September 22: Leaving denial aisle

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Tiny White Box newThe world is filled with folks who are very smart, but who accomplish little, people who are very strong, yet move little, and humans who are very charismatic, but change little.  I honestly believe, and believe it with every fiber of my being, that attitude accomplishes more than ability.

Especially in recovery.

I don’t know horses. I mean, I can recognize a horse, distinguish it from a cow or a llama. I have a good picture of “horseness,” those descriptors that identify horses from nonequine creatures. Still, I don’t know horses the way some who knows horses knows horses. (What a funny sentence that last one was.) At the racetrack, I’m definitely over my head.

I do know people in recovery. Early on, we’ve got a lot of commonality. We often look like warmed-over garbage. We often sit in the backs of rooms. We tend not to make eye contact. We tend to be filled with shame and remorse, not just over the things we did while high or drunk and not just for the things we did to be able to get high or drunk. Most often, we are ashamed of who we are. If you’re in early recovery, I probably know you. Still . . .

If I had to place money on either a horse race or on picking winners from early recovery, I’d be a better bettor at Pimlico or Churchill Downs than at a church basement recovery meeting. At the track, at least I’d have luck on my side—along with a little bit of information about the horses’ previous record. In early recovery, where a few folks look great, but most look like they’ve fallen way below down on their luck, appearances are deceiving.

When I entered recovery, I had just been discharged from a VA psych ward, where I’d been put on antidepressants and introduced to my particular pathway. Going to my first meetings out of the bin, I’m sure I didn’t look like a potential winner, someone who’d still be sticking around 15 years later. If video existed, it would show a scrawny guy with eyes that wouldn’t alight on anything for long, looking jampacked with terror and tears. 

I can remember being seven or nine days sober and looking at the other newcomers around me. Through my insecure and doubt-filled eyes they all looked better than I did. That lady over in the corner was wearing a dress and the guy beside her had a tan. He looked like a golf-pants model, crisp clothes, white smile and a shirt that cost more than my entire wardrobe put together.  My pants were held up by an over-cinched belt and a shirt that was clean but clearly worn past needing replacement. I just kept coming.

After a month or so, the healthy-looking folks had disappeared. The woman in business attire and the handsome guy were nowhere to be seen. At the time, I assumed they’d only needed a half-cup of recovery and were back to successful lives. Some of the other losers I’d come in with were starting to clean up and look better. I still felt like my sobriety was only as strong as my fingernails and could snap any minute. I just kept coming.

At six months, a funny/sad/expectable thing happened. I was at the front of a room, being given a plastic token with a 6 on it, and I looked toward the back. The handsome, elegant, tanned guy was sitting at the back of the room, in what we called Denial Aisle. He was still nicely dressed, still had a tan, but he also had a hangdog expression and a black eye with regret dripping out of it. Back when we started recovery together, I’d assumed he was good to go while I was nearly gone. I know I’ll never be anybody’s handsome guy. I’ll never be the best-dressed guy. I’ll never be the elegant guy. But I can be the sober guy. I just keep coming.

If you’re in early recovery and your life feels like a dog chewed on your past and peed on your future, keep coming. If you feel like no one’s ever felt as empty and obsessed as you, keep coming. If you keep on trying to get clean and sober but can’t find the way, keep coming. 

Things can get better. Things can get better than better. Things can get better enough that you won’t even remember what it felt like to have those things troubling you.

Just keep coming.

And maintain a positive attitude. 

And know . . .

You matter. I matter. We matter.


About this Author

Keith Howard

Keith Howard is former Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of Tiny White Box