I think the hardest part of recovery (other than simply not drinking, surfing the urges, learning to be a functioning, productive human being again, eating everything in sight and undoing 2 decades of damage among other things) is coming to terms with all my wasted years.

Wasted, quite literally.

The past is not usually a place I like to hang out, mostly because it’s so damn dark. In the timeline of my life, everything starts out like this somewhat intentional, organized chaos with erratic bursts of colour, like a Jackson Pollock painting.

You know it’s beautiful and everyone agrees, but you aren’t entirely sure why.

Then, things start to get a little (lot) fuzzier and dark, more à la Francisco de Goya just without all the blood and gore. Eventually, things just go black – there are no lights at the bottom of a bottle.

It may as well have been the ocean floor, filled with curious creatures that can light up on demand, but in the end they’re all still blind. That’s what addiction feels like – being stuck at the bottom of the ocean in absolute darkness with this Pacific-sized pressure holding you down with no hope of ever breaking the surface. You can’t breathe, you can’t see, and you can’t swim away.

Basically, you’re a shipwreck with more complicated emotions.

That’s the period of my life I have had a hard time looking at. I would try and focus to make out the shape of something – anything – in the murky abyss I call my memories, and almost always come up disappointed. It was like dredging the ocean floor for treasure and only pulling up garbage.

I knew it had to be cleaned up, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

I spent a really, really long time just clinging to that trash. I refused to throw it back but I also didn’t know how to deal with it, either. And by clinging to it so relentlessly, I brought that darkness along with me wherever I went, including straight into rehab. I had basically stalled my healing before it even began by overthinking, expecting, worrying, and doubting. My mind stiffened with rigor mortis and refused to let go. I was clutching onto every failure and all the damage I’d done for 2 decades like it was the last thing I was clinging to when I died.

I was too heavy to escape the depths of my watery hell, and knew that in order to float my way to the top I needed to unload all the things that were weighing me down.

Well, that’s all fine and good except I didn’t know where to start, and could barely see to find my way. I was lacking the strength to pull out the heaviest stuff first, so I started dismantling things one little lightweight bit at a time as best I could. And the more I did, the more I dismantled my sunken ship, breaking it into smaller, manageable, less heavy pieces.

Journaling really helped me tackle the bottom-feeders.

First, I tackled my tiny regrets, like that time I said that thing, or the little white lies that caused no real harm. For some reason they were all still in there, my emotional pack-rat having stashed them away for me to joyously mull over while lying awake every night at 3am. These were all the life goes on sort of regrets. The kind that no one remembers but you. Small but mighty, they still all add up to an incredibly wasteful weight, easily released by admitting they no longer matter and that you have no reason to be carrying them around anymore. It felt like I was a grow man, but still walking around wearing my grade school nap sack. Even though I had outgrown it, I still carried it everywhere.

I didn’t truly feel the weight of everything I had been carrying until I finally let it all go.

Oh, what we could be if we stopped carrying the remains of who we were.
– Tyler Knott Gregson

I slowly began to feel lighter. I was about a week or so into rehab, and had started cognitive behavioural therapy. It felt like once or twice a day I’d climb into a claustrophobia-inducing submarine and sink down to the depths again to shine a little light on everything, illuminating all the dark and dirty parts. Some days, I’d even resurface with something I hadn’t seen before or long forgotten.

And almost all days I cried more than Mae Whitman in Hope Floats.

It was is an ongoing journey of breaking off small pieces that are manageable, so you can sit with them and turn them over in the hands of your heart.

I began to realize I needed to come apart before I could go back together. Like a glow stick, the more I cracked, the more I lit up. It took a really long time before I came to learn that sometimes you have to break before you shine.

I started hauling to the surface a lot of the heavier stuff: failures, betrayal, disappointment, self-loathing, insecurity, fear, financial chaos, my father’s passing, broken promises – and they all had something very ugly and very much in common. They all came down to the heartbreaking epiphany that I didn’t love myself. This realization turned my entire recovery on it’s head (and I’m still in a wobbly sort of headstand most days). I figured out that the goal wasn’t to be sober, or just to simply stop drinking.

The goal became to love myself so much that I didn’t need to drink.

So basically, I was now sitting with a whole bunch of crap I didn’t know how to deal with (feelings and memories) and discovering that in order to pry my fingers loose from clinging to all the ugly stuff, I had to start doing something I had no idea how to do: start loving myself, as is.

No longer drinking 4 litres of wine a day, by comparison, was easy.

I hated adding up – and taking responsibility for – all my wasted years and forfeited opportunities. I hated the rollercoaster of feeling all the new and different kinds of sadness and different, foreign kinds of joy. As awful as it was, feeling flat was so much easier.

Easier, but not better.

I wish I could give you a shortlist of how I’ve dealt with all the uglies, but it’s honestly been a potpourri mix of mindfulness, writing, apologies, and action. Merely thinking about things only stirs them up and makes the water muddy. I have had to sit with my feelings and accept them for what they are, no matter how painful or gross they feel. I have to look deeply and see what cure they want – and give it to them – so that they can finally swim away.

These are the big fish. The ones that have shacked up in my ship.

And it’s only through engaged action have I been able to float slowly but surely back towards the surface. If I uncover a hurt I have caused – I apologize. If I have loose ends (and there are still so many) that keep me anchored to the deep, I either cut my losses or tie that shit up. It’s only through actual action that I’ve finally been able to start scaring away all those big fish.

I am learning that coming to love myself is a long and beautifully complicated process of acceptance, surrender, holding and releasing – and above all, forgiving. Forgiving myself for all the irretrievable time now long gone under the bridge, forgiving myself for all the bridges I have burnt, and forgiving myself for not doing my best at times, and my worst at others. It’s an ongoing process of untying myself from all the anchors that have kept me on the muddy ocean floor.

Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.

It’s been through the painful process of breaking myself down like the little glow stick that I am, have I finally, however slowly, started to shine.

Written by SJ VanDee

Recovery Blogger. Sober AF. Photographer. Storyteller. Writer.

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