“Life on life’s terms.” It’s an axiom one frequently hears in 12 step-based support meetings. This simple slogan infuriated me the first time I read it hanging on the wall of a church basement, cheaply framed and written in nearly illegible swirly script. The crooked saying stood out to me, among the many others reading “Let Go and Let God,” “First Things First,” “Keep it Simple,” and other obnoxious catchphrases. I felt completely duped and wanted my money back. If I had entered these rooms only to be handed some vague spiritual nonsense one would expect to receive from an egomaniacal guru charging desperate people thousands of dollars for ridiculous mantras, I’d have moved to India…or San Diego.
I walked in to these meetings because drugs and alcohol had stopped working for me. I needed someone or something to fix me, so I could move on with Life…on MY terms. I was not at all satisfied with the intolerable conditions Life had laid out for me. I remained convinced that I was an exception to these unjust tenets. That was a lifetime ago, and a few things have changed since then.
I am often reminded of an afternoon decades ago on a skeletal playground that was most likely crawling with tetanus. But I never noticed the rust. I only ever went there to escape on the swings. I was seven. Maybe eight. I can precisely picture myself pumping back and forth on that rickety swing set determined to touch the sky. I had to let go at exactly the right moment to experience complete freedom from gravity. When I got as high as I could possibly get, I let go. I had done this countless times, a thrilling moment of flight before I landed squarely on the soles of my feet. Until that afternoon when gravity got the best of me. On this particular day, I swung with a determined fire igniting each cell in my tiny body. As I let go of the chains, my feet propelled forward with the breathless momentum my insatiable drive had generated. And then gravity violently yanked me down, my back slamming against the ground.
The astonishment of the wind being sucked from my lungs and the soundless gasping into a vacuum paralyzed me. No air could enter. The space between the complete snatching away of all breath before it gradually returns is the shock of absolute powerlessness. The unexpected vacancy that one cannot fill no matter how desperately they fight for air. The bewilderment and terror of an empty breathless interior, not knowing when it will be filled once again. I could not defy gravity.
Since that day on the playground, I have become well acquainted with this interim period of empty breathlessness and the subsequent waiting that follows before the lungs can take in Life. And it is an altered Life. For it is a Life that now knows its own fragility and opposing resilience. It is a Life that will never be as it was before. Because now it is complemented with a silent mourning period as each one of us has sat astounded at the suddenness of the gaping hole left behind after a fall. A starving vacuum waiting to be filled.
That’s what it felt like the day I got sober. I trembled in enraged muted protest as I squarely met “Life on Life’s terms” for the first time in my floundering existence. My breath once again violently torn from my body. Powerlessness, addiction, suffering. These are just a few of Life’s terms that I vehemently detested in those early and precarious days.
I am a recovering alcoholic, junkie, pill addicted, obsessive compulsive, self-damaging, divorced, cancer surviving, religiously damned, battered, broken and healed, miscarriage of a “normal” adult. Furthermore, the course of my Life has typically been directed by extreme perfectionism, an intense need for approval, and a tenacious fear of abandonment. I have a chemically “differently abled” mind and spiritually starving interior. Without help, my moral compass will remain faulty, leading me to blindly guess, often incorrectly, what direction to take. I am terminally self-centered, emotionally erratic, fitfully phobic, and pathologically self-doubting.
Nevertheless, in spite of this vast collection of character defects and mutations there is a narrow window of hope and possibility that I glimpse through each day. And it is through this tiny opening that I methodically adjust my acuity, manipulate my inherent nature, and walk into the light of wellness, joy, and peace. It has only been within these small margins of chance and grace that I have survived and flourished in recovery. That is my condition. I was conceived and born within the container of a gloriously complex, erratic, devastating, and beautiful mess of genes and experiences as each one of us are.
About a month before I got sober, I was driving to the liquor store weeping without restraint. Praying that something would stop me. Praying for death. Praying for the first time since childhood with “the desperation of a dying man.” I was brought to “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization” as I walked through the door to the liquor store puffy and red eyed. I knew on a cellular level that alcohol could no longer treat the internal sense of perpetual aching. It could never again make my existence tolerable. In fact, it had made my existence more intolerable than it had ever been. I knew that alcohol would never work for me again. It could not free me from what I then perceived to be the harshest of life’s terms. Yet I still bought the cheapest handle of vodka I could find and drank it on the way back to my parents’ basement. That is where living Life on MY terms had brought me. And this is what I have since learned about living “Life on Life’s terms.”
“Life is not fair!” This is a particularly unpopular yet inflexible term of Life. As a professional that treats addiction and mental illness, a person in recovery, AND a mother of two young children, I hear that a lot. If Life were fair, I would be dead, institutionalized, or in prison. When shaking my fists at the sky in complete outrage and disbelief, I can quickly forget an important clause attached to this unyielding term of misconstrued injustice: Life also offers second (and third, and forth, and often countless) chances, forgiveness, and healing. It is only through grace, the unmerited and undeserved favor, that I continue to breath in and out. I am infinitely grateful that Life does not offer fairness but instead delivers grace. I continue to imperfectly practice radical acceptance of those ancient axioms that hang on countless walls around the world, in places of healing, and in the homes of those that have “come to believe.” It is through living “Life on Life’s terms” that I have remained in continuous recovery since August 31, 2007.
Throughout my spiraling course of healing and re-healing, I have made many mistakes, but have somehow remained honest, open-minded, and willing to the best of my ability. I have learned that recovery is an erratic process of following (or attempting to follow) suggestions, not dogmatic guidelines. It is a simple suggested pathway to a spiritual way of life and to developing a relationship with a power greater than ourselves. What that power is and the exact nature of that spiritual way of Life is left to our own understanding. I am still figuring much of this out, and the continual process of discovery awakens me to the marvel of greater mysteries.
This is what “Life on Life’s terms” has come to mean to me today: pain, challenges, perceived injustices are opportunities for growth and desperately needed change. The sadness, suffering, and heartache richly color my Life adding a quiet beauty, an unassuming intricacy that robs me of breath. Today I have stopped asking the relentless question: “WHY?” It is the wrong question to be asking, and there is no satisfactory answer. I simply don’t get to know “Why.” The solution is to radically accept the unanswerable ambiguities of Life and the vast unknowns that wait on the other side of this eternal query.
There are a few more fundamental terms of Life I have discovered over the course of my relatively short time here: Today I get to be exactly myself, regardless of the judgments or conditions that others place on my worth. Today I can sit with the unknown, wildly uncomfortable with this at times but eventually coming back to the peace that surrendering to Life’s terms can bring. I can love, and hurt, and need, and fear, and rage, and scream, and laugh, and play, and risk, and lose, and fall, and rise without the old restrictions and inheritance of shame that came with living Life on MY terms. That is freedom.
Today I try not to stifle the suffering, for it holds the power to create, transform, and heal. I allow the pain, uncertainty, aching, fear, and discomfort to pass through me with faith, strength, humility, (and at times reluctant) surrender. And with this comes the knowledge that, no matter what, I am going to be ok. Today my hunger is no longer for diversion but instead for authenticity and thriving.
There is connection, peace, and joy lying dormant within each of us awaiting discovery and expression when we surrender to Life’s terms. And because of this, even though we are, all of us, broken in our own ways, with recovery and with each other our interior light can shine through the cracks. Recovery has brought me into the stream of Life “on Life’s terms.” MY terms had me swimming upstream, and I was drowning.
Life becomes permanently altered as a result of addictions, afflictions, the perpetual process of breaking and healing, the many stumblings, and other “mishaps” that naturally fall across our paths. And yet, it is on the other side of suffering, pain, and fear where I have found Life’s greatest gifts. I have learned that healing, peace, joy, and safety are possible. I have lived it. And I see it within the human beings I encounter every day. I am surrounded by individuals who serve as reminders through their selfless acts of kindness and their resilience in the face of suffering that there is always hope.
Undeniably, I have become fluent in the language of loss as we all do over time; however, those who continue to patiently walk the path with us speak a different language. It is the wordless yet powerful language of love. That is the fellowship that recovery brings. Living “Life on Life’s terms” has led to the discovery of things that bring passion, truth, love, heartache, joy, and beauty that summon tears. I have sought artificial versions of this because I have not wanted to suffer. But Life is suffering, and it is within the suffering that the human and divine meet inside each of us. It is where both the absence of breath and breath itself collide. It is within this sacred space where, if we surrender to gravity and the flow of the stream, we will ultimately experience the remarkable contrast between the vacancy and fullness that comes with each breath…as well as the unknown space in between.