BY: TAMI HARPER WINN
When I was first sober I felt like an alien on a foreign planet. To say I felt out of place is an understatement. I couldn’t put sentences together that made any sense. I couldn’t form thoughts that amounted to something useful. I could barely get up every morning and breathe. I had to be taught the basics all over again. To some this may sound extreme, maybe even exaggerated, but believe me this barely scratches the top layer of the helplessness I felt - the feeling that most extremely raw newcomers experience.
It was all I could do to get out of bed. I had to pick up the phone before I got up and be given instructions from some stranger on the other end of the phone. The instructions were simple no-brainers like, take a shower; brush your teeth; use the restroom. When I would complete those I would stand like a lost sheep in the middle of my living room until terror would strike as I realized I didn’t know what to do next.
I’d repeat the pattern and pick up the phone to receive instructions from a stranger on the end and I would comply. The instructions were things like, take out the trash; do your dishes; wash the clothes; check your mail. I was like a zombie walking around numb to everything going on around me. The stranger on the other end would need to remind me to eat, feed my cat, and pick up my child from school. I needed to be given step-by-step instructions for the simplest tasks.
How could this happen? I wasn’t ill or physically incapable – or was I? I was just beginning to grasp the fact that I may indeed be afflicted with an incurable disease that I was going to die from if I didn’t find a cure. I had diagnosed myself alcoholic. I mean it must be serious enough. I needed basic instructions just to function. If my body didn’t automatically breathe on its own I’d have probably forgotten to do that unless reminded every moment. It was really that bad.
Through this haze of mindless days filled with meetings and phone calls to strangers I can recall one phone call that burnt itself into my memory. It is hard to remember much about early sobriety except for tears, fear, and chaos, but this one memory has stuck with me. I remember one phone call one day I had with an old coworker that I had worked with at the job I was terminated from two weeks into recovery.
I don’t remember why we were talking or who called who, but I do remember the conversation. I will leave her nameless as her story is hers, but she shared a beautiful analogy with me that I have used so many times throughout the years. I hope she doesn’t mind. I hope she also knows how much that story impacted me.
On this particular call I was sharing with her why I was let go from our job. I was embarrassed and humiliated to say the least to admit this to her. Strangely enough, the voice on the other end of that call became a kindred soul – a long lost sister in sobriety. She spoke to me in a language that I understood. I had found another one of me that spoke my language – alien. We were both here on this planet together and she could relate to me in ways that I hadn’t yet experienced. She shared that she too had suffered from addiction and was “X” amount of years clean. I would have never known. She seemed so normal.
She provided hopeful words of encouragement and genuine delight that I had finally found my way to the others like us. I hung on every word she said. I needed to hear those words but more importantly I needed to hear the story she would share with me next. I will do my best to share that story with you and pray I do it the justice it deserves. This is not my story, but yet it is all of our stories. It begins like this…
Each of us are born with a beautiful white canvas, free from any markings. It is our very own clean slate from which we will paint the story of our lives. Along the way we are given various colors, hues, and shades to work with. Each of us are excited and have great visions of what our painting will look like. Eager, we start off painting a beautiful picture that is colorful and creative and without fear of judgment. Our creativity knows no limits.
But as time passes we begin to notice the others around us painting their stories. We begin to admire, covet, and compare ours to theirs. We begin to experience doubt for the first time, and fear, and insecurities. So we go back to our paintings and try to make ours look more like theirs, or maybe better than theirs, or perhaps we try to erase ours and start over. We put a little more here and little more there. After awhile nothing looks right. In fact, it’s not what we envisioned at all. It looks nothing like what we had wanted it to look like.
We stand back to see the picture as a whole and see that what is before us is this horrible dark blob of a mess – and this is story of our life? We stand in horror, shame, and embarrassment. We shrink back, try to disappear, and some of us sabotage it worse out of anger. Nothing can make it better. We are doomed to have this painting represent the story of our lives for all the world to see. What have we done? We can never fix this.
In utter defeat, we sit down, place the paint brush on the table beside us, and give up. We surrender. At that very moment something happens for some of us that will transform us if we let it. Slowly, strip by strip a power greater than us begins to take away pieces of our disaster piece we created. We are confused but allow it to continue as nothing could be worse than what we have already done. Piece by piece we watch our painting get stripped bare. As we watch this process it pains us. We put so many years into that painting. There was so much blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. We put our all into making that painting. It was hard work.
Some of it we even liked. So those pieces we liked or favored we wouldn’t allow to be removed right away. We held onto those pieces. We held on until it was time to understand what was occurring by the very process itself. When it was time, we let them go. It was difficult and painful. To some of us it was even sad. Still we trusted in what this power greater than us was doing. We began to see the results of what it was doing for us, what we could not do for ourselves.
It was stripping away the mess we had made of that beautiful white canvas layer by layer so that we might be able to start again. The entire process was a gift to us after we surrendered fully, a gift of being able to allow our higher power help us create the masterpiece he always intended us to be. We could begin again.
What a concept. When she finished with her analogy I sat speechless. The whole time she was telling me this story I could see myself painting my original picture. I saw what happened along the way that influenced my original idea. I could see where I had to correct my mistakes and then over correct. I saw where my pain and anger were evident. I saw the whole piece turn into one big dark blur of nothing in the end. I could see that there was no hope of ever having the masterpiece I had envisioned as a child. I could feel the doom. I could also feel the defeat and what it was like to surrender. I also could see this unseen power peeling away all the years of pain and frustration. Layer by layer it was taking away the source of my demise. I could actually feel the need to hold onto some of those parts of my picture. I didn’t want them to go away. I could feel when it was time to and what it felt like to finally understand what was happening and why.
I got to see the beautiful white flawless canvas of my life again as it once was, just waiting for the true artist to paint the authentic story of my life. The one with all the beauty, heartbreak, love, and triumph that would mesh together to form the perfect me – my masterpiece.
That story has been shared in meeting houses across the country and with each of my sponsees. I am a little more animated when I tell the story in person than I can be in black and white. But the story behind the story is still the same. Through the help of the recovery program I got sober with, I saw why my painting became what it did through the years. I conceded that I was completely finished. I saw the mess and understood what it meant to surrender. Through the power of my program of recovery and a source much greater than me, I got to allow the canvas to be stripped clean so that I could start again. I realized that there is always a chance to start over.
But most importantly, I took away from this story the understanding that as long as I let this power greater than me help me paint my masterpiece it will be far better than I could have ever imagined. I am free at any time to take the paint brush into my own hands and do it my way. But once I do, I must accept the end result of what I painted for myself. Judging by my last pass at painting my masterpiece, I’d say the teacher knows what he is doing. I trust in the process. I can’t wait to see what he paints for me.
~Tami Harper Winn~
The story written here is solely the work of the author’s. Any use or reproduction of this article is prohibited without written consent of the author or credit to the author through works cited.