I Found Freedom at Rehab

Guest post by Kimberly Kearns

Dana Leigh Lyons
Sober.com Newsletter
8 min readJun 12, 2024

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“Head down to the common room and join the group,” David tells me.

“Join?” I say incredulously.

“Sure, go ahead. They are doing the tenth step wrap-up. I’ll be right there,” he says.

“Um, you mean, participate?” I ask.

“It’s okay, just walk in and grab a seat. They’re probably finished. I’ll be there soon, and we can all walk down to dinner,” he reassures me, smiling.

“Okay,” I smile back, attempting to convince myself that this is a good idea.

I creep down the hallway to where I hear laughter and boisterous conversation. I not only want to make a good first impression here at rehab. I also know I can’t continue sloshing around in a puddle of shame and self-pity forever.

I voluntarily checked myself into this facility after 3.5 years of abstaining from alcohol. This recent setback was never part of the grand plan, but my addiction out-maneuvered me. I never picked up a drink, but I sure as hell found other ways to escape.

Part of gaining the proper tools and rediscovering what I’ve lost sight of over the last several months will be found here, I hope. And if that means joining this group chat, then so be it. Gotta get uncomfortable in order for the growth to happen. As much as I want to continue crying in bed, curled up in the fetal position, it’s time to get my feet back on the ground and put humpty-dumpty back together again.

Let the rehabilitation begin!

Willingness. That’s the key to moving forward on my ever-winding path of recovery. I recognize that there’s serious effort required — introspection and true drudgery that goes way beyond the not drinking stuff and deeper than weekly therapy sessions. I just hope they can show me how I allowed my resolve, self-worth, and pride to totally collapse. What has become of the confident, strong and joyful woman that emerged in early sobriety?

I step through the doorway into the common room, taking a deep breath to calm my nerves. I suddenly feel like I’m on display. A group of about twelve adults sit comfortably on the couches, and all eyes curiously shift to me, the new girl. I wave awkwardly and slide into the only empty seat at the outskirts of the circle. A few people smile at me and one woman waves to me encouragingly from across the room, making me feel a bit more at ease. My attention shifts to the bearded individual to my right, sitting two seats away from me, covered in tattoos.

“I’m Tommy, and I’m an alcoholic,” he says, disregarding my grand entrance.

“Hi Tommy!” the room cheerfully responds in unison.

Shit. I feel the familiar sense of nervousness causing my heart rate to speed up.

“What went well today?” Tommy continues. “Well, I didn’t drink…”

I gaze around the circle, my anxiety spreading further through my body. What is happening? Oh geez, is this an AA meeting?

“So I guess that’s one thing I’m grateful for. Thanks, I’m Tommy, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“Thanks, Tommy,” the group responds all at once.

Shit. Why didn’t David warn me!? I do not belong with this group. No way. Hell no.

Ever since I quit drinking, I have refused to call myself an alcoholic, believing that the term would hold me back and keep me locked inside a box, unable to move forward in recovery. Haven’t we been freed from the chains of alcohol? Why do we have to punish ourselves by unwillingly identifying with this word? I don’t want to constantly be forced to look at everything through the lens of “one day at a time.”

If I have to call myself the A word, it will only keep me circling the drain, forever bound to the struggle of addiction, wallowing in the past. So, I don’t qualify. I refuse. Maybe I don’t belong in rehab after all. AA is for the homeless guy with the brown paper bag. I am different.

“Hi, I’m Sarah, and I’m an alcoholic,” the cheery woman next to me says, as our attention is now redirected to her.

“Hi, Sarah,” the room erupts in a chorus again.

For the last three and a half years, I had sought to prove that I was unlike those in AA. I had never even been to a meeting, refusing to attend any gathering in a church basement. Besides, I thought: I have been self-sufficient enough this far. I can do it all on my own. I am strong. I don’t need a “sponsor.”

But, deep down, I knew I was in denial and only furthering the stigma associated with those who struggle with addiction. Why did I have such a biased view against AA?

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that for so long, no matter how hard I wanted to fit in, I couldn’t find my place. Fear has always controlled me, and worrying about what other people think of me has kept me trapped.

I published my memoir, On the Edge of Shattered, started a podcast, was the lead writer for a second podcast, and eventually started my own sobriety social club: Sober in the Suburbs. I was featured in The Boston Globe, on multiple television news channels, Today.com, and other media outlets.

I had it all figured out up until, well, recently — when my life fell apart, and my addiction, insidious and cunning, took on a new shape and form.

Being shamed by others led me to doubt myself, and it held me back from truly recovering. With that, I have never found acceptance or a sense of belonging.

“So what went well for me?” Sarah says, the clichéd opening the same as Tommy’s, a somewhat trite question.

My palms sweat as I stare at the nonexistent space between Sarah and me. I’m up next. Do I have to talk? Do I have to introduce myself as an alcoholic? Is that a rule? Will they kick me out if I refuse? The fear of not belonging, even in rehab, is a more terrifying concept than the reminder that my entire group of friends, community, and town has already shunned me back at home.

“So yeah, overall, it was a great day. Thanks, I’m Sarah and I’m an alcoholic,” the lovely gal next to me finishes her account of the day.

Then suddenly all eyes are on me again.

That first day of rehab was a rewarding and eye-opening experience. It’s strange to think that was almost 120 days ago. (Spoiler alert: I did not pass out during the tenth-step wrap-up meeting, nor did I have to share or talk at all that first night. I survived the full ten days, in fact.)

Nobody forced me to identify myself as an alcoholic on day one in rehab. Nobody ever made me do it, actually. I did it all on my own on day three, with the encouragement and support of my rehab group. The other members — who, like me, were learning about the AA program — never ostracized me as I feared. Instead, they welcomed me into their world of recovery with open arms. I quickly realized we were all on common ground, encouraging one another. There was no competition or judgment, but simply a shared sense of suffering. This acceptance was different from what I had sought for the past forty-one years of my life.

I am an alcoholic, and I have come to further recognize the freedom in embracing this fact.

Up until my recent relapse, I thought I had proven my worth as a sober person, and I absolutely did not need AA nor a higher power. Religion and God hadn’t helped me once in life, why would I start believing in a power greater than myself suddenly?

When I had an intervention of sorts — leading me to check myself into rehab — I was at my lowest. I finally got my rock bottom. In the following weeks, when I sunk further into shameful despair, AA provided a soft, gentle place to land.

It was in those early days of learning about the Twelve Steps that I finally admitted defeat. The disease of addiction controlled me and made my life unbearable in so many ways. I realized that I required a different type of support group–one that never judged me for my mistakes. I had relied on so many maladaptive coping skills since childhood, the biggest one being that I craved validation from others. It was time to surround myself with people who no longer expected me to fit in but, rather, allowed me to belong.

Discovering a sense of belonging within AA, surrounded by the kindness of like-minded individuals, gave me the strength to finally face the mistakes of my painful past. I stopped trying to be something I’m not just to satisfy others. Miraculously, the shame began to dissipate.

I am working the steps now, and I’m starting to understand the comfort in a power greater than myself, as it takes the onus off of me. I’m by no means a relig

ious or spiritual individual, but I’m starting to recognize that it hurts me more to dig my feet in and continue protesting an idea that provides relief and guidance to so many.

I think I may have finally stepped forward into my potential while finding gratitude for the lessons of my past. I am working to give myself grace, to stop the negative judgment of myself and others, and to remind myself to look at each situation with positivity and compassion. And with that comes the gift of peace. My true freedom. For myself and not for others.

Your turn!

We’d love for you to share in the comments:

  • Have you found community, belonging, and acceptance in sobriety?
  • Was there a specific choice or moment in sobriety when you discovered true freedom?

And if you found this article helpful, please leave a clap or 50. It lets others know there’s something useful here and will help us grow this community.

Kimberly Kearns is the author of On the Edge of Shattered: A Mother’s Experience of Discovering Freedom Through Sobriety. She is also host of The Weekend Sober podcast; head writer for the season “Betsy,” of the Webby Award-winning narrative podcast F*cking Sober: The First 90 Days; and founder of the Boston-based sobriety social club, Sober in the Suburbs. A wife to an incredible husband and a mother to three beautiful children, Kimberly currently lives outside of Boston, in Needham, Massachusetts, where she continues to write about recovery.

Want to be published on Sober.com? If you’re a sober writer, we invite you to contribute! Reach out to hello@danaleighlyons.com for details.

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