Nearly everyone I’ve met in recovery has some experience with a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, counselor or mental health professional. Coincidence? I think not. I lump myself into that group because over the span of my 40 something years, I’ve had more visits to mental health specialists than to the dentist.
You would think after seeing countless doctors and having undergone every mental, emotional and physical test know to man, that I would have learned exactly what my ailments were. But I didn’t. I listened diligently over the years as medical professionals asked questions and dissected events in my life trying to rationalize and label my behaviors. I followed their instructions to read, exercise, eat right and take my medicine. I tried individual therapy, group therapy, intensive therapy and even light therapy. Some of those methods worked a little. But none of them healed me.
It wasn’t until I came into recovery, into a room full of strangers, that I was able to begin the process of truly healing my mind, body and soul. Looking back over decades of expensive 50 minute sessions, I know today that the doctors and counselors who sat across from me are not to blame. They never had a chance. How could they help me when I was never truly honest with them?
I knew that I should stop drinking when my psychiatrist told me my red blood cells were enlarged. But I wasn’t willing. I knew I should probably exercise more and take my vitamins, but I didn’t do either. I knew that if I continued to lie to all of the well meaning people I was laying out good money to see, I might never get better. But I lied anyway.
Honesty has always been a gray area for me. My daughter told me that I have a habit of exaggerating things when I recall certain events to other people. Even though I’m fully aware I’m doing it, I have a hard time not embellishing. Who is it hurting anyhow, I think? The stories are more colorful and entertaining when I add a few juicy details. Telling a few tales about how bad that driver was or how many times I worked out aren’t big deals. But for me, one is never enough. A little white lie can spin out of control and become a web of fables that even I can’t escape from.
When I sit in a room full of other people and just listen, really listen to the stories, the fear, the guilt and the miracles that recovery has brought, I can connect dots in my past. I can see patterns of behavior clearly and understand certain reactions. All without having to say a word out loud. I don’t have to spill my guts, remove my mask of superiority or come out from behind my fear of judgement. But the funny thing is, in these rooms, in these safe places, with these strangers, I do all of those things.
There is truly something magical about recovery. I have learned so many things that I never learned in therapy. Not because my shrinks weren’t capable of teaching them. But because I wasn’t willing to learn. My recovery wasn’t shoved down my throat. I chose it. I wanted it. I had reached my bottom. I had, as they say, received the gift of desperation. And that made me willing.
Some of the things I have learned in recovery are:
Honesty – That it only works if I am honest. I can’t get better if I hide behind lies and half truths. I must come clean to myself, those who are trying to help, and to God. I must be completely and totally honest about everything in my life in order to get the freedom I so desperately want.
Patience – It takes time to change. I spent my whole life perfecting the hot mess I was when I found recovery. It’s unrealistic to expect those finely honed habits to be broken overnight. It’s okay if I only change a little at a time. Because every change in the right direction is a victory.
Pausing – What?! I never knew I could pause before acting. I thought reacting was a good thing! Okay, so it sometimes got me in trouble, but really, pausing!? My pause button didn’t exist when I entered recovery. It’s still a little faulty, but I’m learning how to use it more and more each day.
It’s About Me – That was a big one. I blamed everyone else around me for my problems. I wondered why even though I was busting my butt trying to fix everyone else, I still wasn’t getting better. Recovery taught me that it is about me, my level of acceptance, my serenity, my ability to take action, my reaction, my peace.
Choice – I have a choice in everything. That one blew my mind. I had been really hurt by other people and didn’t understand how I had any choice in that. I learned from strangers, from other brave souls bearing their wounds, that I had a choice to hang on to those hurts, or let go. In fact, I had choices in every area of my life. Once I realized the power of choice, like choosing to let God into my life, then I realized I had the power to change.
Fear – I was so afraid that I would be judged, looked down on or dismissed by medical professionals. I was terrified that they would think I was a pathetic loser or a hopeless case if they knew the extent of what really went on in my head. Perhaps it is the sterile setting or illusion of superiority that hit me when I would walk into a psychiatrist’s office. Regardless, it made me afraid. Afraid to be who I was, afraid I wouldn’t be who they wanted me to be, and afraid there wasn’t a real me behind all of these defects.
Unconditional Acceptance – There is such a sense of abnormal normalcy in recovery that it oozes a feeling of safety. When I first arrived, it was as if everyone was saying to me, “It’s okay. We know where you’ve been, what you’ve done and what you’ve thought. We know and we don’t care. We’re going to show you how to get better.”
I still see my psychiatrist. It’s necessary for me. She evaluates my blood tests, checks in on my mental health and reviews my medications. But our relationship is very different.today than it was years ago. Today she is nicer, more accepting and more supportive of my path than she was in the beginning. And that’s funny, because she hasn’t changed at all since the day I met her.
I don’t know how any of it works. I just know that recovery has worked for me. It has shown me things that so many others couldn’t. It has given me a foundation of safety to explore my scarier sides. It has shown me that I had to walk a broken path to get where I am today. It has allowed me to look at my past honestly and accept responsibility for my actions.
But most importantly, recovery has taught me to get out of myself and be of service to others. Because the only way I can continue to get better is to carry the message to other hurting people. And the fact that I can be of help to anyone is by far one of the greatest miracles of recovery for me.