As I approach five years of sobriety, I've been thinking a lot about how different things are now. For so long I wanted to get sober. I tried and failed over and over again. I was as surprised as anyone when it finally seemed to stick. In that first year, I actually thought things were pretty good. Compared to rock bottom, things were in fact looking up. I wasn't actively killing myself, which was a positive change. But looking back, I can see clearly now that it was not exactly a carefree time.
More than once in those early days, someone would tell me I needed to do things - like share in meetings or publicly tell my story. Let me not bore you with all of the many reasons why those are terrible ideas - reasons that include my functional inability to use mouth words competently in a public speaking situation - but this was their rationale: "You have to do things that are outside of your comfort zone." Those words have been bouncing around in my head and irritating me for damn near five years now. Why? Because a) don't tell me what to do, and b) where the fuck is this comfort zone, and how do I get in it in the first place?
At the time I just thought it was uncool to shame and guilt me about not doing things that make me insanely uncomfortable, because being in a meeting and with other alcoholics was supposed to make me feel better. These were my people, the ones who are like me and get me, so why were they making me feel bad? Frankly, it almost pushed me away from meetings altogether, because not sharing made me feel bad about myself, and feeling bad about myself is not something I needed help with. I submit that we in recovery could possibly try to be more accepting of the fact that not everyone is cut from the same cloth, and not every suggestion works for every person, and shaming is rarely the answer. Unless the question is "What's a shitty thing to do to someone who is already scared and vulnerable?"
Nevertheless, I stuck it out and kept going to meetings. I was doing the things that worked for me and getting the support I needed from people I connected with. Over time, I learned to let the comfort zone admonishments go - at least enough to continue going to meetings, eventually even without guilt. But upon further reflection, it actually goes much deeper than that for me. Let's revisit point b) . . . seriously, where is the aforementioned comfort zone? Where is my comfort zone? Is there one? My whole life has been a series of uncomfortable events. I don't remember a time before I got sober when I was ever comfortable being me.
As far back as I can remember, I never felt like I was okay. I didn't trust that my own instincts were right or good, so I did what I thought others expected of me or behaved the way I thought others would. Outwardly, I never expressed myself in a way that reflected what was happening inside. As a result, I never truly felt known or accepted in any real sense. I never looked at myself or figured out what I wanted in life because I was too busy pretending to be what someone else wanted. Of course, not being real isn't comfortable because there's this constant, nagging fear of being found out. Drinking fixed nothing, but it made me not care or think about the fear for short periods of time, and that I guess was all the comfort zone I had for a long, long time.
Then I stopped drinking, for real. Physically I felt better, but my head was all over the place. It was overwhelming trying to be all better all at once. Because that's crazy. And unrealistic. And exhausting. And I was still doing it! Putting all of my effort into being what I thought others expected me to be and behaving the way I thought others in recovery would behave. Which is why it really got to me when I was criticized for not doing things a person in recovery "should" do. Get out of my comfort zone? I wasn't in my comfort zone, and now that booze was out of my life, I didn't even know where to begin to find it.
My first year of recovery was angst-ridden. I was trying so hard to overachieve at sobriety. I struggled with not doing the program "right". I dragged my feet on getting a sponsor or calling people (because people things give me anxiety), so I beat myself up over that. I felt guilty if I didn't share at a meeting, so I set arbitrary goals to share x number of times per week and then inevitably felt bad about myself after because it was inevitably bad. I was fearful. I heard about people relapsing all the time, sometimes dying before they made it back. I didn't want that to be me, but I didn't know how or why recovery worked. And if I didn't know how it worked, how could I be sure it wouldn't stop working? I wanted guarantees. I wanted comfort. A whole fucking zone of it, if possible.
I've realized a few things between year one and year five. Of course there are no guarantees. I hope I make it to my five year sober birthday tomorrow, but I can't guarantee it. A little bit of fear is okay. I'm scared of what would happen if I drink again. I should be. It almost killed me. But the fear of not doing recovery "right" will only lead me back to that old habit of pretending to meet others' expectations. However good that may look on the surface, it's not real recovery, and if I continued to approach it that way, I would be as much of a fraud as I was when I was drunk. I would never know what it's like to be understood and valued for who I really am, and that is transformative.
Maybe it just took time and an open mind for all of that to sink in; time to let go of the anger and misery that came before. Oh, and a tremendous amount of self-reflection, behavior modification, and surrounding myself with people who get it - definitely that stuff. But the upshot is I feel like I'm okay today, and that's not nothing. It's a whole lot of something. I'm comfortable that the way I do recovery is working for me, even if it's not perceived as "right". I'm comfortable that I am of service to others, even if I don't say words out loud in public. I'm often comfortable being me, even if I'm not everyone's cup of tea. Fuck tea anyway. I guess I'm finding my comfort zone. Maybe it won't take another five years to step outside of it.