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An Open Letter to My 21-year-old Self on the 20th Anniversary of Initiating the Recovery Journey

Dear Kristen,

Today marks your 20th year in abstinence-based recovery. I know, 20….it really is mind blowing, especially since you never thought you would make it past 23-years-old. Getting into recovery at 21, doesn’t feel especially ‘normal’ to you, but trust me sister, it is the right thing for so many reasons, many of which you can’t see right now, but will come to understand slowly over time. Okay, so here is the truth, it is not easy. You make some decisions that you will regret and take risks that don’t pay off in the end. You will feel all of the pain that comes with these choices, and you will feel them sober. Just because you enter recovery does not mean that life is going to stop life’n on you. But you get through it and have some really great times too. You lean into your life and come out of most of it wiser and stronger. I don’t want to spoil any surprises, so I left out some details, but here are a few life lessons you will learn along the way. Take them for what they are, just your future self, trying to give you unsolicited advice. Happy Re-birthday lady!

Top 5 Lessons for Building Resiliency in Recovery

1. Perfection IS Possible, if Our Expectations Fit Our Reality.

I don’t believe perfection by someone else's definition should be the goal. But that doesn’t mean perfection is out of the question. Let me give you an example. Saturday, your three-year-old-daughter, (yes, you have kids, that surprise is ruined), has decided that she wants to paint while running through the house wearing nothing but a pull-up diaper and her sneakers, which are untied. Paint spills everywhere and she just laughs like she is having the most fun out of anyone on the planet. The kitchen has a pile of dishes, your hair hasn’t been washed in about a week, and you catch a quick glimpse of the fence in the backyard that so old it is literally scaring away the birds. But you stop chasing the kid, just for a few seconds, and realize, everything is perfect in that moment. You wouldn’t change a thing, not even the Play Dough that is permanently smeared into the carpet under your feet. You are at peace and have a sense of joy about you that still feels new. This scenario may sound like a nightmare to others, but for you, it is perfect, and you could not be happier. You will learn how to see your reality as a gift, whether it is beautiful or painful. Having the clarity to see the truth and act accordingly, that is the miracle.

2. Stop Looking for Validation, Instead, Offer Some.

You know yourself well enough to know that people are never going to give you enough validation to satisfy your endless self-doubt and criticisms. But you do have a talent for recognizing the light in other people. It occurs to you, after living in a negative space for most of your life, that most people seek validation in other people because they are insecure, like you. You begin to meet new people, who by just being around them, make you feel more connected, happier, safer. They bring out the best in you and their energy is infectious. You begin mimicking the way they interact with others and you discover, it feels really amazing to make others feel good about themselves. In fact, if feels so good, you stop worrying about how you feel about yourself and become free to enjoy interacting with others, without an agenda. Telling other how much they mean to you, or how talented they are, becomes second nature. You enjoy trying to find new ways to make others feel good about themselves.

3. Focus on the Good, Start there and the Light will Grow so Bright, the Darkness is Blocked out Completely.

“We struggle to hold the truths of others because we have so rarely had the experience of having our own truths held.” – Sonya Renee Taylor.

Your default mode is to approach life from place of fear and dark shame. Learning to act from a place of love is going to take practice. You will have to seek a variety of additional recovery support services to work on this part of your path. Therapy, meditation, yoga, hiking, music, even throwing clay on a wheel, are amongst some of the tools you begin to experiment with over the coming years. The investment in the practice of self-appraisal, constructive feedback from those trusted companions, meditation, and absorption of hard lessons, gives you the ability to truly hold space for others to go through a transformative process of their own. The ultimate sign of love for you will become the ability to hold space and exchange emotional currency. Embrace it, you will make some powerful spiritual connections as a result of letting go of your fears and opening your heart to your truths.

4. Trust Your Gut.

I know, this one seems really obvious, but you will find out that one of your biggest challenges is trusting that voice inside of your own heart. For years, thanks to your highly attuned trauma responses and subsequent substance use disorder, you felt you couldn’t trust yourself. Some of the people you sought out in early recovery, because of their confidence and excellent public speaking abilities, will turn out to be the same people your gut tells you to run from today. You will discover that confidence does not automatically equal security and that most narcissistic cult leaders are excellent public speakers. Your gut will start to warn you about people who trigger the hard-won lessons from the past. It will feel uncomfortable and have names like, anxiety or depression. You may try to push the voice down deep until it finally comes bursting out sideways as full-blown panic attacks. This makes you hold on tighter to dogma and rigidity, like fingernails dug into a rubber life raft. This type of lifestyle can only last for so long before the raft pops and you sink. In all actuality, you won’t learn how to fully let go until you sink in recovery. You were trying to obtain someone else’s definition of perfection. The parts that do fit your life’s puzzle remained intact, but you shed some layers and rebuild a more solid foundation the next go-around. When we break a bone, it heals stronger than it was prior to the break.

5. Stay Green.

The only time you will get anxious, moving forward, is when you stop to think about how much you have been through and, in turn, how much you think you know. Have you been through a lot? Yes. Do you have a lot of experience to share with others? Yes. Does this mean that you should stop investing in the practice of self-appraisal, asking for constructive feedback from trusted companions, meditating, and absorb the hard lessons? Obviously, no. When I say that it is important for you to stay green, remain teachable, I mean, be willing to look for blind spots and learn from them. There will be moments over the next 20 years where you will stop and look around and think, “Damn, I cannot believe this is my life.” All the traveling, guest speaking, meetings at The White House, will tempt you to be swept away by your ego. Don’t get caught up in it, watch yourself and make sure you remember that for some reason, you were granted an amazing opportunity to do something you love as a career. There is a lot of personal responsibility that comes with the gig, like making sure you don’t turn into a jerk who thinks she knows everything. Understand that growing up in public, so to speak, has a price, and you are not the only one who pays it. Ask questions of those who know more than you. Continue to look for those who are seeking answers like you. And always remember, your husband, three-year-old daughter, and newborn son are your greatest loves and home base. Everything begins and ends with them. (Period).

I think at the end of the day, though, you can definitely say you did pretty good for a small-town girl from Jones Co., GA. You end up helping some people and hurting some. But, since we are an active part of the universe’s economy, now, we know what to do when the bill comes. I enjoyed writing this, even though I am sure my 21-year-old self, rolled her eyes all the way through it. Regardless, I expect another letter at our 40-year anniversary, so you better start working out more and eating less red meat. We have a couple of kids counting on us now and I want to be 40 years into recovery at age 61, still learning the hard lessons!

Much love,


Happy Recovery Birthday to anyone out there celebrating another journey around the sun without having to rely on alcohol or drugs or other lies to live a resilient life and a special shout out and thanks to Kristen!

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