Today’s post is a guest blog fro one of the most courageous and badass women I’ve had the honor of knowing. She wishes to remain anonymous but her story is amazing.
This year I celebrated two years clean from mood and mind-altering substances with my 12 step fellowship. More accurately I reached two years clean on Sunday and I celebrated yesterday. It’s always a celebration of life in our fellowship- we celebrate your success and the program we are gifted. Those before us laid out the literature and steps so beautifully, that anyone can recover. Despite it being so “simple” and available to us all, most will not survive the disease of addiction.
So when you do, when you “recover”, we celebrate.
I use quotes around recover because the word alone implies a singular event. To say you are “recovered” is to say that you have finished the process. But recovery isn’t an event, it’s a lifelong process. I’ll never be recovered but I have a lifetime of recovery ahead of me. For an addict like myself viewing my work as done is a slippery slope to complacency and when people like me get complacent and we become stagnant, we put our recovery in danger.
I chose to work a 12-step program today because everything else I had tried had failed to keep me clean. I had moments, sometimes great lengths of time, where I could abstain from drugs (but never alcohol) and I use to call those moments recovery, until I looked at my consistent pattern of inability to stay clean no matter how many days I could white knuckle through cravings and withdrawals to prove to myself I could. There are thousands of pathways to recovery, so if you are reading this and a 12-step program doesn’t sound right for you, please keep looking for what works for you.
But this isn’t about the 12-steps. It isn’t about what fellowship or pathway to recovery worked for me to get here. Instead, I want to talk about what the second year of my recovery has looked like. I want to talk about it because when we talk about healing we tend to gussie it up in flowers and rainbows to attract those who aren’t here yet. I told my friends I planned to start advertising healing as the dark horse that it is, but they tell me that no one will come if they know.
And they are right.
The thing is, for some of us who are knee-deep in the muddy waters of healing from life, we need to hear that we aren’t alone. We need hope to keep us going. That is the gift I am afforded in my 12-step fellowship; entire groups of people who have been through and are going through the same things that we don’t talk about as often. I never have to be alone unless I choose to be alone.
And I’ve learned that I can’t save my life on my own.
In my first year of recovery, the focus was mainly on the substances. I didn’t touch a drug or alcohol, no matter what. One day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time, I clung to the hope and experience of everyone around me. Some people were celebrating 10, 20, 30 years clean during that first year, so neither hope nor experience was ever in short supply. They told me to do what they were doing and to believe that they believed, so I did.
I believed that they believed in me.
In my first year, I had a routine surgery and coded on the table. A few days later I woke up in ICU and celebrated my first 9 months clean from my hospital bed. To be fair, this is a far happier tale than I ever thought I would tell about the time I died. I had been an addict in active use trying to kill myself on a daily basis since I was 12 years old. To almost die, clean, from a routine surgery was a curveball I never saw coming. To wake up grateful to be alive was an experience I never believed would happen to me. That was the gift of my first year clean from drugs and alcohol.
I finally wanted to be alive.
Twenty years in and out of active addiction, I was already hostage to this disease at 12 years old. Why? How? I am a mom of four amazing young children- tweens. I look at them today and I can’t imagine them doing the things that I was doing at their age. When I woke up in ICU I would go on to say “For the first time in my entire life, I WANT to be alive. I am grateful to be alive.” And while that was, and still is, true for me- it was also heartbreaking. How can you be so young and chase death with such conviction? What was I missing other than all of my memories before the age of 12; or is that exactly what I was missing?
I celebrated my first year clean three months later and before I got there, the darkness started to set in. That heartbreak nagged me long after I left the hospital bed. It was a constant twang in the back of my mind that kept coloring everything I was trying to do. “How did I get here?” “What happened to me?” “Where did it all go wrong?” Awareness would ebb and flow, with glimpses of the memories I had lost, and unearthing of feelings I had never experienced before. Sadness. Grief. Despair.
You might think to be suicidal at 12 years old, one would have to experience those feelings before now. But I couldn’t remember experiencing them and once I started medicating them, they never existed again. I know what pain feels like; I know what anger and bitterness taste like. But I never remembered feeling the depths of despair that I felt at my first-year celebration when the first bit of awareness finally came.
I am a multiple child sexual abuse survivor.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a result of prolonged and sustained exposure to interpersonal trauma from which there is no escape. I came into my recovery already having this diagnosis as a survivor of domestic violence and multiple sexual assaults as a teenager. I had begun unpacking that trauma in my first year because it was easy for me; I was already talking about it anyway. I can tell it to you now without being triggered by its realness:
As a teenager I was molested by my mother’s partner for many years; when their relationship ended I was 14 years old and, not having a singular idea what or why I was doing it, I sought out companionship of adult men who would sexually assault me. To be very clear, children are not the ones with the onus of responsibility to not have sex with adults. There were many men willing to groom a child and I was victimized multiple times. I packed all of that trauma up into pretty packages, set them on ornate shelves in my mind, and moved on with my life. Soon after turning 19 I met my now ex-husband. We were together for 12 years, married for 8, and our marriage was wrought with multiple (physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual) forms of abuse. We were both addicts in and out of active use together which was a recipe for disaster. Because I chose to not do the work and just keep it moving, I jumped from one awful relationship to the next and I almost lost my life.
And my children.
Knowing all of this motivated me into recovery in the first place: I didn’t want to use anymore, I didn’t want to find myself in another abusive relationship, and I had made a commitment long ago to be to my children what I had always needed- which I had been trying to be all along. In my first year clean I dove headfirst into trauma therapy because I believed in the necessity of addressing your mental health in order to recover. Unaddressed mental illness and trauma keep us hostage to a disease that wants us dead. I wrote my last blog about my children and healing for them. Now I am writing about myself and healing for me.
When the awareness came at my first-year mark, it came in the way of intrusive thoughts and flashbacks, night terrors and sleep paralysis and a constant flood of the fight or flight response. I spent hours in a ball, either in the bottom of my shower or the corner of my couch, crying and trying to convince myself that I was either crazy or making it all up- knowing that I couldn’t make it up if I tried. All the while this is happening, I was just trying to stay clean, literally and figuratively. I was just trying to stay present for my kids to make it through the holidays.
My sister is a sexual predator and I was her victim.
I had a professional photoshoot for work the day the memories came back; barely 10 years old at any given second, I was alone in the car, behind the wheel, when I remembered. I was sweating through my blazer, holding back vomit, crying on the forty-minute ride to the salon. When I looked at the pictures afterwards all I could see was the pain and fear in my own eyes- I promised myself in that moment that I would do the work, no matter how painful, to save myself from ever having to feel the way I felt that day, even one more time.
I had no idea what darkness I was wading into.
Growing up Pentecostal was an awful experience for me. In fact, it was so traumatic that it drove me from any kind of belief. At 9 years old I stopped believing in everything. It was safer that way. When I came into recovery, when I joined a 12-step fellowship, I identified as an atheist. By the end of my first year, I had shifted to a spiritual atheist. I could get with there being a greater purpose and something much bigger than me, but you couldn’t ask me to believe in a God. The God I knew caused pain and suffering and I refused to believe that a “God” would ever be so malicious and perverse- I decided at 9 that there was just no such thing.
No Easter Bunny. No Tooth-Fairy. No Santa. No Good. No God.
Someone told me at the beginning of the year that the spiritual journey I was on wouldn’t go any further if I didn’t address my resentment against God; after all, I didn’t believe in him so what was I so angry about anyway? More specifically- who was I so angry at? It was time to dig into that question in order to free myself from the resentment that stood between me and where I was trying to go. In our fellowship, we have steps that are written in such a way that you resolve your resentments along the way. Sometimes you have to resolve the resentment to work through the steps. That was me. I was being asked to believe in anything greater than myself- The Universe. Humanity. Community. Tribe. All greater than me and all evidenced to restore me to sanity when I became an active participant in my own life.
But then I was asked to turn my life over to the care of a Higher Power.
I promised myself early on that nothing would be off the table. Everything was up for digging into and unpacking. How free do you want to be? As free as I can get. So I went on an evangelical women’s retreat with some of my tribe who believe in a God that I was certain didn’t exist. I was determined to keep an open mind to hear what I needed to hear. By that point I had started to heavily converse with my ceiling and the sky at night, leaning into the strength of the Universe I promised myself I would grow from the retreat that weekend.
Mother wounds and Father wounds.
I didn’t hear God that weekend. I certainly didn’t leave feeling closer to believing in him either. In fact, some of what I heard was so close to what I had learned in the Pentecostal church and reaffirmed my conviction that their God wasn’t a “God” I could ever believe in. That was exactly what I needed- to learn what I didn’t believe in in order to make room for what I do believe. Bigger than that, I heard a message that I had wounds from my childhood that needed addressing. The trouble was, I couldn’t remember what those wounds were. My parents were divorced, but by this point I’m divorced as well and I can empathize with how that happens. I don’t hold their divorce against them.
But I can’t remember what my body is holding against them on my behalf.
After the retreat I needed answers. I continued to ask the Universe to help me remember but I also knew I needed a reliable source that wasn’t my own mind. I had no one else I could ask except my father. We had been estranged since coming into recovery because we had a public falling out about some version of events that I had in my memory bank, not aware at the time that that bank account was never in my name. When the pandemic hit we had just met in person for the first time and when it was over I was ready to slam the door shut again. Once the door was opened my father surprised me by putting his foot in the crack to prevent me from shutting him out.
He knew when he left that he left me behind.
I didn’t know what to do with that. I had mounting evidence that I had been left behind in some special hell that had scarred me so deeply that my own body was a war zone, inside and out. I scrubbed in scalding hot water to feel clean. I could feel breath on my neck when I was alone. In the dark of my room when my partner’s face disappeared, I recoiled in terror from someone who wasn’t there. Locked on the couch I was floating above my body and my children for hours a day, until I couldn’t any longer. When I began to return fire and wage war on myself, still clean, I knew something was very very wrong.
Eighteen months clean was its own special kind of hell.
When things get hard I like to try even harder to help someone else. I like to have people projects and it works best if none of them are named “Me.” In this case, it wasn’t such a bad thing as I made projects out of my own children. While others were worried about academics I was worried about mental health. I remembered my other resentments that I had forgotten: the DSM and the people who weaponized it against me as a child, instead of saving me. But in order to help my children, I had to address my resentment quickly which forced me to confront my own mental health that I had neglected in a bid to avoid the very thing I hated- assessment and treatment. For all of us.
We have survived together for 8 months in a pandemic. We are resilient and strong.
The relationship that grew between my father and I during those beginning months of the Pandemic was nothing short of its own gift. No adult had ever shown me accountability. No adult had ever said, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” My parents didn’t right their wrongs, they dug in deeper. At least the parents I had thought I knew. Who knew I had always had a Dad who loved me? Not me. I know what you’re thinking “But he left you behind!” I thought so, too. I thought that for so long that I believed it, until he became a reliable source in my life and helped me remember what I had almost killed myself trying to forget.
We were raised to hurt each other and we can never get our relationship back.
My relationships changed so drastically that they don’t look at all like they did when I came in. Lifetime friendships developed term limits and their time came up. The more people were removed from my life the darker it became. I felt like I was waging war on my trauma with a one-man army. Even in my fellowship, I found myself feeling lonely and isolated in my pain. No one talks about these things. Few people call their monsters by name. I was watching my children get better; day by day my projects ran out of names. By the time I completed my own summer accelerated college program, in the middle of the pandemic with now four children at home, I was drowning again- but this time not silently.
Never alone ever again, unless I choose to be.
While not everyone was doing recovery the same way as me, what my community and tribe had to offer was solidarity, comradery, “Me too’s,” empathy, and compassion. Many of us get here the same way; trauma is THE gateway drug, so whether we call them by name or not, we all suffer similar demons. Some of us thought we were entirely, permanently, and uniquely fucked up to the point that there was no hope for us. But we found each other and so we found hope again. I wasn’t quite sure I was going to make it to my two-year celebration and to be frank, it wasn’t the drugs. I was feeling hopeless.
I wasn’t sure I could possibly survive the war.
When I finished my classes I had little breathing room before the intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and soul rot returned- it never really went away to begin with. It was just one band-aid to the next. My classes triggered a new tidal-wave of awareness that came with a force that took my breath away and sunk me into a depression that felt suffocating. I felt like I had two choices: do what I always did, and allow myself to suffer unnecessarily, or put bumpers on my recovery and seek medication management for symptoms that had become debilitating.
But what about that resentment and fear?
I was misdiagnosed with Bipolar and Borderline Personality disorder as a teenager. As a result, I was mistreated by providers, family, friends, and partners. Those diagnoses were wielded against me for over a decade and became my identity after a time. No one knew how traumatized I was- not even me. That promise I made to myself to do for my kids what was not done for me, meant I had to be honest when I sought help for them. I was accountable and transparent about their trauma. I am their advocate and their ally. When it was time to do the same for myself and seek treatment I felt a sense that I was re-victimizing myself all over again, and that was enough to make my skin crawl and my insides want to come out.
I’m learning how to be to myself who I am to my children.
C-PTSD, ADHD, and Bipolar Disorder (just to name a few) all have overlapping symptoms and C-PTSD is frequently misdiagnosed as the latter. When I was misdiagnosed as a teenager I picked up the DSM-4 and taught myself a thing, two, or twenty about mental health. I made a career for myself as a mental health professional who specializes in complex trauma, childhood sexual abuse, and substance abuse. So when it came time to advocate for myself I knew what to do. Even I surprise myself with how far I have come despite the weight of what felt like the world bearing down on me.
Our story isn’t so different from other children of borderline mothers.
As I write this, I am still knee-deep in the shit, and continuing to take baby steps through it. I feel like I am being yanked through the grief cycle every day as I peel back layer after layer to my memories and remember all of the things that my body has never forgotten. I’m never surprised anymore when something gross and heartbreaking breaks through and I’m confronted with the realities of mine and my sister’s life. Today I have forgiven her for more than I ever knew I needed to, because I can see her for the broken child that she is. My sister is 7 years older than me, who knows what her body remembers even if her mind has forgotten? We were just babies and she was never given a chance.
I am alive to celebrate and write this, today. I made it.
When people ask me what I am addicted to I tell them death; when they ask what I’m recovering from I say life. I have had to recover from the depths of hell and fight tooth and nail on the slim chance that was provided for me from the start. It’s my responsibility to do for me what was never done and to heal from the pain that holds me hostage. There isn’t a single area of my life that is off the table today, because I never want to be here again.
I never want to chase death again, not even one more time.