Braving the Wilderness
In the history of me, there is before 2017 and after 2017.
With every passing day of this year, I have taken my words and intentions and used them as a weapon – first against other people and then, in a much better use of my energies, against my own demons and character flaws.
She Recovers is not a political space, thank god. But in the story of me, in 2017, politics seeped into my sheets, my coffees, my dog walks. It was simply everywhere. It was ruining my intimate relationships and I couldn’t get ahold of it.
Sound familiar? Remind you of anything else?
Becoming woke and becoming sober – they happened simultaneously for me. How to tease out one from the other? Why did I finally get off the couch and into recovery? Was it the headlines or the hangovers? Either way, in the early days of wokeness and soberness, I experienced a special kind of detox hell. It was a raw awareness that made for some spectacularly ungraceful moments. Did that friendship fall apart because we no longer shared time at the neighborhood brewery? Or did it fall apart because the last time we talked, we found ourselves screaming at each other about a topic that neither of us has first-hand experience of (and most likely never will) but somehow seemed of greater importance than our decades-old relationship?
I was getting sober to finally be more connected, so why was I losing my members of my tribe? What the hell was happening?
The company you keep
In our She Recovers community, where women are actively embracing vulnerability and letting go of shame, Brené Brown’s work in these areas serves almost as a foundational pillar. And because of that, her direction and instruction can feel singularly personal.
In her pervious book Rising Strong, Brené writes: “There’s nothing better than the warm embrace of belonging – that feeling you get when you’re a part of something you love or believe in.”
I am totally onboard with this. In both my family and my friendships, one of my defining tenets is: “It’s the company you keep.” As the mother of two adolescent boys, I am hyperaware of the power in the people and messages we surround ourselves with. In a world where cultural norms are shifting and so many of us no longer attend traditional church services, we find directions not from pulpits and bible studies, but from the friends, music, books, pundits and leaders we read and listen to. Whatever we put ourselves in front of, and allow to wash over us, comes to serve as life guidelines and instruction. The company we keep defines what we do and don’t experience in life – for good and for bad.
So what happens when the company you’ve kept for years becomes distant and begins to feel uncomfortable? Do you push those feelings away and get back in line? Or do you develop a “fuck you” attitude and try to convince yourself that you’re fine being a lone wolf?
“When we stop caring what people think, we lose our capacity for connection,” Brené writes. “But when we are defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. The solution is getting totally clear on the people whose opinions actually matter.”
In Rising Strong, Brené suggests taking a one-by-one-inch square of paper and writing down the names of the people who really matter. “This is a sacred little space. … These should be the people who love you not despite your imperfections and vulnerabilities but because of them. … You should also include the people who are brave enough to say “I disagree” or “I think you’re wrong” and who will question you when they see you acting outside of your values.”
In her new book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené lays out 2017 in all its beauty and dysfunction. “I didn’t intend to write a book about belonging set against a backdrop of political and ideological chaos,” she says. “But that’s not my call to make. My job is to be true to the data.”
Brené writes that “our world is in a collective spiritual crisis. … The choices we’re making to protect our beliefs and ourselves are leaving us disconnected, afraid and lonely.”
Braving the Wilderness is about the consequences that come when we are true to ourselves – when the list of names dwindles and we find ourselves separated from our tribe and alone in the wilderness.
In the years leading up to 2017, the list of names on my little one-inch square were etched in stone. Those names were my go-tos for both big and little life decisions. But this year, as I found myself sobering up, speaking out and eventually helping to start an activist organization, the list grew smaller and smaller until there was only one name on it – my husband’s. As wonderful as my husband is, I know I need more than him. And I had lost my women friends, my sisters. I have rarely felt so alone.
The friend who I found myself fighting with – 15 years ago she saved my life. And she did not do this by lifting me up or offering me help. In the bleak days of postpartum depression and colicky babies and sleep deprivation, just when I was getting acquainted with my darkest parts, she joined me in the fox hole of motherhood. Together we braved that new and overwhelming landscape and we saved each other by sharing our struggles and vulnerabilities.
But somehow, over time, our fox hole became a dark box that was more about keeping us in, rather than keeping things out.
“We have to step out from behind the barricades of self-preservation,” Brené writes, “and brave the world.”
Sandpits and spirituality
When we lose our tribe and are adrift, it’s easy to panic and grasp on to untruthful narratives about ourselves and our situation. This is where we can find ourselves saying “No thank you” to sincere offers of help (lone wolf). Or we can find ourselves trying to fit into new crowds who have no true love for us at all.
As I navigated through these sandpits, I needed guides. In 2017, I had not one, but two therapists. And I had my books. I read so much this year that books started stacking up around my bed like a precariously drawn border, helping me define myself again. This was the company I kept. The authors were as varied as their stories. But over and over again the message was the same: Trust yourself. Love yourself. You are enough.
Brené defines true belonging in this way:
True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
Many of the books I read emphasized the need for spiritual practice and meditation. One author described it as “simple in concept, complicated in practice.” She is overly optimistic.
Meditation. It is a shit show every time, but still I try. I breath and wait for the God voice. She is very patient, because she has to wait for all the other voices to tire themselves out. But eventually, if I stay with it and keep pushing away the little ones, she comes and smiles at me. And I try very hard to stay quiet and listen.
Here is what she has told me about 2017: There was always another name on my list. Call it what you will – God, Source, Universe, Higher Power, Erin – it is the one voice that never wavers, is steadfast in its tenderness and insists on forward momentum. It is the true connection we seek.
You could not find a woman who believes more deeply in the power of community than me. I am writing this blog – here in this space and with a sober mind – through the power of belonging and community I found through She Recovers. But 2017 has given me both a love of tribe and a healthy understanding of its limitations. It also gave me the exquisitely painful and beautiful lesson that when we let go of our tribe and allow ourselves to follow new paths, we make room for new people and places in our lives.
Yes, we are hardwired for connection and in our lives we need safe spaces – fox holes – to recover and rediscover ourselves. We need them when we are becoming woke to whatever our personal truth is, whether that is facing the reality of new motherhood, our need to quit drinking, or a desire to become more active in the world. But eventually, ideally, we will feel strong enough to venture away, back out again into our wilderness. Trusting that we are never really alone and good things await us.
Erin W. is the managing editor and lead writer for the She Recovers blog. She lives in Virginia where she has been working on and blogging about recovery since 2013. After years of trying to do recovery alone, she discovered the beauty of connection and friendship through She Recovers in 2017.