On Thursday January 2nd I passed the milestone of being in recovery for half my life: 23 of my 46 years. I have now been sober three times longer than I drank. Along the way I have learned a great many things (often the hard way). Here is what is coming forward at the moment, but is by no means a complete list.
Nothing is linear: not healing, not harm, nothing. Shedding damage from trauma, including addiction, has not been a process of going from point A to point B. It has been an ever-meandering route that seems to invariably circle back upon itself (often accompanied by my sentiments of “Fuck, I thought I dealt with this already!”). In early recovery everything was new and often magical; hard, but it still felt like I was getting somewhere… Then it seemed like growth came more slowly or not at all. Over the years I have found that to be the way healing unfolds. I honestly don’t know if there is a destination. What I know is that I am at home in my skin more than I thought would ever be possible. I’m wary of seeing myself as a “work in progress.” I distrust the self-help gurus who push “self-improvement.” Healing for me has come from being curious about who is actually here rather than focusing on “what I could become.”
For me, a spiritual practice has been at the center of every bit of healing. I have grown into my own authenticity at the pace that I have claimed my own divinity and a connection to a universal loving force. That deep loving connection has cut through the profound isolation that is still always at the periphery of my existence. It is from that dark place of isolation that addiction and annihilation still call out to me. What I have learned over the years is that doing direct battle with the darkness only ensnares me further. Turning away from its call, bowing down and touching the floor, allowing that divine connection to warm my soul and open my heart has been my protection.
From conversations with friends who are also long-term trauma survivors and have long-term sobriety/healing, I have realized I am not alone in this. The measure of my healing and recovery is NOT in the absence of brokenness, but in the grace with which I continue to show up anyway. I am a profoundly broken man. That is my truth. If this calls for you to chime in with “No… you are not…” please take a breath and sit with your discomfort. Bearing witness is all that is asked of you. As Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I am capable of heart-shredding empathy rooted in that very brokenness. That is also my truth.
My growing edge at the moment is in learning to be wisely vulnerable. Choosing carefully the people and the spaces that can hold me as I drop my armor, but choosing them nonetheless. I clean up well. I’ve been practicing that deceptive protection for a lifetime, really. But now, at 46 years old, 23 years sober, and nearly 19 years of living with HIV, my back is again up against my own wall. My own spiritual growth is nudging me toward transparency.
I’ve known for a while now that I am serving neither myself nor my community by making things look easy; by only showing the times where I can actually keep all the balls in the air. I used to take an odd satisfaction in hearing, “You are so strong/courageous. I could never have done ____.” The response I never vocalized was: “I’m scared I won’t be able to keep it up. Will you still see me as valuable then?” Now I am sensing my way into a new space of wholeness where all of me is welcome. I’m trying to actually say, “I would love to take that on, but I struggle in these ways. Can we work with that?” instead of saying “no”—or worse, “yes” and nearly killing myself in the process.
On a moment-by-moment basis I come back to actual practice—the process of doing that allows for the inherent imperfection in the doing. Practicing compassion for myself and others. Practicing mindfulness. Coming back to my own openheartedness over and over. An embodied practice of self-care and from there, care for others. A practice of self-reflection and self-awareness and forgiveness.
Reaching the milestone of twenty-three years of sobriety and healing has taken me back to the beginning. For a long time I felt that to be truly sober, in recovery, healed, I would have to stop being me. But the more I am in my own realness, the more I can channel all of what I’ve actually learned. When the process of healing becomes settling into me, then I can actually see the healing that’s happened. My history is chock full of a great many things I have done to survive, many of which I deeply wish weren’t part of my path (or anyone else’s). My history and my present are also full of those seemingly small and large leaps of faith that have carried me deeper into a loving connection with who is here in this moment.