Post-script note: I began writing this on Dec. 21st, 2022 and finished over New Year's Eve and January 1st, 2023. Happy New Year from the Southern Hemisphere!
One of the greatest gifts of sobriety is also one of its greatest challenges: you can no longer hide from yourself. When an issue arises, there is no numbing out. There is no oblivion to fall into where you can temporarily escape pain, squash your emotions down, and ultimately cause more damage as you pretend that things are okay. In the moment, this may feel good. But it will always catch up to you. And what a gift it is to be given the chance to face your problems head-on, to feel the depth of your emotion and see what there is to be learned from it. To meet yourself, finally, truly, and to find your strength within. To know that you are capable of such great sorrow, which in turn allows you to feel great joy and wonder. To know that you are capable, and see it in practice.
I am coming up on one year of sobriety, and it’s still hard to believe. Getting sober was not something I was considering doing when it happened. It was not really on my radar at all. But a few things coalesced that motivated me to try it, and I ended up sticking with it. And I am so glad that I did.
The person that was living in this body called El a year ago is almost unrecognizable to who I am today. On this day, December 26th 2021, I was living out of my car in Sedona, Arizona, and making frequent trips to Flagstaff to stay with my boyfriend at the time. After spending the summer together in Glacier where we partied with the rest of the Saint Mary crew almost every night, winter descended and so did we. We fell into a toxic pattern of heavy drinking to lift our moods, which would inevitably lead into some argument and often me sleeping on the couch, followed by the next day of depressed hangovers that we would eventually nurse with booze to lift our moods again and–you can see how the cycle goes from there.
That relationship was yet another case of me not sticking to boundaries that I set early on. It was another example of hushing my intuition in favor of the seemingly easier choice: going along with someone else’s ideas, letting their desires eclipse my own, and generally just not valuing myself enough to make the best decisions for me. I was also avoiding processing a lot of grief: the loss of a dear friend, leaving the security of a home and friends along with a job that had completely burned me out, upending my life in the search of something more meaningful, all during a global pandemic and time of social upheaval. I was numbing my emotions with alcohol as well as toxic relationships and detached living. Dissociating and completely disconnected from myself, I was flying on some strange auto-pilot, easily influenced by others and not living authentically.
In a desperate search to get out of Northern Arizona, I found a job opportunity with free staff housing outside of Tucson. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to hit reset: leave the toxic relationship, go somewhere warm, have a roof over my head, and be in a new community that would hopefully be healthier for me. So the day after Christmas, I drove to the ranch. The job ended up being a bit chaotic, but I made some great friends and started to reconnect with myself out there in the desert.
Around this time, my mom had been talking to me about doing Adriene Mishler’s annual yoga challenge. At the start of the new year, she runs a 30-day program to introduce (or reintroduce) people of all skill levels and backgrounds to a daily yoga practice. Given all that was going on in my life at that time, I thought it sounded like a great idea and accepted my mom’s challenge. But I knew that I wouldn’t do it if I continued drinking like I had been. If I woke up hungover, tired from staying up late, and emotionally exhausted, I knew that I wouldn’t complete the challenge. So, I decided that I would quit drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes for those 30 days. In that time, I slowly began to reconnect with my body. After a couple of weeks, I felt proud of myself in a way I hadn’t in a long time. On top of the yoga, I got into a daily routine which included eating healthier meals, regularly hiking or running outside in the sun, reading books, journaling and beginning to examine my emotions again. At this point in my life, I was rarely smoking weed or doing "harder" substances like coke or MDMA anymore anyway, so those were easy to eliminate completely. (A quick aside: under the right conditions and as part of a spiritual practice, I will very occasionally consume psychedelics. I don't see this as interfering with my sobriety as I have a much healthier relationship with them as compared to other drugs and it can be quite beneficial for my mental health). Around March, I also stopped consuming caffeine, thus removing all substances that I may have had a dependency on.
Finally, I felt like I was reconnecting with myself. I felt more in-tune with my body and its cycles. I felt contentment like I hadn’t in a long time. I also had some surprising experiences with emotions. A few times, I was out hiking by myself and letting thoughts amble through my head. A thought about my friend AC would arise. She passed away in May of 2021, in the middle of a week when I was sick with COVID and isolated in my apartment in Denver, preparing to pack my life into a storage unit and hit the road with no plan for the future. I was already burnt out, feeling lost, and literally and figuratively isolated. I can still feel the visceral pain of getting that news via an Instagram post, calling my mom sobbing and having to repeat the words three times before she could understand what I was saying through my blubbering; feeling so utterly alone and devastated by the unfairness of this loss. I wasn’t sure how I could manage to get everything done that I needed to at that time, and it made me seriously question my decision to leave my unhappy but relatively safe life in Denver. After days of crying and slowly recovering from COVID, the anticipated date of my departure arrived. I packed up and left, emotionally drained but ready to leave. Through the excitement and novelty and chaos of the next six months, I pushed my grieving to the side.
The first time it happened, I was in Saguaro National Park. I had just seen a crested saguaro for the first time, and my mood was high–it was a beautiful day and I was soaking it in the way I most love to, among nature and by myself. Suddenly a thought drifted up from the depths of my wandering mind. A poem about AC began to form around the words echoing in my mind, but then my emotions bubbled up. I began to cry, and then sob. I took a few steps off the trail and sat down on the warm sandy earth. I talked out loud to my friend, and to the universe, releasing my frustration and pain and sorrow. I laid my hands on the ground and felt her presence there with me as tears poured into the earth. Eventually, I quieted down. My breathing returned to normal, and I slowly picked myself up and walked back to my car, feeling my steps connecting into the earth as I went along. A sort of peace descended on my mind and body, although I felt a bit shocked and confused. It wouldn’t be until much later that I realized what was going on here: all of the pain of that loss that I tried to box up and hide away in some attic of my mind never went away. While I was galavanting around the country and drinking every time a negative emotion rose, that box sat there waiting. Finally, when I quit drinking and smoking and distracting and suppressing, my deeper self quietly opened the attic door and brought that box down. It knew that I finally had the time and space to feel my grief fully, and that I wouldn’t hide it away with booze or any other variety of numbing agents.
This would happen several more times over the year, with that specific grief as well as a number of other traumatic events or old minor wounds left to fester in the back of my mind. As I learned what was going on, I did better about really allowing myself to feel whatever it was as it came up. To make time and space to sit with my emotions in the moment as much as possible (or if I was at work or otherwise engaged, making time as soon as possible to sit alone in quiet reflection). Slowly, I began to unravel some of my issues. But as it goes, this was only the tip of the iceberg.
The longer I spent sober, the more I realized that my issues did not lie in the substances themselves. Maybe that should have been more obvious, as it wasn’t all that hard for me to quit them. The truth that came to light in my 11th month of sobriety is that I’ve been masking deep wounds with these problems: pain that I’ve been carrying for as long as I can remember. I’ve become so comfortable, so attached to this pain as a part of who I believe I am, that it took a lot to recognize that truth. What I now believe is that there is another way, another me that has been waiting all along. A truer, more beautiful version of myself that has been patiently waiting in a deep inner sanctum. A place of safety, acceptance, compassion, and pure love that I did not know that I could access until recently. A place that exists within each of us. It is here that we find our true purpose. It is here that we will find true acceptance, deep connection, and radical love and compassion. For ourselves, and for the world.
Now, the hard work begins. In this next phase of life, as I enter my second year of sobriety, I will buckle down on these issues. I am taking a few different approaches to finally address my deeply ingrained negative thinking patterns. Over the last few years I have slowly begun to heal various wounds, but there are still some deeper remaining issues. I believe that the root of the problems that I still face today–anxiety, cyclical negative thoughts, poor body image, disordered eating, codependency, occasional depression, and so on–lies in my ego.
In talking about how to conceptualize the ego, someone gave me a helpful visual metaphor. Imagine you have a felt-tip pen. Its cap is red, the sticker on its outside labels it as red, everyone looks at it and calls it “red”. You assume this to be true. One day you go to write with the pen. You pull the cap off and put the pen to paper and…it’s blue. You know deep down that it was blue all along. In this metaphor, the ego is the cap of the pen. The self is the ink.
The things that have happened to me, the ideas of who I am and who I’m meant to be that have been impressed upon me by my upbringing and the society that I live in, the categories that others have labeled me with or the ones that I’ve tried on and discarded myself in my searching–none of these are me. This egoic identity is not my true self. I have glimpsed my true self in moments of awe and revelation, in moments of stillness and meditation, in moments of sorrow or love or deep connection. This year I will work to get closer to myself, to continue peeling back the layers of ego that have built up over my 27 years on this earth, to uncover my true self. I am so looking forward to continuing to get to know that person.
This is just the beginning for me. It has been a long road and I could not have gotten to this point without the support of friends, family members, and people on the other side of various books and podcasts, who helped nudge me along this path. I try to express my gratitude to those individuals directly when I can, and I hope they have felt how grateful I am for their contributions to my life. As far as resources that I can share that have influenced how I got here and what I will be using to help guide me forward, here is a non-exhaustive list:
Daily meditation practice, using a variety of techniques including…
This podcast episode about “losing yourself”
This podcast episode about being choiceful in love (and if you really want to dive deep, the whole season they’re doing on love is incredible)
This podcast episode about ego and consciousness
Those are just a few examples to get you started. It's a wide world out there, and I hope you feel curious and maybe even inspired to try something new, to open yourself up to learning and growing. And now... time for a little challenge! If you have felt anything while reading this, some spark of curiosity, then I challenge you to follow it. See where it leads you. If you want to go further, join me for this year’s 30 days of Yoga with Adriene (starting on January 1st, 2023). Take some time to review the resources in the list above. Set aside at least an hour to yourself: start by finding somewhere comfortable to sit. Close your eyes, and take several deep breaths. Allow your thoughts to flow, and gently examine them. Whatever comes up is okay. Try to sit and notice for at least 10 minutes (longer if you can!). Afterward, reflect on what you felt. Was that difficult or uncomfortable? What kinds of thoughts or emotions came up? Can you identify any patterns or themes? Write about it. Write about where you are now, and where you want to be. Use this as a jumping-off point. Where do you want to go from here? Visualize the most beautiful life you can dream of, and go make it happen for yourself. It will not be easy, but it will be rewarding. Take some friends with you. See that you can change the world by changing your own perspective, and carry that with you. Find your inner peace and show others the way to theirs. See that we are all connected.
I believe in you. I am with you. I love you.
Happy New Year.