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How Do You Heal Core Trauma? An Exclusive Interview with Dr. Jamie Marich on EMDR

Dr. Jamie Marich is an EMDR bad-ass. Sure, that’s a kind of crazy way to identify someone but it’s true.

Here are her stats: she travels internationally teaching on EMDR therapy, trauma, addiction, expressive arts, yoga and mindfulness while maintaining a private practice in her home base of Warren, Ohio. She is the founder and director of The Institute for Creative Mindfulness, developer of the Dancing Mindfulness practice and co-developer of the Yoga Unchained approach to trauma-informed yoga. She is also the author of five books on trauma recovery, most recently EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma Focused Care (with Dr. Stephen Dansiger). Oh and she’s over 16 years sober.

While I’d dabbled in EMDR before (I went to a therapist in the 90s and asked her if we could figure out if I had any repressed memories and she waved a pencil back and forth in my face and nothing happened), I knew a time would come when I’d have to dig in and really do it. But who wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I’d love to go pay someone to make me cry about all the things I’d rather forget”? I waited until I was, as they say, going through it and decided, since I was already sad, I might as well capitalize on that and try breaking down the thought patterns that were causing me to suffer more than I needed to.

I’m about 25 appointments in and I can say without hyperbole that it has been one of the most significant experiences of my life. While I love my regular therapist, EMDR has a way of making you go, “Why in God’s name have we been talking about all these issues all these years without ever SOLVING them?!!” Through EMDR, I have dismantled destructive thoughts in ways I never thought possible and been able to shed those labels my family gave me so that I can step into my greatness.

We all deserve to step into our greatness, as Dr. Jamie Marich knows better than anyone. Below are snippets from the conversation I had with her when I interviewed her over Facebook Live,

ANNA DAVID: Let’s start with the basics. What is EMDR?

JAMIE MARICH: EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and, as you and I were sharing in our chat before the interview, it is a terrible name. It really is reflective of the historical context of which the therapy was founded.

There’s this story which is almost the stuff of legend now that Dr. Francine Shapiro, who came up with EMDR, was taking a walk the park and was contemplating some terrible things that had happened to her. She is a cancer survivor and had recently gone through some issues around that. Because was a very devoted student of mind body medicine, she was used to experimenting with her body to see “If I do this with my body, how will it affect my mental processes and vice versa…”

So she was taking this walk and discovered that her eyes started doing this bizarre back and forth thing as she was processing her thoughts and feelings, and so from there she started trialing and erroring with her friends saying, “Follow my fingers. As you reflect on these thoughts, feelings, emotions, notice what happens.”

It’s not as simple as “Just think of the trauma—follow my fingers and it’s going to go away.”

ANNA DAVID: How is it more complicated?

JAMIE MARICH: There is a method and a protocol that therapists need to be trained in so they can do EMDR safely and properly. But the reason it’s a horrible name and a clinical misnomer is that it was eventually discovered that you didn’t need the eye movement component to have a lot of the effect. You could do it by having earphones and hearing alternating beeps or by being tapped or by holding pulsers.

The mechanism at play really is this back and forth stimulation. We sometimes call it bilateral stimulation or dual attention stimulus…that oscillating motion back and forth.

ANNA DAVID: What does the bilateral stimulation do?

JAMIE MARICH: The easiest way I can explain EMDR is that it really helps us go deeper into the brain than talk therapy alone. A lot of people who’ve had experiences with EMDR will say things like, “I’ve mulled over this issue in talk therapy for years and years and years, and it just never quite shifted. I have good cognitive understanding, but at the heart and the body level, I still feel stuck.”

EMDR is one of the approaches that can help us go deeper than talk alone. It’s probably the most effective method I have seen for allowing me to access the holistic person and allow these shifts to happen more effectively and more quickly.

ANNA DAVID: What exactly is happening to the brain?

JAMIE MARICH: The limbic brain, which is the middle part of our brain that we cannot easily get to by words—our fight or flight brain—can say stuck in trauma repetitions. So we can’t easily get to it through words. This sort of stimulation opens up neurotransmitters that connect the limbic brain—the neocortex, which is the more rational brain.

It’s like this: We can have that talk over and over again where we say, “I should know better” but it’s not linking up in the heart and the body. So what the dual attention stimulus is doing is it’s literally widening the bridge between those two brains in ourselves…we can call them parts of the brain, but they’re technically different brains.

But when you’re getting into reprocessing trauma, the speed is usually set up a little higher because we want to move information more efficiently over that neuro fiber bridge between the feeling brain and the neocortex. The way that I’ve heard one of my mentors explained it is that when we help a person process trauma in this way, we move memories to the neocortex. It’s not that we’re eliminating memories. It shifts how memories are stored in the brain.

ANNA DAVID: What percentage of your clients are you doing EMDR with and what percentage are you doing just talk therapy?

JAMIE MARICH: I do EMDR with all my clients. Because once you get known in an area as doing it, a lot of people end up finding you. Of course I do other things—I do 12 step facilitation and expressive arts therapy, there are other things I bring into the mix. But EMDR is my primary method.

ANNA DAVID: While I know how it works, how can you explain it to someone who’s never done it?

JAMIE MARICH: The client and therapist talk about something and the therapist asks the client the level of distress around the issue, from 0 to 10. After doing some of the stimulation, the therapist asks, “What are you noticing now?” as opposed to “What are you thinking about now?” We want to be open to the full range of your experience. Some people will give us the thought that’s on their mind. But if what you’re noticing is that your chest is on fire, tell us that because that means your body is giving you that information. The magic EMDR phrase is “Go with that” because we want you to be able to be with that but then keep allowing more to be revealed. At the end of the session, we ask the level of stress again, with the idea that the number goes down.

ANNA DAVID: I know it’s for reprocessing memories but is it also so people can access repressed memories?

JAMIE MARICH: EMDR may take you by surprise; you may think, “I forgot that happened, or I never connected those two things together.” But one thing Dr. Shapiro always said is that EMDR does not bring up memories just for the sake of bringing them up. The point is not to torture you with your past, but if something is going to come up in the reprocessing, it’s because it’s connected to the issue that you’re working on. EMDR reveals what needs to be revealed.

ANNA DAVID: Why do people think EMDR is sort of woo woo when in fact it’s medically supported?

JAMIE MARICH: It used to be considered very fringe, very alternative. Like, “Oh, move your eyes back and forth while you sense into memory experiences in your body.” But one of the things I do credit Dr .Shapiro for is she really did soldier very strongly in those early days, in the 90s and 2000s, saying. “We have to research this.” And so she developed a very technical protocol.

One of the reasons you’re asked those questions about your level of distress is so that we can measure how it’s working. EMDR is one of the three most researched therapies for PTSD. There are other things out there that can treat PTSD but none of them has the research support quite like EMDR.

On EMDRia.org, which is our big international organization, there’s an up to date listing of all of the research reviews, literature reviews, and clinical randomized controls on EMDR. It’s really quite exquisite and it’s something I’m just proud to be a part of.

ANNA DAVID: So the research is just based on what the client reports?

JAMIE MARICH: There are some really highly randomized controlled studies where those ratings around distress are taken into effect but we also have seen symptoms eradicated. A measure of success is if you go in as a client and have this clinical threshold that meets PTSD symptoms and then by the end of a certain course of EMDR treatment, those symptoms are eliminated.

ANNA DAVID: What sort of symptoms?

JAMIE MARICH: The major symptoms of PTSD are things like flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and body level distress memories. You can have what we call the heightened arousal symptoms like the increased startle response, hypervigilance, outbursts of anger and problems concentrating. Also feeling intense, negative effect or having negative experiences of emotion all the time—anger or terror, shame, sadness—or just an intense negative self-image where you’re thinking thoughts like “I’m bad. No one can be trusted. I am defective.” A lot of these symptoms may sound like other diagnoses you heard of, like ADD and depression, so it really does become important to work with a clinician who can weigh out what things are affecting you. But the more we learn about trauma, the more we see that a lot of the behaviors and issues that cause human beings distress are explained by unhealed trauma.

ANNA DAVID: Is there a typical number of sessions of EMDR that people do?

JAMIE MARICH: Some of us have long-term clients for one issue or another because the nature of an individual’s disability may require that they have some type of check in on a more permanent basis. But we’re not trying to get people into therapy long-term with this. I do find that EMDR can work a lot more effectively and quicker than other forms of therapy. But I don’t ever want to sell it as a quick fix; that’s one of my pet peeves around some of the marketing around EMDR. You’ll read things online where someone says three sessions wiped out what years of therapy could never do. Now, I think in three sessions you can go very far and if you have a person with a pretty good life who has been through one single incident trauma, you may be able to eradicate most of the symptoms. But even our international guidelines say EMDR is not done in any certain number of sessions and it really is up to the clinician and the client together to devise the best treatment plan possible.

ANNA DAVID: What actually “counts” as trauma?

JAMIE MARICH: PTSD is typically understood to be single incident…like one bad thing happens to you and so you have all of these symptoms. But then there’s complex trauma and honestly, most of us who would meet PTSD criteria, it is of the more complex variety typically—meaning it’s one thing after another that has made the trauma symptomology a little more volatile or the trauma happened at a very developmentally vulnerable point in your life…typically before the age of eight and often by a primary caregiver.

ANNA DAVID: What do you say to people who think EMDR is not going to “work” on them or they’re scared to do it?

JAMIE MARICH: It’s a very good question. I mean two things. Let’s start with the fear first. I usually approach that by validating the fear because any change process is scary. The first thing I try to understand is what the fear is about. For a lot of people, it really is a fear of getting better. What would my life look like if I made these changes and shifts?

A lot of people are also scared that they couldn’t handle what may come up. EMDR can be pretty emotionally intense and so one thing I tell folks who work with me is “I’m willing to help you get ready for that process.”

And when people say, “I don’t think this will work for me,” often it’s because they’ve been jaded by other forms of therapy. So I will often explore what some of those experiences have been. Sometimes the core idea is “Nothing will work for me because nothing has worked for me so far.” And sometimes I explore that by asking the question, “Well, what does it mean to you for something to work? Well, let’s start there.” And um, then usually from there we can develop a plan.

I think it has the potential to work for everybody but I also know that not every therapy is the best fit for everybody so I usually try to invite people to give it three to six sessions. And if it’s not a good fit for you, then I’ll help you try to find a therapy that is a good fit. But I have honestly seen this work for about every type of client out there, if they’re willing to do some of the work required.

ANNA DAVID: Amen. Well, this has been fantastic. Where can people go to find out more information about you and EMDR?

JAMIE MARICH: Everything I’ve written for free online is on my website. I also have a big YouTube presence with mindfulness videos and EMDR demos that you can watch. Just go to YouTube, type my name, EMDR or ”trauma made simple” and you’ll see.

September Recovery Reading Round-Up

Decades ago, I used to marvel at my Corporate America middle-managers and supervisors and executive directors who’d all stacked their office shelves with more books than they’d ever get to in a year, let alone a career. Still, I recall being blown away by the knowledge they’d must have amassed from reading everything on display, until I realized those books were mostly wallpaper and props and set dressing. One manager confided that he’d never read anything on the shelf behind him, which amounted to about 40 or 50 titles like Good to Great and True North and Competing for the Future, not to mention an endless assortment of books about leadership principles, usually written by retired soldiers. This is the kind of nonsense I’d pull in active alcoholism: everything was for show. I’d buy three Thomas Pynchon behemoths and prominently put them on my shelf—never to read them. I just wanted them there.

Anyway, in sobriety, I told myself that I wasn’t going to create a library of works I’d never read; I didn’t want my shelves filled with spines I’d never crack open. Every month here at Genius Recovery, I’ll share titles here that I’ve come across that say something meaningful about recovery. That said, these aren’t just books I’m collecting for the sake of collecting them—these are books that will likely travel with me for the journey of my sobriety. They’ve not only kept my interest but they’ve reminded me that sometimes when I’m lost in my recovery, I can often find myself again while reading pages like these.

Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano, Andrea Avery (Pegasus Books, 2017): Andrea Avery, an already ambitious and talented pianist by the age of 12, becomes diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—a diagnosis that’s nothing short of a death knell for her aspirations in both music and life. Staring down a bleak life Avery never imagined for herself, she instead turned her creativity to crafting the gorgeously delicate Sonata: a memoir that’s as powerful and affecting as any musical composition within her. The book has been described as “breathtaking” and “dazzling” (among other adjectives), but these words aren’t standard editorial-review hyperbole. Avery’s memoir is a poetic masterwork in how to translate darkness into light. She charts a course for readers to discover the nature of pain, the fallacy of fate, the struggle for motivation, what “success” truly means, and finding one’s place in a life that’s seemingly abandoned you.

Two Towns Over, Darren C. Demaree (Trio House Press, 2018): Don’t let its slight size fool you: this award-winning collection of delicate yet sharp poems is bursting with observations about the blighted streets and neighborhoods of Demaree’s opioid-ravaged Ohio. He doesn’t understand the addiction that’s taken hold of everything he’s always known, but that’s the point: it’s a series of poems constantly trying to make sense of something that’s almost infinitely out of reach. You don’t have to appreciate poetry to understand the gorgeous rot and ugly accuracy at the center of Two Towns Over.

Bottoms Up: A Recovery, Paul C. (Hotchkiss Publishing, 2016): While the chapter structure of Bottoms Up should be familiar to anyone who’s been to a 12-step meeting (“What it Was Like,” “What Happened” and “What it’s Like Now”), the memoir is anything but some color-by-numbers triptych about sobriety. It’s a unique, lively and (at its best) adventurous plunge into alcoholism—and the long, torturous road back. The writer paints such a vivid, detailed portrait of his disease that it’s hard not to breathe a little easier, feeling the white-knuckle release when he sits down in AA for the first time.

The vignettes are as brief as they are affecting: one- to two-page glimpses into a beautifully chaotic world, one glimpse colliding headlong into the next. A whirlwind that takes the reader from 1950s New York City, on booze-soaked vacations to Cape Cod, following a dizzying trail of months-old apologies and—finally—gussying up his alcoholism by actually becoming a respected sommelier…all before he arrives in AA. The impetus? He writes, “My wife presented me with a three-page handwritten list (by no means a complete one) highlighting some of the things I had done and failed to do in my drinking career and how she felt about them.” It’s that sort of stark black-and-white reality check that undercuts an otherwise crazy-colorful, sometimes queasy kaleidoscope of full-blown alcoholism.

Bottoms Up doesn’t romanticize AA so much as it spins dark poetry out of the writer’s experiences in the rooms. He’s not quick to pick up all the lingo or bumper-sticker logic, nor does he willingly embrace everything that’s thrown his way. And in many ways, it’s his initial skepticism about AA, especially the fact that he wrestles with whether he’s even an alcoholic to begin with, that’s the most endearing part. Paul C. simply sticks to what’s worked for him and, thanks to the sharpness of his truths, when the words cut, they bleed. For all its self-deprecation and humor, Bottoms Up is also at times jarring and terrifying. It’s a messy portrait of first sponsors, first struggles and first steps, though by the time Paul C. finds left himself unsupervised in an art gallery, trusted to be alone with priceless paintings by the likes of Degas and Picasso, it isn’t just an important emotional milestone for his sobriety—he’s also reached a highwater mark with recovery writing.

Just in Time, Joan Jackson (She Writes Press, 2017): Jackson’s novel is a deeply affecting chronicle of mental illness that’s both inexplicably funny and heartbreakingly true. Jackson’s writing is all at once delicate, barbed and beautiful—a style that lends itself perfectly to the story of Steve, a former college track star struggling with schizophrenia in adulthood. And while it’s a work of fiction, Jackson has clearly tapped into the first-hand experience of growing up with her similarly afflicted brother. Interestingly, while the novel doesn’t particularly set out to be a meditation on parenthood and addiction, Just in Time unflinchingly captures the difficulty of raising a child struggling with substance abuse. Even Jackson seems surprised by including her son’s real-life struggles, let alone just how effective their inclusion ends up being. “I didn’t plan on putting it in this book,” she admits, noting that her mother felt the same “despair” toward Steve as Jackson did with her own son. “[Dealing with addiction] is a learning curve and many people don’t know what it’s like to live with it,” she says. “My son has been clean and sober for 18 years, which is a miracle.” Still, she’s comfortable plunging the reader right in the center of the struggle. As she calls it in the novel, the book details “a series of yets,” wherein there’s a calm before the inevitable insanity of detox. Also, that Jackson’s son is only a subplot is remarkable, given how indelible his problems are. It also shows just how effortlessly commanding her writing is.

When It All Stopped Working: An Excerpt from Bottleneck

When you’re a recovering alcoholic and everyone around you knows it, you’re suddenly exposed. People know what to expect. You don’t have to hide much. But when you’re an alcoholic who’s suddenly a recovering alcoholic who’s trumpeting it on Facebook and showing off your 30-day sober coin while you’re secretly drinking again, it becomes ten times harder to achieve the escape velocity your brain so desperately needs from reality. You can’t just make quick, random trips to the store without getting asked a dozen questions. You can’t excuse all your stumbling, mumbling, stuttering, and confusion and sweating and puffy-faced mood swings. (Well, you can, but it’s not easy.)

Because I’m an alcoholic, I cut every corner imaginable. If there was a shortcut, you could sure as shit find me taking it. If I could make people think I was sober and still reach alcoholic bliss, that wasn’t cheating. That just meant I was smarter than everyone else around me. Of course, you can’t sustain that sort of charade for long—especially when you’re dealing with booze. Drunks aren’t the most meticulous people on the planet. Details get fuzzy and things get overlooked. Very often, I’d forget where I’d hidden my half-drunk pints of vodka, which simply turned my house into the world’s saddest version of The Hunt for Red October: my wife and I silently circling the house, not speaking, but both keenly aware that there was something lurking in the dark. In the end, it was just a matter of who’d find the bottle first.

Carrie found three empty Smirnoff bottles tucked under a pillow in the spare bedroom, a particularly lazy hiding spot. I didn’t even know what to say other than, “Oh well. You got me.” Her face was pinched with disappointment. She was more upset that I was talking about sobriety with other people who were actively trying to find it. I’d scored the cartoon version of sobriety—the one that gets played in late-night syndication.

At the height of my secret drinking, I apparently texted my sister at 2:30 am. All it said was “Help me” or something to that effect. I heard about this much later from my mom, when I’d finally gotten sober. I don’t remember sending the message, but it sounded like something I’d do—especially after putting away a pint of cheap, bright-smelling vodka. But it was a far cry from the messages I normally sent out into the world at two in the morning: garbled Facebook status updates, random messages to long-out-of-touch friends, the occasional phone call and slurred voicemail. Near the end of my drinking career, I dimly knew I was in trouble, but it was only in my darkest, blurriest moments that I tapped into truth. Turns out, drunk text messages were some of my first, most important steps into recovery.

When my alcoholism was finally clear to me after seeing some of what I wrote, I no longer had just a drinking problem—I’d hurtled way past the point of no return. My texts and Facebook messages pointed to my troubles. No one needed the Rosetta Stone to translate those; it was pretty clear. But the nature of my messages started to change. They started to get more precise, like smart bombs surgically finding a house instead of flattening an entire city block. Some part of me knew I needed help, and it started to reach out even when the rest of me didn’t want to get sober yet.

With my wife and kids asleep, I zoned out and started aggressively posting music videos, movie clips, and funny cat videos on people’s Facebook walls. But something that night was different. I was lying there on my couch, wondering why alcoholism had happened to me. Bad news is always supposed to happen to other people, not you. So I searched my phone, closing one eye as I scrolled through my contacts, and found the number for Mike from Parkside. I sent him a quick hello.

I was horrified to see, immediately, the ellipsis appear on my iPhone. Those three dots told me this guy was texting me back in the middle of the night.

“How are you?” it asked.

The question stabbed back at me there in the dark. It was just too real. More than that, I didn’t know the answer to his question. So I did what I always did when I was drinking—I hid. I didn’t reply. I went back to Facebook and eventually passed out. The next morning, I went through my normal routine of surveying what public damage I’d caused just hours before. I assessed the nonsense I’d put out into the universe. When I saw the text to “AAMike,” I winced. His reply just sort of hung there against a white space, orphaned. I ignored it for a couple of days. Then, when I drank myself into watching old Twilight Zone episodes online, I summoned up the courage to text him back. It was well after midnight and right around the time William Shatner thought he saw a creature on the wing of that 747.

“Sorry, man,” I wrote back. “Got busy.”

This was a bald-faced lie, since I was unemployed and both of us knew it. There was no excuse. Either way, once again, the three dots popped up almost immediately.

“Hey, no worries,” he replied. “How are you?”

Again, I had no idea how to reply, so I went for broke: “Will you be my sponsor?”

It was like asking a stranger if I could accompany him on his Caribbean cruise.

There was a pause, then the dots came.

“No.”

I was taken aback.

I watched as that sky-monster lumbered across the 747’s wing in black-and-white, with Shatner not believing his eyes. I felt the exact same way. Then again, it’s not like I even knew what the hell a sponsor was. It just sounded like something I needed to ask, and I’d been rejected. I had to face the Twilight Zone monster that was my alcoholism, which still lurked just beyond the window.

The above is an excerpt from Bottleneck: A Drinking Memoir, available now on Amazon. East Shoreway Recovery Services (July 31, 2018). All rights reserved. Purchase the book by clicking here.

25 Recovery Hashtags You Need to Know

I apparently just celebrated 10 years of being on Facebook. For six of those years, I was an active alcoholic. And it showed. That’s the thing about social media and addiction: you can try to manicure your life and make it pretty-perfect, but the more you try to make it look good, all you do is draw attention to your issues. I wrote countless paragraphs on friends’ walls. I crafted non-sensical messages to people I hadn’t seen since middle school. I shared random music videos for no reason and fired off movie quotes out into the ether, tagging anyone and everyone in the process. I was sending pings into the universe, hoping for a response. Despite all the noise of social media, there was a sad silence to everything.

I’m in my early forties. My social media skills are limited at best. Uploading cat photos on Instagram? Got it. Connecting with professional strangers on LinkedIn? Sure, why not? Getting overwhelmed by my Twitter feed? Every single day. But back in early recovery, I found myself gravitating toward one thing: the hashtag. Yep. The simple, stupid, silly pound sign—and all the letters after it. (If you want to go Full Nerd, here’s a ridiculously comprehensive oral history of it.) Being online when you’re newly sober—at least for me—was a lot like being shell-shocked from war. At first, I couldn’t stomach Facebook on my MacBook but I could, however, deal with hashtags on my iPhone. Hashtags became as important to me as, back when I was drunk, getting three Likes on a 3 a.m. post about Toad the Wet Sprocket. In fact, they’re still important to me. (Hashtags. Not posts about Toad.)

By searching for recovery-based hashtags, I very quickly discovered that I wasn’t alone. I had zero idea just how vast and interconnected the online recovery community is. I’ve since used hashtags to find podcasts, books, websites, off-the-books AA meetings, wisdom and everything in between—not to mention building true bonds with other sober people thousands of miles away from where I live in Central Ohio. A hashtag can orient me when I’m lost in all the same ways it can reduce something down to nothing. Whether you’re facing your first few days of sobriety or staring down several decades of living clean, a hashtag can be shockingly powerful.

Here’s a list of 25 recovery hashtags (in no particular order) that you can use wherever you’re at in your journey. You might be surprised by where they take you.

  1. #sober
  2. #soberissexy
  3. #sobriety
  4. #soberliving
  5. #soberlife
  6. #today
  7. #addiction
  8. #alcoholism
  9. #onedayatatime
  10. #odat
  11. #sobermovement
  12. #iamnotashamed
  13. #hellosundaymorning
  14. #gohelpsomeone
  15. #justfortoday
  16. #aa
  17. #na
  18. #alcoholicsanonymous
  19. #narcoticsanonymous
  20. #addictionrecovery
  21. #recovery
  22. #recoveryispossible
  23. #waitforthemiracle
  24. #nohangover
  25. #12steps

Shane Boylan: Riding Out Ahead of His Father’s Depression

They say a lot of things in life are as easy as riding a bike. For Shane Boylan, riding a bike is perhaps the most beautifully difficult thing he’ll ever do. Shane, an 11-year-old from Highland Park, New Jersey, is making sure people never forget that depression can take a devastating toll on countless people worldwide. According to the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, a depressed person dies from suicide every 14 minutes in the US. It’s a staggering statistic that, unfortunately, hit too close to home for Shane last year. His father (and avid bike rider), Timothy, took his life after a battle with depression and alcoholism. Shane, however, didn’t let the tragedy get the better of him. He started asking questions, hoping to help other families avoid the same suffering. Eventually, Shane hopped on his own bike to take action.

Depression and AlcoholismNow in its second year, Shane’s “Depression Doesn’t Ride” fundraiser was an eleven-mile journey to raise money to raise awareness and combat depression. (Every year, the distance grows to match Shane’s age.) “Last year, we had no idea how many people to expect,” Shane’s mother Aanika said, claiming that they were originally overwhelmed by the turnout. “It was really shocking and surprising to see so many people come out.” What started off as an homage to Shane’s dad turned into something much larger and inspiring for others, with everyone from USA Today to The Huffington Post picking up the story. In fact, Shane’s original goal of $400 to fund depression research quickly reached $4,000—all of which was donated to the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. Held just after Father’s Day this year, even more riders came out to participate than in 2016. “There were more people riding with us than there were watching us ride, which was good,” Shane said, noting that there were dozens of others pedaling alongside him.

The ride is a lot more than just the time spent on a bike seat, too. According to Shane’s mother, it’s about the conversation it gets going. “It’s really remarkable how many people share their personal connections to addiction and depression,” Aanika said. “Once you mention the ride, it really opens up the doors for conversations about depression. People start talking about their own issues—and that’s healing for us and for the people willing to share their stories with us.” And it’s a conversation definitely worth having, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 1 out of 20 Americans suffer from depression. If nothing else, Shane’s ride reveals that no one is truly alone in their battle.

“The overall support has been wonderful,” Aanika said, practically smiling through the phone. “At his school and in our community and neighborhood, everyone cheers him on and acknowledges what he’s doing.” Louisa Benton, Executive Director of Hope for Depression, goes one step further in saying that Shane’s event is both unique and quietly profound. “Shane is wise beyond his years,” Benton said. “What he’s doing can change the world, and that’s what touches us so deeply. He represents the future and is an ambassador of hope.” At the end of the day, however, Shane takes all of that attention in stride. He’s a kid who’s as unassuming as he is determined, crossing the finish line with a pretty straightforward motivation: “I just think of my father and I keep going for him,” he said.

And while this year’s path hasn’t changed (it’s the same hour-long journey around historic Johnson Park, through the colonial buildings of East Jersey Olde Towne), the mood was certainly different for Shane’s mother. Where the first year was overwhelming on a number of levels, this year’s ride was hugely sentimental. “There was a picture of Shane this year riding in Johnson Park and I suddenly remembered years ago, back in 1991, that Tim and I were at the same place. The park had been flooded and we’d had our picture taken there,” Aanika said. “This year, that was a profound moment for me: Shane was riding in the exact same park where his father and I had been.”

The ride is clearly as meaningful as it is cathartic for Shane and his mother. Still, it’s not the memories or the outpouring of support that’s the most rewarding part of the experience. No, it’s seeing Shane turn an activity his father loved into something that’s rewarding, heartwarming, and important to countless others. “[Shane’s dad] was already proud of Shane,” Aanika said, “but he would be extremely proud of what he’s done.” For his part, Shane plans on riding, year after year, in memory of his father. And for a kid who crossed the finish line and immediately thought, “Is it really over?”, his singular fight against depression is nowhere close to being finished.

If you’re interested in helping Shane get started for his 2018 ride, visit the HDRF website (http://www.hopefordepression.org). At the bottom of the Donate page, in the “In Memory Of/Comments” section, write “Shane’s Ride.”

How I Kicked the Smokes Out of My Sobriety

Nine months into recovery, I ditched my two packs a day via a dinner intervention, Nicotine Anonymous and a short-lived crush. The revelations that followed were every bit as blinding as when I got sober.

AddictIn early recovery, cigarettes felt as essential to me as breathing. They gave me something to do on my way to meetings, something to do on my way home from meetings and something to do during the smoke breaks during meetings. They gave me a way to bond with all the new people I encountered who scared me in ways I didn’t know how to talk about. They gave me something to do with my hands and mouth. They gave me a way to feel like I still had an edge. It’s no stretch to say that many addicts smoke.

Studies about this topic sometimes report rates as high as 90%. Less known, it seems, are the studies that show that addicts who quit smoking when they first clean up have better chances of staying sober. I’ve only come upon these recently. If someone had mentioned them to me when I was a newcomer, I would have recoiled in horror.

In retrospect, it’s clear why cigarettes seemed the ideal early sobriety tool for me: They made me feel like I was doing something that was bringing me closer to people—while actually bringing me further away, because we were only bonding over a shared desire to take ourselves out of the moment. Because I didn’t know who I was yet, having 20 little buddies in my Camel Lights pack made me feel less alone.

“My cravings were so bad that I took to shoving every bit of sugar I could find in my mouth and chewing on pencils and sucking on hard candies and anything else I could think of.”

Then, when I was nine months sober, I met an older woman who’d been sober, it seemed, forever. She and I were at dinner with a few other sober friends after a meeting. As was routine for me, I went outside several times during the meal to smoke. And one of the times I returned, this woman started—in the most direct and yet gentle way imaginable—to confront me about it.

People had of course raised the topic with me before, but there was something different about her approach. She said things that made a lot of sense—that every time I inhaled on a cigarette, I was telling myself that I hated myself, and that getting sober but still smoking was like switching seats on the Titanic.

“Honey,” she told me, leaning forward on the table, “You’re putting a smoke screen between you and your Higher Power.” It was just the kind of sentiment I would have mocked pre-sobriety, but which made a lot of sense to the person I was becoming. At the end of dinner, she offered to meet me at a Nicotine Anonymous meeting the following evening. “Maybe,” I said, surprising myself.

She added that a sober guy I’d told her I had a crush on would probably be there.

“Okay,” I heard myself respond. “I’ll go.”

I really didn’t intend to quit. I smoked on the way home from dinner, and the next morning and the next day at work. But sometime around 3 pm that day, it occurred to me that it was possible I could really do this—quit. I decided to try not to smoke before the meeting and I made it those few hours.

I don’t remember much about that first Nicotine Anonymous meeting, aside from learning the word “smober”—something that people who don’t want to get mocked should probably never utter. (As a friend of mine says, “I already know I’m not cool; I don’t have to start saying the word smober to prove it.”)

The most significant aspect of that meeting for me—because I still didn’t really believe I was going to quit—was that my crush was there. He and I went for coffee afterwards, where he told me that he’d had sex with his cousin. I got sort of instantly over my crush.

But I didn’t smoke that night. And once I’d made it through, I felt like I could try to make it through the next day and the day after. Amazingly, I haven’t smoked since. That was on July 19, 2000.

This isn’t to say that it was easy. Quitting cigarettes was, for the first month, arguably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My cravings were so bad that I took to shoving every bit of sugar I could find in my mouth and chewing on pencils and sucking on hard candies and anything else I could think of until it had passed. I would clutch the sides of chairs and tables and think about the things I heard in Nicotine Anonymous meetings—like that the craving would pass in five minutes, whether I smoked or not. I have no idea if that was true but it certainly helped at the time.

My withdrawal was debilitating. I remember walking into a Coffee Bean one of those mornings, attempting to buy a breakfast item of some sort and coming out clutching an egg salad sandwich, feeling like I’d lost control of my mind, my desires and my ability to form words.

I remember not getting picked to share during a Nicotine Anonymous meeting and feeling quite justified in going up to the speaker who hadn’t called on me afterwards and telling her how angry I was about this. The progress I’d made in the nine months since getting sober came to an abrupt halt; I acted out far more and paused far less.

But after a few more months, I realized something shocking: It just wasn’t that bad. I felt so much better being able to breath, my clothes didn’t stink and life just got easier. And there was something incredibly liberating about stepping into reality.

For me to know what cigarettes could do to me and still continue to smoke meant believing, on a certain level, that the rules didn’t apply to me—a delusion I’d operated under much of my life. Stripping that layer of denial away—admitting that smokes would kill me just as they would kill others—gave me a new taste of humility. I rediscovered—even more than I had when getting sober—that I wasn’t special, that I was just like everyone else.

By the time I’d reached the six-month mark, instead of craving cigarettes, I actually felt repulsed by smoking and amazed that I’d done it for as long as I had—13 years in all. My desire to do this thing that I’d needed to do constantly—up to two packs a day at times—was gone. I wasn’t resisting the temptation anymore; there was no temptation to resist.

Most of the sober people I know have eventually come to feel similarly. My friend Damien, who has over a decade of sobriety and quit smoking at eight-and-a-half years, even enjoyed the withdrawal. “It was like getting high,” he says. “The furious rush of my body screaming for nicotine was great. And it made me feel invincible—like, ‘Fuck. If I can do this, I can do anything.’ It just made everything rawer—anger, lust, sugar cravings, the smell of food and my clothing, hugging people. Also I had epic Technicolor dreams.”

While I don’t remember having any brightly colored dreams, I did get similar feelings of invincibility when I quit. But my most important realization probably came when I was sharing in a meeting about how I didn’t think I’d be able to do certain things that scared me—such as driving to interview someone who intimidated me, or talking to certain family members on the phone—without smoking. It was only after I shared that I realized that I was the one who’d decided that these things were so terrifying, and that if I’d been the one to give them the power to scare me, I could also take it away. Sucking down a cigarette didn’t prevent fear; I’d just been pretending that it did.

Still, in early sobriety, when I could barely do my laundry, let alone talk to near-strangers for hours without having something to medicate my extreme lack of self and inability to be in the moment, I don’t think I could have handled that. My friend Danny, who got sober in New York four years ago, feels similarly. Though he says he was never really addicted to cigarettes, he nevertheless smoked “a lot” during his first 90 days. “I think it actually helped me get sober,” he admits. “I made some close friends outside meetings that way.”

Other people I know are still, in long-term sobriety—and living in LA, where these days smokers are regarded with the sort of skepticism normally reserved for serial killers—fighting the nicotine battle. As my friend Mark says, “I’m truly powerless over nicotine. I’m a slave. And I’d rather kick dope 10 times over than cold turkey nicotine once.”

But peer pressure can work when it comes to positive as well as negative life choices: I’ve seen one person in a certain sober clique get sober, then watched the rest of the group follow, one by one. Sooner or later it seems, whether it’s in their first or 14th year, nearly all the sober people I’ve known seem to quit. It seems that once people get real-life supportive buddies, they have much less need of the 20 that come in a pack.

Facing Fear Sober

I used to hoover cocaine and drown myself in alcohol. Plus, I was so ruled by terror I couldn’t even admit I was scared. Sobriety has changed most of that.

The reason I got sober isn’t that I thought sobriety sounded like a great idea. It was actually something I thought that only a complete loser would embrace. It was the act, I was certain, of a person with absolutely no other options.

RehabThe problem was that I was that person with no other options. And I was so depressed by my cocaine-cigarette-vodka-Ambien diet—and the cycle of trying to quit it and not being able to—that I figured anything, even sobriety, had to be better. So one morning I called my mom and told her that I was a coke addict and that I was in serious trouble. I don’t know what was different about that morning. Maybe nothing was different but I just had a moment where I wasn’t able to talk myself into continuing on the path I was on. My mom knew that something was wrong with me but something had been wrong with me for a long time. Still, the previous year, when we’d been on vacation, she happened to see how many Ambien I shook from the pill bottle into my open palm and so she tried to talk to me—in that terrified Mom voice—about what I was doing. I’d told her to stop overreacting and changed the subject.

Now, my mom is one of those mothers who would love to get both of her children back into her womb, if possible. But barring that, she’ll settle for living back in the house we grew up in. Barring that, she’ll take living in Northern California. I was living in LA. So that morning I called her, she said, “LA’s been terrible for you. Go get in your car and drive home.”

I rarely think the sentence, “I’m scared” because I internalized long ago that only weak people thought like that.

I drove there, completely despondent. If there was anything that sounded more depressing than being sober in LA, it was being sober in my hometown. But like I said, I didn’t have any options. I ended up talking to my parents and my step-dad and a therapist about what I’d been doing—telling them the whole story and not just the edited version I’d been giving them for years. I admitted that I spent entire weeks doing cocaine alone, that I didn’t have any friends anymore, that I sometimes took so much Ambien after getting wired that I worried one morning I just wouldn’t wake up. They were rightfully alarmed and agreed to help pay for rehab. Somehow I talked them into helping to pay for a rehab in LA and not in Northern California. And somehow I talked that rehab, an inpatient program, into letting me do outpatient since I didn’t want to have to quit the job I was barely hanging onto.

But this rehab, and sobriety, turned out to be nothing like I expected. The people there weren’t shuffling around in grey sweaters, lamenting their lives. They were vibrant and hilarious and very much engaged in life in a way that none of the drug addicts I’d been around had been. And they were talking about things I not only related to but had long felt and never said out loud because I’d assumed no one would understand. They talked about their negative thinking—about how they’d wake up and think life was so dismal that they couldn’t do anything but try to escape their thoughts through drugs. They talked about desperately trying to quit—about wanting to stop with everything in them—and not being able to, that decision to pick up again happening so quickly that they never even realized it was a decision. And they talked about ways of improving how they felt that had never occurred to me: about how trying to help other people gave them relief, about how it was their chronic self obsession that kept them feeling so bad. They talked about how even though they thought obsessively about themselves, they also never felt like they were enough; I learned the expression that had summarized the previous three decades of my life: “I’m the piece of crap in the center of the universe.”

If they’d been sober a while, they talked about finding happiness—and not through getting “cash and prizes,” like the job or relationship they wanted, which is what I’d always called happiness. They talked instead about not needing to get the job or relationship they wanted in order to feel good. And my ears really perked up when they talked about resentments; I had a long list of people that had wronged me and I was always eager to extract vengeance somehow. But again they said surprising things: they talked about how it was in seeing the large part they’d played in their problems with other people that they were able to forgive those other people. I did what they suggested and, really quickly, realized the strangest thing of all: I didn’t want to drink anymore. I didn’t even want to do cocaine. By just doing what these people suggested I do—which happened to radically alter my perception of every aspect of my life—it was like the part of me that craved alcohol and drugs, that had to leave town in order to escape the lure of cocaine and even then scrounged up coke wherever I was, had been removed in the same way that my tonsils had. And it was a good thing, too, because I had essentially been sleepwalking through my life—walking and talking but emotionally and spiritually and intellectually frozen in time—so I had a lot of catching up to do. Finally I could actually figure out how to live.

The first element to learning how to live, I quickly learned, was facing my fears.

As far as I understand things now, I’ve struggled with three main fears my whole life—the fear that I’m stupid, the fear that I’m doing everything wrong and the fear that I’ll lose everything I have and fail to get everything I want. But I didn’t always know that.

When I first got sober, I was told by people who’d been sober longer that I lived with “a hundred forms of fear.” I was told that fear ruled my every thought, feeling and action. I thought these people were a little dramatic; sure, I felt scared sometimes but not all that much. In many ways, I protested, I was fearless.

This was before I realized that I had a voice ruling everything I did and told me terrible things. I’m not crazy, I don’t hear voices, I just heard one and its running commentary was a brutal combination of every negative thing anyone had ever said to me my whole life. It would tell me that I was stupid, that I was doing everything wrong, that everyone who mattered to me would leave me and that I didn’t deserve what I had. It was only when I’d been sober at least five years that I even realized I was ruled by this voice—that I’d actually taken my fears and, too fearful to admit that I was scared, turned them against me. Rather than comforting myself through what scared me, I was taunting myself with these fears as if they were real and therefore not even giving myself a fighting chance.

So I started to think about the things I told myself and then present myself with this scenario: if I had a small, precious child I was caring for, would I tell her that she was an idiot and that no one would ever love her? Of course not! And if I wouldn’t do that to a fictional child, why would I do it to myself? I began to write down the incredibly cruel things I told myself and learned to differentiate between what was a real thought and what was one of my fears turned against me. The process sucked; it took years to undo. But at a certain point, that horrible voice—the voice of my fears—disappeared. It still comes back sometimes. Something will scare me—usually information that another person has something I think I should have—and the voice will turn on. But I’ve learned to recognize it and know it’s not real. I’ve also learned that my fear can take all sorts of other forms. I rarely think the sentence, “I’m scared” because I internalized long ago that only weak people thought like that. So my psyche devised an entirely counter-productive system that makes fear register as all sorts of other feelings: tired, for example. Or nauseous. Indifferent. “I just don’t feel like doing that” may, from me, mean “I’m scared to do that.”

The fact that I now know this about myself, and can therefore move through it, has changed everything for me. I feel these days like I get to walk around with someone else’s brain—the brain of someone who really, genuinely likes herself. And while I’m grateful to be rid of the obsessions I used to have to drink and do cocaine, I think I’m even happier to have shut the fear voice down.

Why You Don’t Really Hate AA

I’ve seen too many people attack the program that saved my life. But their problem isn’t AA itself; it’s some of AA’s members.

I got sober because of Alcoholics Anonymous. I believe with every pore in my body that had it not been for the program, I wouldn’t have been able to put down drugs and alcohol over 12 years ago and wouldn’t be able to live the life I do today.

For a long time, out of what I then considered respect for the 11th tradition, I didn’t publicly identify as a member. In my first novel, Party Girl (which was so autobiographical, I didn’t even bother to act coy about it), I actually switched various AA-related words to protect the program: I used “guidelines” for “steps,” and “apologies” for “amends.” And when I went on TV to promote that book or to talk about the addictions of various celebrities, I always explained ahead of time that if the story they wanted to focus on involved AA, I couldn’t go on, because AA was an anonymous program.

I said the same thing in late 2010.

And then, slowly, my perspective changed. As my years of sobriety—and talking and writing about addiction—continued, I began to realize that my desire to not mention AA had less to do with respecting the 11th tradition than with protecting AA from any more of the judgment was being heaped upon it.

From what I hear, AA is a harsh, religious, recriminating cult.

Before I came to AA, I considered it a cult for Jesus-worshipping freaks, who had nothing better to do with their time and needed something—anything—to cling to. Whatever I heard about the program (they hold hands! They pray! In unison!) I used to fuel that preconception. And that preconception kept me buying books about how AA didn’t work, while I slowly annihilated myself with years of drinking and cocaine.

There seem to be as many ways to interpret the 11th tradition as there are people in AA. Some swear that it means we should never give our last names when we talk about being sober; others say it means we’re allowed to say we’re in AA, so long as we’re not doing it in the press, or on the radio or in films. Still others preach that it means not outing someone else as a member. And there are those who insist that it means never telling anyone anywhere that we’re sober. AA-history obsessives will often tell us how necessary the 11th tradition was, back when alcoholism and addiction were considered horribly shameful; some insist that we still need to honor this tradition, while others say we should scream about our disease from the rooftops, to eradicate any left-over shame.

My own feeling is this: AA’s founders couldn’t have predicted the Internet or the world we live in now, where everything is everyone’s business. Bill and Bob didn’t know that one day anonymous online commenters would attack their program. When the traditions were written, AA was small, young and fragile. Today, it isn’t. And while many have tried to ignore, defame and destroy it since then, the fact is, they haven’t had much success.

But still, because AA doesn’t have a spokesperson, it can’t fight back or respond to the criticisms that are constantly hurled at it. So at a certain point, it seemed like it was okay—in fact, better than okay—to start being open about the program on this site, and allowing those who felt their lives improved by it to share that.

In short, I didn’t want to give people out there who were like me—that is, judgmental and alcoholic—any more reason to judge AA than they already had. Maybe, I thought, if we publicly shared how the program had saved us, we’d help open people’s minds. Whether that mission has been successful, I have absolutely no idea.

Trust me—my positive reaction to AA shocked the hell out of me at first. I honestly couldn’t believe that I didn’t encounter a bunch of glassy-eyed cultists, or tie-dyed followers of some New Age guru forcing newcomers to hand out flowers at the airport.

Well, let me clarify. I did encounter some people who lived up to my preconceptions—or were even worse—but they were not the majority. No, the overwhelming majority were the sort of people I’d been seeking my whole life: funny people, smart people, self-aware people—people who suffered from the same problems I did, but who knew how to talk about and deal with them in ways I hadn’t yet learned.

The last person I ever thought I’d be was Susie AA—the girl sitting in the front row of the meeting, or at a coffee shop highlighting her favorite passages in the Big Book. But that’s who I became. Turns out, I’d always been waiting for someone to give me rules for living beyond those my family had presented—which were mainly about going to an Ivy League school, making six figures at your first job and suing people before they sued you. Though I didn’t know it consciously at the time, I’d been seeking out information about how it was my self-obsession—well, self-obsession plus stimulants and depressants—that was making me so miserable.

I’m well aware that this is apparently not most people’s experience when they come to AA. From what I hear—mostly from anonymous commenters on The Fix—AA is not the welcoming, loving, non-judgmental solution to a miserable life that I discovered. Instead, it’s a harsh, religious, recriminating cult, filled with controlling assholes who are determined to believe that their way is the only way.

In some ways, I understand. After all, I have met, in AA, horrible, judgmental people, who are determined to believe that their way is the only way. And I’ve met, as you’d expect, people who are mentally ill.

I have been told, by a woman who was sponsoring me, that I wasn’t “really sober” because I was on anti-depressants, and asked to immediately get out of her car.

I have been ruthlessly shamed by another sponsor, because she put me on “dating restriction” for a year (not my first year of sobriety, by the way) and, nine months into it, I kissed a guy. She told me I hadn’t surrendered and “fired” me outside a meeting as I sobbed.

I have listened to women preach from podiums about how determined they are to help everyone they can—then had them not return my calls after they’ve agreed to sponsor me.

I have shared deeply personal things in meetings and had people approach me days or weeks later to give me unsolicited, offensive feedback about what I was doing that had caused me to feel the way I did.

The program is what you find in the Big Book—not the people who make up the fellowship.

I have been pulled aside by old ladies after I’ve shared and told that I was sharing “wrong.” And I’ve heard about even worse things: AA icons sleeping with newcomers, sponsors giving sponsees drugs—you name it.

But not one of these things has caused me to hate AA.

Maybe that’s because I was lucky enough to meet some genuinely, ridiculously amazing people when I first came in. Maybe it’s because I got sober in LA, where there is, arguably, less shame and more cheer about sobriety than anywhere else, so that the overall joy made it easier to overlook the sicker folk. Maybe it’s because I was so desperate when I got to AA that I couldn’t afford to think any differently.

Yes, there are assholes in AA. But you find them everywhere. And while AA, by the very nature of what brings people to the rooms, may have a higher percentage than some other places, that doesn’t make AA the asshole. If those people weren’t in AA, they would just be somewhere else, doing their best to give that somewhere else a bad name. The program is what you find in the Big Book—not the people who make up the fellowship.

Hey, you can still hate AA. But if you go there, and encounter someone who tells you that you have to get sober his way, or shames you for not doing exactly what she says, I just ask that you consider going to another meeting or reaching out to another person—to consider that this individual might be the problem. The people in AA whose lives seem to be working are, from what I can tell, those who remember that good AA’s don’t tell anyone how to do anything; who reinforce the fact that the steps are merely suggestions; who don’t say you must believe in some almighty God, but just ask you to consider that perhaps you’re not the one in charge of everything.

All of which is to say that maybe, just maybe, your hatred is misdirected. At the very least, now you can direct it toward me instead of the program. After all, I’m the one telling you that you don’t feel the way you say you do.

Making Amends Was Everything I Least Expected

I thought I knew exactly how my Ninth Step in AA would unfold. Instead, over a decade later, I’m still trying to make sense of people’s unpredictable reactions.

I heard about how sober people made amends long before I got sober. Somehow, the idea that alcoholics and addicts went around apologizing for their past misdeeds lodged itself in my psyche at a time when I had yet to say the Serenity Prayer.

Road to RecoveryThat doesn’t mean I understood the concept. For instance, if you’d asked me then if apologizing and making amends were the same thing, I’d have sworn that they were. I had no experience, yet, of making things right with someone I’d wronged—let alone making things right in a way that might stop me repeating whatever it was I’d done in the first place.

By the time I got to my Ninth Step, I’d picked up a few things. Probably the most important one was that I didn’t have to play the victim anymore. My Fourth and Fifth steps had showed me that I had played a major part in all my resentments—a realization that I found liberating. Steps Six, Seven and Eight had gotten me ready to make my amends. And while I was certainly nervous about getting started on what I then thought of as my apology tour, I was also excited.

I was promised miracles and they came—but never how or when I expected them.

I figured I’d knock out the “easy” ones first: one to Lauren and another to Peter, both former party pals. In each case I’d done something gossipy and mean-spirited but not atrocious, so I figured these amends would be simple. These people weren’t, after all, family members who were likely to make the experience traumatizing, or exes whom I dreaded to contact at all. They were just people I’d once spent a lot of time around but didn’t really have anything in common with anymore. Easy, right?

I called Lauren first (this was in the days before Caller ID or the demise of landlines):

“Lauren? Hey, it’s Anna.”

Long pause.

“Hey, Anna.”

“So listen. I’m calling because—“

“Oh, God, don’t tell me this is one of those ‘amends’ type of calls. I just—”

“Please let me—”

“Look, I heard you’re sober and that’s great. But this just isn’t something I’m up for.”

Click.

I sat there listening to the dial tone. In all the amends scenarios I’d mentally concocted, having someone—let alone the first person I reached out to—not be willing to hear what I had to say had never occurred to me. I’d read in the Big Book that we had to be willing to go to people we feared might throw us out of their offices, but I’d never read anything about how to handle the people who wouldn’t even take the call to set up the meeting. Still, what could I do—call her back, tell her it was about something else and sneak an amends in? My sponsor told me to move on, so I did.

To Peter. Who, well, never called me back. I didn’t realize he wasn’t ever planning to call me back until a week or so after I’d left a voicemail, when our mutual friend told me. “He doesn’t like to revisit the past,” the friend explained. “He said you don’t need to apologize for anything.”

This wasn’t how I’d imagined it going. I’d heard other people share about how they’d suddenly find themselves running into the very person they’d been planning to make amends to that day. Why was the opposite happening to me?

But I moved on. I had to. And I continued to find the process nothing like I expected it to be.

In general, it seemed like the people I thought weren’t going to be amenable to even meeting up welcomed me warmly. Those I thought would forgive me right away, meanwhile, were dismissive or indifferent. But one thing remained predictable: The amends that I was so terrified to make that I shook with terror or sobs at the thought were always the most rewarding of all.

Take, for instance, the ex I’d never gotten over. I called him up one evening when I was about five years sober and told him how sorry I was for destroying our relationship, for every cruel thing I’d uttered and each horrible mistake I’d made when we were together. But rather than lay into me as I expected, he said he was glad to hear from me, that it helped him make sense of his past, that he was happy I was sober and doing well. But, he added, I was blaming myself too much; he’d played just as big a part in what had gone wrong between us as I had. The conversation was more honest, painful and beautiful than any we’d had the entire time we lived together. I hung up feeling about 20 pounds lighter. I was finally free of an idea I hadn’t even realized I’d been clinging to—that I’d been a monster, and he my innocent victim.

Then there was the time I met up with a friend I’d known since I was 12 but had fallen out with in my twenties. We went on a hike and I told her how sorry I was for the way I’d behaved the last time we’d spoken, five or so years earlier. It turned out she was in a 12-step program too—so she actually made amends to me right after I made them to her. By the time we got to the bottom of the canyon, we’d re-launched our friendship—on new, healthier terms. Over a decade later, we talk nearly every day.

I was promised miracles and they came—but never how or when I expected them.

Take my financial amends. The first debt that I owed was to my college roommate, for the time I’d borrowed her car in sophomore year and then acted surprised when I saw the dent. I explained to her that I’d actually crashed into something when drunk and lied to her, and that I wanted to reimburse her for the damages. But she wouldn’t hear of it.

For my next financial amends, I decided to just go ahead and send a check. It was to a girl I’d lived with when I first moved to New York after college, a girl who’d moved out of our crappy, railroad-style place without notice one Thanksgiving weekend when I was out of town. It was a shitty thing to do, of course. But it didn’t make it right for me to charge up the phone bill in her name as high as I could, and then not respond when she asked me to reimburse her. So I tracked down her address and mailed a check and a card, apologizing for the phone bill as well as for being—well, the kind of roommate who would inspire someone to move out over Thanksgiving weekend without notice.

She sent the check back, along with a note that said, essentially, that she was doing very well, that she had a husband, five kids and a thriving career as a chiropractor, and that if I felt so bad about my behavior, then I should donate the money to a good cause since she didn’t need my charity.

Glenn was a guy who’d lock my cats away when I was out and call the landlord when I had friends from AA over, saying that he was “scared for his life” because there were “homeless alcoholics” around.

Like I said, not what I expected. But even that one allowed me to live with a little more freedom.

Some amends haven’t involved contacting people at all. Glenn, a gay guy I’d lived with the second time I’d moved to New York, when I was about seven years sober, had started off cool as could be but slowly revealed himself to be crazy—a guy who’d lock my cats away when I was out and call the landlord when I had friends from AA over, saying that he was “scared for his life” because there were “homeless alcoholics” around. (To say I’ve had bad luck with New York roommates would be an understatement.)

Though I ended up moving out and getting away from him entirely, I found myself still resenting him months later. I had done plenty wrong in our relationship, but trying to make amends to him was something I couldn’t imagine—not when he’d done things to me that I couldn’t imagine getting over. I decided to make a “living amends” by trying to be kind and gracious in my life—the opposite of how I’d been toward him at the end. But that didn’t stop me from resenting him. So, at my sponsor’s suggestion, I committed to praying for him for 90 days—specifically for him to get everything he wanted and for me to have empathy for the fact that he’d been doing the best he could. I did it for those three months, never feeling any differently about him but staying committed to the process because my sponsor kept asking me about it. I thought it was silly: I never felt any differently about Glenn.

Until the day, months after I’d stopped praying for him, that I met a guy who asked me if I knew anyone great to set him up with and I found myself answering, without thinking, “Yes! I know this amazing guy named Glenn.”

Glenn! As in: the guy I hated. Had hated, apparently.

Those days and weeks and months of asking an entity I didn’t even understand to give Glenn what he wanted had apparently granted me the empathy to see that he only hurt like that because of the pain he was in himself. And this had relieved me of my resentment, without me even realizing. It was surreal. (And no, I didn’t set the two guys up—I had no interest in ever talking to Glenn again—but the space he’d been taking up my head was cleared.)

I still do things I need to make amends for. Sometimes I make them right away and sometimes not for a long time. But I’ve found that time works in surprising ways when it comes to these things. Consider, for instance, what happened with Peter—the guy who wouldn’t call me back when I first started making my amends. Years had passed—so many years that he’d forgotten I’d ever said or done anything hurtful to him—when I ran into him one evening outside the gym. He told me that he’d just gotten an offer to sell a book of poetry, then asked if I’d be willing to look over the contract the publisher was asking him to sign.

I said I’d be happy to, and we met up a few days later, when I looked over his contract and gave him the best advice I could. Then I told him how sorry I was about the hurtful thing I’d done so many years before. I still remember how shocked his bright blue eyes looked when they jumped from the contract pages to meet mine. Then they filled with tears. Turns out, this thing I’d done that was “just” gossipy and mean-spirited had actually been something I needed to make right. And the guy who didn’t like to “revisit the past,” who’d told a friend I didn’t have to apologize for anything, ended up accepting my apology lovingly, giving me one more opportunity to chip away at the guilt and shame I didn’t want to walk around with anymore. He just hadn’t been able to do it on my time schedule.

Lauren has never surfaced. But that’s not to say that she won’t.