With six and a half years of sobriety under my belt, it’s easy to get cocky. It’s easy to tell myself that things are under control because HEY, I’VE GOT SIX AND A HALF YEARS OF SOBRIETY! But for several months, perhaps even years, I have found myself gasping for air, or wrestling with feelings of discomfort in an exaggerated and unhealthy way.
To close friends, I’ve confided that I sometimes feel “on the edge,” which is easily justified by the fact that I run a small business and am a mom to a toddler. (Aren’t all moms on the edge?) And while that is an excellent excuse for my feelings, it won’t serve me well, or so I discovered while attending SheRecovers in NYC: a three-day event dedicated to women’s recovery.
Within a few hours of SheRecovers beginning, two messages were hammered: 1) Staying sober is hard work, but it’s not where the work ends, and 2) Avoiding pain will not only not help you, it will prevent you from reaching your full potential. “DUH!” said my critical voice. “You’ve known that all along! You just ignored it, like you ignore so much!” (She can be a harsh bitch.) But then my softer voice spoke up: “It’s okay. You weren’t ready.”
Before getting sober, any day I felt myself getting close to “the edge,” I would quickly medicate with a glass of wine, gin & tonic, martini, beer: or any type of booze around me. (You only have Smirnoff Ice? Sure, I’ll take two.) All I’d need was that first sip, and like a porcupine that is no longer alarmed, my sharp quills would relax and soften. Whatever feelings had caused my spikes to shoot up would be instantly hushed.
Then a few months ago, I was following a discussion in my Mommy group online: a mom was complaining about a challenging day with a toddler, and a thread of thirty comments followed that empathized, offered advice, and reminded her that she could HAVE A GLASS OF WINE!
It was a moment I allowed the violin strings to start playing, so I complained to a friend on the phone. “I can’t have a glass of wine anymore. What do I do?” With the sanctioning of cannabis culture in Canada in the past few years that has paved way to half a dozen dispensaries near my home, I have even considered using weed to have something to take the edge off, and I have never felt “the edge” like I have in the past few years.
So what exactly is “the edge?” To me, it’s a space in my mind and body that is a combination of exhaustion, frustration, fear, sadness, anger, or resentment. It’s where the feelings join forces and go into battle. If I visualize it, I think of a dam about to explode. One drink: the water slows down. Three drinks: the dam is now sealed and quiet. Six drinks: what dam? The initial crippling anxiety would be thrown into a giant dark hole, forgotten about entirely. That dark space for me – where nothing was visible, nothing was felt – was euphoric. I could finally relax.
Since I stopped drinking in 2010, I’ve coasted on the ideology that why I drink isn’t important and instead I focused on the here and now. In a way, it served me well, because I am still sober, and perhaps I wasn’t ready for the dirty work that goes into recovery. But since having my son, I find myself driven to “the edge” far more often. I feel fear more than I ever did before, I am functioning on less sleep, I have lost time for myself, I – like every other mother – am juggling way too much. And everything is new. I’m in an intense period of learning, always, and the stakes are high, so my anxiety is always present.
Being sober has forced me to sit with anxiety and feel it in a way I never enabled myself to before. But I haven’t sat with it comfortably. I twitch, itch, eat, and try to walk away from it. But at SheRecovers, I was informed of what I’ve been avoiding for years: that the edge is the work. It was a revelation that arrived with both a feeling of relief and dread; a truth that I recognized but had buried and ignored.
For three days, I listened to some of America’s most respected women in recovery. Gabby Bernstein (Spirit Junkie), Glennon Doyle (Love Warrior), Nikki Myers (Founder of Y12SR, Yoga for 12-Step Recovery), Marianne Williamson (Tears to Triumph) – these women are seen by many (millions) as “spiritual gurus.” I scribbled pages and pages of notes, and while their stories vary and they spoke different words, their message was the same: it is in the discomfort where the truth will be discovered. Put another way: you have to sift through the dirt to find the gold.
I took a red pen to my notes to circle these messages that clearly resounded over the intensive recovery event. Pick your favourite and post it somewhere visible:
“Honour the wound. Think about the day you decided to get sober; the wound is where the light entered in.” Gabby Bernstein
“A free woman is a woman who is not afraid to face or feel pain.” Glennon Doyle
“Being with the edge is the work. You have to look at your own darkness before you can get to the light on the other side.” Marianne Williamson
“Co-dependency is the root of all addiction. Anything that I use to escape the present moment can turn into an addiction. Co-dependency is the disease of the lost self. The disease of looking elsewhere.” Nikki Myers
It’s going to take me some time to figure out how to explore my discomfort, but the next time my prickles start to poke, I’m going to look at them, consciously sit with them, and maybe even admire them (damn girl, you’re sharp!). And when I’m ready (definitely not today), I’ll reach out to touch them knowing that the sting may hurt, but it will not kill me. The spikes will soften.