With addiction and mental health being an editorial priority for us, I wanted to take a closer examination at how different women recover. What does it look like in the first few weeks? How does it change over time? And how do we change as a result?
As a society, we are finally recognizing that recovery is a personal journey; it’s not linear, and what works for one person isn’t necessarily the solution for another. The very first recovery meeting I attended was in 1999; I was nineteen. It would be another eleven years before I fully committed to my own recovery, and since then–and before–I’ve watched things shift for the better. The gut feeling I had, that a movement was occurring for women recovering from alcohol and substance use disorder, was confirmed when I attended She Recovers in New York City in 2017 and connected with 500 women recovering out loud.
Attending this also helped me feel empowered to share what I always knew: we all recover differently. Certainly, there are common themes–rarely does one recover alone–but each of us has our own journey, our various tools, and routines that we’ve created that suit our lives and values.
Every minute of every day, there are women–many in my direct circle or in the Shedoesthecity community at large–desperate to stop drinking or using, desperate for a change. If you are one of them, you’re not alone. I want to share with you the success stories and also present options. I want to show you what life can look like and what is possible while continuing to blow open the conversation about addiction and mental health.
So for the next little while, maybe always, I’m having women in my life–women who have been and remain critical to my ongoing recovery–share their stories. Meet Gillian, a kindred spirt who, probably without knowing it, shines light into my life from afar multiple times a week.
What did your recovery look like when you first started?
I was first recovering from using alcohol to combat stress, help me sleep and relax me socially. I was already at the point where I was so sick of my own daily use; to stop using was immense relief. My body, mind and spirit were greatly depleted after having been stuck in the repetitive cycle for years. My use of alcohol had snuck up on me [and had] been such a gradual incline that I barely noticed it until it became my new normal.
The first few weeks of recovery were physically rejuvenating and mentally challenging at the same time. I chose to side with the physical recovery and how that felt for me. At first, my sleep was depleted; learning how to fall asleep again without booze is challenging. Then, when sleep finally came, it was deep and restorative–exactly what sleep should be. Not the blackout, dehydrated, headache-induced sleep of before.
The last morning I woke up hungover, I knew in my bones that I was done. It was the final straw. Because my mental resolve to stop was so strong, I knew I was done in my heart. I felt a kind of melancholic optimism. My “good times” with booze were over, and in a way I mourned the loss of those concerts, pub crawls, clubs and parties. [I was] optimistic for the health-oriented nature of my future and knowing I would never have to suffer under the ill effects of that toxic drug ever again. It was like being woken up from a nightmare that I never knew could end. But it did end, once I embraced my steadfast choice to stop.
How old were you when you decided to take action?
I was forty-four years old. Previously, I experienced sober seasons in my life, such as when I was a new homeowner in the years that led up to me having my first daughter. Those days I did not drink much at all. I was a normal drinker. I could take or leave a drink. My addiction snuck up on me; it took years to get in that grey area of questioning my use.
How did you know that you needed to change your life? What moved you to take the first steps?
I knew for a good year before I actually stopped that nightly wine sessions after my kids went to bed just felt amiss. In the mornings, I struggled to feel well enough for work. It was a full-time job just managing my physical self: the bad skin, the tiredness, the dehydration…it was aging me. It was stealing my life force. I didn’t want to carry on like that, and morning after morning, looking in the mirror, I began to not recognize myself. I didn’t like how I looked or the person I was with booze in me.
I wanted to be me again. Authentically me. There were so many things I wasn’t doing, dreams I wasn’t fulfilling, plans that weren’t materializing, and so it was that I came to realize the common denominator was the alcohol consumption.
A friend knew I was struggling. I have known her since high school and she reached out to me privately with an article link on choosing sobriety. This caught my attention. Up to this point, I hadn’t really thought of it as being a personal choice to not drink. I thought only people labelled as alcoholics (now alcohol use disorder) were forced to join AA and find God and make amends…and all the things that did not resonate with who I am. I credit this friend for seeing what I actually needed: an alternative recovery path. I am so thankful for that magic moment, which led me down a rabbit hole of viable options for recovery that I hadn’t even imagined.
What does your recovery process look like today? How do you remain healthy?
Every day for me is soaked in tons of rituals.
Pulling three cards each morning (the decks vary, but the most common deck I use is “The Universe Has Your Back” deck because it teaches from A Course in Miracles, which has greatly helped me shift my perception), sets the tone for how I will approach challenges during my day. It roots me in my power, reminding me that my world is mine to create. [It] also keeps me in the flow–not trying to control my day but really tuning in to how I react to my day as that unfolding happens. It has taught me to surrender. Surrender is my power word because it keeps me healthy. I no longer drink to “control” anything; instead, I dig deeper within to find solutions and make the most out of the lessons life dishes my way. I now know that all the world serves up for me is for my highest good and helps me become a stronger, more resilient woman.
I find that reinforcing my abilities–nurturing my gifts–helps me stay in a frame of mind that honours the person I am (which is the person I always knew I was when I was drinking, but I was drowning her, pushing her down) and the person I am blossoming into. I pay more attention to visualizing and setting the expectations of who I wish to be, and I live accordingly. I live in a way that reflects who I wish to be now. I want it to feel as normal as possible as I move into my new life, so each day is a moving meditation focused on the person I choose to manifest as in this world. When I drank, I threw caution to the wind, letting the world shape me and my victimhood, always wondering why things never turned out for me. I was never allotting any energy or attention to becoming someone I was proud of.
More rituals of recovery include feeding my mind with books about psychology, quantum physics, and the mechanics of our brain. I nerd out over that shit.
I also move my body mindfully. So much trauma and emotion is stored in the body: aches, pains, fatigue, apathy. When I drank to stifle it, it stayed stuck in there. With a little help from yoga, I am able to shift stuck energy, which [often] results in my eyes tearing up with the release of emotions. Those classes are my favourite; I feel like I have accomplished the flow of energy once again. Letting go and surrendering are applicable in all areas of my recovery. Surrender to hunger, tiredness, cravings, and even space to de-people. I love other people but am an introvert by nature, so I honour the times my psyche says, “Enough. We need to be alone for a few hours.”
What has been the most challenging aspect of recovery?
Initially, the most challenging thing was dealing with other people’s opinions. I took it all personally. I was labelled by some. I was publicly ridiculed for sharing my thoughts about alcohol. I lost people I had considered friends. Now, I am cemented in who I am, my core beliefs, my rituals of recovery and my life’s plan…nothing and no one can shake me from my foundations. And if they do, I now have the tools in place to deal with it, without picking up a drink.
What has been the most rewarding aspect?
Standing in my shoes today vs then is like comparing night to day. I feel like I stepped out of the shadows and into the light. I feel like a completely new person. I am learning and growing and becoming, whereas before I was simply stuck. My business runs better. My home runs better–more happy, more at ease. I am connected to my children now in ways that are so present, so mindful. It heals me of the guilt I initially felt when I first quit–the regret and shame of wishing time away or hoping that whatever was going on would be done so I could just drink. My every thought was hijacked by the “when can I have my first glass of wine?” thought. There was little to no presence of mind. Even though these thoughts were going on in the background, once I quit it occurred to me how much time I spent simply thinking about drinking. Even at dry or sober events, I was secretly counting down until I could pour a glass of wine.
I am free of those thoughts now; the desire to drink is completely gone. I no longer spend any time worrying about my consumption or managing my intake. That in itself frees me to other more important work.
What did “fun” look like when you were struggling with substance use? And what does it look like today?
Fun was not fun looking back, but at the time, it was catching at least a buzz before bed so I could relax and unwind. It really didn’t do that for me though; it was usually me falling asleep on the couch after a few glasses of wine. No fun at all.
In my early twenties, drinking was about going out to clubs and getting wasted, usually dancing the night away.
In my thirties, I drank very little to nothing; I could take it or leave it. I was in full-blown new motherhood and didn’t think about drinking until I started my business when my second was born…then the stress took over and I thought wine was the answer. It compounded my problems.
In my forties, more of the same: fun times were meeting girlfriends for drinks and now none of those girlfriends hang around anymore. Very few hung on to me when I put the bottle down. The few that stayed (and they know who they are) are the women who are secure enough in themselves to know that what I do has zero effect on their lives and they love and respect me for my choice.
Today, fun looks like me in the garden, weeding and planting. And travelling the world when I can afford it (yay Airbnb!).