“There is no doubt that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it,” Philippians 1:6 (The Message).
Twenty-two years today, after a full year of intense work in therapy, I fully committed to recovery by walking away from an affair partner. I can picture the scene as clearly as if it were this afternoon instead of over two decades ago. In the middle of our street, in a brief conflict with the man I had worshipped for nearly three years, I finally had had enough of the angst and turmoil that roiled within and literally turned on my heel and walked away.
A lifetime had led up to that reverse motion. Specifically, it was prompted by the shocking news that particular morning that a former affair partner – one whom I had tried my best to seduce into an encounter about a year before – had died of AIDS. Finally on that blistering August day I gave up and gave in to the surrender required for recovery.
I think of that man on most recovery birthdays, and I confess, it’s with gratitude for the part he played in my journey. As the years went by, I gained clarity about the relationship and what I was searching for in it. I pray God has done for him what God did for me: provided delivery from a lifelong pursuit of some specific human being to salve my wounds at the hands of other human beings who had grievously hurt me.
In the earlier stages of the journey I religiously, triumphantly counted the days, weeks, months and years of sobriety. That’s not a bad thing, because my pride in their accumulation kept me rigidly toeing the line of abstinence from acting out. Eventually, though, I became complacent and took my recovery for granted.
I’d like to claim that I’ve walked the path since 1992 with near perfection, but the truth is that I haven’t. Not even close.
For a number of years I couldn’t celebrate this day, because I thought it had to be a “sobriety” birthday. I felt deeply the shame of my occasional slips and especially of a relapse a few years into the process that I now recognize was full-blown. I couldn’t bear to receive congratulations on “X” number of years of sobriety since 1992, when I knew I didn’t deserve them. For over a decade after the relapse I actually hated this day and found it hard to crawl out from under the shame of what I thought it had to represent.
The longer I worked with recovering people, the more I saw similar reactions. Addicts would mess up somewhere along the way, and the shame of blowing their so-called sobriety plunged them back into the I-don’t-give-a-damn ditch. They gave up and abandoned the healing path. Or like me, they isolated and hid their inner struggles. It’s not that recovery no longer mattered, because for me, at least, it always did. It’s just that avoiding shame mattered more.
Thankfully, the last decade has shown me a different measuring stick for recovery. I embrace more deeply the truth of progress not perfection, and I have a more acute understanding of what the phrase means. It’s not the get-out-of-jail-free card I first thought it to be. The promise of “progress, not perfection” offers the immeasurable gift of hope. Of motivation to keep moving forward.
Sure sobriety is important, but today I’m not sure it’s everything it’s cracked up to be. For a number of years, I was stone-cold sober, but I was still motivated by trauma reactions and trauma bonding. I was sober, but I was super hard on myself and demanded perfection in the same shrill voice I had heard in my childhood. I was sober, but most days I was still miserable. I furiously compensated by working harder and managing my image.
Then I received the gift of facing imperfection. No, I’m not proud of my failures and I don’t recommend that someone willingly jump off the sobriety bridge. But I learned things through my failures I hadn’t learned in my successes. Humility, for starters. Deeper healing for my father and mother wounds. More compassion for myself and less pressure to be perfect. A graceful community who loves and respects me despite my grave shortcomings – a gift I could only receive when I started telling the truth about my journey (beyond the key players like my husband, therapist and immediate circle).
For a long time I’ve counseled recovering people to focus less on a specific accrual of so-called sobriety and more on the overall progression along the healing road. This different measuring stick assesses the gap between rules-based religion and relationship-based spirituality. I ask fellow travelers the same questions today I ask myself. Are you healthier now than when you first started the journey? Have you learned from your mistakes? Do you pick yourself up and start again when you’ve taken a tumble off a positive path? Do you feel more acutely your desperate need for and the marvelous provisions of a loving God?
Today, August 8, 2014, I celebrate the starting point of an imperfect journey of transformation. They have been 22 years of wonderful growth, painful failures, fulfilling opportunities and terrifying dependence on a power greater than myself. Years of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, including my own in many ways. Simply years of life in all its opulent and devastating passage.
This life long, imperfect journey is about so much more than mere sobriety. Christians call this course sanctification, which means to be in a continual process of being “set apart from wrongdoing” or made “holy,” which are works of God’s grace.
I don’t know of a better definition of recovery. And I can’t imagine walking any other road the rest of my life.
“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal….” (Philippians 3: 14).