February, 2017. 

The house of cards finally collapsed, the losses and threats were as close to me as my breath, decision-making reflected a shrinking number of intimidating options and every person and resource I once had available seemed to be gone or receding rapidly into the distance. 

Like so many of us who’ve survived substance abuse problems and the mental health challenges that typically accompany them, my personal diagnosis of the situation was scattered, hazy and ever-changing. I knew that depression, anxiety, alcohol, drugs and a general sense of alienation had crept into my core being. My inner spirit and frame of mind was mostly dark, as though doors and windows were closing, blocking out all light.

I pushed these conditions into the background as the realities of life – finances, career decisions, loneliness, and broken relationships shoved their way to the forefront of my mind. My concentration was on these seemingly practical issues, convinced that improving my outside circumstances would remedy my internal state. 

I managed my waking hours by clinging to the principles and contacts I had built over seven years of being in and out of 12-step recovery groups. I knew the drill. I had added a revolving door of other practices to my arsenal intended to salvage my sanity and to maintain a sense of hope. I can’t say with certainty how this effort impacted my survival, but I have a sense that they may have saved my life and my sanity. These principles allowed me to occasionally take a breath and to generate a new idea here and there. Hearing the stories of others and of their revival painted an undeniable vision of what could be, what may be possible. It was a major element of the essential ingredient that kept me moving forward – hope. 

An eviction that month, unemployment, the lack of personal contacts and family support led me to a “sober house.” It wasn’t an official, licensed facility of any type. It was simply one of many standard houses that a person in recovery opens to others who are sober, or attempting to be. There is no deposit. You get a room, house duties and share the house with the other residents. You’re required to immediately begin a search for a job, any job, so that you can pay rent. This house was a small 3-bedroom, 1 bath frame ranch in a working class neighborhood. It had been converted – somehow – to hold nine people. The basement was a row of “rooms” created by pieces of drywall. Nine men shared the house, including a kitchen and one bath. It was located in a suburb in the far northern part of the city, an area that I found dreary and non-descript. The walk to the bus stop was over a mile, and it was in the midst of a fierce Ohio winter. I moved a few things in, put the rest in a couple of friends’ basements and started my early journey into sobriety.

In the early days of loss and transition, the mind is painfully split between its natural state of adopting a survival mindset and a near-constant search for answers and explanations. These two frames of mind run completely counter to each other. The frantic search for ideas that will allow you to survive the week, the day – the hour – are interrupted by painful images that arise as part of a collage of people, events and decisions that led you to where you are. In my case, it was a near-constant attempt at chronologically reconstructing key events and turning points that landed me where I was. The result was mental and emotional exhaustion while attempting to keep focused on the reality of my present challenges. For many of us, the first indicator of where to find relief is when we’re deeply engaged in addressing the problems of the day. We get lost in searching for solutions, which temporarily breaks the grip of the painful past. It’s a basic, early recovery experience that illustrates for many of us what the term “living in the solution” means. It’s typically short-lived in the early stages, punctuated by the intrusion of those painful, confusing thoughts. It’s a painful and challenging dichotomy. 

I found myself being seemingly tossed into situations that allowed me to survive, but that weren’t particularly conducive to maintaining mental health. The compromises and urgency that my situation required led to decisions of necessity, not of choice. During the four months in this house, the consciousness that I was gaining sobriety time wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Newly sober, the days were actually stacking up, but the seemingly endless assault of challenges and a near-constant state of fear dominated my thinking. What I didn’t fully recognize was that attention to the principles of recovery, working with a sponsor and attending meetings – all of which is inner work – were the core actions that were allowing me to pursue external solutions. Finding a place of my own to live, a car and earning a livable wage were urgent matters. In retrospect it’s haunting to consider what the outcome may have been had I not been engaged in the inner work that provided glimpses of hope.

From government assistance for food to borrowing money for the most basic needs, I moved through a progression of several failed job attempts – a continuation of a pattern that began several years before I was sober. My job decisions were driven by minimal choices and desperation, and all ended in failure. I was either let go for lack of performance or I left voluntarily, exhausted by the attempt to hang on to an ill-suited job based on my condition and capability at that point. I hung on as long as I could in order to collect a paycheck of any sort.

I took a job that lasted several months stocking vending machines downtown for a business owned by a person in recovery. I left there for a shot in professional recruitment, which was my former industry. I had a 4-hour round-trip bus commute to each of these jobs. That job ended after a year when the home office closed the location. My production had been minimal. I had maintained a glimmer of hope that I could again thrive in the industry that I knew so well. It didn’t come to fruition. During this period I rented a room in a boarding house in the middle of the city. It was a small room in a 3-story converted college dormitory. Each floor had six rooms and shared a bathroom. There was one kitchen and a cooking area on the second floor and two washers and dryers to share on the first floor.

A friend in recovery who was in the process of a divorce offered me a place to stay in a wonderfully renovated walk-out basement condo in his large suburban home on a lake. I got a job at a call center and paid him what I could. He began drinking again and it became a nightmare beyond description, a dangerous and volatile domestic alcoholic experience like so many of us are familiar with. This situation lasted nearly a year before the turmoil reached an unbearable level and the sale of the house was imminent. 

My sponsor was the next to offer me a room in his home. I moved in, maintained my call-center job, and maximized my hours there. After several months I was approved for a surprisingly functional used car and a studio apartment! I had been borrowing cars and paying what I could. I now had transportation and a private place of my own. With just a twin mattress and an air mattress on the floor, a table and lamp or two, I had finally landed in a place of my own. It had taken nearly two-and-a-half years and stops at four separate living quarters. An extraordinary gift during this period was that my daughter, who was between nine and 11 years-old at the time, had rarely missed a weekend with me. I lived for those moments I spent with her and my older daughter. I’ll forever be grateful to my ex-wife for allowing that time I had with her. My entire being would be focused on my daughters when we were together and it provided the “out-of-self” experience that so many of us desperately need to recover.

Over the course of this chaotic period of self-doubt, anxiety and confusion, I was attending meetings, and attempting to apply the principles of the 12 steps in my life. From those first few months at the sober house until I had been in the studio apartment for one year, I had put together three-and-a-half years of sobriety. It was shocking when I took time to consider it. My inner resources were being fed by powerful concepts and my external life was a constant flurry of urgent action. The challenges were still terrifying and stability wasn’t a luxury that I possessed. But I was sober. It was enough to keep me going in a life that, at times, still seemed like it may not be worth living. But that sense was diminishing. I realized I had gained sober time by developing inner growth that allowed me to survive the external battles. I began to notice that I had a kernel of faith that life would eventually lead me in the right direction if I followed sound principles. I was still experiencing shame, self-loathing, regret and confusion. The fear and sadness were nearly unbearable at times and I would begin to think it was permanent, that all was lost. But I would always emerge after quiet reflection with just enough energy and creativity to develop new ideas and hope. A change was occurring.

I eventually lost the job at the call-center, quickly landed another similar job, and barely hung on to my apartment and car. I wasn’t able to meet the standards in this new job. It lasted several months and was just enough to keep me hanging by a thread – with some financial help from long-time friends and my sponsor.

With just over 3 years of sobriety, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I spent most of my time alone. In-person meetings disappeared and I attended occasional meetings online. It was a lonely period, but something in me recognized that it was also time I could spend continuing to focus on healthy activities that would feed my spirit and internal state. I had found a job in the vocational rehabilitation field, an area that I had been considering. I saw it as an opportunity to bring my past business experience into a social services field that would be rewarding and substantial. During the early stage of this job, I was able to furnish my tiny apartment. I was surviving. Money was very still very tight, and once the full weight of the pandemic hit, my hours and role were cut back and it again landed me in a barely survivable income level. But I had structured a life with a very low overhead and had even developed some small lines of credit. I was so used to a sense of terror that it took a few months to realize that portions of the burden I carried begun to slightly lessen.

However, the defining characteristic of this period was that I was experiencing moments of temporary peace. They would either occur spontaneously while I was simply living my life, or during periods of meditation, prayer and listening to recovery and spiritual speakers online. During this transformational period, I began to develop clarity regarding the fact that an internal transformation is what had been fueling my ability to sort out the chaos of the external world. I had a few people whom I counted on for support, and it’s hard to imagine how I could ever fully repay them. The major person was an ex-college girlfriend who weathered the final years of my end-stage drinking, the four days in the hospital that ensued and my entire 3 + years of early sobriety. I had a sponsor who was a solid anchor and a source of practical, empathetic advice. After 10 years in and around AA, with over three of those years sober, I finally knew in my core being that I was entering a new life around a different set of people and principles. The way out of the mess I had created was to go inward and marshal resources that I didn’t know I had.

This acceptance and realization of what was occurring offered a sense of stability. It was still a day-by-day journey, but awakening every morning to a feeling of immense dread was decreasing. I focused on my work and when the necessities of the day were completed, I turned to devouring information related to recovery, consciousness, spirituality and inner growth. The solitude that Covid-19 brought forced me deeper into this focus, which I had been attempting for years. It began to seep into me. It was more important and felt more authentic than what I was doing for money, than who was gone from my life, than the past. There were intervals of true liberation. 

Had there been willpower? Yes. But there was another element inside of me that insisted on feeling alive again. It’s was an experience that was unique to me in the timing and the type of release that occurred. Despite certainly exerting massive amounts of energy toward seeking solutions, the freedom occurred in moments when I wasn’t really trying. I felt lighter and less self-obsessed naturally. It was like pushing a heavy rock forward until it slowly gains momentum of its own and you watch it roll ahead of you when you aren’t pushing. It was an eye-opening experience because it was what I had heard and read so much about when others were describing an awakening. Something in my spirit, rather than in my conscious thoughts, had developed a momentum of its own. My actions and thoughts reflected it. It was primary, the rest was clearly secondary. It wasn’t a constant state of joy and exuberance. It was a deep sense of occasional peace and a sense of knowing that everything was going to work out in a manageable fashion. The painful default setting seemed to be just slowly burning itself out. This internal state has the power to overcome the past, the fear and confusion. I was learning that the light of spirit, our true internal nature, can extinguish doom and negativity. Before, negativity seemed to be the absolute truth and positivity felt forced. Now I experienced a place where neither was very relevant. Simply being in the moment and feeling other emotions like gratitude and acceptance provided more comfort than a sense of positivity or negativity. I judged less and accepted more. My small studio apartment suddenly seemed ideal because of its ease and simplicity. I was living in a part of town that I felt comfortable in. My place was a comfortable refuge. Solitude seemed like the gift that I needed. I started to feel an appreciation for others, a sense of compassion. Others noticed and responded to my authentic effort to go to any length to solve my problems. It was a path that I was eager to embrace.

Nothing was ever the same after this. A sense of certainty developed that all was well.

At the time of this writing, I’m approaching four years of sobriety. The wreckage of my past is still largely present, but much of it has been amended or is receding slowly into the past. The pandemic still has me isolated much of the time, but my work keeps me out often with vocational rehabilitation duties. I’m job-coaching three teenagers at a summer job at a water-park – their first work experiences. I’m assisting a former financial professional in her reentry into the workplace after suffering a brain injury. The reduced hours and relatively low pay will likely eliminate this specific job as a permanent solution. But it’s opened up other options, largely because I’ve found a position I can perform well. It’s allowing me to write, which is one of my passions, and somehow opened my mind to options and possibilities I hadn’t been able to clearly recognize or consider. Most importantly I’ve learned that I cannot predict what will happen, but I know for certain that the path I’m on, despite its seemingly chaotic nature, is one that makes sense in the context of this journey.

For us who have travelled this road of recovery, we learn an invaluable lesson. Our internal state starts out in pain and chaos. The road back is long and at times looks impossible – but it’s not impossible. The time factor varies for all of us. But we all learn that there is a part of our core being that once rediscovered starts to feel familiar and comfortable. It’s authentic, which is what the search was all about from the start.

We all learn, in our own individual ways, that going inward, into the truth of who we are, ignites something that we thought was gone. Once that ignition takes place, we simply have to feed and follow the spark to find the way out.

By: Todd Williams
Title: The Way In Is the Way Out
Sourced From: www.thefix.com/way-way-out
Published Date: Wed, 09 Sep 2020 07:01:29 +0000

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