There are a couple bright and shiny “lightbulb” moments in my sobriety story. These are moments where a deep knowing and understanding is reached seemingly in a single moment, a single thought. Though that is the felt experience, I think the reality is much more plodding. I think these “Ah-ha’s” as Oprah would say, are actually just culmination steps. There have been a thousand choices, moments, reflections, and changes made that have aligned and built upon one another until the tipping point of readiness for change is reached.
In that moment the felt sense is grace and ease and awakening but it is only so easy because of all of the groundwork and plumbing that’s been previously laid.
Or as Oprah would also say, “The moment when inspiration meets preparation.”
I remember one of these lightbulbs occurring for me in early sobriety.
I was about six months sober. I got sober in Vancouver, BC. It is a long and convoluted story how this nice American girl from the suburbs of Boston ended up and a hippified, west coast, Canadian, city. In short, I followed a pretty girl and in the haze of alcoholism believed a location cure would solve all of my ills.
In reality, I wasn’t really following a girl but the idea of escape and my alcoholism not only wasn’t cured by the move but escalated rapidly.
Ultimately though Vancouver is where I hit my “bottom” as we say in sobriety circles and it is the city I fell in love with through recovery. It has since become the place I have decided I want to make my forever home.
So I was six months sober and the holidays were fast approaching. I was coming to the legal end of my visitor visa to Canada and had to get out of country for a period of time if I ever hoped to return. So I had to go. The only real place for me to go was back “home.” Home to my parent's place in Boston and then home to see my children in New Jersey.
In my alcoholism and escape west I left behind my two beautiful children – at the time just eight and two.
[Wow. It hurts my heart very badly to write that even still. I can feel the ache in my chest, tear ducts welling. The thought of those little faces and that painful time. *Pause to feel* I am just so grateful we have all survived and are all thriving.]
So I’m six months sober. I’m working my steps and am (ironically) on my ninth step at the time – i.e. making amends. I need to leave Canada and am desperate to reconnect with my children who I miss terribly.
I contact my ex-wife and she graciously agrees that I can come to her place for a couple of days around Christmas and spend some time there so I can see both the children and their new environment. Quickly after I left she sold the house we lived in together and moved with the kids about and hour away and closer to her work.
So I would visit. Chill for a couple days with littles and then I would take the kids north to Boston so they could share the holidays with my family and we could have some 1:1 time.
I remember driving to them on a foggy and cold Christmas morning. I was so anxious to see my little family. My little family that I felt so totally terrible and guilty about leaving. My little family I had wanted so badly. My little family I had had such beautiful hope for. My little family I had loved so but couldn’t figure out how to actually be with, stay a part of.
And then I was with them and it wasn’t bad. It was lovely and right and wonderful. To hold them again and feel their little bodies, feel the pound of their hearts, chest to chest, against mine.
We reconnected and it was great.
Navigating my relationship with my ex-wife was more challenging however. I felt so terrible about how our end had played out. It had been messy and awful and there were so many things I wished (in sobriety) I had done differently. I hadn’t forgiven me. I hadn’t forgiven her. I was also terribly angry and resentful. All of the unresolved pain and issues of a 17-year marriage were suddenly right there. On my chest and playing across my face at times. I was trying my best to be “my best self” but finding it increasingly more and more challenging as the minutes, hours, days ticked away.
I like the thought I heard expressed by one of my yoga teachers once, “Oh, you think you’re healed? You think you’ve processed and asana-ed and forgiven and meditated yourself into peace? Go home and spend a week with your family at Christmas and come back and tell me about how “healed” you are!”
That still makes me laugh because it is so my experience. I was sober! I was doing my steps! I’d graduated yoga teacher training! I was a mother-loving meditation teacher for god’s sake!! But still I was finding it increasingly challenging to keep my shit together.
Layer on this the pressure I had put on myself about doing my step nines while I was on this trip. “Sober Jess” really wanted to do my step nine with her so I clear the space and apologize. However, it is very challenging to do that when you are cycling between the grief of loss, the anger of betrayal and the guilt of failure.
There was much going on in my interior landscape. The voices were loud in my head and my heart was hurting.
I did manage to eke out an amends to her during that trip. I have since learned that amends, like everything else in life, are layered and come at different levels over time. Particularly with the deeper relationships. My ex-wife and I have peeled deeper and deeper into that onion over the course of the last three years and currently have an amicable and peaceful relationship I am so grateful for.
So I’m staying in her home, it is the holidays, I am hanging with my children. One evening she comes up to her room which she’s has ceded to me for the visit so I can sleep with the kids (it’s the only king bed in the house). She pops her head in the door and has a smile on her face. I’m sitting there on top of the bed scrolling through my iPhone. The kids are downstairs playing. We can hear their voices lightly in the background. I look up expectantly.
She says, “So M (her new girlfriend) is coming by. She’ll be here in like ten minutes. She wants to meet you.”
White noise. Sounds of waves crashing in my ears. I freeze like a dear in headlights. I feel my face flush and temperature rise.
Her girlfriend. The woman who is fucking my ex-wife and gets to see my children as often as she likes, the new me, the replacement, is popping by in ten minutes and this is all the warning I get? Something in my brain snaps and I revert to old behavior.
“Really H?” I say voice rising. I stand and whisper yell, “We’re married for 17 years and you want me to meet your new girlfriend and you don’t even ask?” I point aggressively take a step closer to her, “You just tell me she’s coming and somehow I’m supposed to prepare in ten minutes?!? That’s not cool H. Jesus you’re so inconsiderate. No, it’s not ok with me. Fuck!”
“Jesus Jess,” she says a bit stunned and surprised, “I didn’t think it would be that big a deal. I figured you’d want to meet her too.”
“Well I don’t and I won’t. It’s fucking insensitive. I’m not doing it!” And with that I stormed off past her, with all the self-righteous anger of a PMS-ing teenager (though I was 42), down the stairs and out the back of the house.
I ran outside and the cold night air hit my face. Head down I continued behind the house to the back driveway, something inside me just desperate to get away. My feet hit asphalt and I looked up. There before me was parked my rental car and next to it what had (once) been my Jeep. My beloved Jeep. Beautiful, pristine, top of the line $50K Jeep. The Jeep that was the symbol of all the stuff I had had. All the stuff I had lost to drinking and to the divorce. The Jeep that now belonged to my ex-wife. It was something that at the time I felt a great resentment about and felt I had been “screwed” out of. In actuality she paid me for it in the divorce settlement. In hindsight it was much less screwing and more “I’m trying to be totally ethical in my dealings with this nutcase alcoholic I married.”
In that moment though I had lost all perspective and the weight of all the loss, all the anger, all the grief, all the feelings hit me like a thousand pound emotional bomb. And I crumbled. I literally collapsed to the ground next to the Jeep, the symbol of loss, weeping. As I wept a light snow began to fall.
Now listen. As a former stage actress I couldn’t have loved the drama of that moment more!
EXT – UPSACLE SUBURBAN HOME. SECLUDED DRIVEWAY BEHIND HOUSE. NIGHT.
The crumbled shell of a woman collapsed to the ground under the weight of loss. Lit reflectively by the yellow glow of a distant street lamp. As she weeps and heaves, a light snow begins to fall.
As a human being though it was a hard moment to experience. I had been trained though. Before I left my sponsor had sat me down and we talked for a long time about what to expect and what I should do in moments I felt overwhelmed and at risk. I was to call. I was to call him and if I didn’t get him I was to call someone, anyone, in my AA support network. “Call first” was my training.
So I did. I called him and I was grateful when his lovingly warm and twinkling voice picked up on the second or third ring.
His sponsor Spidey sense must have been tingling because he answered with a concerned, “What’s going on?”
“She wants me to meet her girlfriend. Her GIRLFRIEND!” I said sobbing. “She didn’t even ask. She just told me. Phht! Like that. Like it’s nothing. This woman. This woman’s who is fucking my wife is coming over and now, what? I’m supposed to just dance around like some fucking monkey and pretend that’s ok? I can’t take it. So I ran outside and I’m sitting on the ground in the cold and snow crying because it’s bullshit. She always does this. Our whole goddamn marriage. Seventeen years of this. This is why I left. She’s so fucking insensitive! I just can’t. I’m trying so hard!” I cutoff there into sobs, unable to continue.
“Ok sweetheart,” he said soothingly. “Take a deep breath here.”
I did. Though may I have hiccupped out the exhale.
Patiently and slowly with a gentleness in his tone he responded, “I can hear how upset you are and can appreciate how overwhelmed you must feel.”
“I am. I really am!” I responded quickly, urgently.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Hiccup, “Ok,” hiccup.
“Who decided to go back east and visit everyone at Christmas? Was it Heidi or was it you?”
“It was me.” Then quickly, “But you know I had to leave and there were extenuating…”
He cut me off gently. “I understand. But you could have chosen to go a lot of different places and do a lot of different things Jess. But you chose to go to NJ and visit your ex-wife and children at the holidays, didn’t you?”
“That was your choice, was it not?”
“Yes, it was.”
Still calm but with a slight driving like an attorney fact finding with the expert on the stand, “And who decided to stay with their ex-wife, in their ex-wife’s home for this visit?”
“It was me.” I said.
“And who gets to make the rules in Heidi’s house? Heidi or someone else?”
Pause. Oh this one was harder.
“Oh, Heidi. I see.”
“But…”I halfheartedly attempted to interject some pleading though knew in my heart it was a losing game. He was right and I needed to trust where he was trying to take me.
He continued, “And in this situation who are the most important people? You? Heidi? Or the kids?”
Boom. “The kids.”
“Right. The kids.”
Pause to let that land.
“So here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna stop sniffling. You’re gonna get up off the ground and put your big girls pants on and march back into that house with a smile so big on your face it could light a small city. You’re gonna apologize to Heidi and you’re gonna meet the girlfriend and make nice. And if H wants you to meet fifteen girlfriends you’re gonna do it all with a smile on your face and a generous heart because it isn’t about you. It is about those kids and what those kids need to know right now is to know that you’re ok and they’re safe. They need to know it is all gonna work out and Momma and Mommy are solid. They need to be the focus and the center of attention and every single thing you say or do on this visit should be about how to make them feel safe and secure and ok because that’s what they need right now. You’re going to put on your big girl pants and pretend to be the woman you aspire to be because that’s what they need and you’re their Mom so that’s your job. You’re going to do this because that’s what grown-ups do. We do the right thing and sometimes the right thing means putting others needs ahead of ours for a moment and being of service rather than being the center of attention.”
He was right. He was so right that I immediately stopped crying, I thanked him. I sat there dazed for a moment then I got up and dusted myself off, straightened my clothes, walked back into the house and did exactly what he said.
It wasn’t about me, it was about them. Whatever pain I was in could wait because their pain took priority in this moment. I was their Mom and they needed me to show up so that’s what I was going to do because that’s what grown-ups do.
A lighbulb built on hundreds of meetings and coffee talks with sober friends. Lightbulb built on hundreds of hours of yoga and meditation and reading and crying and therapy and step work. I had done the work. The moment came. I was ready and I changed.
I am so grateful.