Hearing you have three weeks to live is a very surreal experience. When you decide that you're not ready to die, instinct kicks in and you do whatever you have to do in order to not die.
"Changing your life is actually harder than just surviving it. But when one can't happen without the other, change is possible."
—excerpt from Amy's Story
And change I did. In fact, I've changed so much I'm unrecognizable to a lot of people, although I'm more me now than I ever was while I was drinking. (It's a hard thought to wrap my brain around, after all who was I being when I was drinking if not me? A puzzler for sure, but it's a puzzle for another time and another post.) It was a long hard road, the unmapped highway to this unrecognizable new me, but throughout the first two, two and a half years, it was rewarding in more than just achieving sobriety and improving my health. On a regular basis my ego was boosted with sincere and flattering compliments telling me how awesome I was. Every time I turned around someone else was hugging me fiercely, and I got used to hearing things like,
"Oh Amy, you are so brave, and we are so proud of you,""What you're doing is amazing; you are so strong."
"You deserve to have good things in your life after this ordeal because you are working so hard."
I would practically beam along with them as they heaped praise on my head. Thank you, everyone. Thank you; I appreciate you noticing my tenacity, because I am working very hard, all the time, on improving my health and my life. You're right; it's not a walk in the park. Sobriety is tough. Yay me!
I'm not going to lie; it felt good, really good. I felt deserving, and probably a little smug, to be honest. And then I got a reality check.
As time marched on, the length of my sobriety increased and my health got better and better until one day—not all at once but as a persistent niggling in the back of my mind that wouldn't go away—it slowly dawned on me that those special, heartfelt hugs and fierce whispers of pride and bravery had all but disappeared. Out of the blue, it seemed, the tides had turned, and I noticed people were finding fault with things I did or said, or didn't say or didn't do, or didn't say loud enough or do well enough; you know, random, normal everyday peeves that irritate people were brought to my attention. I didn't like it, not at all. I felt affronted, put out, not to mention confused.
"Ummmm, excuse me? What? Everybody? Helloooo. This is me...this is Amy. Remember how hard I'm working? Why aren't we talking about that anymore? I'm still sober, for crying out loud. I'm brave and strong. This is a big deal. Where the hell did all of you go?"
One of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a result of all these life changes was getting used to the fact that not everyone likes the more-me version of Amy as well as they liked the previous one. This bothered me a great deal. Clearly, my perception about how others related to and felt about my illness and sobriety was way off base. I thought everyone loved me! I mentioned it one day to my friend, Jeff, who has been a sounding board for me since this whole ordeal started and points me in the right direction when I'm clueless about something (which is a lot) and lets me figure the rest out on my own. The truth was that once I got past the illness part of this journey, I still expected the virtual pats on the back and high fives for staying sober to continue indefinitely. It wasn't a conscious train of thought on my part, but more a knee-jerk reaction anytime someone questioned my actions. When people criticized me, my immediate impulse was to point out, "Sure sure sure, I hear what you're saying, but I'm still sober. Look what I've done; look at what I am doing. Remember when you were so thrilled I made it to six months? Well, now it's been three long years! If you take this into consideration, you will realize your criticisms cannot possibly be valid," when in fact many of them probably were. (I can't say they definitely were valid because again, in all honesty, I usually wasn't listening very closely.)
The point of this story is: Out here in the Game of Life, sobriety and the keeping of it are no less than expected. After all, millions of others manage it every day. I erroneously believed that maintaining my sobriety means I am perceived by others as a wonderful, brave, amazingly strong and plucky individual, when all it really means is that I'm perceived as not drunk. That's it. You get coins in AA for periods of sobriety; there are no medals for it in the real world. I needed to figure out—on my own—that I'm doing no more than what non-alcoholics do every day, and they do it without the awful past to haunt them, without the bridges burned, without the fierce hugs and murmurs of courage and awe-inspiring strength, without the accolade of a shiny new coin every month. Where is their applause? They might be wondering the same thing.
So...if you are like me and have a collection of coins at your disposal, today, try acknowledging someone who has never gotten the bear hugs and supportive whispers that he/she may have given to you, that some of us take for granted until we are set straight. It feels good, really good, when people acknowledge the work you're doing to make a better life for yourself and your family, even if that work isn't exciting or news worthy, even if that work is sometimes just staying afloat. I guarantee the person you choose to celebrate is long overdue.
Amy Oathout is a writer, blogger, mother of two boys, and recovering alcoholic who almost died from liver failure in 2008. She writes and rants about all aspects of life, from why men won't ask for directions to the struggles with having an addictive personality in today's quick-fix, instant-gratification world. She studied creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, and her blog Sober Rants in Skinny Pants is one of the top 20 sober blogs in the country.