This Sober Life.

Photo by Svyatoslav Romanov on Unsplash

I recently passed my 29-year mark of sobriety and someone I knew asked me what it had been like to live most of my adult life sober. I thought the question would have immediately conjured up the gutwrenching moments that I’ve endured over the years, the suicide of my children’s father, a painful divorce, the loss of my father or any other of the myriad of life setbacks and curveballs I have encountered along the way.

But surprisingly that was not the case. I mean don’t get me wrong, there were nights I remember thinking I could not survive another single moment of what I was feeling without doing something, anything to make what felt unbearable go away. But somehow, I did make it through and learned along the way that with every new challenge, I had within me the ability to cultivate more spaciousness for the discomfort which allowed me to move through these places with less resistance and greater ease.

But that was not really the memories and thoughts that showed up as I considered my long-term sobriety. In fact, I thought of the day I took my middle son, then maybe 11 years old to the SOCON basketball conference championship. In front of us were two unfamiliar families and both fathers were clearly drunk. They yelled and berated the referees and their behavior was both erratic and unpredictable and was clearly making my son uncomfortable.

I looked over at him and the look of concern on his face. I told him if he was uncomfortable, we could move. I remember he paused, and he looked down at his feet for several moments then slowly looked up at me and said thank you mom, that I didn’t have to grow up living that way. I felt my heart burst in an instant and a cascade of my own childhood memories come tumbling into consciousness. The yelling, the never knowing what might happen and the pervasive sense that the world was not safe. In some small way, by not drinking I had changed the course of not just our lives, but perhaps the generations to follow.

I remembered too, what seemed then to be a very ordinary day in a tumultuous time in my life. I was out running in the woods after my divorce, burdened by months of unrelenting grief and anger that lasted just long enough that I began to question whether I would ever feel better again. About midway through my run, I caught the faint scent of lilacs blooming. I stopped and looked around feverishly until I found the lilac bush responsible. As I steeped myself in the scent of my childhood, somehow joy found her way back through the darkness. For just a moment, my body opened back up to the goodness and beauty all around me, and in the midst of my despair, I found hope.

That is the thing about living sober, it comes with a realness, not buffered or placated by any substance. I spent my early years thinking that I was willing to live in a watered down, gray, overcast version of my life if it meant I could somehow circumvent the hard parts, the places that ached and felt unbearable. What I never considered then, was how my decision to shut myself down and seek solace in substances in a futile effort to coat my traumatized and overwrought nerve endings, would also keep me from experiencing all of the good stuff along the way- love, connection, joy and happiness. It had always come with a price; one I am no longer willing to pay.

The question about this sober life was a reminder that life will always be full of ups and downs. What has changed has been my relationship to where I find myself in life. In 12 step programs they often say recovery is accepting life on life’s terms. That is only partially true. I have struggled and fought with the belief that I could more than just accept my present realities; I envisioned a life where I could keep my heart open enough and remember that there will always be lilacs blooming somewhere.

Our addictions are indiscriminate. They shut us down to everything. I have found beauty in my pain and great sadness in joy. There is an exquisiteness in allowing ourselves to sink gently into our present moment experience. An aliveness in our being that requires us to be willing to be here now. This sober life has given me the courage to live in a more fully embodied way and for that I am forever grateful.

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