R is for Recovery #AtoZChallenge

Recovery is all over The Mud of the Place. Protagonist Shannon is an alcoholic with a pretty well established recovery — she’d be the first to say “recovering,” not “recovered,” and to emphasize that she’s gotten this far one day at a time.

She’s Giles K.’s sponsor in AA, while he’s her sponsor in matters artistic. Disgusted with the work she was turning out, she locked herself out of her own studio some years before; he’s painting during the day, waiting tables at night, and slowly making a name for himself in the art world. “Don’t make yourself paint,” he keeps telling her. “Let yourself paint.”

Mud grew out of my first 10 years on the Vineyard, thoroughly composted into a surprisingly rich soil. The most easily identifiable components were the news biz, recovery, and small-town gay and lesbian lives.

Recovery was part of my plan when I bolted from the big city, but how to explain in a blog post (1,000 words or less!) what I was looking for and why? I had no idea where to start. So I procrastinated. After getting out the vacuum to disappear some cobwebs on the ceiling that hadn’t bothered me for weeks, I headed over to Gmail to catch up on notifications from the blogs I follow.

My eye fell immediately on the latest from Steve Rose’s Social Health blog: “What Veterans Can Teach Us About Purpose.” Steve Rose writes well and perceptively about subjects dear to my heart, like addiction, and the relationship of individual and society. Often he focuses on the experience of veterans. I knew I was meant to read this post, right now. Once again procrastination had paid off.

It begins:

Finding purpose after leaving the military is often one of the most difficult parts of the transition. In the military, members experience a high level of communal purpose. This sense of communal purpose and belonging offered in the military is unparalleled in civilian life.

Then, a little later:

During transition, veterans become individuals again. By this, I mean the need to rebuild a sense of individual purpose; an identity outside the group. The difficulty here is that humans are not wired to simply rebuild an identity in isolation.

This threw me back to that tumultuous transition in my own life: the move from Washington, D.C., to Martha’s Vineyard. The short version is that my life was becoming unmanageable and home didn’t look like home anymore.

The D.C. women’s community and the wider feminist women in print movement was where I’d come out as a lesbian, become engaged as a feminist, and begun to find both my voice as a writer and my audience. Then the wider community proceeded to blow itself apart in what we survivors often refer to as the Lesbian Sex Wars. (The caps are optional, but the wars were epic.) I was in the “plague on both your houses” middle.

Me and my mother, 1952. Neither of us knew what was coming.

At the same time I was coming up against the defenses I’d thrown up as a teenager. I’d been determined to be as different from my unhappy alcoholic mother as I could, so I didn’t touch alcohol till I was over 21. I identified and allied myself with my perfectionist father — best to be on the winning side on the home front, eh?

That had its downside too, however. My elementary school teachers noted on my otherwise stellar report cards that I didn’t like to ask for help when I needed it. (“But I don’t need it,” I protested.) If I wasn’t sure of the right answer, I’d keep quiet until I was.

My body protected me as best it could: I  started eating compulsively. I got fat. If you were fat, no one expected anything of you. Your mind could go about its business unhindered by others’ expectations. For years I told myself that my jolly fat public persona was clearing space for the private me to write, but eventually feminism and the fat liberation movement persuaded me that I was deluding myself.

I could write an essay on how this photo changed my life. Maybe later. Note the Secede Now T-shirt. Photo by Beth Karbe. Ca. 1979, Rock Creek Park, D.C.

In the year or so before I left D.C. I wrote a 100-page memoir trying to understand (or write myself out of) the trap I was in. An AA friend who read it years later said it sounded like a Fourth Step to her: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It was in a way, but what it did was prepare me for Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For me it wasn’t alcohol, but I was using food the way my mother used booze, despite my determination to be as unlike my mother as possible. I was powerless, my life was unmanageable, my home community was blowing itself apart around me . . .

I ran.

The whole subject of adult children of alcoholics was cresting at the time, I found a group for ACAs, and what I did over the next five or so years was more or less rebuild myself from the ground up. As Steve Rose notes, “humans are not wired to simply rebuild an identity in isolation.” I sure wasn’t. Along with my ACA groups, I had my women’s group, the newspaper, island theater (coming up under T!), and the island itself.  All of them were crucial. I never stopped being me, but I did manage to overhaul the coping strategies I’d improvised to survive adolescence and young-womanhood and to start writing again.

The family Shannon fled was far more violent and dangerous than mine, but that moment when she realizes that though she left them physically behind, she’s brought their legacy with her? Been there and eventually found a similar lifeline.

The way forward

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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1 Response to R is for Recovery #AtoZChallenge

  1. Sometimes you have to walk away to see what you left and why. But it doesn’t mean walking was the mistake. Sometimes it is the revelation!


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