What Counts As A “Using Problem”?: Reflections on Five Years Sober

On 29 October 2016, I joyously opened my eyes and woke to this precious life with the beautiful reality of being sober for f i v e whole years now. Five! What a miracle and a gift I do not take for granted every day.

I think about my sobriety a lot and in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I want to just have that *one* glass of wine with friends. Sometimes the familiar space of an art/music showing activates the muscle memory in my body that wants to use. Sometimes I see substances and get disgusted. Sometimes I am able to be truly present and I don’t even react to people using around me. All of these reactions are important and I honor them all as they remind me of the infinite complexities that come with my personal commitment to a substance-free life.

When I first got sober, I went into pretty intense isolation. I was a couple months into my master’s program, living in a new state where I didn’t have a lot of close friends (yet), and had a lot of school work and internship work to do. I had (consciously) wanted to stop using for at least six months before I actually did, but hey, no shame. All happens in Divine Timing. The isolation was a gift, as I am someone who is not afraid to ask for help and support but likes to do so on my own time to likes to figure it out in my own way before I begin to go public with it. The status of my life at that point set me up for a beautiful healing path.

In the beginning of choosing sobriety, there was, of course, the physical symptoms of withdrawal and the changing of what I was going to put into my body at social events. Habits shifting. Who and I talk to and in what ways. More paying attention to details. More awareness of things that always were blurry before this. I also started to read sober literature, people’s personal stories, everything I could find–it was a big world and I honestly didn’t know anyone at the time who got sober to reach out to for support. I just knew I had to stop using and trusted myself to figure it out along the way.

Of course, eventually I was guided to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). I only went to three meetings in my life. I’ve never worked the steps. I don’t have a sponsor. In the first few years of not using, this was a source of confusion and shame for me. Am I going to relapse? Do I think I’m better than everyone? Am I blocking myself from receiving help? Is there something wrong with me? Am I bad at healing?

The answer to all of these questions is, of course, no. AA was and is not a space that was for me. I do have a copy of the Big Book and have read A Woman’s Way Through The 12 Steps but did not feel called to be involved in AA beyond that. Which is 100% okay and allowed.

I will say that AA is, of course, an incredible and magical resource and community group of people who all want to intentionally heal. I have many friends who go to AA and have loved it and when people talk to me about getting sober, of course, I always reference AA as a beautiful and free resource. But for me personally, it is not a vibrational match. I have thought about why for a long time, and I realized a lot of it has to do with the ways in which I have framed my own using problem with the using problems I grew up around.

The narrative I grew up around using and that is so often portrayed in the media, is one of violence and abuse and robbing others and losing all morals and values while under the influence. AA talks about this as being a different person completely when we are using–usually meaner and causing more harm to those around us by lashing out.

I used for almost a decade before I got sober, and I never wanted to harm externally while I was under the influence. I never got mean, never robbed anyone, never wanted to harm anyone, never drove drunk. I’m sure I wasn’t as kind and pure as I am now, but I did not turn malicious. This is not a value judgement on those who do get like that when they use, but it obviously created a huge gap in my understanding of using problems and part of why I didn’t realize how much using was harming me before I stopped.

Most of my using stemmed from it being one of the only places I felt like I had agency and control over my own life at a young age. I couldn’t move away or support myself financially enough to physically leave my environment, but if I was under the influence, I could leave my body mentally enough to survive. Plus, I could control what was going into my body (even though it was harmful), which gave me the illusion of safety and reclaiming personal power.

I was also a high-functioning user. My grades never, ever slipped. I was in all honors and AP classes. I played varsity sports. I maintained multiple jobs. I got into the number one grad program in the country for my major. I was excelling in pretty much everything I tried/was doing. There were no “signs” that I was using to a harmful extent that damaged my ability to show up and be responsible.

And there wasn’t because who was being harmed? Me. My energy. My connection to Source. I couldn’t think or decide or exist with full clarity and abundance because my energy was under the influence. And because I never took it out on the external world, it didn’t register in my mind as a using problem for a long time.

I do not judge or reject myself for using to the extent that I did. It was a survival tool. In AA they talk about having gratitude for our co-dependent behaviors because they kept us alive. Yes, we need to grow past them and put them down as we cultivate a reality of safety for ourselves, but if I hadn’t used in the way I had, I don’t know if I would have survived a lot of what I have been through.

For my celebration around five years sober I want to remind all of us that even if your narrative doesn’t match literature or understanding or mainstream conversations about it, to please please please tune in and listen to yourself. Ultimately, you know what is best for you and it is so important to trust that. Seek knowledge and support, but do not be afraid if what you find outside of you does not resonate. You are allowed to support yourself and pave your own path and free yourself in this way. I believe you. I trust you. I support you.

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A five year sober present I gave myself–A Course in Miracles tattoo. 🙂

Thank you for being with me on this path! So much love to all of you. xx

Erin

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