), stay consistent, and trust the process.

You’ve also got to take care of your health! And while the bulk of my energy must be focused on my career right now, and my “fitness goals” may never look the same as they did in my “youth,” that doesn’t mean I’m abandoning my body. Movement will forever be the lifeblood of my recovery, and I’ll never stop loving a good, cleansing sweat or surrender my addiction to a sweet runner’s high.

Thank goodness for Saturday mornings, natural beauty, and a completely free “gym membership” that doesn’t expire:

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