Yesterday was March 3rd. 3/3. The anniversary of my first sober date.
It was quite a few years ago now that I checked into detox at Stonington Institute on the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. I was shuttled around in dirty vans from our old, dilapidated house that we stayed in, back and forth to the program facility where we spent the bulk of our days. It was on one of those vans that I learned from a friend who had just come into the program that my classmate and friend, Ryan, had overdosed and died while I had been in treatment. He was the first loss from my graduating class from an overdose. I was devastated.
That day I decided to take my treatment seriously. I did what I was told. I became the “house rep”, of course, and became a beacon of recovery overnight. I committed to getting the Vivitrol injection before returning home, even though I had not been properly detoxed from Suboxone yet, and suffered through the worst withdrawal of my life in a strange place with no medications, alligator rolling across the squeaky twin mattress in my recently earned private room.
3/3, or as I simplified it to simply 3 or III, became the sign of my life. It became my lucky number. I ordered a silver ring with the serenity prayer engraved on the inside, the number III engraved on the outside. A few years later, I would put that ring on my friend Taryn’s finger at another rehab in South Florida, as she clasped a silver elephant bracelet around my wrist. Symbols are big for many of us in recovery. 3 had become invalid long before I found myself in the beautiful garden housing at the Orchid Recovery Center for Women in Palm Springs, a very long way from Stonington Institute, and not just in terms of miles.
Letting go of that sober date, of the recovery time I had painstakingly earned, was a tremendous challenge for me. I felt that I had lost that time. That I had let it slip through my fingers because my hands were too busy juggling the life I fancied for myself as a “normal person”, letting my recovery fall into the past.
So last night I find myself somewhere that I never would have been when 3 was my sober date, which is an AA meeting. In the early days, I found meetings to be nothing but one giant trigger. I frequently left meetings and drove directly to my dealer in those early attempts at sobriety. I just couldn’t find serenity in those crowded basement rooms. But ten years later, here I am, in the most unlikely of places: The rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Though the vast majority of my current stretch of recovery has been spent keeping the rooms at an arm’s length, recovery can sometimes surprise us. Finding myself in a relationship with another addict was the biggest surprise of all, I thought. Until I agreed to come to her regular meetings and meet her network of women. I found a much more agreeable group, particularly the Saturday night meeting, where open-mindedness flourished and the “old timers” and their rhetoric were quiet, with a few notable exceptions.
As time wears on, I find that despite my unorthodox recovery program, my unique philosophies, my anti-AA attitude, I am not only welcomed but slowly came to be respected in these rooms. I am even asked to speak, despite my story having little to do with alcohol. Though AA knows many of our stories are intersected with substances other than alcohol, the group conscious often asks us that we keep our discussions focused on issues as they relate to alcoholism. Yet here I am, a heroin addict, who only identifies as an alcoholic out of respect for the rooms, being asked to share my story. I made Saturday night my home group that night, two seconds before the meeting opened.
My partner now chairs that meeting and I make the coffee. Last night, the anniversary of my first sober date, my partner wasn’t feeling well and I offered to chair in her place as we sometimes pick up the other’s commitments if one of us is not feeling well or can’t make the meeting for whatever reason. So here I am, chairing a meeting in Alcoholics Anonymous on the anniversary of my first sober date, and I welcome the speaker named S.
S had 16 years of sobriety before she relapsed. She went back out for ten long years before she finally found her way back in. With five years of new, good sobriety under her belt, she talked about the struggles of trying to present as a normal person in the world while being so very far from it.
I instantly identified with her story.
Being sober before your 21st birthday is an interesting phenomenon. It would’ve been quite the story, had it lasted it, however my story today has a few more chapters which I think makes for a better read anyway. But going back out after being truly in, is one of the hardest things for an addict and for those who love them.
Knowing that you had it, you were doing it, and now you are suddenly incapable of what you had done so well for so long, is very difficult to explain to your friends and family. They saw you do it. They know you can do it. But suddenly you can’t do it anymore.
The guilt and shame of that is part of what keeps us out for so long when we have a relapse like that. I was back out for longer than I had previously been in. The expression that it’s a lot easier to stay sober than it is to get sober is one of the truest that we have in recovery. Coming back was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Adding those chapters to a story I thought was already finished absolutely destroyed me.
I got sober the first time at 19. Relapsed at 22. I didn’t truly make it back in until I was 26. I am at the point now where I have slightly more recovery time than active time. It’s funny though, that depending on the day, it can feel like I’ve lived a whole lifetime in active addiction and it feels like that is who I truly am on the inside. Yet on other days, that part of my life feels so far away that it almost feels like a scene from a movie I’ve watched way too many times. That one movie that feels like it’s your real life, that you know every word, every dramatic pause, every exchange of dialogue.
When I relapsed after those first three years, I was so devastated at the loss of time. I couldn’t stomach telling anyone that 3 was dead and gone, that I had thrown it all away, that the time had been lost. It kept me from coming clean about my relapse, which kept me from getting clean, for much longer than it needed to. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t actually lose that time. I still had three beautiful, amazing years of active recovery. I still had a meaningful impact on countless parents, other addicts, and millions of people who saw my features on Good Morning America and Nightline in 2007. I spoke to addicts as far away as Australia, encouraging them to keep fighting. I put down the roots of the advocacy career I’m still building today. If it hadn’t been for those first three years, there are so many lessons I would never have learned. I didn’t lose them. They are just as real, and just as valid today as they were back then.
Today I no longer fear losing time. I no longer worry about sober dates. Today I know that I came back in some time in January of 2015. I picked up a three year coin a few weeks ago, for the second time. I have reclaimed those three years, I have done what I thought I could never repeat, that I could never put those three years back together again. Counting days became something bigger than me, and time, the quantity of my sobriety, became more important than the quality of my sobriety. Today the time doesn’t matter. I finally understand what they mean when they say I only have today.
My favorite musical of all time, Rent, helps me to remember how important today is for my recovery. How important it is that I don’t let the fear of losing time prevent me from moving forward. How important it is that I never have to start counting days again.
“The heart may freeze, or it can burn… The pain will ease, if I can learn… There is no future, there is no past, I live each moment as my last. There’s only us, there’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way… No day, but today.”