Patrick Sallee talks about facing the reality of his choices, and how he came out better for it on the other side.
I stared at myself through a rusty jail cell mirror … a black and white striped jump suit and unshaven face.
Knowing your actions put you in that kind of place forces you to re-evaluate your life, your choices and what you are going to do next. It is a mental image I won’t ever forget, because its an image I don’t ever want to see again.
It would have been easy to convince myself that “this isn’t me, I don’t belong here.” But it would be more lies. It would be more lying to myself. And the only choice I had was to stop. Stop convincing myself I didn’t have a problem. Stop covering up the partying and the bad choices. I only had one choice and that was to stop and work to turn life around.
At the time, I had no way to know what life would look like in the future. All I knew was it couldn’t look like what it did at the time. As I look back now, I don’t recognize that person. I know it was me. I know I made poor choices, but the person is different. The inside.
I try to learn something each day, no matter how small. In the last 3 years, since I took my last drink of alcohol, the world has taught me a lot.
I’m not perfect
Admitting to a problem with alcohol brings on shame and embarrassment. The exact feelings I used to attempt to drink away. Anxiety, fear, nerves, shame … you name it, I covered it up with alcohol. I beat myself up for quite a while. The circumstances I was in and the choices I made bothered me. I didn’t know how to own them. I was angry that I made mistakes that impacted my family, my friends and most importantly my kids.
But in time I realized not being perfect is ok, in fact, it is normal. Trying to own my story, my mistakes as well as my successes combine to make me the person I am. And it is all ok.
Acknowledging feelings is important
It wasn’t long after I sobered up that I realized I saw the world much more clearly. Waking up without a hangover, without the remnants of a night out in my head for a few days. Interactions both socially and at work became much more clear. In the beginning I found myself very anxious, but after a few months there was a level of calm with owning my feelings. The feelings I used to run from, I could now sit with and acknowledge.
Pain leads to growth
I used to drink away any pain and misery. I didn’t really allow myself to feel it, to grow. But this experience forced growth. I didn’t have a choice. What I have realized since is that in any area of life, the most important changes have been prompted by pain.
Narrowing priorities makes life more manageable
When I initially stopped drinking I tried to live life the same way. Still meeting friends at happy hour, still going out on weekends when I was free … just thought the only change I needed was my drink order. That didn’t last long. First, it was never comfortable, but then I realized being out at a bar wasn’t a priority to me. There was nothing for me there. My priorities became crystal clear and doing things that support those priorities became much easier. My behavior had jeopardized my children, my family and my work. That wasn’t going to happen again.
Only thing I can control is me
In a number of different settings I meet new people where this topic comes up. I never know how people are going to react, from jokes to judgement or for the most part, acceptance. I used to get very anxious about sharing this. I was worried how people would react but I realized it didn’t matter. My choice was made and I wasn’t going to pick up a drink because someone I barely know gave me a hard time about having iced tea.
I realized that, as it relates to this, I made a choice and I’m moving forward and that is all I can do. I have no control over how other people see that choice. This realization has impacted the rest of my life though. I see that at work or in other life decisions, I can’t let the feelings or unsolicited input from others impact my choices. I own the outcome, so I have to own the action.
Fear and shame can ruin your life
I lived a long time with fear and shame controlling me. It was something I never realized until I chose sobriety. Those feelings drove most life choices. Fear of failure, both personally and professionally. Shame from failures and from hiding a problem with alcohol. It all boiled over after my divorce into more than I could handle.
What that DUI did was uncover all of it. Forced me to face it. Forced it to be public, at least in the sense that my family, friends, employer, all had to know. There was nothing to cover up any more and that really became freedom for me. Once I experienced that type of freedom, it has been clear I can’t go back. It is one of the driving forces to staying sober.
Owning mistakes weakens the damage
People often ask me about sharing this sort of thing publicly. Why I’m comfortable putting it out there or am I worried about negative responses or consequences. While there have been a handful of negative situations from sharing there are far more positive. And what I realized soon after I started sharing my story with people was that it weakened anyone’s ability to use it against me. It isn’t a secret someone knows about me they can share with my boss. Or it isn’t some story a woman I start dating will hear from someone else. They will hear it directly from me … and pretty early on.
When I own my mistakes, it makes it harder for them to be used against me. This has played out to be true in other situations. When I make a mistake at work, it is harder to hold it against me for long when I own it and claim it. Same is true in relationships. It often diffuses the situation. We often avoid admitting mistakes as we don’t want the consequences or we don’t want to hurt people. But standing up and owning it is the first step in improving.
There is now a different version of me in the mirror. One I can be proud of … comfortable in my own skin and confident in the choices I make.
Photo Credit: flickr.com/giuseppemilo