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My Path

Melissa’s Story of Recovery

Thanks to Melissa N. for this personal story.

Twenty-two years ago this May I graduated high school from an all-girls college preparatory school in Saint Louis, Missouri, that prided itself on the empowerment of women. Since that time, the word “empowerment” has always carried weight in my life. In high school, it started with such activities as protesting the death penalty on the courthouse steps and traveling to Latin America to volunteer. From that point forward, I have felt confident and emboldened as a female moving through life. However, this term of “empowerment” took on new meaning and began to carry an even more significant meaning in my life when I discovered Recovery Dharma in the fall of 2019. Recovery Dharma proclaimed to be a “program of empowerment that doesn’t ask us to believe in anything other than our own potential.” This was the first time in my recovery that I truly believed that this power and authority over my destiny was in my charge.

My story begins in a small, rural town just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. I am the oldest of two kids and was born to a young, Catholic couple. There was nothing special or outstanding about my early childhood, but by the time I reached my pre-teen years, my life became challenging. I was a straight-A student, I was quiet and timid, and I was made fun of relentlessly by my peers at school. I wanted nothing more than to fit in and to be one of the “cool kids.” I attended Catholic school from first grade until the time I left for college, and in seventh grade, after much pleading, tears, and an eventual passive suicide threat, my parents moved me and my brother from one parochial school to another. Much to my chagrin, things were not much different at the new school. I withdrew even further and begged to stay home sick from school. When high school started, things changed for me. The summer after my freshman year, I went on a sister-city student exchange to Germany. I was the youngest of the exchange students- all the others being juniors and seniors- and it was at this time that I had my first true drunk. I can vividly remember that warm, soothing feeling of drinking wine, sitting in the sunshine, and the immediate comfort and sense of belonging that it brought to me. The drinking continued for the duration of my trip–visiting Hofbrauhaus in Munich, attending various Strassenfests, and socializing in many beer gardens. I threw up for the first time (and second, and third…), but it didn’t faze me. I kept going back for more.

Upon my return home, life more or less returned to normal. Due to a parental job transfer I switched high schools mid-way through and spent most of my junior and senior years living with aunts, uncles, and friends in the city. I was a casual drinker, dabbled in some drugs, but the fighting with my dad was out-of-control as we could never seem to see eye-to-eye, and I headed as far away as possible for college. I received a scholarship to University of Arizona in Tucson, and this is where my drinking career took off. Away from home, alone, and wanting to fit in, I did what I thought it was that you did in college–party. For the first time in my life, I was released from the grip of my parents’ control, and I went wild. I loved college.

I graduated shortly after 9/11. I liked using 9/11 as an excuse for why I could not find a job. Regardless, I moved back to Missouri, spent a couple of years in limbo, and then returned to the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2003 to work on another degree. It was here that I started working at a wine shop and eventually transitioned into the restaurant business. I developed a passion for food and wine and also the lifestyle that the hospitality industry provided. While attending school, I worked as a server at a fine dining restaurant, and this is where I met my future husband. Ours was a relationship built on late nights, drinking, and socializing with industry friends. I graduated, got married, moved to Jackson, Wyoming, and landed my first “real” job as a registered dietitian all within a month in May of 2007. Our life in Jackson didn’t last long, and we moved to Colorado where we owned a restaurant for several years, which further enabled what had become a heavy, daily drinking habit, making it not only acceptable, but expected. My marriage ended shortly after the closing of our restaurant, and my life continued in the wine and spirits business until I relocated to Western Colorado from the Boulder/Denver area. Teaching others about wine, curating wine lists, “working the floor” as a sommelier, and drinking wine became my identity and my life. It was beyond a passion; it was an obsession.

In April 2016, things started to change for me. I was bored and was running from one travel adventure to the next. I couldn’t sit still. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I had a million acquaintances, but few friends. I drank most heavily when I was alone, any and all times of day. I began to notice that I didn’t even enjoy the taste of alcohol anymore, but drank just for the effects–to help me sleep, to quell my racing mind, to put me at ease, to relax and comfort me, you get the idea. My divorce was not yet finalized, but I was feeling antsier than ever, and decided to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain in the spring of 2016. I could write a book on this pilgrimage alone, but will suffice to say that this was a life-changing experience. Over the course of five weeks, I walked over 1000 kilometers, carrying with me just an 11-pound backpack. On our last night in Muxia, my Italian travel companion whom I had met along the way, said to me, “Melissa, do you think that you may drink too much?” Hurt and embarrassed, my immediate reaction was anger, but, wow, did this strike a chord. For years, I had asked my ex-husband if he thought I drank too much, with him responding in the negative, and for years, I had tried just about every effort that, I now know, is outlined in AA’s Big Book to cut back my drinking. But, now, this man, who had come to know me like a sister after we shared in this journey together, had called me out on what I knew but refused to accept for so long.

Upon returning to the States, I started dating a guy who, as luck would have it, was sober. I was still actively drinking but did attempt a Sober October only to fail because my grandma became gravely ill during this time and eventually passed. Lesson learned–there is never a “good time” to get sober. This guy was the first person I could remember knowing in my adult life who did not drink. It made me uncomfortable. I cancelled dates, I made excuses, but the relationship grew in spite of these efforts to hinder it, and together we moved to western Colorado. I had been offered a new job with a winery/distillery and had always had a dream of owning a farm, so this was my opportunity. Upon moving in together, it became blatantly obvious that my drinking was out of control–there is nothing more sobering than living with someone who doesn’t drink. I became a closet drinker–I would drink in the basement, in the car on my way home from work, sneak it while I was cooking dinner, you name it.

After attending an Alanon meeting trying to be a good partner to him, I realized that I was sitting in the wrong room. I started attending AA meetings shortly thereafter, and eventually tried and stayed sober by attending 30 meetings in 30 days, and after “going to any length,” as they tell you to do in twelve-step, which for me meant quitting my job. The journey has been long and winding, and without doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Living in a small, conservative, Christian, rural, older community, AA was difficult for me, but I “took what I needed and left the rest.” I remain forever grateful to this program that helped me to achieve sobriety. It took me the better part of almost two years of sobriety to accept and get a handle on mental illness that I was struggling with and had been self-medicating for. After various counselors and a handful of other alternative therapies, I have, for the time, identified a solution and have found that with this foundational piece of my recovery under control, I have been able to focus on other components of my recovery.

With the help of an AA sponsor who also happened to have a background in religious studies and counseling, I started to detach from my twelve-step program and seek out another program of recovery. It was purely by accident that I happened upon Recovery Dharma after learning about it on a Buddhist Recovery Network podcast. I dove right into learning about Buddhism and have found a true guide to my recovery as well as my spiritual path in this program. Religion has been difficult for me. I never identified with the Catholic belief system, but still always sought some sort of spirituality and ethical guidance in my life journey. I appreciate that this Recovery Dharma program offers me guiding practices and principles in life through a secular lens as well as provides a “toolbox” for my recovery.

With the teaching of Recovery Dharma, in my toolbox I now have a solid daily meditation practice. Before my first RD meeting, I didn’t think that I could do meditation. It was intimidating to me. In just a short time, however, meditation has taught me to see moments of mindfulness and awareness. By using the breath or occasionally sound as my anchor, I am grounded in the present. It has taught me calm and peace–how to ease frustration, anger, fear, and shame. This program of empowerment has taught me that I am not my emotions, that I can control to a large extent my level of suffering in life, and that I have a choice of whether to respond or to react to situations. It has taught me that there is a critical, brief moment in time between when an action occurs and when I respond. Learning to identify this PAUSE and use it to my advantage has been a tremendous help in how I handle challenging situations. Reciting and incorporating the five precepts and five remembrances into my daily life has proven to be a very easy but powerful practice as well, helping me to continue work on process addictions and providing the impetus to eliminate cannabis from my life entirely about six months ago.

This program has empowered me to blaze my own trail on this recovery journey. It is non-linear; there is not one prescribed set of steps to follow. It is holistic and aims to heal the whole person. It has allowed me to see that each of us possesses wholesome and unwholesome seeds. It is which of those you “water” and nurture that determines which of these seeds will flourish. This nourishment is determined by whom I surround myself with, what activities I choose to participate in, what information I take in–all personal choices for which I have authority over. It has allowed me to rediscover the innate human characteristics of compassion and loving kindness that largely sat dormant within me for years. And, perhaps most importantly in my life, it has taught me equanimity–how to stay calm amidst a stormy sea, as Thich Nhat Hanh refers to in his story of the Vietnamese boat people.

And, finally, this program has taught me the power of sangha. For the first time in my life, I feel a sense of belonging. When I first became sober, I was at a loss. I felt abysmally alone. I was ashamed and embarrassed of where I was at in my life. Through the power of this sangha, I have learned to trust and to open to others. I can be honest without fear of condemnation. I attend at least 3–4 meetings per week as well as text daily with Dharma friends and speak weekly with another friend regarding inquiry questions.

In my day-to-day life, learning and applying self-care, which I had neglected for years, is a form of compassion and metta for myself. I focus on breathwork in daily yoga practice, and daily walks with my dogs have become a walking meditation. As an introvert, I allow myself time alone and have come to better understand my limitations. I now own an organic vegetable farm where my daily work forces me to be present and aware of my current situation. It allows me a simple life in which I am able to find and celebrate moments of joy gracefully presented such as the germination of seeds each spring, the way the morning light strikes a bed of greens, the incredible sweetness of a homegrown, heirloom carrot, or the miracle of collecting colorful eggs that my chickens lay daily. Living according to the seasons forces me to recognize impermanence and living off the land teaches me interdependence and non-self. This practice has grounded me and taught me to slow down in life. My recovery and my life’s path have become one in the same.

For me this is not only a program of empowerment, but one of hope. As I recently heard in a podcast, hope implies vulnerability and the Buddhist principle of uncertainty. Hope implies taking chances which is more difficult than taking the safe, certain path. Hopefulness does not equal optimism, but means that we personally are empowered to intervene. Recovery Dharma is a program of hope for me. There is no certainty, but there are openings that we can walk through and create beautiful new beginnings.