Thanks for taking me to the hospital three years ago, he said as we sat on the couch.
He was watching football. I was reading a book with my feet in his lap.
You’re welcome, I said as I turned back to my book, and he turned back to the TV.
Today is the three-year anniversary of my husband being clean and sober. Three years of therapy, AA meetings, growing, healing, and learning. This is the first anniversary that hasn’t felt precarious. The first time in years it hasn’t felt like a bittersweet celebration, with excitement and fear, hope and reservations.
I’ve been trying to work out what I wanted to say about this milestone, but I don’t have a clear post for you. I guess I just have snippets.
Last week I was on my morning walk when I passed an empty Coca-Cola can on the side of the road. Bright red against the drying grass in the ditch, I knew it wasn’t there yesterday. This was fresh litter. My very first thought was should I pick this up and smell it for alcohol? My first thought was it was Chris’. My first thought was he’d thrown it out on his way home the day before.
Trauma is weird, because it bombards you with thoughts and feelings and emotions before you even have time to know what’s happening, before you know it’s there.
I knew I wasn’t going to pick up that can. Gross. I knew hundreds of people drove this road, not just Chris. I knew lots of people drink Coke, not just my husband.
My thoughts weren’t rational. I didn’t have other things happening at home that made this discarded can confirm my suspicions. It was just a can and my mind—without my consent—went to the scariest story.
Healing is slow for Chris. It is slow for me.
Last winter Chris’ counselor suggested he do brainspotting. Brainspotting is “a treatment method that identifies, processes, and releases core neurophysiological sources of emotional/body pain, [and] trauma…” The idea is you can go back to the memories your brain has stored–maybe some you can’t even access completely–and rewire your response to them. For Chris, it meant going back to the abuse he suffered as a child and handled with his child-brain. Using the safety and security his adult-brain now has, he gets to use better coping mechanisms and heal from the situations.
Adult you goes back to kid you and tells you you’re okay, that the things happening to you aren’t your fault.
It sounds crazy, but it’s not. God, in His infinite wisdom, made our brains to keep us safe. It’s where fight, flight, or freeze comes from. It’s also why sometimes our brains hide things from us; our well-designed brains know we are not equipped (for whatever reason) to handle what we’ve experienced.
But our bodies and brains don’t forget what has happened. We live in the response and consequence of those things. And one day—if we’re lucky—we’ll have healthy, patient people who help us handle the things that shouldn’t have happened to us.
For the first time in years—as Chris went through brainspotting—he wanted to drink again. The farther way he gets from his drinking, the less appeal it has. But looking directly at the moments and places that broke your little kid self is exhausting. For Chris, it brought back intense feelings of loneliness. And loneliness is what caused him to drink. When you grow up in a home that doesn’t tell you you’re important or valued or worth keeping safe, it’s hard to learn a different story when you’re older. So every time Adult Chris had a negative experience (things we all have every day), it reinforced the lie that he wasn’t wanted or worth anything.
And if you believe you’re not worth anything, you can’t make good choices for your body, your future, or your life.
Working through months of brainspotting and painful childhood memories sober was challenging. Addicts and alcoholics don’t like to feel their feelings (that’s the whole point of using), so feeling everything that came up and not muting it was some of the hardest work I’ve seen Chris do.
But he did it. He remembered the things done to him. He remembered the people who covered it up. He remembered the loneliness.
And he stayed sober.
I’m just checking on you, man, because we’re a bunch of liars, Chris said into his phone this weekend. He was talking to a fellow drunk, someone he’s sponsoring in AA.
A few years ago, this would have made me cringe. Telling the truth is so foundational to my being, it feels like a personal attack to know someone has lied. I tell the truth even when it’s to my own detriment.
I know lying says more about the liar than the listener. The lies tell others what we want to protect. They tell others about the secrets we have, about the shame.
I am remembering that more easily now, with less internal crisis, than I was a few years ago.
Lies always have benefits for someone. An old friend lied about me to others, because it sowed division and made others less likely to ask me about the stories she was creating. Liars manipulate people to control the narrative. Chris’ mom lied to family and friends, because it kept people from realizing the truth of what she was allowing at home, the dangerous environment she was helping to protect. Lies keep selfish people safe. A friend’s husband admitted to making up things I’d said to save his marriage. He apologized to me, but said he wasn’t going to stop telling those stories. Liars love stories to save themselves no matter what the cost. Addicts and alcoholics lie. They lie to keep their secrets secret, to keep their needs hidden, to keep their pain covered up.
Recovery is freedom from lies.
It’s amazing the time and energy you have to do other things when you’re not so wrapped up in keeping all your stories straight, making sure your victims don’t cross paths and share stories, living a life you don’t have to hide from people.
Chris walks lighter these days. He still drags his feet like a child. He still ignores me when I tell him to pick them up. But the walk is lighter nonetheless.
After Chris came home from rehab, I asked my therapist when things would get easier. His recovery, learning boundaries, removing the dangerous people in our lives: how long does it feel so overwhelming and hard?
It takes a few years, she said.
Absolutely not, I thought. This is not sustainable. We will not survive at this level of upheaval for so long. Maybe giving up is easier.
But here we are at the three year mark, after a quiet, amazingly easy summer. This was the first summer we didn’t live so fully in the consequences of Chris’ bad choices. This was the first summer we weren’t taking two steps forward and one step back. Recovery is slow. So is building a new life.
I get asked a lot how I knew to stay. What made me not give up?
My answer has two parts:
1. I stayed, because Chris stopped drinking. If he was going to continue numbing his life using drugs or alcohol, I wasn’t going to.
2. I stayed, because we were slowly-but-surely always moving forward. We were (and are) inching toward healing and honesty and better conversations and less co-dependency. I stayed, because he kept up his part of the bargain. The minute Chris got comfortable with where he was, I knew he’d start using again. When he got lazy in his recovery, he was going to get lazy in his choices.
And, of course, Jesus. The AA mantra is “one day at a time,” but I think they stole it from Jesus. He constantly re-centers me: I cannot fix the past, I cannot control the future, but I can make wise, loving choices right here and now.
And so I do.
And so does Chris.
And here we are.