What is it like being a young person in recovery?
For years I have heard other people tell me what it’s like. Well-intentioned old-timers have made assumptions about my experience with an ever-so-polite condescension that I’ve tended to read as a dismissal. While it may be true that I was spared “the last ten or fifteen years of hell” that later-stage alcoholics go through, I certainly know what hell is like–rest assured. I also know what it is like to be free from that hell.
In the spiritual realm, age is irrelevant. No group has a monopoly on human suffering.
When I came into recovery, I knew what it was like to live in constant fear of life, utterly unable to see things clearly. (With beer-bottle glasses on, very few things are ever clear.) Suicidal and wearing the smiles of a clown, I did not know how to live. I was not sure if I wanted to. I did know something had to change.
I was 14 when I first started using. From the very beginning I tried my best not to be an addict, not realizing it was a disease I couldn’t beat. I used my alcoholic father as a comparison, telling myself I was okay as long as I did not end up like him. I had been told all of the dangers of drug use. I was watching my father drink himself to death, but no amount of sanctimonious appeal, criticism, or even well-intentioned support could compete with the feeling I got from drugs. I was bound and determined that I would not end up like him.
So my grades fell. My friends changed. My behavior deteriorated. My temper flared. I got suspended two times. Numerous detentions. Almost expelled. But I was convinced I had found what I had been looking for so long. Little did I know how much I was walking in my father’s shadow.
I was two months shy of my 22nd birthday when I got sober. I had been flirting with recovery for about eight months before my actual “surrender.” During that time I had eagerly explored the idea that my father was responsible for ruining my life. Like many people, I had a deep inability to look at myself. Out of fear and shame of what lay underneath, I kept the truth about myself at arm’s length.
I was completely unprepared to live life sober at age 21. I had none of the tools that many other people leave adolescence with. I was unable to keep a job, control my temper, pay bills, have any discipline, ask for help, talk to women, talk to men, talk to kids, talk to adults, walk down the street without fear, clean my apartment, accept love, accept conflict, accept pain, accept failure, accept compliments, know what the hell I wanted to do with my life, take responsibility for my decisions, not blame other people for my problems, trust other people, look at myself in the mirror (literally), cry when appropriate, laugh when appropriate, shut my mouth when appropriate, speak when appropriate, not believe that every guy wanted to fight or hurt me, not believe that every woman thought I was a loser, see that a relationship was more than a one-night stand, or see that nobody hated me as much as I hated myself.
That’s only a glimpse of the laundry list of challenges that many addicts face coming into sobriety, especially many of us young addicts who never learned those simple lessons. Add to that growing up in an alcoholic family whose upper-middle-class income enabled me to avoid taking responsibility for my life, and you can understand a little about what it was like for me to be young and starting the process of recovery.
Slowly but surely I began to face challenges and rise to the occasion with the absolutely essential support of friends, sponsors, meetings, constant mistakes and failures, and, of course, an ever-changing (as far as my understanding is concerned) and elusive Higher Power.
Since that beginning, I have been living life with all of its ups and downs. I have buried grandparents, friends, and my father; completed a master’s degree and received a fellowship to train at a well-known treatment center; moved three times and lived in three different states; regained a relationship with my mother that is better than it ever was; worked on a relationship with my sister; fell in love and had my heart broken (only to be told by a dear friend that really it was just the pain of my heart breaking open); and started to fulfill the dreams I can achieve so long as I stay sober.
I have come to believe that sobriety really begins long after a person has put down the chemicals. For me, true sobriety seems to have begun at around five years clean and sober. Some people refer to it as the “second surrender.” First I had to learn how to live without drugs and alcohol. Now I am deeply immersed in life. With this newest “project” has come the deepest, most beautiful, and most painful self-awareness I’ve ever known.
It amazes me how much of my sober life has been propelled by fear. Fear of choice. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of acceptance. Fear of rejection. Fear of reality. Fear of letting go. The list could go on ad infinitum.
What it comes down to, for me, is that I have a lot of beliefs about myself and other people that I have kept hidden for a long time. Many of them are reactions to pain and confusion from long ago that I have stuffed deep down. The process of facing these beliefs is the true crucible of deliverance that sobriety offers.
Take, for example, my fear of being judged. I spent much of my sobriety thinking people were looking at me and tearing me down, picking me apart. I just knew it. Ultimately I did not feel good enough to be around people and was constantly wanting–no, needing–their acceptance. And so, in return, I would judge them. When I moved to Minnesota (over four years sober) I became more aware of this. I was also more conscious of my shame than I had ever been. (A friend of mine says that as we stay sober, we move out of our self-centeredness and see ourselves more clearly–warts and all. This is the process of Steps 6 and 7.)
I began to see that I am the source of most of my problems, and that my attitude really does make a difference in how my life plays out. One day I was sitting in a meeting doing the same old thing–feeling self-conscious about what I was wearing, where I was from, how much money I had, who my father was, where we had lived, etc. Not feeling connected to the other people at the meeting. I could feel the judgments that people were casting upon me.
Then I had the profound realization that I was a master projectionist. I did not know what other people were thinking about me; I was not a mind-reader. Chances were, in fact, that everyone else was too worried about what other people were thinking about them to be thinking of me. Either way, the judgments were coming from me.
Until I challenged the part of myself that believed I wasn’t good enough, nothing would change. The critical voices that I had assumed were other people’s were in fact my own. My insecurity had nothing to do with anyone else. My new sense of freedom and clarity that day was immense. Acceptance truly is the answer to all of my problems–self-acceptance.
Today, at the age of 28, I watch other young people coming into recovery. I notice how young they are. I can get intimidated by their egos–or their youth. I have to remember that their bravado is part of the disease; it’s the same mask that I wore (and can still put back on!) trying to build up external appearances to hide the quiet desperation inside.
I think to myself sometimes, “They are too young” or “They really haven’t suffered,” forgetting my own experiences six years ago. Part of me just hopes that it hasn’t been too bad for them and that they are surrendering early into the war. I know that human suffering does not have an age requirement. They carry their share of battle wounds, and I have a responsibility to help them feel welcome and accepted by extending my hand and letting them know they are not alone–that they are not too young to recover.