Nine Years Sober and Still Peeling the Onion

By Teresa H.

Looking back to the beginning of my recovery from alcoholism, I have come a long way. I remember the first year of sobriety seeking balance in my life. I was aware of the importance of balance or, as others call it, emotional sobriety. Over the years I have become aware that self-care, healthy boundaries, and connecting with others and myself allow me to maintain balance. And when I feel balanced, I am more content and able to live in the moment.

According to the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, as an alcoholic I am selfish and self-centered. Where I get into trouble is knowing at what point being selfless and other-centered is also unhealthy. At what point do I need time to take care of myself? You see, my emotional nature is way too tied up in other people. I struggle with control issues, creating boundaries, and speaking my truth. I enjoy taking care of other people, but don’t know where to stop.

I have an uncanny ability to sense and feel others’ feelings. I don’t think this ability is an entirely negative thing. I love this aspect of myself. It helps me to connect with and relate to people. But it can be disruptive, especially with strong emotions. For example, I am uncomfortable witnessing anger. My immediate reaction is to try to fix it, to change the angry person’s feelings. It’s not about them; I don’t want them to be angry so I can be more comfortable. If fixing it doesn’t work, I will get angry at them for being angry. It makes no sense and it isn’t helpful to me or them. I don’t want to ride this roller coaster anymore.

Lately, when people get angry, I remind myself that this is their reaction to something. And I am powerless over it.  There is nothing I can do to change it. I listen as best I can and that’s about it. I resist the urge to change feelings, ask questions, or speak at all. I’m not disconnected though; I’m there to witness and sympathize. But I also take care of myself. This means allowing them to have their feelings and remind myself it is not about me. If I can do this, I don’t get mad at them or myself. Actually, I feel pretty proud of myself for staying out of their process.

Also, when talking about self-care I’m reminded of the HALT acronym, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. I must take care of myself when I’m experiencing any of these. Better yet, when I have a regular eating and sleeping pattern, a caring person to talk with, and am journaling regularly, I am being proactive. I prefer being on top of my needs rather than reaching a crisis over and over again. I think I do okay with the Hungry, Lonely, and Tired but am still working on the Angry.

Learning the skills to have healthy boundaries has taken time and a lot of willingness. And it took time to develop the willingness. Suddenly it is here, but I am still struggling to set my boundaries. My boundaries are shoddy with almost everyone, but especially with those close to me. I often allow their comfort and happiness to trump mine. I am now more aware of when this happens and try to make a different decision. Usually this decision means telling them something I don’t believe they want to hear. When I do this, I’m often amazed how I feel. I feel heard and authentic, and I feel good even if their reaction was exactly what I feared.

In the rooms of AA I have gotten mixed messages about boundaries. A member will say, “To thine own self be true,” and another will say, “If someone asks you to do something in AA, your answer should always be yes.” I understand the thought behind this second statement, but it suggests that I, the asked, am less important than the asker. And if I am less important, then my needs are less important, too. So even if I am over-stressed and over-extended already, I shouldn’t consider my own needs first. I hear a lot of people respond to being asked by saying, “let me talk with my sponsor about that.” I question why all decisions are filtered through another person. I question why we don’t teach each other to trust our own judgments. We should teach each other that taking care of oneself first has value because everyone’s self is valuable. And that in taking care of myself, I can be a better sponsor or friend to another.

Because you see for me, when I am withholding myself, my thoughts, my feelings, and my needs while trying to please those around me, something unpleasant happens. I shut down. I go into isolation. Or my built-up anger and resentment explodes out of me and does serious damage. I usually prefer to isolate and then I hate myself. Being open and honest with my thoughts and feelings and working a better program is a better way of living.

Part of my internal balance must include being with and engaging with others in an open and honest way. My secular women’s AA meeting, “She Agnostics,” allows this because the members have a special openness I haven’t found anywhere else. Talking to individual AA members and my sponsor help. But allowing myself to feel connected to others, humanity, and the world is paramount to my balance. I would equate feeling connected in this way to being connected to a higher power for me. This means when I’m asked how I am, I answer with my truth at that moment. I don’t hide myself. I tell the person asking what is on my mind and what is affecting me.  Maybe the key is being open and open-minded. To feel connected, I must be aware of what is around me, the sounds, the smells, and the conversation. I must allow myself to be affected by what is happening because, after all, something is always happening.

In the beginning of recovery, all I could do was not drink each day. Later I could work on deeper things like getting to know myself. A peeling of the layers from myself, learning and changing with each layer. Today I am learning to accept and believe that my feelings, thoughts, ideas, and opinions matter. If I need to say something to someone, I must say it. The world won’t end. Nobody will be destroyed. On the contrary, my relationship with them will likely deepen. And I will be that much closer to having balance.

About the Author

 Teresa H. is a bodyworker who currently lives in Carmel, Indiana. She has been a sober AA member for 9 years, one day at a time. This is her first published article.  


The photographs used in this article are the original work of Jan A. 

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3 years ago

Thank you Teresa. I like how you put it: “self-care, healthy boundaries, and connecting with others and myself.” After all these years, no, I don’t feel that selfishness, self-centeredness was the root of all my problems. Instead, I was a traumatized person. I didn’t have healthy social skills. I needed to love and have faith in myself. Selfishness, self-centeredness, & self-seeking are symptoms, for me, of low feelings of self-worth. When I’m OK with myself, then I can live day by day with that go-with-the-flow attitude that I’ve learned (still learning) in AA. 

Sue D
Sue D
4 years ago

When I hear, “fake it ’til you make it,” I cringe – that’s how I got here!  I spent 56 years of my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t; trying to do/be what I thought the people around me wanted me to do/be; trying to please everyone around me. I said “yes” to things I didn’t have time for, didn’t have the proper skills for, and to things I did not want to do. I often put my family off to do things for a friend, a co-worker, school, church… whatever.   It’s a great way to pile up… Read more »

Diana R
Diana R
4 years ago

Thank-you for your honest and insightful article.

Maria T.
Maria T.
4 years ago

Thank you for such a great piece Theresa. Your writing is clear and your words ring true for me.

Joe C.
4 years ago

I thought I was a very self-aware person when I sat down to do my first Step 4. I had what I called the a breakthrough or maybe a rude awakening would be apt. Looking back now it was scratching the surface but it felt at the time that I was now “all seeing.” There were more ah-ha moments when I thought, “Now I get it!” The best so can do today is to keep in mind that my vantage is limited and I never know more than some truth. Faking it until we make it was a sympathetic sentiment… Read more »