We’ve heard it over and over – the best revenge is living well. But how can you live well when you can’t let go of the pain of the past? You can’t. I couldn’t.
In entering recovery, it’s easy to expect that life will be all kittens and ice cream and rainbows. But sobriety does not promise that. What it does promise is that life will not be devoid of those things. Beyond that, recovery promises that when unwanted events, emotions, and trespasses occur, that we will be able to meet them with a clear heart, and not make them worse.
When I originally pitched this article it was because I had just been through a week of reliving a traumatic series of events, triggered by one of the recent waves of #MeToo. Although I, like many women in recovery, have a significant sexual trauma history, this wasn’t about that. It was about a time three years ago when someone who had assaulted me, that I confronted via text when drunk, spread rumors that I was an abuser in order to silence me and discredit my claims before I made them. That’s who I am when I drink. A person who thinks demanding an apology from a rapist will work out.
I wore that story like a pair of Spanx. I told it on the street, and I told it in Bali, and I told it in 12 step meetings, sure that no one could possibly get me without knowing that people were out to get me. Sure that if I didn’t tell you first, someone else would beat me to it. Thinking that others are always thinking about you in a bad way is the most useless form of narcissism. It took a year before I stopped telling it, years before I stopped thinking about it on a daily basis.
So last month I relived it. And I relived it so hard that when I shared about it in a weekly Zoom with my most trusted sober friends, one of them suggested I call a lawyer to get a cease and desist letter.
“Oh, no,” I responded. “This is all happening in my head.” Perhaps the lawyer could write a cease and desist letter to my brain.
I thought about how I cling to these victim stories. Before that event, which, as harmful as it was, started me on a path of healing that resulted in complete and continuous sobriety, I clung to stories of bad boyfriends and breakups. Prior to that I identified with my abusive marriage, my identity as a coked out housewife in South Beach. And if you did cocaine with me in my twenties, you probably heard about my parents divorce. And definitely my mother.
The pattern revealed itself. It was never about the event. It was about holding on to the past as an excuse for the illusion of not enough-ness in the present. It was about the delusion that my pain is what makes me unique. But our pain is not what makes us unique. Our pain is what connects us all.
For a long time people told me I needed to let go. I would get anonymous messages to my Tumblr – “I hope you find lasting, internal peace.” What an insult I took that as. I clung to the idea that I didn’t know how to let go. I couldn’t let go of not knowing how to let go. But I don’t need to know how. I just need to intend to move forward. To let go is to stop resisting the present moment.
In Melody Beattie’s The Language of Letting Go, she writes, “Many of us have learned, as part of our survival behaviors, that the way to get the attention and approval we want is to be victims. If life is awful, too difficult, unmanageable, too hard, unfair, then others will accept, like, and approve of us, we think.”
When I was drinking I often only had what I thought of as bad-weather friends. People that would only listen to me if I had a sad tale to tell.
Just this past weekend, August 2, something bad happened. The kind of thing that I thought could not happen in sobriety. The kind of thing that left me feeling paralyzed for several days, jumpy, and afraid. Actual danger. I am lucky that I have trusted allies to whom I could talk about it. Each shared a comforting perspective I hadn’t thought of along with empathy, love, and validation.
But after talking to several people and a therapy appointment, I caught myself wanting to tell the story again. That’s the holding on. I decided to treat it like an intrusive thought. I have investigated, and discussed, and processed. I am no longer in danger. It is done.
It helps me let go when I depersonalize things. As addicts and alcoholics, the tendency is to take things personally. But they are rarely truly about us. The person that harmed me moves on to their next con. They are not still thinking about me. And they con the next person because that is just what they do, and they will keep doing it until it no longer serves them. And it is okay if I am not there to see poetic justice. I can know it in my heart.
Things fall apart. And then things balance out. There is nothing that I have been through that hasn’t eventually shown me a meaning and a lesson and even strange gifts. We may not always know the meaning when things are happening, but that does not mean it will never be revealed.
In the meantime, we process, and we let go. And then we can exact true revenge. The business of living well.