Dear Hip Sobriety, when you first began on your path to recovery, how did you not isolate? If you didn't do AA, then who was your support system?? I find it very hard to do alone even with books etc. Love, Lonely & Struggling.
Hi Lonely. First let me just say I loathe the word isolation. It gets such a bad rap, like it's the thing to be avoided at all costs; the thing that will bring you down. Which of course it can. But I think it can also save you. And I think, also, it's such big part of recovery, a necessary part. And one that often we're made to feel wrong for - Oh your'e isolating again, aren't you?
And then, of course, there's a flip side to isolation - solitude - which is meant to be the good kind of isolation, like the Thoreau version. Which we'll say Oh that's important, you need that kind of time! about. And then you'll ask people to define the difference between the two things, and they'll say Isolation feels bad and does bad things and it's not by choice and solitude is good and it does good things and its by choice! Or something to that effect. But then that doesn't explain the times in my life that I felt the loneliest, that I felt the most cut off from the world and NOT by choice, where I hated the depth of my loneliness and isolation, that I now look back on and think That was the most wonderful, expansive, gut wrenching part of my life and thank GOD it happened just like it did; thank God I was alone.
In other words, this bullshit we've built around an idea of isolation doesn't hold water when we turn back on it in retrospect (well, sometimes). And it doesn't account for the fact that some of the most painful experiences we have are good, and some of the most pleasant experiences we have (like having a false sense of self through our connections and who we know and how many parties we go to) are bad.
So let's start with that little rant, Lonely. And then let me tell you about from where I came, and what my isolation actually looked like, felt like. And then let me tell you some things I've learned that might guide you on the way.
To answer your question, I guess the first thing I need to tell you is that I did isolate. I mean, of course I did - isolation was my normal.
Before recovery, I would hole up in my little cubby of an apartment for days at a time with baggies of weed and boxes of cigarettes and bottles of wine, and the only people I came into contact with in those bender periods were either take-out delivery people or convenient store workers. The time spent outside the bender periods wasn't much better - when you're doing your best to keep your mess of a fucking life a secret from everyone; when all you are doing is trying to hold up the facade that EVERYTHING IS FINE OVER HERE GUYS! - you're not really NOT isolated. You're more or less covered in Saran Wrap, socially speaking.
The first time I attempted sobriety, I did so because a) I was certain I had Borderline Personality Disorder, b) I couldn't keep up what I was doing to myself much longer, and c) I read a Very Convincing Book. All of this - the self-diagnosis of mental illness, the discomfort with both the bar scene and the shit-show behind the scenes and reading the Very Convincing Book - was a very personal, private thing. Which is to say that my first attempt at sobriety was not much different than what led me to attempt it. Which is to say that getting sober was, at the beginning, as isolative as the addiction.
In October 2012 (the time of the first attempt) I told my mom and my sister I was going to stop drinking because of the mental illness. The book I read (The Easy Way To Control Alcohol) made me excited to stop drinking, so I announced to my social circle I was done with booze with the same demeanor one might announce they are going to cut bangs. And that was the extent of my involving others, save for the therapist I started seeing. Let that sink in. I decided to completely change my life, and I made passing announcements about it to everyone that mattered to me (i.e., there was more Saran Wrap at this point - not less).
In December of 2012, about 60 days after the I'm never drinking again! nirvana, I found myself at a Christmas party sucking whiskey out of an ice sculpture. I fully intended to go right back to sobriety the next day, except I drank through the rest of the month of December. My family was decidedly not happy about this (and they made it known they weren't). My friends, who hadn't said much about the whole sobriety thing while I was in it, were just happy I was back (and they made it known they were). Which is just to say that when I stopped drinking the first time, I was kind of alone, and when I started working on my second attempt at sobriety, I was entirely alone. My loved ones had no idea what I was doing (try explaining that you're "working on sobriety" while you're still getting shit-faced, people will totally get that), and because of the reactions I'd received when I broke my sobriety, I really didn't want them to.
On the 2nd of January, 2013, I cleaned up a five-day bender, dragged myself to a Bikram Yoga class, and then walked myself over to the Kabuki spa for a massage appointment. The woman assigned to me, Susan, asked me if there was anything I wanted to work on. I was in this communal massage space, there were about 12 other people being attended to, and so I very quietly whispered I'm in a mode of severe healing and I need you to massage my stomach. I told her I was a Very Sick Person, and she was the first person I had ever said those words out loud to. I cried, and she hugged me, and she understood somehow exactly what I was telling her. More than anyone had understood. I got her card and started having her come to my home for massages in my apartment.
My sobriety date is April 14th, 2013, and in between January 2nd and April 14th, I started to build an inner world that was still marked with bender behavior, but also marked with a Full Vagina attempt to heal myself. I started to see a new therapist who I told the complete and total truth (okay not really but mostly). I didn't hang out with my friends so much or talk to my family because I didn't need my behavior monitored or my intentions questioned. I worked at a health care company and many of my friends were health care providers, so in business meetings, I started telling them what I was doing and my meetings often became support meetings. I went to a few doctors from time to time, just to talk and ask them questions and have them assure me that I was okay. I joined a coaching program and told the woman leading it what I was doing. Turns out her husband was sober, and he and I talked. I told one of my best friends I was trying to get sober because I knew her dad was, and he and I talked, too. And by the time I was ready to actually quit drinking again, which was March 31st, 2013, what I had done (accidentally-on-purpose) was collect a team of individuals in my life that were on my side. And yet I don't think I remember a period of my life where I felt more cut off from the world.
When you ask How did you do it alone? I think oh my God, I was never alone. I see Leah and Dr. Vegan and Sally and Geoff and Fran and Susan and that dude therapist who was awful but nonetheless still right there on Team Holly. I see Annalee who took me on a hike with her friends when I needed it, and her dad Andre who talked with me about his 20+ years of sobriety with so much love and kindness and compassion I thought I might die. I see Ashley, who gave me the mantra that would change my life, and her husband, who was the first sober person I ever talked to. I see the Asian acupuncturist I would schlep to in Chinatown once a week whose name I can't remember, and Rusty Wells, who taught my Sunday yoga classes, and Amy, who packed me bowls of pot and told me about her sober friends and also her friends who had died from drugs. I see Shawn, who let me commandeer our work meetings to talk about May Cause Miracles and how awful Us Magazine is. I see Steph Snyder and Kia Miller, who were with me night after night on my computer teaching me yoga, and Gabby Bernstein, whose voice carried me through day after day as I consumed her guided meditations. I see Allen Carr who yelled at me about how bad alcohol was in his masterpiece of a book, and all those other authors from the early days whose books would forever shape me, forever change my life.
And this list here? This is only a list of those who were with me before I stopped drinking. When I truly embraced I had a drinking problem, which wasn't until after I quit the third and final time, it went exponential. I went to AA for a short period, and even though I didn't make friends through it or work the program or even like it, you better believe sitting with people who were like me - who were going through what I was going through - was everything.
Because I was being honest with people in my life, and telling people that I had a problem with alcohol (and I mean telling everyone), it became an even more socially supported/not-isolated thing. It was a shared knowledge. In Italy sitting with my friend Geoff and his sister Jenny and her husband Tim, drinking my cappuccino as they sipped their Sicilian white, we actually talked about my drinking, and whether it was hard being in Italy without wine. We didn't pretend there wasn't a new normal happening. And because I started talking about it more and more and more, like at networking events, I made my first sober friend at a business lunch in Fall of 2013, who I talked on the phone with and ate meals with when I was in New York and she was in San Francisco. And from there it just kept getting better. You can read all the 10 million ways I made friends as a sober lady in this blog post here.
Which leads me to today (over four and a half years on this journey) where I still trend towards loner-status, but where I have more people in my life and on my side than I know what to do with or know how to thank God properly for. Lonely, you asked me how did I not isolate, and how I came to find a support system without AA. I feel like I've given you a glimpse into what my journey looked like, but I'd also like to answer the question more directly. See below.
7 keys to deal with isolation in recovery.
1. You will feel lonely.
Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain, talks about the three human survival strategies - 1) Creating Separations, 2) Maintaining Stability, and 3) Approaching Opportunities and Avoiding Threats. Okay so basically, in other words, 1) Humans are wired through BILLIONS OF YEARS OF EVOLUTION to create a distinct and independent self (your ego self, your mask, the identity presented to the world), 2) To avoid change, and 3) To avoid pain. We do this by 1) Building a self that feels palatable/likeable/acceptable to the world, 2) Keeping shit the same, and 3) Gravitating towards things that feel really good. So then one day you decide to get sober and guess what happens? 1) You lose your identity, 2) EVERYTHING changes at once, and 3) It's painful as fuck. So basically, you violate everything that your instinct is trying to do to keep you alive. Please don't expect to not feel lonely when this is happening no matter how many people you have around you.
2. You need people.
Hear me on this. YOU. NEED. PEOPLE. We humans are biologically designed to connect with each other and from the moment we are born into this world, how we develop as humans - emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually - is contingent on how we connect. That being said, most of us who struggle with addiction also have pathologies here, meaning that from a young age something malfunctioned in the area of connection. So it is that much more imperative that we find people as we recover that we can have genuine connections with, or that we can learn to connect with. As Johann Hari says in his book Chasing The Scream (a must-read) and his infamous TED talk - The opposite of addiction is connection.
3. You need care-team people.
You for sure will need individuals in your life that count as a support team: people that can hold the ground for you, tether you, but with different things that they bring to the table. Start assembling this care-team. Start collecting people that know what you are going through, that you can be honest with, that root for you, that can help you. You do not have to be rich to find this! This can be a sponsor in AA, a therapist (you can find affordable therapy through various mediums, for instance if there is a university close by with a psych program, there will for sure be some sort of sliding scale offerings for newbie therapists). Get massages and acupuncture and tell the providers what you are doing - again if money is an issue, there are schools and training programs all around that give deeply discounted rates so new therapists can practice. Go to yoga classes with teachers that give a fuck about their students and go enough so that the teacher knows who YOU are as much as you know who the teacher is - Kundalini teachers are almost across the board accessible in this way, but so are many other teachers from many other lineages. Go to meditation groups if they are offered in your area, or alternative types of recovery groups like SMART Recovery or Refuge Recovery. Go to your doctor for your annual check-up and tell them about it, get them on board with what is going on. Go to a church and tell the priest/pastor/minister/whatever-er. We have SO. MANY. RESOURCES. that are accessible to us here in the U.S. SO MANY PEOPLE that want to be in service to you. Find them. Ask for help. If someone can't help you, find the next person. Also, if you're sitting here reading this and saying I don't have the money to do this or I don't have the TIME to do this my answer is you do, because you found the time and the money for drugs and alcohol.
4. You need peer people.
Okay so the truth is, I didn't have peer people in early sobriety - like for some 9+ months. I went to my first AA meeting after my last drink and I didn't make a single friend there ( though it was life changing to just sit in a room with people who were going through my same struggle - even if I didn't buy into the whole AA thing). I didn't start to make peer connections until I went through Kundalini yoga training in late 2013, some 6 months sober, and while the Kundalini folks weren't sober, they were on the same path as me, and that counted for a lot. When I did finally start accumulating sober friends, I was over 10 months sober and over a year into the journey of attempting it, and this was through a meet-up I started.From there it just grew…less not-sober friends, more sober friends. I found them in as many ways as you can imagine, and I wrote an article about it called 11 Ways To Make Friends In Recovery.
5. One person IS MORE THAN enough.
Truly, many of us think that we need a sea of people, a village, and often-times that thought comes from an idea of what is socially acceptable - social proof of how worthy or cool or normal or likeable you are is often tied up with how popular you are/how many friends you have/how many plans you make/how many likes you get on your #tbt on Instagram/etc. I spent the first 30+ years of my life fighting to be popular and palatable and liked, for my social calendar to be full. Part of my recovery was letting that part of me DIE, of learning that my self-worth wasn't dependent upon how many people texted me in a day, or letting whether or not I had plans on a Friday night dictate whether I thought of myself as a loser. These days, I am enough regardless of how many people I know or how many people call me a friend. So let's be clear that when we are searching for our people we are looking not for quantity here. We are looking for quality. And sometimes, just one quality person can be enough, one good strong relationship that can act as your anchor is more than most of us get.
Most of the time, a relationship like this, an anchoring relationship, comes in the form of a therapist or a coach. For me, this was my therapist Ann (and later, my coach Zoe). Ann - who by the way if I didn't have photographic evidence of would doubt she really ever existed - showed up one day at a Kundalini training. After a series of events conspired to bring us together, she agreed to work with me as my therapist, and in a short period of time became the root that I needed while I grew my own root system. She was in my corner - consistently, without fail - and saw me, and because I trusted her so much, felt so seen and heard and felt by her, I was able to do some of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. I may have had a lot of people in my corner, but Ann was everything, and if I had only had her in that first year, it would have been enough. So anyway. One person. Go for that.
6. Re-frame Isolation.
Towards the end of drinking, while my life had increasingly been marked by a need to stay home and pump alcohol and Netflix and take-out and cigarettes and pot in and out of my body IN ISOLATION, it had also been marked by a need to say yes to everything. Every happy hour, party, dinner invitation, work event, concert, whatever. I had such an innate sense of FOMO, it didn't even matter if I wanted to do the fucking thing - I never said no (unless, of course, I was on a bender). It was like a rubber band balancing act - pull to hard in one direction (overextending myself in public), and snap back into drug-induced catatonia. I was never actually with myself. I was either running away from myself in the company of people, or running away from myself chemically.
Recovery was the first time IN MY LIFE that I started to choose to be with me. It was the first time that I found comfort in my own company. And in that space, that oh-so-sacred space of isolation/solitude/whatever, I found God within me. I will never be able to recapture those first few months of 2013, coming home from work, my apartment and I both in our first stretches of healing ourselves. I would take baths, dance by myself, chant, do yoga, read and read and read and read. I'd make tea and art and declarations. In that same space that had almost strangled me to death in addiction, I found myself. As my old world fell away, before the new one rose up to meet me, I found myself. And the most miraculous thing of all - I found that I liked myself. Somehow in this experience it no longer mattered what other people thought - it became important what I did. By some stroke of magic I began to find love for this thing that I was, this fledgling girl who had almost lost it all. This isn't to say that it didn't hurt or that I wasn't lonely. It was so thick with loneliness that the nostalgia of it still chokes me, even today. But it was also some right of passage into self-hood that I'd never before experienced, never before allowed myself to experience. Before sobriety, only losers hung out by themselves. And after sobriety, I learned only people who truly know themselves can be with themselves in solitude. Breathtaking, stunning solitude.
7. A balance must be struck.
All of this being said, your recovery needs to have some semblance of balance (which is, in itself, a subjective idea). Only you will know the right mix for you, only you will know what people and how many people and what kind of space and solitude and whether friends right now or friends later. Only YOU know what your special mix of recovery is, how it's going to look. Here's the thing. If you're honest enough with yourself to read a blog like this, you are for sure able to be honest with yourself about what you need. Create a recovery with the right mix of things that will help YOU get to where you need to go, rather than the right mix other people think you need, or the right mix our image-driven society tells you that you need.