It has been two years since I quit drinking.
This year’s soberversary sort of crept on me, which I think speaks volumes to how normal the absence of alcohol in my life has become. I was snuggled up to J last night after a day of nerding out with friends for his birthday and watching too much Jessica Jones on Netflix from our blue velvet couch (so good; do recommend) when it clicked that it was after midnight and I’d closed the door on another year without alcohol. Another year without crippling depression and without acting out a slow death from the bottom of a bottle.
I’ve written and deleted different versions of this post several times over the past few months. It’s tough sometimes to decide just how much to share about my experience with addiction and mental illness. Once you put something personal out there on the internet it’s damn near impossible to take back, and that can be unnerving. What if, five years from now, a potential employer stumbles across this post? What if I share my experience in the name of awareness and it is received with misunderstanding or, even worse, cruelty?
At the end of the day, I think it’s important to put a face and a context to addictions and mental illness. I think that the more information people have, the more they can empathize; that the more people understand that the bad behaviours associated with these afflictions are most often coming from a place of abject suffering, the better equipped they will be to respond with compassion.
When I think about my life now I think of myself as two completely different people; as though a sharp line has been drawn through my timeline and the Vanessa who occupies the space in the “after” is not the same as the one who lived in the before.
Thinking about that pre-sobriety version of myself makes me feel a heavy sort of sadness that I’m sure most people recovering from addiction can identify with. It’s the sadness of shame and regret and frustration; of literal years of life lost to self-hatred and depression. It’s the sadness of broken friendships and what-ifs. For a long time I alternated between feeling complete disgust for this former version of myself and granting her compassion. After all, if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be where I am today. But if it wasn’t for her I also wouldn’t have been where I was.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about forgiveness lately; both for our past selves and for others. It has taken me so much work and time to begin to forgive myself for my actions in those dark, alcohol-fueled years. I remember very clearly feeling like I was someone else looking in on my life from the outside, horrified at my actions (and inactions) and seemingly powerless to stop myself from behaving badly. I hated myself with such bitterness that it shocks me now. It shocks me that I had the capacity to hate so vehemently; to lash out at myself so viciously, seemingly unaware of the casualties and destruction that hatred left in its wake. I was so angry and bitter and sad, and it tainted the way I treated the people around me. It drove away some of the most important people in my life at a time when I needed them the most.
I blamed those people for a long time. Then I blamed myself. Then, finally, I stopped assigning blame and began to consider that if I could grant myself the gift of hindsight to learn and grow from my past mistakes, then maybe I could do the same for others. If I could forgive that past version of myself for all of the messed up things she did and the stupid things she said, then it was only fair that I forgive the people who couldn’t stay by my side when I was at my worst. It’s only fair to concede that if I have matured and grown as a person in the intervening years, then it is likely that they have as well. That past mistakes are meant to be learned from; that people can grow; and that most people are not bad or good, but messy and complicated and flawed.
We all fuck up. We all lose control at the wheel of our lives sometimes and don't behave the way we (or others) think we should. Maybe we struggle with addictions and mental illness (the two are best pals and, more often than not, go hand-in-hand), or maybe we just can’t seem to get our eating habits under control. Maybe we get jealous and lash out at other people. Maybe we judge others more harshly when we see things in them that we don’t like about ourselves (guilty as charged). Maybe we can’t seem to keep our homes clean for months at a time or remember to call our friends or get out of bed on time, like, ever. And it’s all OK. Not because we don’t need to improve or because our screw ups don’t affect our lives in a negative way, but because it happens and things can get better if we get out of our own way. If we show ourselves a little compassion. If we show others a little compassion. If we recognize that sometimes we just aren’t ready to fix what’s broken in our lives in one fell swoop, and that - equally as important - other people sometimes just aren’t ready, maybe we can learn to give ourselves and others the room and space needed to begin taking the millions of tiny steps required to get ready. Maybe we can concede that everyone needs help sometimes, that almost nobody can take the steps necessary to change their life all by themselves, and that a little kindness and compassion go a much, much longer way than passing judgment and attributing a lack of progress to some flaw of character or lack of “motivation” (my least favourite word, by the way). Maybe we can choose to view others through a lens of compassion, regardless of how badly we think they are behaving or how difficult we find it to understand and accept their choices.
Getting sober has made my life infinitely better in a thousand ways, but the act of not drinking alone isn’t what keeps me pushing forward. It’s the acceptance of myself as a flawed human being. It’s the daily management and understanding of the anxiety that sobriety has forced me to address in earnest. It’s the people behind me who are always there to lend an ear or just get me out of my own head. It’s my partner, who will take on the lion’s share of our household responsibilities and maintain unwavering patience with me when I just can’t seem to get it together. It’s my work, which grants me the unbelievable opportunity to make tangible change in my community. It’s my education, which reminds me of just how capable I am. It’s constantly reminding myself that everyone is living their own story; that we’re all trying, and that sometimes we all misstep and mess up. It’s remembering - even when it’s hard - that forgiveness and acceptance go much further than grudges or judgment.
If I could meet that previous version of myself again I would tell her that she is forgiven, and that she is loved. I would let her know that she is not as broken or as weak as she thinks, and that if only she would trust herself and the people around her, things could get better. I would thank her for making the hard decision to cut alcohol out; to leave her job in the industry and throw away everything she knew in order to save her own life. I would tell her she did good. I would tell her that I am proud of her, and that her life has value. That she is worth something, and always was.
Here’s to another year.