"Whenever my heart got involved, my head went out the window."

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Blackout Girl

A Woman's Way Through the Twelve Steps


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Episode 74 -- December 28, 2020

Love in Recovery: Start with Yourself

So many of us are hungry for connection and craving closeness these days. It's tempting to think our lives might markedly improve by adding a partner or lover to the mix. Jennifer Storm, in this excerpt from her book Awakening Blackout Girl: A Survivor's Guide for Healing from Addiction and Sexual Trauma, brings us along on her journey through trauma and recovery, sharing her missteps as well as personal triumphs and moments of growth—including some highs and lows in the love department. Though you may not have had the same path through trauma as she has, you may be able to relate to her thoughts and feelings about love and relationships. Strange as it sounds, Storm says our search for deep and dependable love must start with the person we're most conflicted and confused about: ourselves.

It has been edited for brevity.

In Twelve Step programs, there's an unwritten rule that you should not have any new romantic relationships within the first year of your sobriety. This rule, like many others, comes from the experiences of others who have lived the program and watched and experienced many mistakes over the years. This is good advice. Getting sober after many months or years of addiction is a huge life change. You need time to adjust. As we've talked about throughout this book, healing from both addiction and sexual trauma requires a lot of time and work. You have to rediscover who you really are and who you want to be in the future. Recovery and healing need to be our primary purpose. The focus must be on ourselves, not on another person. If you can follow this rule, I highly recommend it. But I will also concede that it's not always that easy or straightforward.

I'm not going to pretend I'm perfect and own the moral high ground here. I broke this rule myself. I felt it only natural, and almost mandatory, to immediately get into a relationship in rehab. It was all I knew. I was never taught anything about healthy relationships or healthy connection. I found a guy who was just as screwed up as I was, and within two weeks of trading notes in secrecy, we thought we were in love. The women in my therapy group pointed out that this was a bad idea, and I still decided to move in with him soon after I left treatment. Needless to say, that relationship didn't work out.

Now I see that this relationship came from my need for attention. If I wasn't going to use drugs and alcohol anymore, I figured I needed to find something else to fill the void inside. I had no clue how to begin to love myself, so I had to bathe in the false love I got from others. I was still chasing a high. It took me a while in recovery to realize that I could and did use people in the same way I used drugs and alcohol. It's very easy to distract yourself from emotional and spiritual growth when you are solely focused on another person. It's easy to immerse yourself in someone else's life. And the really messed-up thing is, that immersion can mask itself as growth. When you start a new relationship, you feel like you're really connecting with another person. That seems healthy, right? It can feel like progress, but it's really all farce and fallacy. It's almost always an excuse to avoid working on yourself, to avoid actually growing. It's so easy to fall prey to this in early recovery because even the most dedicated person struggles with feelings of acceptance. Everyone wants to be loved.

It's a better idea to spend time alone in the beginning of your recovery, to find yourself first. I learned that the hard way. Focusing on myself was such a foreign concept. But eventually, after being told many times, I realized that cliché about loving yourself first is true. You can't know who you love if you don't know yourself. You can't give love to someone else if you don't have it for yourself. I didn't love myself when I first came into recovery, so how was I supposed to pass on any form of healthy love to another person? All the love I had known throughout my life was riddled with conditions and expectations. There were always strings attached in some way. I was always doing what I thought others wanted me to do, rarely considering what my own heart or soul wanted. I was never alone with my thoughts long enough to be in tune with myself, to know what would truly make me happy. I paraded around thinking I was in love and thinking I was loved when, in reality, I was a puppet on a string. I'm not even going to talk about my relationships before sobriety. I was in such an unhealthy place that there was no way I could give and receive real love, regardless of the other person or their intentions. After I got sober and started healing, I fell in and out of "love" frequently. Sometimes it was a form of love. Other times it was a distraction that I called love. Sometimes it was hot sex masquerading as love.

I have come to know and understand that love has many complex forms. There is love of life, love of self, love of family, love of friends. But the one that baffled me the most for years was romantic love, the partnership love. I would think I'd found it, and then I would wind up bored, realizing the feelings I felt weren't actually true love. Then I would have to end the relationship and cause both of us a lot of pain. Sometimes these relationships were training grounds for what I would ultimately learn about myself and about being in a relationship. This is another reason why it's not fair to date people when you aren't in a good place. Several of my partners became collateral damage in my quest to know myself, to understand what worked and what did not work for me. This wasn't intentional at all or ever done with malicious intent. It was simply due to a lack of appreciation and understanding of myself at the time.

Now, after many hours working on this in therapy, I have grown to understand and love myself to my core. I am independent and have proven to myself time and again that I can take care of myself and be alone. In fact, when looking back, some of the greatest and most peaceful times in my life were spent alone in my small, one-bedroom apartments. I firmly believe that taking this time to be truly independent is essential if we, as people in recovery from both addiction and sexual trauma, want to be able to share our lives with another person. But again, I had to learn this the hard way.

When I started my recovery, I just wanted desperately to be in a relationship. I tried my best to take the lessons I had learned from others and my own experiences and carry them with me into my next relationship. But I still made the same mistakes over and over again. Whenever my heart got involved, my head went out the window. After a relationship ended, I could see clearly why it didn't work. I could articulate all the reasons why the relationship or person I sought was not good for me and tell myself exactly what I needed to do. But when faced with a new person and situation, my heart took over, and I would fumble. I would put the other person first because it felt good in the moment. I allowed guilt and fear of being alone to run the show. I thought that if I dared to be my authentic self and truly put myself first, the person would no longer want me. So I continued to compromise myself and my self-worth for the needs of others. I became a codependent person who fell into the backdrop of her own life for the sake of another's happiness. Just when I thought I knew how to make myself happy, I fell into a trap of committing to a relationship too soon and flailing around in it. Lost and confused, I didn't want to be alone. I could not be alone. I preferred to cuddle up with the wrong person and spend my days in their arms over rolling over to find the other half of the bed still neatly made. The absence of love in my life was too hard to bear. I felt like a failure if I didn't have someone, so I just sprang from relationship to relationship like a dysfunctional trapeze artist.

I picked the wrong people and allowed the wrong people to pick me. I overlooked early warning signs that were clearly red flags of a mismatch. I enabled my partners' unacceptable behaviors out of fear that if I didn't, I would lose them. And of course, if I lost a relationship, that meant I was a loser. I have tolerated enormous amounts of bullshit at the expense of myself. I hurt a lot of people because I didn't take the time to just be alone and process my shit. I thought of a relationship as a symbol to the world that I had made it. "See, I'm in a relationship, so I must be healthy and deserving of love!"

As a person recovering from addiction, I tried to find someone who was also in recovery. This was not easy. Purely thinking about numbers, the number of stable people in recovery from addiction in any given area is small. Add in being a lesbian and, well, talk about shrinking pools of opportunity. But for a while after I got sober, I was so immersed in recovery that I really didn't have an opportunity to know anyone outside of the meetings I went to. I kept myself very insulated within my Twelve Step program, which was really important early on. It was what I needed to do to maintain my recovery. But once I realized that my choices were so limited, I began to date outside of the program. I dated people who could drink normally or socially. I did this for years. I was lucky that my foundation in recovery was solid by that point, and I honestly never wanted to drink again. So I didn't feel the need to drink or use with them. But it certainly was not helpful for me to date people who drank. It was not healthy for me to kiss someone with alcohol on their breath or have it in my home. This I now know.

I went in and out of a lot of different relationships.

And then, I met the love of my life.

And as it often happens, I met her by accident.

My story probably sounds like a fairy tale, and in many ways it really is. But our relationship was and is not perfect, because no authentic, loving relationship is easy or perfect. Especially when one or both of you are bringing the baggage of addiction and sexual trauma with you. But because she is truly the love of my life, we do the hard work. We communicate constantly, incessantly. We argue, we resolve. We go to couples therapy. We have the healthiest relationship I have ever had in my life. It took me a very long time to find this kind of love. I made a lot of mistakes in my recovery and in my quest for love. That is okay. Every turn, every poor judgment, each bad decision allowed me to grow into the woman I needed to be in order to find my wife. And I am blessed. Today, I appreciate that just as my recovery is a journey and not a destination, so is marriage and commitment. A marriage or committed relationship must be worked on each and every day. It is a process. A process filled with amazing discovery, frustration, and intense emotional presence.

Today, I will choose to communicate fully with the people I love, including myself. I appreciate the role of past relationships in my life and understand that they are not my reality. I can define how I love and how I am loved.

Love is an action verb. I will act with love today and know that I am worthy of love.

About the Author:
Jennifer Storm is a survivor, author, advocate, and internationally recognized victims' rights expert with more than twenty years of experience. Storm has worked many high-profile cases, including helping victims of Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, Catholic clergy, and thousands of others. She serves as a content expert on victims' rights in the media and tours the country sharing her experiences, including frequent live and taped appearances on all major networks. Storm has four additional publications: Blackout Girl: Tracing My Scars from Addiction and Sexual Assault, Leave the Light On: A Memoir of Recovery and Self-Discovery, Picking Up the Pieces without Picking Up, and Echoes of Penn State. She is also working on a documentary based on Blackout Girl to help carry the message of addiction, victimization, and trauma. Storm resides in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, with her wife, Fianne, and their adopted son, Victor.

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