Learning that my spiritual path was also my hero’s journey
I really didn’t want to choose to get sober. Really. I loved the enjoyment of classy things, like bourbon and good wine. I liked the fun of a margarita or gin & tonic in the summer. Christmas didn’t begin until the tree was up and the ‘nog was made: my mother’s recipe, full of heavy cream, raw eggs, rum, and bourbon. Pleasure and booze were so commingled that choosing to give up one left me with a grim picture of the other: anemic, grey-shade, not pleasurable at all.
A couple of years ago, I thought I was off the hook. At a yoga workshop in August 2015, I had what I can only describe as a spiritual awakening. My warped, broken mind could never have come up with what came through that day, which was no less than a message of Divine Love. It utterly transformed my life. As I did nothing to bring it on, I can only say that it was Grace — Divine, other than me.
The class had been taught outdoors, at the base of the New England Peace Pagoda. I had gone into the workshop twisting, anxious, and overwhelmed with a profound sense of failure. This was a common state for me, but this time was particularly acute. I was in agony over my deficiencies in two primary relationships: one with my father and one with my daughter. There was nothing that could highlight my self-perceived deficiencies more potently than these two relationships.
Somehow, though, two hours of yin yoga outdoors, in the sunshine, on the uneven ground, at eye-level with the grass and bees, with the open sky and tree tops as my ceiling, and ants tickling as they crawled on me — somehow that shifted my perspective and allowed a bit of space to be felt. By the end of the class, the knots I had come with had dissolved, and I felt at peace.
After the class, I wandered the grounds a bit, went into the temple, and finally sat down to write. It was during the writing that something poured through me that was not of me. In one moment, the lifelong sense of separation, loneliness, and self-loathing was replaced with something utterly incontrovertible, a knowing that superseded any other knowing I had:
That my very existence — my cells, organized into a body — was proof of a Universal love that has always been there, that has never not existed. The manifestation of “me”, and the manifestation of all existence, was proof of this love.
This may not be radical to you, but it was for me.
Instantly, the love that I had been seeking in every human interaction, from the anonymous driver in the next car to my closest family, from countless friends and sweethearts and colleagues; the question-behind-the-question in every verbal and non-verbal exchange: “Am I loved? Do YOU love me?” — the unquenchable need for love from another, from all others, was erased, and replaced with this Truth, a truth I had never known before.
I was seeking something that I already was. What I sought and never found out there was already inherent in me. I was what I was looking for, and I had been, for my whole life. I had never known such peace. I thought I had come home.
The best part is that on that night, my 47th birthday, drinking fell away.
I say ‘fell away’ because although I had desperately wanted to stop drinking for years, I had been unable to even try. I was terrified about the pain I would feel, and the sense of failure if I couldn’t do it. It was too big to even contemplate. That fear was a prison. I kept drinking, miserable and wanting to quit, but unable to choose to do so.
But here, in one moment of Divine Love, I lost my desire to drink. That night, I had a birthday celebration with family, with cocktails. Then — effortlessly — drinking fell away.
For six months, I literally had no desire to drink. I was even a little sad about this. I liked wine, and wanted to be able to enjoy it again. But each time I tasted it, it was repellant to me. Even the good stuff.
I knew that this was the afterglow of my awakening. It literally felt like a rebirth. Everything was new and fresh and gentle. The pain of separation that I had lived with my whole life was gone. I cannot tell you how much this changed my experience of life.
Then, I hit a period of major stress. Nine months earlier, my husband and I had both quit jobs that had become deeply depleting. Our marriage had been fraying, our children were suffering; in staying in our jobs, which had him commuting every week from Massachusetts to New York, we saw ourselves on a track to destruction. We made a decision to live off of his retirement while we took time to figure out how to create work that was more aligned with our values. The time off was sweet, but our money was running out quickly, and we were not yet drawing incomes from the ventures we were trying to launch . We both knew that I was more likely to land a conventional job than my photographer-academic husband, so I took a serving gig at a local restaurant and started my search for full-time work.
I’ve since learned that what I experienced at that time was what in awakening circles is called a major contraction. Essentially, when we have an experience such as the one I had on my birthday, it begins to clear the way for deeper pain that we have repressed to come to the light. For someone who has experienced an awakening, this contraction can feel like you “lost” it. The pain and stress comes back, and try as you might — as I did — you cannot get back to that state of peace you knew in your awakening.
By now you know what I am going to say: with the pain came the drinking, again.
For the next 15 months, I drank regularly. I had taken a full-time job I hated because our family needed the money. I worked a second job because our family needed the money. My husband worked too, starting his own business. I supported him with his marketing, and he took on the lion’s share of domestic tasks while I worked 60 hours. Through all of this, I used alcohol as the speedball to fast-track my unwinding of the knots of stress, fear, and dislocation that had displaced the peace I had felt, and had taken up residency in my gut and heart.
There is no part of that life that didn’t feel like an utter betrayal of myself. In taking the full-time job, I did what I needed to do for my family. But the cost was that I lost my voice. I lost the time I had been starting to give to myself when I left my previous job, and began asking who am I, really? And how do I live a life that reflects that? That inner voice was just beginning to be heard when I had to abandon ship, and “get back to work”. Unable to claim any space in a life that was now over-filled with external and misaligned obligations, that voice gave up.
I drank to dull that pain, the pain of my own betrayal of myself. I felt like I was going to die. I felt like I already had.
For those 15 months, drinking looked like this: wine, or bourbon, or bourbon and boozy ginger beer, or a margarita. Two a night usually, and occasionally three. I picked up where I had left off when drinking had fallen away, effortlessly, six months earlier. I drank until I was fuzzy. In younger years, my drinking had been messy at times, but these days it was just something that put a barrier between me and everything else: my kids, my husband, my work, my self.
One morning a few weeks ago, after another night of too many drinks, too many nights of sour insomnia, too many groggy mornings, I woke up and said: No more. The only thing drinking was doing for me was fueling my self-loathing. There was nothing else I was getting out of it. And the cost of so many sleepless nights, wretched mornings, and obsessive thinking about when I could drink again — this was costing me my vitality. It was costing me my life.
So I chose sobriety.
What made it possible for me to do this, finally, was that at some point in the previous 15 months I had become comfortable with my own pain. Despite assiduously trying to avoid it for my entire life, I learned that I could withstand it. I learned that feeling it would not kill me. This was profound, because in my past, feeling pain had led me, repeatedly, into suicidal depressions. Avoiding it was literally a life-saving mechanism…or so I believed.
Learning how to go into the pain — and fear, and shame, all of the things that I had avoided — was my ticket out of drinking. Learning how to be with it, instead of trying, even covertly, to escape, showed me that the pain just wanted to be seen. It actually didn’t want to kill me. But in my own quest for survival, honed out of necessity early on in my life, I equated the enormous, overwhelming power of that pain with a threat to my existence. For a person with a history of suicidal ideation, to learn that the pain would not kill me, was a revelation on par with my Divine Love awakening nearly two years earlier.
I’ve come to see that choosing sobriety had to be a choice I made. How fortunate I had felt when sobriety was “gifted” to me on my birthday awakening! I got to taste what it would be like to live without drinking, and it was lovely. But my hero’s journey needed me to choose this. It needed me to choose to know the message of that awakening. It needed me to choose to accept that fully, and to choose my Divinity. And: It tethered the choice to my strength and power. It gave me a gift that was uniquely and divinely ordained. The trial was my trial. The win was my win.
On the hero’s journey, the hero must face their trials alone. When the call is first heard, there is the chance to accept or not. Many do not. I did not.
But the call comes again. We have the chance, again. But we know it will not be easy, and again, we have the choice. Many of us never accept the call.
I finally did, first when I left my job two years ago to find myself. It has been the hardest two years of my life, a time of greater pain and disruption than I ever could have imagined.
But I was answering a call I could no longer put off. I had to know who I was, separate from the jobs and tasks and relationships and all the ways we identify ourselves. I had to go inward. This was the start of my journey of undoing.
I learned that as much as I wanted someone else to rescue me, the hero’s journey requires that I rescue myself. That is the journey. As lovely as my Divine Love awakening was, the hero’s journey requires choice. Because I went inward and faced my personal demons — the pain of separation, the pain of denial of my Divinity, and the pain I inflicted on myself through drinking — I have emerged with a victory that can never be taken from me. There is no fear or storm so powerful that can consume me now.
There is also no power greater than when we choose our Divinity. As humans, the power to choose is both the greatest gift given to us, and the greatest responsibility. It is our journey to the Self we already are: Divine, embodied. But it’s up to us to go there, to choose.
In choosing sobriety now, I have chosen both my strength and my Divinity. I have chosen to know that, rather than the distortion of separation. It is my path.
This is my hero’s journey.