When I was in rehab I had a counselor named Wilma who I adored. Everyone lucky enough to be assigned to her group adored her, except the people who were too overwhelmed by her, because she could be overwhelming. She had long greying ringlets and piercing eyes and wore a series of spunky tunics combined with brightly colored leggings and she accepted exactly zero bullshit. She was ruthless and sincere and she cared, she cared so much I wonder how she was able to survive a job that constantly cycled in people at their lowest point and sent them back into the world 28 short days later, held together with scotch tape and prayers.

She once told me she believed I would use my writing to help other addicts, she said she couldn’t wait to see the strong sober warrior I was going to become. It was profoundly kind of her to say that, at a time when I felt so unworthy, so ashamed and dispirited and un-warrior-like in every way.

Wilma was the very definition of a sober warrior, having fought her way back from the kind of rock-bottom addiction most people do not survive. She poured herself into service work, she said it was the only way she was able to stay clean. I don’t know how many people she has affected and helped over the years: hundreds? Thousands? She certainly made an impact on me.

For a brief time, I considered writing about sobriety in a more intentional way. I thought of a website dedicated to recovery, I thought about sharing my story more publicly, I thought of how I could take what I’ve gone through and transform my worst moments into opportunities to connect with others who have been there.

These worthy endeavors do not call to me, though. I want to write about addiction and recovery in a way that feels natural, like it’s part of me but not all of me. I don’t want to dedicate myself the way Wilma did, even though it makes me feel selfish to admit. I don’t want the focus of my life to be on this one aspect.

Wilma was dedicated to the 12-step program method of recovery. I have never been able to embrace AA, no matter how many times I tried. I think there are many paths; for some it’s a higher power, for me I most often rely on the “play the tape forward” trick to avoid triggers (ie; sure, that cold glass of hoppy IPA sounds good, but let’s go ahead and play the tape forward to the part where you’re hiding vodka bottles in the laundry hamper).

In lots of ways, I envy Wilma for her confidence. I wish I felt driven to help other addicts the way she did, to say “Here. Do this, and things will get better.” The only way I truly know to get better, though, is to stop doing the things that are making everything terrible, and getting from doing to stopping is — in my opinion — a complicated mental journey that works differently for everyone.

I don’t know if I have become any kind of warrior. I have had long stretches of sobriety and setbacks along the way. I have dumped all of my coping mechanisms into unhealthy food habits then wrestled myself back into uber-disciplined eating and exercising then repeated the cycle, over and over. I have peeled back my dysfunctional self-critical thinking to see the terrified protective mechanism that it is, I have felt my feelings and avoided my feelings and traded my feelings for other feelings. In all of my fumblings I have never felt particularly victorious, but I do feel here. I feel alive, I feel present, I feel human. I feel a thousand times more connected and hopeful than I did in those miserable days leading up to treatment.

Maybe being a warrior simply means that you don’t give up, no matter what, and to that end, I’ll accept the honor.

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I recently posted a photo of John and I to Instagram along with the comment that he is aging so much better than I am, which is a really obnoxious caption because it absolutely comes across as a fishing-for-compliments thing although I swear I did not intend it that way. I truly do think he is aging in a ruggedly attractive manner while I am becoming more washed-out and haggard but as some people wisely pointed out in the comments, we as a society tend to view greying hair and deepening character lines as attractive on men but less so on women.

(The comment that says it all: “Men are allowed to age.”)

It’s a complicated time to be a self-conscious middle-aged lady, I think. There is this cultural sea change underway with regards to body image and beauty standards and the role of women and our inherent value and while I am greatly in favor of where things seem to be going I also feel like I was programmed during a different time and it’s hard to realign with these new perspectives.

Does that make any kind of sense? It’s like I want to be fully on board with a better way of thinking but my brain is stuck with an outdated operating system and if I didn’t already feel inferior to the dewy-skinned younger demographic for their collagen levels I definitely envy their wokedness when it comes to not falling for some bullshit socially constructed notion that physical attractiveness is a woman’s most important asset.

There’s sort of a double-whammy lameness to feeling bad about yourself at 44: for one thing, you’re supposed to have reached a kind of fuck-you enlightenment; for another, you’re supposed to be educated and aware of how fucked-up feminine beauty ideals are and therefore not fall prey to their toxic messaging.

I wish I was better at not caring, or I wish that I cared in the right kinds of ways — the modern self-loving ways, the patriarchy-destroying ways — but the truth is I’m still a big old mess of dysfunctional thinking. I have always pursued beauty in all its shallow magazine-bullet-list forms and it is a real struggle to let go of that crap.

It’s hard to let it go, it’s hard to admit it’s been impossible and futile all along, it’s hard to orient myself in more rewarding directions when I also feel like it’s too late for so many things which is another lie but goddamn it is so sneakily believable.

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