I did a strange thing today.
I came back to my hometown for a conference and afterwards I had a few hours to kill so in order to encourage car naps (that mom life), I thought it would be fun to drive around town and see how things had changed in the half decade since I had lived there.
That’s not what really happened though.
Instead of driving around looking at new houses, stores, roadways, or developments, I found myself gripped by a sense of nostalgia. I turned down old familiar streets, in a less developed side of town; the side of town where old and faded signs are the norm. Where peeling paint and cheap dive bars line the streets that were road markers to my darker, more shadowy memories. Memories I needed to relive.
I drove down the street that houses most of the watering holes and party hangouts that I spent six years of my life practically living in every weekend and most weeknights as well. As I looked at the faded signs and worn down buildings, I closed my eyes and let the feelings from long ago wash over me. Sitting in my car, I could almost smell the stale smoke and taste the cheap alcohol on my lips. I remembered other things too. I remembered the substances ingested in dark bathrooms and in parking lots. I remembered the drug and alcohol induced euphoria that became the bright spot of all my days.
Then the guilt came. But not guilt that I did all those things. The awful knowledge that I drank and drugged away a chunk of years in my life isn’t lost on me, believe me. But that happened and I’ve made peace with it. The guilt I felt today was not about having done all that.
I felt guilty for surviving it.
I felt guilt as I drove past the cemetery where so many of my friends are now buried. I felt guilty when I saw familiar cars parked at our local party hangouts, even now, years later.
In sobriety meetings all over the world, people in recovery know this feeling well. We know how many times we escaped death, both physical and spiritual. We know how deep that survivor’s guilt goes, because many of the people we partied with didn’t make it. Even now, their names and faces are running across my mind, making their memorial in my heart once again.
I can still see their smiles.
The party and the glitter and the fun of that life is in many ways exhilarating. But it many other ways, substance abuse is like a life on constant “play, then rewind”. Drink. Drug. Recover…do it again. It is a vortex that stops time for those who live it. You don’t improve. You don’t evolve. You don’t really SEE anything. It is a hamster wheel that never ends until you either get off, or die.
And I made it out. By the grace of God I made it out. I made it to a greener place, a tender and sweet place full of love and fullness, and healing.
Yet I am aware that so many of my former “buddies” are still there. Still running the wheel, still caught in that vortex. The sorrow I feel when I think of that is like a stone that catches in my throat and thuds to the bottom of my soul. It is unbearable. It is hard to breathe when their names call out to me.
I made it. But they didn’t.
One day. I just decided to stop. One day, I was given the courage to ask for more. Everything changed on that day. Six months later, much healthier and happier, I found out I was pregnant.
I needed to sit with this today. I needed to return to the weight of that stone and truly be with it for a bit.
Because two feet in back of me, in their separate car seats with their cheeks sweaty, their blonde curls matted against their seat cushions, are the creatures for whom I survived. The tiny and literally perfect humans God gave me to raise, to teach, to honor, to respect, and to love mightily.
They ARE my second chance.
It has been said that giving birth is transformative for a woman and motherhood–even more so. For me that truth is powerful on a whole other level. These children are my salvation.
Rather than being something I try to forget, my sordid past life has helped me develop a sort of “code” to my parenthood and family. Those painful experiences and feelings have given me the “tunnel vision” that has become a springboard for my life and mission as a wife and mother.
Gratitude for life
I remember so many nights passed in tears, wanting a different life but unclear as to how to get it without causing myself and others serious discomfort. For addicts who are unable to stop, the thought of change causes profound fear and pain. When I was in this life, I never thought I would someday have children. Long before all this started, I had convinced myself that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t for some reason I don’t quite understand looking back on it.
The suffocating shame of the life I was living had furthered that idea in my heart, convincing me all the way into my bones that I would never be a mother. So when I see these tiny feet and hands today, and watch these little chests rise and fall in their sleep, I still can’t believe that they are mine. I live in a permanent state of wonder and a bit of imposter syndrome. I sometimes scarcely believe that I have this life or am fit for it. This makes me edgy, awake, and grateful.
Gratitude for more time
I have been told I seem “intense and determined”. I used to really dislike this characterization, but I have realized that my past has given me a constant awareness of time. I feel like I have been given back “years that the locusts have eaten” and I bear the weight of that daily. Because of this, the goal of my day, every day, is maintaining a close sense of connection and empathy with my kids.
I am unpleasantly aware of how quickly time can steal away from us. I am aware of how quickly I stole it from myself all those years during my wrestling match with substance abuse. Every day matters with my kids because it’s a day I might not have had. I should have died many times. I was a perfect candidate; a willing participant in dangerous behaviors and situations. I hold on to and manage time so diligently because I am aware of how precious it really is. Today is a day I didn’t really deserve.
Gratitude for healthy love
This is the one that is difficult to write without tears. At the heart of my abuse of substances was a desire to be loved and taken care of. My use led me to people who could certainly take care of me, but who could never truly love me. Those people were careless with my heart and my soul, even as they met of some of my physical and emotional needs. I was already at a very tender and broken place, and this poor treatment really changed me. It changed how I viewed men. It changed what I believed about love.
When I, recovering from that awful life, met my now husband, I was unaware that you could have a relationship that included love that doesn’t hurt or cost you big parts of who you are. Slowly, and with the skilled hand of a balanced, loving, and emotionally healthy human-my husband drew me back to belief in emotional trust without even knowing he was doing it. He did it by just being there.
He just keeps on loving me.
We have been through difficult times in our marriage. Both of us have been confronted with and had to walk through some serious struggles within each other, our pasts, and ourselves. But we just keep on loving each other; sometimes angrily, sometimes through lonely tears, sometimes shrouded in utter confusion about who the other person is at that moment. It is very hard when two wounded people enter into the contract of marriage and parenting. But he, the far better balanced of the two of us, is a daily reminder that safety, calm, and normalcy are the gifts he gives me; the steady wind that did, and continues to right my often “listing” emotional ship. I appreciate being loved so much because I was so intimately acquainted with its antithesis; being used.
So we just keep on with it. Because we are grateful. Grateful that the “what might have beens” have given way to what WILL be, together.
What I have come to accept and even embrace is the fact that the experiences in my years of darkness, while they caused damage and heartache, have also become the places out of which my healing has flowed. I can honestly say that those years of pain before I was married and had children have actually made me a better mother and wife today because of these lessons I learned.
I wrestled more deeply with my capacity for pain and self destruction than I like to admit, and not a day goes by that it doesn’t cause me to wince, and order my steps differently and purposefully. Because this little family needs an emotionally whole mommy, and as I walk this life day by day, one day at a time with gratitude as my guide, I will be.