Many associate the fall with new beginnings. This is especially true for those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins on September 30. We use the time leading up to the new year to reflect on the past year and consider who we have harmed, in word or in deed, and to try our best to make amends.
I’ll be entering this new year as a sober person for the first time and, while I feel that I’ve worked to heal most of the relationships my drinking damaged, I think the person I need to make amends with the most is myself. If you’re anything like me, you’ll know that this is no easy feat.
I got sober on December 26, 2018.
I suppose I hit my rock bottom because I literally couldn’t put up with the person I had become any longer. I was steeped in self-loathing, hardly able to care for myself, and feeling like I was failing at life. I was also a new mom trying to care for a four-month-old who had had a two-month hospital stay and had come home with some special needs.
I knew that my nightly wine drinking was only making things worse and, the truth is, it had been a problem long before I got pregnant that, unfortunately, nine months of forced sobriety didn’t magically fix it. I knew I couldn’t continue to live the way I was living, especially hating myself so much, because I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking this was in any way normal or okay.
So, on Christmas, while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark with my husband and pouring what felt like my millionth glass of white wine, I silently admitted that I was done, truly meaning it for the first time.
I couldn’t continue to live the way I was living, especially hating myself so much, because I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking this was in any way normal or okay.
Quitting drinking is one of the hardest things I’ve ever lived through, second only to losing my brother when I was 24. One would imagine that pregnancy and childbirth make the list of the hardest things I have experienced, and it’s true that those things were very difficult, but the difference is that I look back on them fondly (I know this isn’t the case for everyone and I feel grateful that it is for me). Pregnancy and childbirth brought me my daughter, who is my greatest joy in life. However, my brother’s death and my drinking were full of trauma and darkness. As far as the drinking went, I blamed myself entirely for my struggle with alcohol so I felt more shame than I could comprehend. Without alcohol, I felt like I’d lost my armor and had to face the world and all of its darkness without any form of protection.
Pretty soon after I quit drinking, I became aware that there was a negative self-talk loop that played in my head at all times. No wonder I felt horrible! I was constantly saying horrible things to myself without realizing it.
I was in the bathroom getting ready in silence one day and tuned into my thoughts. What I heard was my own voice telling me that I was a failure for not being able to get my drinking under control and having to quit entirely. The vitriol with which I spoke to myself caught me off guard. Without the distracted numbness that alcohol and being constantly hungover provided me, I became acutely aware of my thoughts at all times and how truly negative they were. I would never speak to anyone else this way, I thought, and that’s when I realized that I was going to have to make changes at what felt like a cellular level if I wanted this sobriety thing to stick.
I would never speak to anyone else this way, I thought, and that’s when I realized that I was going to have to make changes at what felt like a cellular level if I wanted this sobriety thing to stick.
I was beyond lucky to have the support of family and friends in recovery and to find a program, Tempest Sobriety School, that worked for me. (Editor’s Note: Tempest is the parent company of The Temper but the views expressed here are the writer’s own.)
One of the key tenets of my program was moving away from this notion that there is something wrong with us if we are unable to control alcohol or other addictive substances in our lives. I learned that, regardless of what we struggle with, there is nothing wrong with us. I realized that from the time I could remember, I had always felt like there was something wrong with me. I lived in constant guilt because I thought I played a crucial role in the hardships I faced in life including my anxiety, my depression, my parents’ divorce, and my brother’s death. It was almost incomprehensible to consider that maybe there wasn’t anything wrong with me and there never had been.
But as alien as the idea that I was perfectly imperfect felt, I went with it because I knew that I couldn’t move forward without at least trying to forgive myself. I read Tempest’s daily mantras and meditated nightly, repeating words of self-love again and again… Until one day, I shockingly realized that the negative self-talk loop had gone silent, at least most of the time. And another day, when considering my unhealthy relationship with alcohol, I heard my inner voice ask, “what if you were just doing the best you could with what you had?”
Early in recovery, I had a conversation with my rabbi about a problem I was having — I had apologized sincerely to someone I knew I’d hurt but she refused to accept it. I asked what my obligation was, from the rabbinic perspective. He told me that if I’d made an honest effort to try to repair the situation and had apologized sincerely then there was nothing left for me to do for her.
“What you need to do at this point is to let yourself off the hook,” he told me. This was a challenge, to say the least, and I went searching for another answer, one that let me self-flagellate a bit longer since I thought that was a necessary part of making amends.
I attended AA regularly in early sobriety and found it incredibly helpful.
It was there that I learned the concept of “living amends,” or apologizing through changed behavior, which echoed what my rabbi had told me. As someone who struggles with addiction, delaying gratification is hard for me so the idea that my work in sobriety, especially in living amends, was to change my behavior gradually over time with no immediate forgiveness or guarantee that I would ever get it felt like an absolutely foreign concept. But at some point, after my days sober surpassed the triple digits, I realized that change often happens quietly after some consistently changed behavior.
I still struggle with letting myself off the hook for my addiction but, at some point, I know I have to quit reimagining scenarios and the way things could have been and focus on the present.
I think back to what I asked myself that day, what if you were just doing the best you could with what you had? I think that that’s all anyone is ever doing.
We experience traumas every day, whether tiny or enormous, and we find ways to cope, healthy or not. When I think about it in this context, I see that my drinking problem was simply a coping mechanism gone awry and that I can’t I blame myself for that — for making a mistake and getting stuck. Forgiving myself is harder than I ever imagined it would be. I have to meditate on it each day, the way I repeated those mantras to myself in early sobriety, hoping that one day I’d be able to accept them as truth.
And I guess that’s my job now — in sobriety, in life, and in the Jewish new year — to get up each morning and do the work that honors the life I’ve created in recovery. For me, that is how I live my amends, and honestly, it’s a pretty beautiful way to live.