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14 Years...14ish Lessons

I got sober on 1st January 2008. I wasn't consciously thinking about it, but I had been more aware of my spirituality; my connection with myself and the world around me. I'd read "The Power of Now" and I guess there was some behind -the-scenes pondering going on. One of my best friends had recently started her recovery process, and I was inspired by her making such an empowering choice. I've shared how I unceremoniously stumbled into a manhole on a Taiwanese pavement, inadvertently had a spiritual awakening, and got sober, in a previous post.

And so began my recovery which has been a hard-fought process of transformation and growth for me. As I move towards the 14-year sobriety mark, I am mindful of the past years, and what I have learned. I have never claimed to be 100% abstinent of all habit-forming substances, as I have used pharmaceuticals over the years, but I am always mindful and honest, and very clear that there is a difference between the use, misuse, abuse and dependency on these medications. I don't drink or use any substances recreationally, except for caffeine. And what I've learned this year in a 30-day detox from caffeine, is that is is a powerful substance. Day three off caffeine I experienced awful withdrawal with severe body pain, nausea and the feeling of general unwellness. Following my 30 days off caffeine I am far more conscious and aware of the amount of tea and coffee that I drink.

So without rabbiting on too much, what I want to share is what I have learned over my 14 years of being sober, and not using narcotics to escape, reward, numb, and take shortcuts to feeling more confident, self-assured, and have fun. I am relying mainly on memory here, as I am not someone who journals, so this may not be in a completely accurate chronological order. Just giving it my best shot here.

Year 1: 2008

My alcohol use disorder, and the often horrible, behaviour I engaged in, was not anyone else's challenge but my own. It wasn't about how much other people drank or used, it was about what would happen to me when I did. I learned that I didn't need to wake up in the morning feeling ill, hangover, remorseful, depressed, ashamed, and trying to figure out what had happened the previous night. I learned that if I didn't drink I would have a clear conscious the morning after a night out, and I would start to feel better about myself and life in general.

Year 2: 2009

In year 2 I learned that addiction isn't just about alcohol and drugs, and that people can be very addictive too. During my second year of being sober, I was catfished. I guess I was looking for external affirmation and validation, and just didn't read, or maybe want to read, the signs. Not going to get into the details other than to say that the drama, the rush, and the chaos of the 10 months that it lasted was definitely doing something to my dopamine. It took me a long time to understand what happened here, and to learn to be self-loving and compassionate about it.

It also taught me to be more self-aware, and how to start turning inwards for affirmation, soothing, validation and love. This is still in process; I think it's probably going to be a lifetime in the learning.

Year 3: 2010

This was a hard year, because I moved to Vietnam and learned that I wasn't as socially confident as I thought I was. I was awkward, self-conscious, and felt socially inept. I'd experienced this a little in my first couple of years, but had had a big peer group in Taiwan, with very strong friendships and stable social connections. Finding myself alone in a new country, I realised it was much easier for me to meet people and make friends after I'd had a couple of drinks. I felt like I was 14 again, starting a new school, and very uncertain of who I was socially. I also learned that I didn't really like hanging out in bars and clubs, and I'd rather be at home reading a good book.

It was a tough year for me, but I learned to value my own company and that watching David Attenborough wildlife videos was a wonderful antidote for anxiety.

Year 4: 2011

After understanding that I was actually more of an introvert, I committed myself to work and started to feel more invested in my teaching and professional achievements. I learned that being responsible, reliable, and engaged at work actually did come with benefits like promotions and recognition. I finally started to come to terms with the idea that a good night out didn't mean getting home as the sun was rising; bit slow on the uptake there; and I could socialise authentically and still make it to work on a Saturday morning. This was a growth year for me, and I discovered that eating out alone, or going on coffee date with myself, was not going to result in public ridicule.

It was a good year and I felt myself settle into my recovery in a deep and grounded way.

Year 5: 2012

I do remember that at until the end of year 5 I was celibate. I decided that I was going to spend early recovery focusing on myself, and not complicate the situation by getting involved with the opposite sex. I didn't intentionally set out to give up sex, but I had been concerned about my behaviour when I was still drinking. I've since learned a whole lot about the brain, and the fact that I was not really in control of my choices when I was intoxicated, which has made me more self-compassionate and far less judgemental. I thought by focusing on getting good at being me, that when I finally reconnected with men in an intimate space, I would be so much better at it. I learned that being celibate didn't teach me anything about intimacy and human connection, and I also learned that I couldn't get behaviourally well through abstinence. Because when I did reconnect with men, I was as unsure, self-conscious, and lacking in a personal sense of self as ever.

I knew that I wanted to get home to South Africa and my next lesson was a bit like punishment.

Year 6: 2013

I guess this was the year I went slightly mad and went to work in Saudi Arabia. It was an awful year complete with a new, online, relationship that brought up all the insecurities I had about connection, intimacy, commitment, and myself. It showed me that if I wanted to be okay in an intimate relationship, I needed to be in an authentic relationship with myself (I think I only learned that after the relationship was coming to an end). It was in Saudi Arabia that I learned the nasty lesson of chasing the money, and how that could wreak havoc on my wellness and mental health. I spent a good few hours on my 41st birthday in a psychiatrist's office in Riyadh, fearful that I was going to walk off the roof of the building I lived in.

It was then I realised that complete abstinence was not in the cards, because I swear it was that 30-day course of Valium that saved my life.

Year 7: 2014

It was in late 2013 that I started to study coaching, and in 2014 realised that this was my ticket back to South Africa, and a way to support my personal recovery and wellness. I was struck by how empowering it was to be able to make my own decisions, choices, and map my way forward in life. I retreated into my massive apartment on the world's largest female university campus, and I coached. I am sure I sucked at times, but I found meaning and purpose, and was making plans to get home to South Africa, with "blood money" in the bank. I do feel like I sold my soul a little that year. I did learn in 2014 that I sucked at being in a long-distance relationship, and that I was prone to neediness.

I've subsequently learned that it's hard to ask someone to meet our needs when we're not doing it for ourselves. And I finally came home for good in 2014 after being mostly overseas since 2003.

Year 8: 2015

This was a learning year of note! The biggest learning was that I didn't know very much about substance use, addictive behaviour and mental health disorders, even though I was working at a treatment clinic. So I put my head down and I learned, I observed, I got curious, and I discovered that I was doing the work I was meant to be doing. I guess it was the year that I learned that "we make it up as we go along" even though I pushed back against that idea for many years, not really fully understanding what it meant until quite recently It was the year I truly started to comprehend the magnitude of addiction disorders and what it takes to me in recovery, having spent my first seven years duking it out alone as a person in recovery.

I think it was the year that I learned how brutal substance use could be, and lost my first client to an overdose; it was the year I learned that this work isn't about me!

Year 9: 2016

It took me this long to really understand what surrender was and learn that my disorder is actually a spiritual disease. It might have been short circuited if I had been part of the 12-Step programme, but I wanted to do recovery my own way. In year 9 I learned that the illness, unwellness, and sickness of addiction have less to do with the damage that substances have on us physically and what they do to us spiritually. It wasn't drinking too much, throwing up, and feeling physically sick that was killing me, it was my inability to be honest, have integrity, show up courageously, and love authentically that was my real malady. It was then that I realised it's not how often I had drunk, it was the shambles that ensued as a result of it. It wasn't that others loathed me as I detested myself, it was that I had zero connection to my needs, wants and values when I was drinking.

It was definitely an exploding brain lesson that I use to stay honest and connected with myself in my recovery.

Year 10: 2017

In 2017 I learned that if I wasn't getting what I needed, wanted, and valued, especially after asking over and over again, I could choose to walk away and put myself first. We all know that intimate relationships are challenging, but they don't need to be one-sided and unfulfilling. The biggest lesson in all this was that what I want matters, and it's okay to make changes if my needs are not getting met. I imagine I have been a "boundary bitch" at times, but learning to create boundaries based on my needs, wants, and values has been one of the most liberating lessons I have ever learned. I think my boundary setting is healthier than it was in the days I first became aware that they even existed, and it was okay to ask people to accept, respect, appreciate, and consider that I too had expectations, requirements, and desires in my personal and professional spaces.

I realised that it's okay if other people don't accept my boundaries, and that it's not my responsibility to take care of the way that they feel about my choices and decisions, if they come from a healthy, integrated place.

Year 11: 2018

I guess one of of the biggest lessons is that just because we love someone doesn't mean that they can read our minds, and that communication is one of the key elements to having a kind, loving, and connected partnership. Who knew there had to be conversations around household responsibilities and the things I need and want in a relationship. To be honest I was not prepared for this - they don't talk about it in the RomComs. I also learned that when you have an argument with your partner, it doesn't mean that they are going to leave; a hangover of growing up with father who left a lot when my parents fought. And again the lesson of if I need something I need to make damn sure I am first, at least trying, to give it to myself. It's difficult to ask someone to love me, support me, and affirm me when I am not at doing some of it for myself.

I learned that courageous conversations are the portal to joy, connection, and love in my personal relationship.

Year 12: 2019

This was a whooping lesson year for most of us in basic survival whilst isolated in our homes, trying not to poke each others' eyes out, grinding it out in the virtual office after the Zoom social and business calls lost their novelty. I learned in 2019 that I am a survivor, and that I had a deep recovery and resilience from the work I had done over the previous years. During this year I lost my permanent job and became fully self-employed as a coach, with a contract that had good potential, at the clinic I had managed. I learned that when it feels like it can't get any worse, that there are generous, kind, and selfless people in this world, who show up at the perfect time to help without wanting anything in return. There was a lot of focus managing anxiety, created largely by professional and financial uncertainty, and to just be okay with not being okay.

I learned to find solace and support in my friendships and lean into the love of friends and family when I needed it, even though it feels really uncomfortable for me to be vulnerable.

Year 13: 2020

I learned that we make a lot of our own luck in 2020, and that putting my head down and doing the hard graft does pay dividends. I got more comfortable with the fragility of life, with so much death around, and that there is much more to buying surgical masks than meets the untrained eye. It was a language lesson which included words I never thought I'd hear repeated over and over again in everyday conversation like international pandemic, COVID-19, and Coronavirus. Or oximeter, Ivermectin, variant of concern, "the new normal" (which makes me want to throw up in my mouth), quarantine, isolation, intubation, and ZOOM. I learned that even as an introvert I needed my people sometimes, and that I wanted to spend more quality time with some of them in the new year. I deepened the learning around being okay with not being okay, finding a way to self-love when I was completely depleted, and how to step away and make myself a priority when I needed to.

I learned to say, "I don't have the capacity to be able to do that."

Year 14: 2021

I think that the 2020-21 lessons are all a bit jumbled. It's felt like the year that started at the beginning of 2020 and still hasn't ended, even though it's 31st December today. What I've learned, that stands out above everything else, is how to practice mindfulness and meditation, and it's been a game changer. I honestly believe it's the silver thread to a present, sustainable, authentic recovery. Just to be able to be here in the moment, considering my next move, choice, or decision. It's been instrumental in me being more compassionate, kind, grateful, vulnerable, courageous, patient, and authentic, because what I know in in presence is that everything is okay, and I'm probably not in danger of dying. Stringing these moments together has been nothing short of transformative.

I learned that when I am mindful I am so much more connected to myself and others, and that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

What I am taking into 2022

Nothing is constant and everything is always changing. When I begin to feel that I am mastering something in my life, or at least coming to grips with it, a new challenge or lesson presents itself to be tackled and learned. I'm taking a deep gratitude for the 14 years I have been able to learn the lessons I have learned in becoming a more resilient, authentic, courageous woman who doesn't need alcohol (and whatever comes after) to create a sense of self. I'm taking strong, meaningful relationships and wonderful connections to the people in my life. I am also taking my knowing that grit and determination do pay off, and that even if I haven't done everything I wanted to do this year, next year presents a fresh opportunity to try again.

I am proud of the work that I do on myself and with others, and my constant quest to become a little more informed, knowledgeable and even a bit wiser as the clocks strikes 12 tonight. I know nothing really changes in the second that it takes the calendar to flip to a new page, but I plan to use this to focus on what I want to achieve in 2022, and some of what I want to let go of. What 2021 did teach me, in a rather cruel and unexpected way, was that there is no real certainty in life, and that I have the capacity to succeed and overcome some pretty nasty setbacks.

I'm taking hope and faith into 2022 that life may be a little less intense, and that I'll be able to breathe a little easier simply because I trust and believe in myself a little more than I did at the beginning of 2021. I don't expect anything for nothing, and it's a wonderful surprise when it comes, so I'm prepared for another year of hard work and doing what I love, with the people I adore and admire, and maybe even getting a little holiday in there somewhere if everything works out or a few days on a silent retreat. A girl can always dream, and I am planning to do a little more of that in the coming days, weeks, and months.

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