FEATURE - January 2020
You Are Building a New Life
by Laura McKowen
Before Laura McKowen got sober, she had a long, successful career in public relations in the Mad Men-esque drinking culture of the advertising industry, where “liquid lunches were frequent and drinking at your desk in the late afternoon was perfectly normal.” In the five years since she stopped drinking, she has become one of the foremost voices in the modern recovery movement.
In her new memoir We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life (New World Library, January 7, 2020), McKowen flips the script on how we talk about addiction and encourages readers not to ask, “Is this bad enough that I have to change?” but rather, “Is this good enough for me to stay the same?”
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Let’s talk for a minute first about building a new life. This is not the same as, say, cleaning out your closet, learning how to knit, or starting CrossFit. This isn’t just making a self-improvement or productivity tweak so your life can be 20 percent more organized and interesting, or so you can get a great-looking ass or earn $15,000 more a year; I’m talking about the kind of change that requires death and rebirth.
Maybe you’re trying to get sober. Or maybe you’re at the end of a relationship, or someone you love has passed, or you’re making a huge professional leap, or a season of your life is coming to an end or already has. Whether it’s something that you’ve chosen or something that has befallen you, the result is the same: you are going to have to build a new way of being. That can sound clear and linear, like something that can be project-managed, but real transformation doesn’t work that way. My friend Lisa says, “Getting sober ain’t like other task-oriented activities, sweetie,” and this is hilariously, and unfortunately, true. It’s bigger. Wider. Deeper. Entirely engrossing. Otherworldly, even.
In every big transition of my life — pregnancy, becoming a mother, marriage, divorce, and especially getting sober — I have been gobsmacked by the messiness and difficulty of it all. It can feel like the most basic tasks, things you have been doing since childhood — taking a shower, brushing your teeth, feeding yourself — are new again and near impossible. Time slows. Axioms you’ve understood and relied on all your life fall away. There is a profound and complete dislocation from the very center of things, as if gravity itself has relocated.
There’s a term for these phases of life in biblical and psychological terms: liminal space. Limen is a Latin word that means “threshold.” It is the time between the “what was” and the “next,” a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Generally, we resist and wish like hell against these times, but for me, learning that it was an actual spiritual thing defined by groundlessness helped a lot. In Everything Belongs, author and theologian Richard Rohr describes liminal space as the place “where we are betwixt and between. There, the old world is left behind, but we’re not sure of the new one yet....Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible.” He says, “If we don’t find liminal space in our lives, we start idolizing normalcy.”
And yet, we always think it should be easier. Faster. Less gnarly.
The Instagram culture we live in doesn’t help. All the sparkly, shiny images of people #livingtheirbestlife #soberAF can make it look like sobriety, or any other significant transformation, is an instant reality. We don’t see the daily fight — the thousands of tedious, unsexy steps — it takes, day after day, to really heal and become new.
My friend Janet said to me many times early on, when I would come to her vexed, once again, by the sheer difficulty of getting through a single day without drinking, “Girl, don’t forget that you are saving your life — it should be hard.” I thought that sounded rather dramatic. But, of course, she was right. I was saving my damn life. I was building a new life. It was never, will never, be anything less than that.
It doesn’t matter if you haven’t edged as close to disaster as I did. It doesn’t matter if no one has ever commented on your drinking or no one believes you when you say you have a problem. As they say, it doesn’t matter how much you drink, or how often, but what happens to you when you do. If something is keeping you from being fully present and showing up in your life the way you want, then deciding to change that thing is an actual matter of life and death, you know? It’s the difference between existing and actually living.
Doesn’t it make sense that, as with a pregnancy, you’re going to have to fight like hell to bring this new life into the world?
If you are doing anything new, you are building a new life. Nothing less. New life does not burst forth fully formed on day one; it is at first a pink, tender thing that requires attention, vigilance, and respect. It takes time and tending to get big enough and strong enough to exist on its own. I really want you to hear that.
Excerpted from the book We Are the Luckiest. Copyright ©2020 by Laura McKowen. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com
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Laura McKowen is the author of We Are the Luckiest. She is a former public relations executive who has become recognized as a fresh voice in the recovery movement. Beloved for her soulful and irreverent writing, she leads sold-out yoga-based retreats and other courses that teach people how to say yes to a bigger life. Visit her online at www.lauramckowen.com.