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. 

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Thomas B.

    Thanks, Teresa, for  a well-conceived and executed article. I have long-term sobriety with the last several years mostly within Secular AA. I have finally introjected the AA principle that it is progress, not perfection. For years, sober, I castigated myself for outbursts of anger, including being angry at other people’s anger, especially loved ones, for not being perfect. It’s only been within the last several years that I have been gifted with the ability to allow myself the natural, normal human experience of anger. I salute myself for making progress — I don’t yell and scream nearly as much as I used to do, I simply express my anger and walk away, letting go and letting good order direction.

    Also, it’s been my experience both as a sponsee and as a sponsor that just listening and identifying with another alcoholic compassionately is much more effective than giving advice or suggesting what they should do. From the very first meeting of Bill with Dr. Bob, we alcoholics have been effective sharing our experience, not telling others what to do.

  2. boyd p.

    Teresa, thank you for helping us make progress with anger issues.  In response here is a “pat” answer that I will briefly explain.  My goal is to transform anger into insight, discovering another new response that might be useful in the future.  The experience is infrequent, episodic but, I trust, likely.  Similarly, a nature walk yesterday granted me the lifelong treasured memory of chipmunks busily harvesting the clusters of berries hanging on the bare stems of poison oak. I believe the seeds of knowledge are all around, in abundance.  These experiences become more likely if I find balance in the moment.

  3. Diane

    In early sobriety saying “I have to talk to my sponsor ” was an attempt to give myself some time to evaluate.  This was an acceptable response to AA folks who use it for control. Thank you.

    The photos are amazing.


  4. heather b

    Thank you for the reminder that sobriety, and accompanying growth, looks different for each of us.  Some of us are moving away from selfishness and others are recovering from putting the needs of others above our own.  As always, I appreciate your willingness to be vulnerable.  To me, it’s the bravest thing we can do.

  5. Kit G

    Thank you, Teresa, for this article. It articulates in so many ways how I feel and think about mine and others’ anger, control and dependencies. I think it will make an excellent topic of discussion at our next secular meeting.

  6. Sharon J.

    Beautifully said, and beautifully felt, Teresa.  Thank you for sharing with us!  I have not stopped “peeling the onion.”  It is exciting for me to know my journey in self-awareness never has to be over, and my personal-learning does not ever have to end.

  7. life-j

    Teresa, thanks for this. We talk way too little about boundaries in AA, in fact often muddle the idea of boundaries with stuff like ‘fake it till you make it’ – I faked it much of my life and never made it until I stopped faking it.

    With a higher power in charge of our lives, and a sponsor telling us what to do when the higher power is taking the day off, it’s small wonder we can’t learn about boundaries very well in AA

    Your story does a lot to help remedy this boundary mess. We need more of this.

  8. Ken

    Lots of wisdom and excellent advice for me Teresa  I hope you’ll write again.

  9. Joe C.

    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 in its day but authenticity is being replaced as a strategy where being a faker was before. Erica Spiegelman has a good book in this called Rewired.

    ditto the sentiment that more writings would be welcome.  Teresa, your clear and thoughtful. Thanks.

  10. Maria T.

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

  11. Diana R

    Thank-you for your honest and insightful article.

  12. Sue D

    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 resentments, and to make one feel hopeless, helpless, and just plain “less.”  When my I discovered I was powerless over alcohol, and my life had become unmanageable, I started doing it in AA.  I went to district meetings, volunteered to help with every event, served as GSR, district secretary, everything I could cram into my schedule, I did – trying to fake being a wonderful, generous, caring, talented…

    Thank you, Theresa.  I really neede to see this.  I am going to read this every day to fortify myself. Self-care. Serenity. Recovery. 

  13. Gerald

    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. 

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