Why We Should Talk About Negative Experiences in Recovery

by Olivia Pennelle |

Painting a picture of recovery as coasting along on a pink fluffy cloud, with not a care in the world, is not the reality of recovery. At least, it isn’t for me. Over the last five years, I have experienced heartbreaking grief, moving continents, the end of relationships, extreme stress, depression, and anxiety so bad that I felt someone had lodged a brick into my chest. Life certainly was not a bed of roses. Terrible things happen. By talking about it, we create realistic perspectives of recovery. Those perspectives are really important, because they can be used as points of reference to draw upon when we’re having a bad time, and we will encounter tough times in recovery.

When I first got sober, I felt great for a little while. Waking up in the morning without a hangover was the most invigorating feeling ever. That feeling quickly wore off. Depression hit, as did the constant hunger, anxiety, and feelings of being completely and utterly lost in the world. I had no identity, and I struggled to recount where I’d spent the last twenty years—other than down a wine bottle.

Stopping drinking just stopped hangovers and the consequences of drinking. It didn’t stop my life from being a disaster and suddenly provide the skills to cope with life. That was my job—to re-learn how to live.

Life hit me in the face, full pelt. It was like someone turned the volume right up and switched on lights—the size and intensity of football stadium lights. Reality was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe how I’d gotten to 32 years old, even held down (kind of) jobs, and had an apartment—but had no idea how to live. I spent the first few months wanting to hide under my comforter and with ear plugs in. Life was deafening.

If I wanted to stay sober, I had to do the opposite of what I’d always done. Look where my past actions took me: chugging four bottles of wine a day and necking a handful of pills. So, I did. I went to a meeting—sometimes two—every day. I went to the coffees before and after the meetings. I did the step work, three times. I went to therapy. I read a heap of recovery books. I learned about how to care for myself.

I spent the next five years practicing those activities with mild deviations: I stopped going to 12-Step groups and found Refuge Recovery, started and ended numerous relationships, and moved continents. Okay, the move was more than a little mild deviation; it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Despite choosing to do it, it has been a rollercoaster of stress, depression, isolation, and bone-aching loneliness. I questioned my sanity for the first six months and spent many occasions asking, what on earth have I done? Learning how America works is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes, I’m too emotionally exhausted to write, but I have to because I’m self-employed. Other times, I’m sick, and I have no one to bring me soup because I moved somewhere that I didn’t know anyone. 

Man feeling lost and lonely while having negative experiences in recovery

Two months before I moved, my brother died. He killed himself. That too was incredibly challenging. Grief is a beast to deal with. Death, especially suicide, changes you forever. There is no getting over it; there is just living with it. Much like substance abuse disorder, it’ll never go away. We just have to learn how to ride the wave.

I write all of these negative experiences with some brevity because I have to see some lightness in it. I can’t let it consume me. Times can be incredibly dark, and I wonder why I am here. This is recovery: living life and experiencing negative life events. Just because we are sober, it doesn’t mean that life is wonderful. Sure, there are wonderful moments. I’m eternally grateful I’ve stopped using and transformed my life. I love living in Portland, I love writing full-time, and I love the freedom that brings. But we can’t have lightness without darkness.

I don’t go to meetings, or read other articles, about how wonderful life is. I’m drawn to hearing about your difficult emotions, your darkness, and how you weather those storms. I want to see your pain, because it helps me to know that it isn’t just me who feels this pain.

Most of all, I have a message that just because you feel bad, depressed, sad, lonely, anxious, or uneasy, it doesn’t mean that you are somehow doing recovery wrong. It means that you are human, and you are present for the human experience in a turbulent and challenging world.  Life is hard, especially without anesthesia.

But it is entirely possible to get through those dark times. I do that in a number of ways:

  • I stay connected to other people in recovery and share my experience.
  • I find it really helpful to process my feelings and emotions by writing about my experience—whether an article or blog, or in my private journal.
  • Exercise helps relieve my body of those difficult feelings and challenging headspace.
  • Meditation is an incredibly powerful tool to give me some space from my feelings and detach from my interpretation of life experiences.
  • Restorative yoga helps me hold my body with compassion and calms my nervous system down so that I am able to live in my body, rather than fighting it.
Photo of Olivia Pennelle

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