#RecoverLent – Vulnerability and Ash Wednesday

Six months into my sobriety, there was a moment that rockedme. It may have been the moment I came closest to drinking again. I had justcompleted my first year of seminary and was beginning Clinical PastoralEducation (CPE)—an intensive (and intense!) experience in which someone hopingto do ministry serves as a chaplain of a hospital, nursing home, hospicefacility, or correctional facility to gain exposure and to practice pastoralcare in an intentional and reflective space. CPE is normally undertaken with apeer group that is going through the same experience, and together we process theexperience with a supervisor.

A few days into CPE I disclosed to my peer group that I was in recovery. I had only recently begun to be more public and vulnerable about my recovery process, and I knew that CPE, confronting me with so much of death, life, tragedy, loss, joy, and the mundane, could push me to my limits. So I told my group as early as I felt that I could. I was proud of my recovery and how far I’d come, and I wanted it to be respected.

The group was supportive of me. They rallied around me and told me that they were proud of me and that they hoped I could trust them if I ever needed to talk about the challenges I faced. I was moved. But when I looked over at my supervisor, I could see that something was wrong. After our meeting ended, I approached her to ask her what was the matter.

And she rocked me to my core. She said, “You only have six months of sobriety! You didn’t tell me earlier? Do you know how hard this will be?”

I wish I could tell you that I was calm and assured, that I told her I was going to be okay and God would lead me through.

I wish I could tell you that I stood up for myself, assertive and strong in my own recovery.

But the truth is: I was terrified.

Those six months had been the hardest months of my life.

For six months I had experienced emotions like happiness, joy, anger, frustration, sadness, sorrow, pain, and depression at levels I had not felt in over 6 years.

I had struggled through the depths of winter without a substance to get me through. I was still struggling with stress without a drink to help me relax. I was tired because my body was trying to learn how to digest normal foods. My stomach was often in pain because I had caused so much damage to it with my drinking and odd food consumption.

I can’t remember what I said to her. I think I tried to defend myself, but all I really remember is that I was crushed.

Crushed, because it felt as if all the strength I had built up in those months drained away with just a few words. Crushed that she couldn’t understand how much those months meant to me. Crushed that, even thoughI was working to be healthier and more whole, I was still able to be broken so easily.

My heart was broken, my brain fractured. I just wanted to leave… and get a drink.

As I drove home, I had a decision to make: home, drink, oran AA meeting.

By the grace of God, an hour later I was in an AA meeting. For most of the meeting I listened, hearing others talk but unsure whether I had the voice or the courage to say what had happened to me just a couple hours earlier.

Then, after someone had finished speaking, I found my hand in the air, and I was called on.

“My name is Micah and I am an Alcoholic.”

Anger and frustration came out of me. Fury, fear, and release poured from me as I related what had happened. How she had used the words “only six months” like a weapon. How broken I felt after all I had worked on.

They were the perfect support group. They gasped when I told them what she said. They got upset with me and wanted to curse her out in unison. They shared in my frustration. They shared in my struggle. They urged me to continue on the road and affirmed how far I had come.

They put me back together so I could make it through the night.

When the meeting ended, many came up to talk to me and say again that they were on my side and that if there was anything I needed, all I had to do was call. It was heartwarming.

And then came the conversation that would change my life.

One of the older members of the AA group came up to me. He had been at almost every meeting that I had attended at this place and definitely had the trust and respect of everyone in the room.

He came up to me and thanked me for sharing. Then he said:

“It’s terrible that she said that to you. But… you only have six months.”

My heart sank.

Then he continued:
“But… you did everything right tonight. When the earth crumbled beneath your feet, you came here. You found your support. You opened yourself completely. Sharing your pain, your brokenness. You did everything right tonight. And that’s what I want you to take from this experience. Whether you have six months, six years, or sixty years, there are moments in our life that can cause the earth to crumble, that put our sobriety and our lives in jeopardy, and it is important to know that we all have our limits. We all are powerless. But when we know where to turn—when we know where to go and can share and be vulnerable—you make it through the day and live to take the rest one day at a time.”

It may be the most important lesson I have ever learned.From the support of the rest of the AA group, I could have convinced myself that I was strong and powerful and that I’d conquered this night. I could have owned and gloated in my self-righteousness. I could have led myself down the slippery slope of ego. Instead, I found that there is a huge difference between a group that only serves to build you up and a group that both supports you AND holds your brokenness and limitations with you.

We need to turn to the places and people who seek not to fix us but to support us, to help us hold the pieces of our brokenness. In our vulnerability, we let others help us see our limitations. They can help us to see that we can’t control everything. Others can help us to see that we are cared for and loved for our brokenness and not because of how put together we are.

The words of a wise AA member helped me see the true beauty of that night—that, when we are broken, there is a place we can go to hear that brokenness is okay.

As an alcoholic, that place for me is AA. And, as aChristian, that place for me is the cross.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is traced in ash on my forehead, I hear this phrase. As a Christian, and as an alcoholic, it reminds me of an important and life-saving truth:

We are finite. We have limitations.

I want to be able to tell myself that I have it all together.For many reasons. As a person who has moved out of a chaotic lifestyle and into a sense of calm, I do not want to admit that I’m not in control. And as an alcoholic, I desire to control everything: my pain, depression, happiness. ButI am finite. I have limitations. I have bad days.

When I can turn to my supports and share openly and vulnerably, I can embrace my brokenness. I can ask for help—knowing that evenGod invites us into that space.

Jesus displayed the ultimate vulnerability on the cross. It is both a beautifully and a painfully permission-giving image. God exposed. God broken. God crying out. God choosing vulnerability. The cross is an image that reminds us that God is found in the broken places. God is present in the broken places of our lives. Listening to our cries, our hurt, our vulnerability.Helping us to hold the broken pieces.

As I begin this Lenten journey, I am committing to engage more deeply with vulnerability. I commit to sharing about my struggles in this journey more openly. I want to be open about my life, my beliefs, my ideas, my struggles. I want to listen to others in their vulnerability. I want to hold their pieces and offer that space.

I invite you into that space as well, whether you’re in recovery or not. I invite you to remember that you do not need to have it all together, and it’s okay to be vulnerable. I invite you to acknowledge your own broken pieces and maybe help someone else hold theirs.

I’m not going to lie, vulnerability can be hard. As I learned with my CPE supervisor that day, vulnerability can get you hurt. But, as I experienced with my AA group that night, vulnerability can also save your life.

Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are broken.

Remember that you are not alone.

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