The newcomer

Updated: Oct 22, 2019

Yesterday in a twelve step meeting, I sat across from a girl who felt like home.

When she introduced herself to the group, I saw that she was one of those people who look like their name. She looked so much like her name that I knew it before she opened her mouth. (I can’t tell you her name for anonymity’s sake, but trust me: Any other name would have been absurd.) At first, I wondered if that was all. I already knew her name. Maybe that’s why she felt like home.

When she opened her mouth, I guessed again. “I’m a philosophy major,” she stated - then corrected herself, “No, I majored in philosophy.” As a philosophy major myself, I know full well that we tend to forget we aren’t in college anymore, that our major is no longer the most salient aspect of our identity. I’m a philosophy major seems to communicate something more: I over-rely on thinking. I prefer the problems I can’t see. I low-key think I’m very, very smart.

Maybe that’s why she felt like home. We’d both spent four years on inactionable degrees.

After the meeting, she walked up to me. She would normally be shy and withdrawn, I knew, but her desperation had taken ahold of her feet. I told her I recognized her, but after finding no common thread, she said, “I must just remind you of someone.”

She was on her second day sober. Rehab hadn’t worked, her family was far away, and her boyfriend had broken up with her days before. Her legs were rail-thin and her hair and makeup were flawless. Here was someone who turned heads while feeling incredibly small, while wishing vehemently to disappear. Here was someone who used an intimidating exterior to keep others at bay, because it was so much easier than asking them to go away.

On my drive home, I reflected on the girl I met. It was as if I’d caught her between costume changes. She was, for a second, ready to talk - and when she started, the tears came immediately. I was transported back to the misery of an unwanted breakup and the bewilderment of early sobriety all at once. I knew in that moment why she felt like home. She was me. Me then, and sometimes me now, too.

Me, but a little stronger. After all, I’ve never undergone a bad breakup sober. I’m not sure how it feels to dread waking up the next day and have no plans for anesthetizing yourself come evening. My worst breakup by a landslide was in college, and while I hated waking up the next morning - feeling the crushing weight of the end all over again, day after day - I knew I could dress up, look hot, get drunk, and get attention that night or that weekend.

(That would show him. He, who had so mercilessly and so suddenly moved on. As if there was nothing much to move on from at all.)

This is why we are so careful to greet the newcomer. It isn’t because we want them to keep coming back. It isn’t because one wrong line, one bad experience, and they’ll be off to the races again. We have no control over the course of their disease. We are irrelevant to their next drunk. It isn’t about them.

In early sobriety I struggled with self-compassion. My mind was flooded with all of the things I’d made worse through my drinking. If only I’d had a few less drinks. If only I’d known the right thing to say, the safe way to behave. If only I’d stepped on fewer toes on the road to drying out. Then I could forgive myself. Then I could fall asleep at night without thinking about him, or her, or him again, wake up without replaying what I’d ruined. Then I'd be deserving of love.

When the girl at the meeting shared with me, compassion came easily. I felt compassion towards her, of course, and at the same time felt it towards myself - meandering about my starkly decorated apartment back in January of 2016. Of course we were okay. Of course we had nothing to be ashamed of. We were staying sober - the most unnatural act there is for an alcoholic in pain - and that was all that mattered, that was our only job. Sobriety from everything else - relationships, body obsession, self-hatred - would come in time. Of course we were enough.

Hell, we were miracles.