The Decade of Recovery

My last 10 years were all about reckoning with the fallout of my codependence. And I’m not done yet.

I’ve been reading a lot of posts and reflections and thinkpieces about the decade, and skipping over a lot, too. And frankly have been overwhelmed at the prospect of reflecting on my own decade in any deep way, because it was…a lot. I could write a book about it, and maybe some day I will.

What compels me to go ahead and do a post-length version of a book-length experience is the thought that it could result in one person feeling more understood, one person having some words to put to what they’ve been through or are going through. So I’ll try, and I’ll try to stay in the spirit of this site being called Medium and not XXL.

I started this decade with an idea of myself that I thought was pretty solid. I remember thinking as I turned 40 in 2010: This is looking pretty good, and my forties will probably be the best decade ever. I’m successful and healthy and have an interesting life full of rich experiences and relationships.

Then, not very far into it, the house of cards started to collapse.

The identity I thought was so solid turned out to be a flimsy shroud, stitched together out of trauma, career success, codependent projections (mine onto others and others onto me), fear, and denial. By mid-2011, I was very, very sick in body and mind. On the outside, I looked more successful than ever; inside, it was one category 5 shitstorm after another. I was hurt by others, I hurt others, and I hurt myself — and I smiled through it and called it good. Generations of the family disease of addiction and codependence had come home to roost, and I worried that if I didn’t change something, I would completely lose myself, my mind, or my life.

Around 2013, I started my recovery process. As the layers started to peel away I felt like Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when he’s losing his dragon skin to Aslan’s claw and thinks,

“…it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

There is indeed pleasure in that shedding, in realizing you can be free. There’s also a lot of loss. So much life is bound up in those layers, so many years of ideas and beliefs and relationships. For me, this decade has been almost defined by loss. I was held together by fear and denial and a false self constructed to avoid abandonment, and when I let those things go, everything came apart.

Some aspects of that coming apart were temporary, others are ongoing. Many of these losses were necessary and good, but some are just loss, casualties of the choices and patterns I enacted from that false self and while still stuck in denial, and even in the first fumbling stages of recovery. I have lost some good things that I wouldn’t mind having back, along with the things that needed to go.

I spent a lot of this decade crying.

I think there is this idea out there that when you face yourself, when you really really let go of the things you thought were holding you together, there is this exhilerating freedom that’s your new normal. And it is true — I felt that exhilarating freedom at the beginning, especially, when I worked through the worst immediate aftermath of hitting bottom, experienced the death and resurrection of identity, and went out into the world newly equipped with boundaries and self-love.

But that exhilaration is not a permanent state. Honestly, there’s a reason denial is so popular and recovery is less common. It can be easier in many ways to stay still. Around 2016, I got tired. (Around 2016, a lot of things.) I got tired of the work of recovery and the sense of being on a confusing, pathless journey whose end I don’t know. And, like so many people in the last few years, I found myself embracing a “fuck this shit” stance about life in general just to get through it all without collapsing in exhaustion. My commitment to keeping at recovery faltered many times at the end of this decade.

It’s hard, I guess is what I’m saying, and there’s a temptation in this kind of reflection to end with something like, “But worth it,” or “But I’m excited for what’s next,” or “But I’m leaning into the chaos,” etc, when the truth is, I don’t know.

I’m glad I’m not codependent anymore but I wish I still had the certainty of my faith. I’m glad I have boundaries but I also miss some of the drama of not having them. I still cry a lot. I’ve become more self-protective in some ways, as a reaction to so many decades without boundaries. I’m not as social, I’m not as available. I think this is another layer that will be scrubbed off eventually.

I know what I’m grateful for: my husband for never freaking out as I go through so many changes, a small circle of friends who support me in being who I am vs who I was or who it would be more comfortable for me to be, and a big one: the opportunity to have a real, loving relationship with my mother before it was too late.

Approaching all genuine connections not from a place of fearing abandonment or disapproval, but from a place of mutual acceptance and respect is very amazing. At the same time, you learn that there aren’t that many people ready to meet you right there. The ones who are become more treasured than ever.

Those are all good things. The gains in the midst of so much loss. Meanwhile, I’m still recovering from recovery, still living partly in the vestigial versions of self and in the situations created by the old shroud. Some of this is just the regular work of midlife, I think, and some is more directly tied to or intensified by my own specific backstory.

I’m turning 50 in 2020, and that in itself feels like part of the loss because I wish I had started my recovery a decade sooner. It feels unfair that time keeps advancing while I’m still trying to catch up with who I am. I hope I’m going into a decade in which I get to know myself better, because the thing about shedding so many layers of who you thought you were is that it’s not always clear in the aftermath who you actually are.

One metaphor that I got from my Christian faith but is also true in nature and in other ancient and modern folk stories is that of death, burial, and resurrection. I still love that paradigm, that way of understanding myself and the world. That all of life and growth is this cycle, in small ways and big ones.

My therapist used to talk about how this plays out even the shape of our days: sleep is a kind of death and burial, hours lost to blankness or strange dreaming — pleasant fantasies, gruesome nightmares, anxiety dreams or the repetitive ones you get when you’re sick.

Eventually, we wake up, live until we’re again too tired to carry on.Then, once more, we lay our bodies down.

We die and are buried a little every day. And every day, we rise again.

I’m a novelist and I also write about writing (and writing-adjacent topics), personal growth, and growing up in an alcoholic family system.

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