What I wanted from sobriety

A few weeks ago, I celebrated 29 years of sobriety. It’s been almost three decades since I last snorted a line of cocaine through a rolled up dollar bill, guzzled vodka tonics until I felt the numbing warmth slowly spread through my body, or woke up from a blackout covered in my own vomit, shuddering to think about what I said or did the night before.

Friends who aren’t in recovery sometimes ask me, “Do you still need to go to those meetings?” The simple answer is “Yes, yes I do.” Mostly because alcoholism and addiction is a cunning disease. It’s a disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. That it’s been so long since you got stupid drunk, your body can surely handle one glass of wine now, or a toke from a joint to soften the edges of a hard day.

But I’ve been around long enough to see what happens to people who convince themselves they can safely drink or use again. Some I never see again. Perhaps they’re doing OK and found a different path – I hope that’s true. But I’ve also gone to enough funerals to know that a lot of them use or drink again and die. Thankfully, a lot more come back into recovery. None of them ever talks about how much fun it was to use again.

I still go to meetings to hear these stories and because I’m drawn to the raw honesty you hear from people in recovery. They’re my medicine, my church, the place my feet know to take me when life gets too overwhelming and real. The first year I probably annoyed the hell out of the old-timers because all I could talk about was my awful breakup with my addict boyfriend. But as I got my sea legs and started making new friends and using the program as a blueprint for how to live my life, my world expanded. And eventually, I grew up.

I was only 25 when I put down my last drink and drug, but at the time I remember feeling incredibly old. All of my college friends were starting careers and traveling and getting married and seemed to have a direction. I was living in a dark Manhattan apartment eking out a miserable existence as a secretary. And marking my days until my next drink, my next drug.

My sponsor told me when I first got sober to write a list of everything I wanted from sobriety. I don’t remember everything I wrote on that list, but I do remember writing that I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and not hate myself.

I think sometimes of the utter sadness and despair in that list. I was 25 years old, and my life should have been so exciting, so full of plans and ideas. And I couldn’t even look in a mirror without quickly turning away in disgust.

Later on, my sponsor told me that she tells newcomers to write this list because she knows that they will shortchange themselves. Because you get so much more. Some people say that sobriety gave them their life back. I didn’t feel I had much of a life before I came into the rooms of recovery. For me, at least, recovery gave me the life I didn’t even know I wanted.

I wasn’t instantly struck happy, joyous and free, though. I suffered a lot of losses in sobriety. But I’ve never had to suffer alone. Whether it was a panic attack when the drug/booze fog lifted and I was left staring at the wreck I’d made of my short life, the death of a close friend from AIDS back in the 80s or the loss of my baby to a late miscarriage, I marched into a recovery meeting and shared my pain with a group of other recovering addicts. And somehow, that helped me get through it.

In these past 29 years. I’ve realized my dream to marry and become a mother, become dissatisfied with both, cycled through two careers, and finally hit upon a creative outlet that fills my life with new meaning.

Although I don’t believe in numerology, when I googled the number 29, I found that it’s supposed to signify grace under pressure. Well, I haven’t always been graceful in sobriety. I’ve repeatedly hurt those I love, roughly pushed people away who only wanted to help me, nearly wrecked my marriage, lost and gained dozens of pounds, loving and hating my body in equal measure, mourned the loss of a child’s devotion as if it were a personal affront, and secretly wished that I would suffer some kind of accident just to earn a break from responsibilities – a month or two to just be.

But through it all, I do one thing right. I don’t pick up a drink or a drug to numb my feelings. There’s a saying in the rooms of recovery that I love – “There’s nothing that can happen in your life that a drink or drug won’t make worse.” I gave up the anesthetic of drugs and booze 29 years ago. In return, I was granted my messy life, which I meet with a clear head on a daily basis.

When I look in the mirror today, I am no longer that 25-year-old girl who couldn’t bear staring into her soul, because it felt so unbearably dark. I see some extra pounds and new streaks of gray that on bad days, make me feel like a middle-aged matron. But mostly I see a woman who has lived an extraordinary life, and in some ways, is just getting started.


Dancing in the Dark

“And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon.”Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat

My childhood memories are jumbled, jagged and incomplete – entire years wiped clean of any clear recollections or defining moments. But certain people and experiences stand out. Lucio and Stephanie Costanzo, who literally danced their way through life with the kind of joy and abandon I always envied, loom large in my memories.

Lucio taught school with my mother, and his ruddy, long beard and booming laugh echo through my earliest memories. Stephanie wore her auburn hair long and her laugh was lighter, higher pitched and full of life. They were younger than my parents, and pretty much full on hippies who churned their own ice cream, ate granola before granola was a word you’d recognize, sewed their own clothes – you get the picture. And they danced. Oh, how they danced. Stephanie was Polish and Lucio Italian. And when they glided onto a dance floor, everyone moved aside just to watch them.

At my older brother Gordon’s bar mitzvah, I remember being mesmerized as Lucio – in red plaid pants and a powder blue sports coat (this was the 1970s) – whirled Stephanie all around the temple dance floor. I recall watching their faces as they moved effortlessly around the floor, Lucio throwing his head back in laughter, Stephanie smiling up at him as they executed the most intricate of steps with a grace I didn’t know was possible. And I felt a little of the joy I knew they were feeling in that moment.

They lived on Long Island, but far enough away from us that our families didn’t get together that often – but when we did it was a daylong affair – my four siblings and me commingling with their three children, Sergio, Stacia and Gavin – and then later on Lance, their fourth. We played Parcheesi and Yahtzee and Boggle in their sunken living room and ate huge, communal meals. When it was time to go home, I was always incredibly sad. It was a magical, happy place and I never wanted the joy to end.

Although we lost touch over the years, I sent them an invitation to my wedding in 1997. They were an integral part of my childhood and I wanted them to meet the man I was marrying, – and, selfishly, see them dance again. They were unable to make it that day, but Stephanie sent a beautiful woodcut painting she created as a gift.

A while back, after decades where we hadn’t seen each other, I attended their 50th wedding anniversary celebration. I finally got to introduce them to my husband, and my siblings and I reconnected with their children. It was a beautiful, wonderful day. Stephanie and Lucio moved a bit slower on the dance floor in their 70s than they had back in the 70s, but the joy still burst forth from them as if they were teenagers.

They told me they were still teaching dance classes, and were enjoying spending time with their children and grandchildren, who all lived nearby. When we left, we promised to get together again soon.

We never did, and I learned yesterday that on Feb. 18th they were in a serious car accident. Stephanie died at the scene and Lucio has been hospitalized ever since, but is expected to recover.

Aside from a box step waltz I learned for my high school prom, I never willingly entered a dance floor as a teenager. I felt awkward and uncomfortable and just figured it wasn’t for me. In college, under the influence of some good pot and even better reggae music, I found myself unselfconsciously moving towards the dance floor at one of SUNY-Binghamton’s underground “Shut Up and Dance” parties. And for the first time, I understood what it meant to let the music move me. I chased that exhilaration for years, until the drugs and booze stopped working and turned me inward once again.

In 1993, in a rec hall in Pawling, NY, I was dancing my heart out to Whitney Houston’s “I’m every woman” in a cut off white tee shirt, shorts and black cowboy boots. I was now nearly five years clean and sober, on a weekend retreat with my sober friends and dance had come back into my life.

At one point, I danced with abandon up to a group of gay men and paired off with the most exuberant dancer in the group. Turns out he wasn’t gay at all, and after two years of dating and dancing, he twirled me around a floor again in Pawling, New York, – this time, as his wife.

I am so sad that Stephanie is gone, and that Lucio has lost his dance partner. I never told them how brave and beautiful and inspirational they were to me as a child. Stephanie would probably have downplayed it. Lucio would make a joke. But they were, they are, a beacon for me in how to live life – freely, joyfully, recklessly, letting the music move me.

Lesson Four – Hear Me Roar

Lesson four for those counting: Sobriety also taught me to :

“Find the lion inside yourself and learn how to be brave.”

Putting down the crutch of drugs and alcohol and giving up old friends in order to chart a new course in my life was hard. Really hard. I was so young, and most days I felt like a raw adolescent who never acquired the blueprint for living. But every day I met incredibly brave people, many who had sunk far lower than me. And they were putting their lives back together, one day at a time. I was especially moved by a woman who shared about how she went from a high school dropout living on the streets of NYC to eventually earning her law degree. So when I finally honed in on the goal of becoming a reporter, I mustered the courage to call an editor at a local weekly paper and ask him to let me sit in on community board meetings and write them up for free just so that I could collect some clippings. A year later, partly based on those clippings, I got my first full-time reporting gig, which then led to my career with a national wire service.

Each time I took a risk and it paid off, it gave me the courage to take more risks. Did I ever stumble? Of course I did. I applied for jobs I didn’t get. I missed important deadlines. I got passed over for promotions. But the bravest people I know learned how to bounce back from failures and gather the courage to take even more risks. One of my favorite quotes comes from Helen Keller, someone who knew a fair amount about courage.

In 1940 Keller published “Let Us Have Faith” and a chapter titled “Faith Fears Not” contained the following passage:

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

What challenges have you faced that taught you valuable lessons you can apply to your working life? I’d love to hear about them. Click here to contact me.

Lessons Two and Three – Just in time for Valentine’s Day

Once I stopped worrying about what other people thought about me (see last post), I was ready to move forward.

Lesson 2: Be authentic and speak from your heart.”

Part of recovery is getting up in front of rooms filled with strangers and sharing your story of how you came to find sobriety. The first few times I did this, I was nearly paralyzed with fear. Fear that I would stumble, ramble or say something stupid. And ultimately the fear that if people really knew the “real” me, they would run screaming in the opposite direction. Well, they didn’t run. They identified with me. And they confided that my honesty helped them be more honest with themselves.

It works just as well in business. When I give a presentation, I always include a story from my life that helps illustrate whatever point I’m trying to make. And I’m honest about my stumbles along with my successes. Sharing such experiences doesn’t make you weak. It invites people to identify with you, to recognize you as human.

Lesson 3:“Learn how to ask for help.”

Being humble and asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength. When I asked a group of total strangers to help me stop ruining my life, they gladly did so without expecting anything in return. In the business world, I’ve found the same generosity of spirit. As a cub reporter, I was tasked with writing all the banking stories for a special business issue (even though I had no education or background in finance). Instead of trying to fake my way through it, I gamely called local bankers, admitted my ignorance and listened intently as they graciously gave me a crash course in finance so that I could write my stories.


Four Lessons That (nearly) 30 Years of Sobriety Have Taught Me About Succeeding in Business and In Life

Back in 1988, I made a decision that altered the course of my life. Sick and tired of my extended adolescence, a dead-end secretarial job and a passive existence centered around where my next drink or drug was coming from, I reached out for help, and at age 25 walked into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I credit that first step – admitting that I needed help and then actively seeking it – with laying the groundwork for all the business and personal success I have achieved in the nearly 30 years since.

You may be shocked that I’m revealing this information to a very public and business audience. Isn’t it Alcoholics “Anonymous” for a reason? And shouldn’t I be worried about trumpeting to the world that I once had a substance abuse problem? The short answer is no. Because one of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is the first one I’ll share with you:

Lesson 1:  What other people think about me is
none of my business.

What’s that you say? Don’t we all need to care about how we’re perceived by our bosses, our co-workers, our clients in order to get ahead? Not exactly. What I’ve learned over time is that what’s most important to my success is how I act. Am I being honest with others? Do I get the job done? Do I offer creative responses that solve business problems? If I’m always trying to do the next right thing, that’s what is important, and invariably, the right people will notice.

Which is not to say that you won’t come across people in business who won’t like you, for whatever reason. When I say ‘what other people think about me is none of my business,’ what I really mean is that I don’t let how other people feel about me define me, or weigh me down. I just keep on keeping on, and so far, I’ve had a pretty good run. I’ve built two careers (journalism and marketing), got married, and am raising two fairly level-headed teenage girls. When I no longer exhausted myself looking around the room wondering how others perceived me, I started to breathe and be myself. Breathing is good.

Stay tuned for lessons 2,3 and 4.