I’ve been thinking so much lately about the parallels of early sobriety and the Disney movies of the last several years, which have been so wildly inspirational to me, soaring in their storytelling: the journeys of heroes (no longer just men!) who are brave, defiant, and maybe a little tiny bit … what’s the right word? “Dumb” feels mean and also not totally true, and “young” feels true but also not quite right … maybe naive? Let’s go with impulsive. These impulsive, trusting heroes: Moana in Moana, Miguel in Coco, Anna in Frozen, Elsa in Frozen II just saying fuck it, what have I got to lose? And barreling into the unknown, with a tremendous sense of purpose and but with no guarantee of assistance or support along the way: they each jump into the deep end without a hand to hold, having absolutely no idea where the journey will take them.
Of course, there’s obstacles and fear (as well as love and enchantment) everywhere as soon as they begin their respective journeys, with support pouring in from all over, from the expected sources (family, a funny sidekick, strangers who become friends or family), the expected from a Disney movie (animals), and the less explored in the Disney world: a conscious ocean with a sense of humor (Moana), the magic elements of earth, wind, water, fire (Frozen II), our benevolent ancestors and deceased loved ones (Coco), the overarching sense that something or someone is guiding us, leading us exactly where we need to go (all of them), to meet the person we most need to know: ourselves (Moana, Anna, Elsa, and Miguel, in a way, though he already knew who he was – he just needed his family to finally, truly, see and accept him).
Those of us in recovery know how magical and transcendent the hero’s journey of getting sober can feel – how we begin to “intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us” – as if someone or something is guiding us, how we start to uncover this capable, caring person who we were this whole time, and how we start to understand that we are all the same as everyone else: that we all want to be loved, we all want to feel safe, and we all want to be connected and validated and heard and seen and included, and when we are behaving badly, any of us, all of us, it’s connected to a wound that hasn’t quite yet healed, a wound that might be gaping but also could be something we consider a scar, a reminder of pain from long ago, but something with a pulse, a heartbeat, a mind of its own. And we learn that we, like every other human on the entire planet, is equal parts capable of miracles, of transmitting love that heals, of channeling God herself, and also totally fallible, destined to fuck up, a little kid who has lost their caregiver in a the supermarket and is terrified, convinced they are alone forever.
But we don’t know that our life is going to change for the better, in ways so extraordinary that our brains literally can’t fathom or picture it, at the beginning of the journey. We usually feel terrified, bereft, despairing, and unable to imagine what life will be like without alcohol, or whatever our drug of choice is. We embark on this journey – into the unknown – because we don’t have any other choice. Because if we want to keep going, it’s the only option.
And precisely this, along with so many other tools of a recovery program, is why I think so many of us in recovery feel ready for this moment of crisis. Because we thought our lives were over a thousand times before, because we couldn’t imagine what life would be like on the other side of alcohol, because we were forced to let go of the ways in which we knew how to live and embrace a new reality – sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes kicking and screaming. And we know that the story, our collective story, doesn’t have to end in the catastrophic ways that we are imagining it might. In fact, it might end in changes in the way we relate to ourselves, to each other, to the world around us, in ways that astound us. In ways that feel like a dream.
But don’t take my word for it. I think you need to take your own.
One of my professors in grad school told our class once that all trauma is loss. Some of this is obvious: the sudden death of a loved, violent, or unexpected, is traumatic, a loss. Some of it is less obvious but still holds weight: abuse, sexual or physical, is the loss of a compounding number of things: your personal boundaries, your sense of safety, your trust in the world in around you. Growing up in an alcoholic household is a loss of reality, a loss of your personal truth: you see your parents drunk, incapacitated, and you know there is a problem, but they deny this, telling you that you are being dramatic or making things up: this is a loss of the ability to trust your intuition, your knowing, your very self.
The list goes on.
Because we can think of all trauma as loss, I think it stands that can consider together that all loss is traumatic. And none of us are exempt from loss: all of us have experienced loss on great scales, no matter our life circumstances. We have lost a loved one – maybe several – to death. We have lost the loves of our lives to fate or to timing. Fuck, some of my most painful losses have been the death of relationships with men who have wanted nothing to do with me, but who have loved me fiercely in my fantasy of what my life could look like.
We have had to say goodbye to aspects of ourselves that we thought were guaranteed: some of us haven’t become mothers or fathers (when we wanted to), some of us haven’t met a person we wanted to marry (and we wanted to), some of us poured our soul into an endeavor that failed dramatically, a venture that we thought we were born to do, and we had to say goodbye to that part of ourselves, at least for awhile.
The connections among all traumatic loss is that it’s something that we didn’t want at all -sometimes, it’s the stuff of nightmares. At the very least, it’s something that we didn’t want completely – we weren’t happy in a relationship, but we didn’t want them out of lives – as Bernard in Westworld says, we didn’t want the pain of being without them to be all that was left of them. We experience this loss as something that alters our lives, sometimes in ways that are indiscernible to the outside world, a reservoir of ache for us, but with a small impact to our surroundings, and sometimes it’s dramatic, and it’s devastating. But more often than not, it’s a loss that we didn’t know we could live without.
And the other thread among all of these separate, personal, sporadic losses that we call our own, that we carry with us, is that we survived every single one of them.
We are experiencing loss now. We are grieving the loss of what we thought our lives would be, the monotony of getting up each day in a world that made sense to us, a world that we came to expect things from. We are grieving the loss of security that the world would keep turning, that life would go on in a way that made sense: in every one of our personal tragedies, the times when we thought our lives were over, the world still beckoned to us the next day, needing us to go on as we had the day before. This has changed. Life still goes on in the midst of this pandemic, but beckons to us in a different way, inviting us to engage in a different dance, inviting us to create a different routine and rhythm.
I think that, in part, we are grieving the loss of the idea that we don’t have to change. But here’s the tricky part, as my 3 year old would say – I don’t think we are being called to change as much as I think we are being asked to remember who we are.