Let it Begin with Me: Ten Takeaways from My First Meeting
FROM “MY NEEDS? WHAT NEEDS?” (PART 2 of 3)
When I walked into my first Twelve Step meeting, I felt like a hollowed-out version of Wonder Woman. On the outside, I was taking on the world, strong in my life, career and relationship. But on the inside, I was broken and fragile with fear, crumbling under the weight of my partner’s sex addiction. On the outside, I had everything under control. But on the inside, I was weakening daily, and I felt like the most needy woman on earth.
That first night, I wasn’t prepared to let anyone see my internal struggle. I was proud of my external posture of faith in my relationship, confident that others would recognize and admire how well I was handling our little “problem.”
Or… not. As it turned out, the women present at my first meeting weren’t so easily impressed. Instead, they were wise and discerning and empathetic, seeing me with eyes of experience, strength and hope. Surrounded by those who didn’t EXPECT me to be Wonder Woman, I found myself spilling my emotional guts, allowing my insides to come tumbling out. And as you might suspect, my guts weren’t pretty: they told an emotionally turmoiled story, a testament to the trauma-drama I’d been living with my loved one.
My guts weren’t anything these women hadn’t seen before. They recognized bits of themselves in my story, and they recognized bits of me in their own. From the moment I opened my mouth in that first meeting, I wasn’t alone on this path. Even though I felt emotionally “frozen” at the beginning, numb from feeling powerless over this addiction, my new friends didn’t stand by and wait for me to get myself “unfrozen.” Instead, they reached out and met me where I was, demonstrating what “Let it begin with me” looks like in recovery. “My girls” (as I’ve come to call them) supported me with their collective strength, until I had developed enough strength to begin supporting myself.
In a future post, I’ll write about learning to meet my own needs, based on recovery’s Seventh Tradition and its spirit of self-support (facebook.com/SAngleSupport/posts/1533188156940962:0). But for THIS post, I want to highlight ten specific needs that OTHERS MET FOR ME, during my earliest days of recovery.
#1: I NEEDED PEOPLE WHO CARED MORE ABOUT ME THAN ABOUT MY HUSBAND. Before recovery, I couldn’t imagine an entire community devoted to me, my safety, my serenity and my success. I was genuinely surprised that nobody in my meeting wanted to talk about my husband. (I mean, wasn’t he why I was there in the first place?) But longtimers assured me that my husband’s Twelve Step meeting would take care of him. They assured me it was NOT selfish for me to focus on myself and my wellbeing, and they created a nurturing environment where I could do so.
#2: I NEEDED TO SEE OTHER WOMEN STRUGGLING AS THE RESULT OF THIS ADDICTION. In my meeting, we read this paragraph every week: “When we first come to S-Anon, we, too, are spiritually and emotionally ill.” Spiritually and emotionally ill? Those words were a jolt of reality for me. My entire life, I’d operated under the conviction that it was NOT okay to NOT BE okay. If my soul was uneasy, there was something wrong with me. If I wasn’t living in joy and wholeness, there was something wrong with that, too. As I sat in my first meeting, I watched a dozen externally beautiful, dignified and gracious women express their internal devastation: anger, fear, depression, pain, anxiety, resentment, denial, disgust, jealousy, blame, hatred, self-doubt, self-destruction… and the list goes on. By watching these women share their coexistent strength and weakness, I discovered that being “spiritually and emotionally ill” isn’t just acceptable: it actually plays a purposeful role in the recovery process.
#3: I NEEDED TO EXPLORE POWERLESSNESS AS A GIFT, NOT A CURSE. When I first heard that it wasn’t my job to fix my husband’s addiction (the heart and soul of partners’ recovery) I felt helpless and vulnerable, stripped of the tools I’d previously used, albeit unsuccessfully, to protect myself from getting hurt. But as other women spoke about their own “powerlessness,” they called it a gift, the absence of a responsibility they no longer wanted to carry. To the longtimers, powerlessness didn’t mean “Go away; you are not ALLOWED fix this.” Instead, it meant “Let go; you are not EXPECTED to fix this.” Listening to these women, I begain to explore the idea that being powerless might be a good thing: that maybe, just maybe, I could experience powerlessness as a relief, not as a restriction.
#4: I NEEDED TO LEARN THAT I COULD NEVER SATISFY ADDICTION’S “PHENOMENON OF CRAVING.” Before recovery, I believed that I could conquer my husband’s sex addiction by providing more sex, better sex, different sex. It didn’t work (duh), and as it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s tried that approach. At my first meeting, I listened to women share their own desperate attempts at seduction, their self-protective efforts to keep their partners from wandering astray. From these women, I learned that NOTHING I offered EVER COULD “be enough.” They encouraged me to stop striving to be my husband’s drug, to stop trying to fill a void that wasn’t mine to satisfy. And they were absolutely right: once I stopped trying to do the impossible, I stopped feeling like such a flat-out failure.
#5: I NEEDED TO OBSERVE THE COMMON (AND NON-COMMON) DEMOMINATORS OF WOMEN WOUNDED BY ADDICTION. Before meeting other women in recovery, I believed that my husband’s addiction had something to do with me. He told me that it didn’t, but how could it NOT? I assumed it reflected some deep inadequacy on my part, some flaw in my attitude, appearance, availability or sexual aptitude. But guess what I observed in my very first meeting, as I looked around the room at every woman present, each of whom had been wounded by her loved one’s sex addiction? I saw women of EVERY SINGLE shape, size, age, attitude, profession, religion, social status and ethnicity. I’m not exagerating here. I met a corporate executive. I met a stay-at-home mom. I met a college girl who worked in Hollywood, and I met a middle-aged women who lived on the street. I met women of faith, women of art, women of nature, women of science and women of technology. I met women who were timid and sweet and shy, sitting beside women who were aggressive and unpleasant. Despite these women’s notable distinctions, all of them had one thing in common: they’d all been affected by sex addiction, just as painfully (or worse) than I’d been. By observing this spectrum of vastly different women, all gathered together for the same unifying reason, I learned a critical component of Recovery 101: that addiction (even sex addiction) has absolutely nothing to do with me.
#6: I NEEDED TO REALIZE THAT RECOVERY WASN’T ABOUT MY RELATIONSHIP. At my first meeting, I was disoriented (disturbed, to be honest) to meet women who were separated or divorced from their addicted partners. If they weren’t still living with their addicts, I wondered, what were they doing at this meeting anyway? What I really wanted to know was this: “If recovery didn’t work to save your marriage, does that mean it won’t work for mine either?” As I met women in various stages of transition and decision, I came to realize that recovery supports us as individuals, regardless of our relationship status, choices or changes. I learned that recovery gets us healthy as independent beings, regardless of whether or not we’re currently in love with an addict. By watching these women who kept coming back, even after their romances had fallen apart, I learned that recovery doesn’t promise to save my relationship. Instead, it promises to save ME. And at least for me, that’s good enough.
#7: I NEEDED TO EXPERIENCE SAFETY IN MEETINGS. By nature, I’ve never been a social creature. I’m a very happy introvert, drawing my strength and energy from spending time alone. When I first met my girls, I kept them at arms length, carefully easing into this interactive community of strangers. I’ve had bad experiences in group environments (who hasn’t?) and I wasn’t sure how safe it would be to expose my life to this bunch of women. I was grateful to discover that, with a few exceptions (but that’s another post altogether), Twelve Step meetings are VERY SAFE, permission-based environments. Women in the rooms respected my personal space and unknown sensitivities, saying things like “May I ask you a question? May I give you a hug? May I offer some feedback? May I call you this week?” They used words like, “in my experience,” “for me” and “in my recovery,” without projecting THEIR experiences onto me or my situation. By receiving this kind of respect, sensitivity and autonomy, I’ve learned to treat myself and others with even greater measures of the same.
#8: I NEEDED TO HEAR, “THERE’S NO SHAME IN LOVING A SEXAHOLIC.” Let me repeat that, and I’ll even use more inclusive vocabulary: “There is no shame in loving an addict.” I’ve never much identified with the experience of shame, but apparently I picked some up along the way. Spoken by a woman who’s spent three decades in recovery rooms, this statement struck me, stuck with me, and remains with me. Her words superceded the moral judgement I’d apparently absorbed about my husband’s addiction, penetrating my not-quite-conscious sense of guilt-by-association. By then, I’d lived for awhile in close proximity to my husband’s struggle with lust. To offset that, I needed to hear truth from someone who’d walked in my shoes, someone who could remind me that LOVE is LOVE, and that LOVE is GOOD! The fact that I loved a sex addict didn’t brand me with a scarlet letter, and it didn’t qualify me as deserving of self-imposed shame. GOD BLESS this woman for seeing my need and soothing it, long before I even saw it coming.
#9: I NEEDED TO BE TOLD, “IT’S OKAY NOT TO TRUST YOUR SEXAHOLIC HUSBAND.” Once again, I’ll put this in language that applies more globally: I needed to be told, “It’s okay not to trust someone who hasn’t been trustworthy.” From my very first meeting, I needed to hear from women who no longer denied the power of addiction, who understood that our loved ones’ promises of trust and honesty have been highjacked by this disease. (There’s a reason AA calls addiction “cunning, baffling and powerful.”) From these women, I learned that addiction destroys values like trust and intimacy, and that it’s not safe for me to trust someone who is “under the influence.” They told me that recovery can work to deepen our partners’ capacity for honesty and transparency; they also warned me that it’s a long process, one that’s often interrupted by incidents of slipping, hiding or lying. These women gave me a priceless gift by encouraging me to STOP trusting my husband (for awhile, not necessarily forever), because at that point, he wasn’t a trustworthy partner. Instead, they taught me to trust my gut, to trust the process, and to trust my Higher Power. Believe it or not, those things felt much harder than trusting my husband ever did! But they proved to be valuable lessons, ones I continue to remember and practice daily. Now, nine years into recovery, I have grown to trust my husband again. Thanks to his own deep recovery work, he’s now a very trustworthy person. I can’t say my renewed trust is entirely foolproof, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never trust my husband 100%. But the beauty is, I no longer EXPECT that I SHOULD, so I no longer feel guilty when I don’t. I no longer place that much pressure on my shoulders, as a wife or as a woman. And again, GOD BLESS those who encouraged me to “let myself off the hook” for this one!
#10: I NEEDED PERMISSION TO TAKE MY TIME. Maybe it’s just me… but by that first meeting, my life felt like a serial emergency. My relationship was in perpetual crisis. I wasn’t functioning well, at work or at home. I was avoiding my family. My friendships were nonexistent. My health was deteriorating. My finances were suffering. My brain was in constant overdrive, and my heart had suffered all the hurt it could handle. From that “911” state of existence, everything seemed like an impending disaster—and I had to do something (anything) to keep that disaster from happening. Thankfully, the women I met in recovery knew how to lower my intensity. They gave me tidbits of truth and meaning: “Just breathe! First things first. Easy does it. Keep it simple. Let it go. Just for today. How important is it?” They told me things like “Don’t make major decisions quite yet,” and “Just take the next indicated step.” They suggested that I attend six meetings before deciding if recovery was for me, and they encouraged me to begin living one day at a time, not months into the future. Those suggestions were simple, but you know what they did? They calmed me down. They gave me space. They encouraged me to stop rushing, and they bought me time to figure out the rest.
IN CLOSING: During my earliest days of recovery, I wasn’t strong enough to meet my own needs; I barely knew what my needs were in the first place. But here’s what I did know: I knew how to put on my shoes. I knew how to open the door. I knew how to sit in a chair. I knew how to say my first name. These things were my way of asking for help, and to my relief, that’s all it took to get the ball rolling. Nine years later, it’s still not easy for me to identify my needs and articulate them. Sometimes others see my needs and offer me their strength, before I even realize it’s happening happening. But along the way, I’ve picked up this handly little trick, compliments of The Rolling Stones. It’s kitchy. It’s corny. But it’s also very, very true:
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
You just might find
You get what you need.
GAELYN RAE EMERSON
©2015–2019 | All Rights Reserved
LET IT BEGIN WITH ME was written by Gaelyn Rae Emerson in 2015. It was originally written for Sisters of Sobriety and Serenity, a social media blog for recovering women, with special thanks to its creator, Katie Maslin. Republished by Women Ever After, with minor biographical edits pending.
For more writings by Gaelyn Rae Emerson, click here or email email@example.com.