"Goodbye" Letters: Rituals and Symbolism in Recovery
BY: TAMI HARPER WINN
After much thought and deliberation, in the wake of my depression, I have decided to have a formal funeral of my own. The death of my depression deserves a ceremonial burial. It’s only proper. You see, I may not be out of the woods on this one but I figured if I could trick my brain then maybe I could outsmart my depression. It was worth a try.
So, this afternoon I went out back dressed in black. I brought beautiful flowers. I stood where I buried my beloved dog. There under the shade of that big old tree, I dug a small hole beside the rosebush. In that hole I placed a letter I had written to my depression and I placed the dirt back over it. There upon the fresh dirt, I lay my beautiful flowers and begun to sing “Amazing Grace.”
Now, this may seem a little bit off beat and drastic. To some this might even seem absurd or macabre, but for me it was healing. I didn’t need an audience to help me say goodbye to my depression; it was a lone endeavor. It was needed.
I am a symbolic and ritualistic kind of woman. Symbolism and ritualism means something to me. I don’t know why and it doesn’t really matter. It just is a way for my mind to finalize, humanize, and make it real. Symbolism and ritualism is something that has been used for eons by many people and many civilizations.
Take for instance the world wide group of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. At the beginning of each meeting they open up with a moment of silence for the still suffering alcoholic or addict followed by the Serenity Prayer. At the close of the meeting they gather in a circle, hold hands, and usually close with the Lords Prayer.
When I was first sober I heard many forms of rituals that were used to help people identify and personalize their own recovery. I heard people use God Boxes where you could put something (a character defect, thought, or belief that they couldn’t get rid of) into it and “give it to God.” I saw those same God boxes burned at campfire meetings, much like others who burned their fourth step inventories as a ceremonial way of releasing the negative in their lives.
A lot of people use mantras and meditation to help them in their recovery. I can remember the first time I was introduced to the gift of symbolism/ritualism. Yeah, I had experienced it in church during Sacrament and at home during the holidays, but this time was the most profound and impacted me forever.
I was 18 and had just lost my best friend to a drunk driving accident. I was still in Alateen at that time and was completely struggling and lost. I wanted out of my pain so much I made a very serious attempt to stop that pain. I am so grateful today that I didn’t complete and that I am here to share this story with you.
After my selfish act, I felt like there was no way I was ever going to recover from this loss. I went to my Alateen sponsor and shared where I was at in my head and what I had done. He lovingly listened and then made a simple suggestion. He suggested that I write a final letter to my best friend and then sign it after I said goodbye. He knew that my greatest pain was that I never got to say goodbye to her. I had been having nightmares every night where she would come to visit me but I could never get to her or speak to her. It was torturous. He suggested when I was done that I take that letter and put it on her grave when I was done and say my goodbyes to her formally.
He explained that I could put in it whatever I wanted to, from what I would miss the most to how angry I was at her, but that I could leave nothing out. I needed to tell her everything and nothing was off limits. It took me one night to write that letter and I let her have it. I was hurt and missing her so much. However, it took me six more months to write the words “goodbye” and sign my name. I knew that when I did this, I would finally have to let her go, to rest in peace.
The night I finally wrote those final words, I drove to the cemetery in the middle of the night with a Dr. Pepper and a Kit Kat candy bar and sat under the tree she was buried under. I cried and told her how much I loved her and missed her. Then I placed all of those items on her headstone and tucked the letter under them. I cried so hard as I walked away. It was over. I had got to say my goodbye’s. I let her go.
That night, when I returned home after a long ride, I fell asleep exhausted. That night was also the last time I would ever see or talk to my best friend again. After months of torturous dreams night after night of her, she came to me in my dreams and spoke with me for only a moment. She was beautiful and happy. She told me about heaven and the final words I would ever hear her say again to me were, “Everything is going to be okay.” She was gone. I never dreamed of her again. That was thirty years ago. I will always feel so blessed to have had that final moment with her. I cherish it. I have always known since that day that “everything was going to be okay.”
Perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, perhaps it wasn’t. I may never know in this life time. It doesn’t matter to me. What I do know is that grief is a scary and devastating beast. It almost took my life. I don’t want to go there ever again. So, I remind myself that in early recovery I was suffering from the loss of my recent best friend, alcohol. My grief was overwhelming and I didn’t know how not to miss it as much as I was.
I decided to do for myself what I had learned in Alateen almost thirty years ago, and write my “goodbye” letter to alcohol. I did the same thing that I did when I wrote Tricia’s final letter. I told it how much I had loved it and how wonderful it had made me once feel, how much I would miss it and all the good times we had together, and how angry I was that it had to hurt me the way it did and lie to me worse than any other thing I had ever loved. It had stolen so much from me. I wrote those final words, “goodbye” and signed my name.
I went out to my fire pit in my back yard and lit a small fire in it. Sitting there I remembered that I had one last bottle of beer I had been keeping as a reminder of our relationship. I went and got it from it’s hiding spot. I then tossed my “goodbye alcohol” letter into the fire and after watching it burn, I ceremoniously put it out with my final beer. I then smashed the beer bottle to smithereens on the cinder block wall that surrounded my yard and cried like I had never cried before. I had finally said goodbye. I was free.
Again, I don’t know if it played a trick on my mind or if it has some sort of truth to it, but I have not had to drink or have a Plan B since I got sober. Either way, I knew that perhaps maybe, just maybe, this could work with my depression.
After months of deaths surrounding me, I found it only suiting to commit this one to the grave as well. So, once again I wrote that final letter to my depression, said “goodbye” and signed my name. I said a prayer and completed my ritual.
I do not know If it will work. I am smart enough to know that there is also a biological component to my depression. But, there is also a biological component to my disease of alcoholism and addiction. As long as I take my medicine, with following a strict diet of abstinence from mind altering substances and work a program of active recovery, I may never have to drink or drug again. So, for my depression, if I continue to take my medication and follow a regimen of strict self care then I may just beat this thing as well.
Just like my alcoholism, my depression can never be cured, just arrested. I can’t deny it anymore. This is my lot in life and I must own it and learn how to live amongst the rest of us here on earth with it. I can do this. My sobriety of over six years and my letters of “goodbye” have proven to me that some things can actually work and bring me peace and serenity.
I have suggested to sponsees along the way, to write “goodbye” letters to their disease as well. Perhaps now I will also suggest writing a “goodbye” letter to their mental illnesses as well. Rituals and symbolism are important in our society. I don’t believe the importance of them should be ignored. Rather I believe they should be embraced and adapted to fit into our everyday life in what ever form and capacity they can benefit us. Perhaps you can think of where in your life rituals and symbolism play a part in your daily life and expand on them if possible. They have only enhanced my recovery and my life.
~Tami Harper Winn~
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