Six months into dating each other, my then boyfriend, now husband went to rehab. During his twenty-eight-day program I had the opportunity to attend what I thought was going to be couples counseling.
I imagined exactly what joining him for the afternoon would look like: us sitting in a room with other couples from the facility learning about how the partner not in rehab learns to live with the partner in rehab. Something akin to a seminar on how to live life together post rehab. There would be slides and handouts on the steps and how-tos of how to make a relationship work when clearly one person in the relationship needed a lot of help. I was down for that. I love rules and systems and the “right way” to do things to ensure a positive outcome.
Unfortunately, for me, this was not the reality of our “couples counseling” session. There were no slides, no handouts, and certainly no how-to processes on mastering life post rehab.
The reality of this session was a sterile room, a 1970s video on a program for the families and friends of alcoholics, and a very stern woman asking me how often I took care of myself. I was totally caught off guard and immediately defensive.
How dare this woman show me a video on a program for families and friends of alcoholics? How dare this woman give me booklet after booklet on the disease of alcoholism? How dare this woman question my ability to take care of myself?
To be clear, I drove to this treatment facility from my full-time job, in business casual attire, with my make-up and hair done well. I went to the dentist every six months. I went to the doctor when I was sick. I even treated myself to manicures and pedicures every month. My car was paid for in full. I carried no debt. I had friends, plans, and hobbies. Clearly, I took care of myself. Clearly, I was above this lecture and these assumptions.
Still reeling from the booklets and questions, I looked up as she pulled another one of those booklets from her seemingly endless supply.
I can see it just as clearly now as I could thirteen years ago. She opened the booklet to a two-page spread featuring a rollercoaster, pointed to the bottom of the rollercoaster hill and said, “This is where your loved one is right now. That’s how he ended up here. He’s at the bottom. But hopefully with treatment and an ongoing commitment to a program he will begin to go back up.”
I nodded. She continued, “You are here.”
She pointed to a place midway between the top of the hill and the bottom.
“You began the descent to bottom as your loved one hit rock bottom. You will continue to descend unless you find a program yourself, to help you take care of yourself.”
By this point I was livid and afraid. Again, the words, “How dare she?” popped in my brain. The voices in my head continued, “You don’t know me. And you’re clearly not looking at me. I am not the one in rehab.”
She was oblivious to all of this internal dialogue.
She kept on, “As your loved one begins to ascend, you will descend. (She did not say might.) You will be angry and confused. Things that you thought would magically change after his twenty-eight-day stay may not resolve themselves in the way you thought they would and that will breed resentment. He will begin to be happy, joyous, and free, and you will be on a speeding car racing toward a crash at the bottom if you don’t get yourself some help and support.”
I was gob smacked. Completely wordless. So, I did what I always do under stress; I cried.
I was removed from the sterile room and ushered into the chaplain’s office by the chaplain himself. I sat motionless on a leather couch trying to wrestle down the information thrust upon me and what that meant for my future and the future I had planned with my boyfriend.
Thirteen years and a lot of help later, I must admit that the not-so-subtle counselor at the rehab facility was right. What she predicted that day was exactly what happened. As my husband’s rollercoaster cart began ascending, mine headed straight to the bottom. I can see that now. I could not see that then. It was subtle, incremental in progress.
Slowly, as my husband’s level of sobriety increased, my level of sanity decreased. I began feeling angry and unreasonable without knowing it. I began harboring feelings of hurt, discontent, and even a little rage. This was baffling. My husband was sober. All was supposed to be bright and sunny. Why, then did I feel so badly, especially when it was clear he felt so good?
Begrudgingly, I began attending the meetings the counselor from the rehab facility suggested. Truthfully, I began attending because I am a rule follower, a lover of processes and systems, and my happy, joyous, and free husband suggested it every time he came home from one of his meetings.
He spent time before and after meetings talking to the old-timers, guys that had been in the program longer than I had been alive, about how they sustained marriages and relationships. The answer was always, “My wife has a program too. Without her attending her own meetings, we would not be here.” How’s that for direct?
“Mr. Spirituality,” my not-so-nice nickname for my husband, continued to press me on attending a meeting. So, out of sheer loyalty to him and loyalty to following the “rules” I attended meetings weekly, just like I was “supposed” to. While I liked the people in the rooms and what they had to say, I didn’t get it.
I could not grasp the magnitude of the reality that I needed a program too. I didn’t have a problem with alcohol. Therefore, the first step didn’t apply to me, so surely the next eleven didn’t apply either.
Fortunately, the program was getting me.
Over the course of the last thirteen years, I’ve sat in dusty church basements, cold church parlors, and large conference rooms at least once a week to attend meetings for families and friends of alcoholics.
The people in these rooms loved me for me-they loved my messy, broken heart and they offered theirs to show me I wasn’t alone. It was in these rooms that I came to learn and love the Twelve Steps. The Twelve Steps offered me bridge back to the faith of my childhood and taught me how to be in relationship with God. It’s in these rooms that I learned true vulnerability, how to open my whole heart, and love people even when I don’t like them very much. It is the place I learned, “That there is no situation too difficult to be bettered and no unhappiness too great to be lessened.”
But there was a time I wasn’t so sure that program promise applied to me.
I was at my lowest and forward progress was almost impossible to see. I constantly asked myself: Is change really happening? Is the program working for me as I desperately try to work the program?
My rollercoaster cart came to a crashing halt, an impasse. One that was seemingly endless, far too high to scale and far too solid to break through. It was at this place despair that I walked into a new meeting in my brand-new town.
The meeting leader shared the day’s topic: “Experience, Strength, and Hope,” the pillars of the program. Meeting goers were encouraged to share about their own experience, strength, and hope. I am not one who often stays silent in a meeting. But that day I just couldn’t see that third program pillar-hope-anywhere in my life. So, I stayed silent for most of the meeting. As the meeting began to wind down, I tentatively raised my hand to speak.
My words, along with tears, came spilling out, “I walked into this room today with a lot of experience, a Mack truck’s load of strength, but zero hope. I don’t know that my marriage and home life can be made better.”
In speaking those words aloud, I was afraid of two things:
1. That they were true; that my marriage and home life could not recover from the trauma they had suffered.
2. That all the meeting attendees would dislike me because clearly, I was not a good representative of the program. I failed. I worked the program for eight years, yet I had no hope.
But a funny thing happened.
The meeting closed shortly after I spoke, and I as I turned to leave, I was surrounded by people.
Strangers came up and said, “Thank you. Thank you for your honesty. You’re in the right place.”
It was in that moment I saw God show up for me, through people. His presence showed up in their words and stories, their hugs and laughter, and most importantly in their ability to be present with in my pain.
Recovery is a weird concept for me. It’s defined as, “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.” It is not defined as winning a race, reaching a goal, or finishing something. It is about returning to something you once had.
Its definition also doesn’t speak of this returning as final. It’s a process. And while I’m all for processes, systems, and rules, when they do not produce immediate and easy to spot results, I do not want to give them my time and energy. The reality of incremental change is one that really burns me up some days. I simply want to follow the rules and get the prize I was promised when I complete the work. But recovery doesn’t work like that; the rollercoaster cart never speeds toward top, instead it makes that clicking noise as it inches upward, bit by bit.
Rehab. Rollercoasters. Recovery. Three things that have shaped my life in ways I never imagined. Three things that taught me the prize is in the process.