For many of us living in long-term recovery who have answered the call to be vocal and visible voices of recovery, we find that we are asked to “share our story” a lot. We learn how to tailor our lived experience for different audiences, how to pull out the pieces of our story that apply to a particular setting, how to refine the key messages and talking points in order to have the greatest impact. We routinely share about traumatic events that once broke us, painful experiences that once rocked us and things we have done that once shamed us. Some of us find that we "share our story" so much that we become detached from it, like a neutral narrator describing somebody else's life. As people who receive our story say things like “I can’t imagine that was you;” “I can’t see you ever doing that” or I can’t even picture you living that way or experiencing those things,” we ourselves at times find that we feel the same way. It can actually feel like we are in fact sharing about somebody else’s life or, at the very least, that we are describing a version of us that seems like it lived more than an eternity ago.
Although it is desperately important that more and more individuals and families living in recovery step out of the shadows and share their experience with the world around them, it is also important that we put our own wellness and our own recovery first. While traditionally in the recovery community, this idea has been intended to convey the necessity of putting the things we need to do to sustain our own recovery before anything else, I have found that putting our own wellness and recovery first also has another meaning.
For me, the act of widely and freely sharing my lived experience over the years preceded my own healing from that very experience. As an example, I have shared often about the tremendously painful experience of losing my mother to addiction yet am only now going through the arduous process of healing from that loss. I would share this experience from a detached place as if I were talking about somebody else losing their mother. I would talk about the death of my mother as if I were telling you what I ate for breakfast this morning. I would talk about growing up without my mother as if I were talking about another little girl who experienced that pain. I would feel absolutely nothing while I stood in front of an audience or sat in front of my computer and shared about the biggest loss of my life. Now, for those of us with an understanding of trauma, this makes sense. A hallmark coping mechanism for dealing with trauma is detachment. A sensible protective mechanism for me while rehashing the trauma of losing my mom each and every time I talked about it would be to detach emotionally from it. And I did. For years. It is only now, after 12 years of living in recovery, that I am truly going through the therapeutic process of healing and recovering from the painful loss of my mother. I spent many years sharing the story of this loss before the important inner work of tending to my own recovery from it.
While the act of sharing our story can be hugely cathartic and bring about healing in and of itself, it is important that we pay attention to where we are at in our recovery journey. While it is imperative that we have vocal and visible voices of recovery to demonstrate that recovery is in fact possible, we must be careful that we do not stunt our own wellness and recovery journeys in the process. We cannot skip over the critical step of nurturing our own inner healing if we truly want the freedom of recovery. At the end of the day, not only is this instrumental to our own well-being which is most important, it also happens to allow for us to reach people where it matters most. If I am in a place of being able to share from my heart rather than from a detached place of protecting it, I can then connect to and reach people in their hearts. If I can share my story as my story rather than as if it were somebody else’s, it will be then that my voice truly has power. There is absolutely freedom in recovery and power in our voices – all we have to do is put our own wellness and recovery first.