For as far back in my life as I can remember, I have always sought and latched onto ways to escape the world. I have always felt a sense of life pulling me underwater, a strong feeling of being at risk of drowning at any moment. To survive this feeling, I have long grasped for ways to come up for moments of air.
I remember at around five years old, I would sneak handfuls of sugar from the sugar jar in the kitchen. I remember there being a feeling of relief that accompanied that act. I remember it being more so about the sneaking and getting away with something than it was about the sugar itself. I remember it being more so about doing something nobody else knew about, more so about the gratification found in being in control of when I had sugar rather than an adult telling me when I could have it.
When I was around 10 years old, I would sneak into the kitchen to grab pieces of bread that I would ball up and consume quickly and mindlessly. I remember this being something that happened sort of on autopilot at that point, and I recall how I would find myself doing this without having really put conscious thought into it in advance. I began to gain more and more weight which only compounded the heavy burden of shame I already carried on my back.
When I was around 13 years old, food wasn’t enough to escape the pain and that horrible feeling of life sucking me under. In addition to continuing to misuse food, I began to self-harm. Without having even known it was a thing or heard of anybody else doing so, I would cut myself to relief the immense pain I felt inside. Today my body still carries the scars as markers of those dreadful days. I also began to use alcohol and other drugs, despite having a mother who had recently died from her own use substance use and knowing the risk of death that substance use brought. For me, in the use of alcohol and other drugs, I found the air that I long struggled to come up for in a faster, longer and more powerful way that by far surpassed what the use of food and self-harm could provide. Ultimately the use of alcohol and other drugs became my go-to for air.
Because my alcohol and other drug use would go on to become so devastatingly problematic, it was easy for me to focus on the use of those substances as the issue rather than see all that had preceded it and what was really the challenge I lived with down at my core. When I would finally enter into recovery at the age of 24 from what had become a life-threatening substance use disorder, I chose complete abstinence from alcohol and other drugs as a key strategy in my recovery. What I didn’t do was ever address all of the other ways in which I had come up for air, in other words “gotten high,” ways in which I had been doing so long before my substance use had begun. In turn, my recovery from a substance use disorder journey has at times been littered with a colorful variety of ways in which I have tried to come up for air, to get higher than that feeling of being pulled under water. Most consistently, my relationship with food has served as a go-to strategy for escaping the world.
With now having 12 years of complete abstinence from alcohol and other drugs, one could easily think that I am well advanced in my recovery journey and that the act of grasping for ways to come up for air or get higher than that feeling of going under is one that is long behind me. The reality for me however is this: at the time of writing this piece, I only have about two months of having sustained abstinence from binge eating. I have two short but long months of truly sitting with the feeling of going under and not turning to someone or something to pull me up out of it. And while for some time now I have been doing the hard work of finally addressing what lies inside me at my core that drives the need to escape, this person with over a decade of time in recovery is in fact in their infancy when it comes to no longer engaging in harmful activities that provide relief and moments of air.
I write this and share it with the world because I have been called “an inspiration” by many and have found myself unwittingly and humbly in a position of others looking up to me. In turn, I believe it is important for me to be authentic and transparent about all aspects of my recovery journey, not just the shiny and pretty ones but the difficult and ugly ones. I believe if somebody is going to look up to me, they deserve to know all that I am made up of and they need to know the whole package, not just selected pieces to aspire for. For me, my recovery is about so much more than abstaining from alcohol and other drugs. The alcohol and drug use was simply one strategy for coping with a challenge that extends far deeper and for as far back as I can remember, and the substance use was simply one way of many for me to come up for air.
If there is one lesson I’ve learned in recovery that I find important to share with others, it is this: the use of alcohol and other drugs is only a symptom, it is not the core challenge to be addressed. Perhaps for all of us, what lies at the core looks different. I know for sure that what compounds that core challenge is unique to each individual. But maybe for all of us, whether substance use became a strategy for escaping or not, one thing is the same – we all have to truly sit with, go through and address whatever our core challenges may be if we truly want peace, freedom and joy in our lives. Abstinence from alcohol and other drugs will only get us so far. Recovery is about so much more than giving up that one strategy for escape, for coming up for air, for getting high. I look forward to continuing to grow in that so much more.