I spend time with the ocean.
When I visit her, we have conversations about life. I throw all of the pain and grief that has accumulated into the waves, and I talk to the people I’ve lost. We catch up, and I leave feeling cleansed and healed and whole.
I spent time with the ocean.
I traveled back in time in my thoughts as I walked along the water’s edge, back to when my struggles really began, to a fragile adolescence with big feelings and no skills to surf the waves.
When I was fourteen, I was swimming competitively, winning medals regionally and enjoying being part of the small East Coast swimming community. We would gather for weekend meets every three weeks or so, from October to June, and spend hundreds of hours hanging out between our races with kids from other teams.
That fall of 1986.
I was in that sweetly intense and entirely innocent phase of love with the most beautiful boy named Evan who was from a town an hour away. Long distance phone calls were a big deal, so we wrote letters between meets. I remember being really disappointed that I got sick and had to stay home with my dad for a weekend meet in November while my mom and brother traveled.
When my dad got a phone call on that Friday night, I learned that Evan hadn’t made it that weekend either.
Because Evan was dead.
There had been a tragic accident the night before on his family’s farm.
I don’t remember the rest of that weekend or much of the days after. There was no grief counseling back then, although I was taken to the funeral. I tried to talk to my swimming friends, but they thought I was overreacting when I told them how devastated I felt. My parents didn’t know how to help.
I was left to feel bereft and alone, like I was somehow wrong or broken for being so sad.
By the end of that year I was drinking and lying and doing everything I could to escape. I finished grade nine by getting arrested for underaged drinking at an arena dance.
After that incident, I cleaned up my act, towed the line, and was highly performing at everything that was valued by my upbringing. I mostly managed to lead the perfect life I was supposed to for the next fifteen years. During those years, I tried to find people I connected with, but I often felt like I didn’t belong and my big feelings were still overwhelming and not understood. When I couldn’t deal with how lost and unhappy I felt in my thirties, I gradually started drinking while alone.
My drinking increased during stressful times, and stressful times became all the time over the next decade.
The year my dad died, 2015, I started drinking throughout the day, hiding 1.5 litre wine bottles to refill coffee cups and water bottles. I knew I had a problem, but quitting seemed inconceivable.
How could I possibly get through life without a drink to take the edge off the big feelings and the real stress of life? When I finally admitted I had to stop, it took a lot of trying and failing before I made the connections I needed to support myself in recovery.
Finding people who share similar stories and talk about their real feelings in recovery has been so freeing for me. There are other people to whom I make sense. Finally! And my sensitivity is welcome now that even people not in recovery are being more real in life. All of the pain I experienced – the grief I had to process alone – taught me how to be there for others.
One of my friends was devastated after her mom died three years ago. She remembers how much it helped that I could just let her pour out everything she was feeling and let her know it was 1000% ok to feel that deeply. Who knew that grief would become a skill I would be so grateful for – that living a life that has included losing a dear friend prematurely and suddenly, or painfully slowly, every few years, could have a purpose? I’ve learned to grieve in ways that work for me.
I carry them all with me to the ocean until I can visit them in the waves again.
I feel like I was made for this time, as modern recovery makes real conversations about what underlies addiction possible. We heal together. We heal in telling stories. We heal in conversations online and offline. We heal when we share our experiences, from the major traumas to the daily struggles. And more and more, I hear the voices of people who have recovered leading people who still drink to be able to explore what’s causing them to need to escape from life too. Brene Brown, Holly Whitaker, Glennon Doyle, Laura McKowen, Becky Vollmer – strong women using their voices to bring people together for their health and wellbeing.
I don’t feel a call to be that public. Right now, I’m happy to be the person my friend pours her heart out to in the kitchen or the coffee shop. I’ve always been someone people tell things to, and now I feel solid enough to be in that role any time I’m needed. I can be relied on to hold space for other people’s feelings, with boundaries intact, and most importantly, I can feel my own without needing to escape. I am the happiest and healthiest I think I’ve ever been.
I told everyone I’ve lost how free I feel when I visited them at the ocean.
They’re very, very happy for me.
If you are ready for people who are learning together to handle big feelings, listen and empathize, then you might be ready for SHOUT Sobriety.