Defining Recovery by Karen VanDenBerg

step 12 magazine defining recovery

I had my knees replaced in 2012. Both knees at once. There were two surgeons—one was an expert in “knee replacements” and the other was an expert in “foot reconstruction.” For some odd reason, I chose a foot doctor for my knee issues and, luckily for me, he called in reinforcements.

Leading up to the surgery, I was telling a dear friend about the anticipated procedure, “The surgery is supposed to take a few hours. I’ll be in the hospital for a couple days, and then they’ll take me directly to rehab.” Her response, “Again?” made me laugh out loud. I had to clarify, “PHYSICAL rehab, not rehab-rehab.”

However, there are parallels between the two. When I went to rehab for my alcohol dependence, I was unable to care for myself. I was stymied with even the smallest tasks—bathing, eating, hydrating. I was “cut off at the knees” in terms of functionality. I was consumed with consuming relief in the bottle. By this time, the relief had morphed from emotional comfort to physical necessity. Discomfort was attacking me being on every level.

Entering physical rehab after my knee surgery may have been a different circumstance but the need was very similar. I was unable to to care for myself by myself. I had difficulty performing simple tasks like dressing, bathing, and relieving myself.  However, the recovery I experienced there was a cake-walk (no pun intended) compared to my recovery from alcoholism.

Once the knife pierced my skin and the saw-blade severed my bones, there was no turning back. Recovery was not an option. Post-surgery, my adjustment to the change was painful. Re-learning to walk, sit, stand and climb stairs took determination and persistence. I had to work hard and practice tolerance. I had to believe that the recommended exercises could and would make things better.

My recovery from alcoholism didn’t follow knives or saw-blades (although I have heard those stories, too). The only physical alteration was the withdrawal of alcohol from my system. A little medication and a lot of hope kept me alive during the process. From there, it seemed I had to re-learn everything except walking, standing, sitting and climbing stairs. I had to learn how to communicate, do laundry, laugh, write, think and feel without the help of alcohol. Where the surgery required a tolerance to physical pain, my recovery from alcohol dependence required a tolerance to emotional pain: grief, anger, sadness, fear.

I was in rehab for eight days after knee-replacement and sent home to complete my recovery with the help and support of physical therapists and visiting nurses. I was assured that the pain would subside and I trusted “them.” I was amazed at my ability to navigate the stairs with a simple cane just ten days after surgery!

I was in rehab-rehab for ninety days—eleven times longer than knee replacement rehab! Emotional and spiritual changes are much more complicated than physical changes (apparently). The choice to “turn back” would forever be available. It was difficult to fathom a forever without alcohol. The emotional highs and lows in rehab where sometimes gut-wrenching. The bad habits needed to be broken and replaced with tools that would steer me away from my deadly obsession.

The aches and pains in alcohol rehab required exercises of the spirit and the help of a power beyond my control. Walking through the pain, I trusted that the pain would subside if I followed the direction of experience. And after my ninety days was complete, I left to complete my recovery “at home.” I was amazed that I was able to drive past the liquor store without stopping after only ninety-days.

The twelve-steps became my therapy, my sponsor and sober-sisters became my visiting nurses, and my higher-power assumed the role of my surgeon in this new lease I had on life. Again, my surgeon called reinforcements—people, places and things that deliver messages and stimulate healing and growth.

Recovery was, and is, about re-learning to function appropriately with and without pain. It’s about learning to accommodate strengths and weaknesses. It’s about asking for help and accepting the help given. Not recovering, whether from surgery or addiction, usually means death—or worse! Whether recovering from a blow to the head, a bounced check, surgery, or addiction, recovery is about rebounding and adjusting to the unexpected with the help of a power beyond our control–one step, or one day, at a time. Let’s dance!

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