Ten days after the presidential election, I went to my regular Thursday-night meeting. Between six and twelve women gather at my friend Magdalene’s home. We started this off-the-books meeting over the summer when Magdalene was house-bound, recovering from surgery.
The mood was heavy. One woman with 12 years sober said she’s been struggling each day to get out of bed, and when she finally does get up, she sinks to the floor and weeps in despair. This woman was raped in her 20’s. When our fellow Americans elected a man who had bragged about sexually assaulting women, she felt as if a knife had punctured her solar plexus and carved its way south to the center of her womanhood.
“It feels like our country had a choice between a woman and a bully,” she said, “and the bully won.”
A chorus of assent swept around the table. I looked at the women and counted: her, and her, and her. And her, too, and myself. A bunch of us had suffered unwanted physical or sexual invasion, commonly known as trauma.
Physical Trauma and Recovery
This is in line with the statistics. I recently wrote a book about sex and recovery—what sex was like before, what happened, and what it’s like now that we’re sober. One of the most startling things I found out was how many people in recovery have experienced physical abuse and sexual harassment, assault, and rape. It has been found that an astonishing three-quarters of women with addiction have experienced physical abuse, with two-thirds of those having suffered sexual trauma, and many of those having survived childhood sexual abuse. And though most men haven’t been abused like this, it’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of recovering men have.
So that means that in any gathering of recovering people anywhere—online or in real life—many, if not most, have traumatic memories.
Trauma can lie at the root of addiction. And it’s one thing for a recovering person to have PTSD flashbacks of an event that happened a long time ago, but it’s another thing to watch the sneering, gloating assaulter triumph in real-time. In the past ten days I’ve heard many women in recovery express fear and horror. They watched as, unbelievably, the perpetrator beat out a woman, and now we’re witnessing him putting other bullies into positions of power.
A power greater than ourselves.
For those of us who have survived the loss of our physical integrity and sexual power, this election can make us feel as if we’re getting, well, screwed—all over again. And, again, there’s nothing we can do about it. Or so we think.
I’ve often heard that it’s not our fault that we have addiction, but it is our responsibility to recover. Similarly, if we’ve experienced trauma, it’s not our fault—but it is our responsibility to do our best to take care of ourselves so we can heal and regain as much of the integrity and power that is our birthright.
When I have the feeling that God/Higher Power/The Great Whatever is abandoning me, that’s one of the most dangerous places I can be in my recovery. I have to work gently and consistently with my own mind to counter these thoughts. I’ve come to believe they’re part and parcel of addiction itself. One of addiction’s two distinct features is distortion of truth, also known as lying; the other is obsession. Addiction takes hold when obsessing about “fixes” gives hope of relieving the pain caused by the distortions of truth.
Here are three drug- and fee-free antidotes I use to challenge my mind’s thoughts of desperation (distortions) and drinking and using (obsessions).
When the Thursday meeting began, I knew only a few of the women. Now, I feel as though they’re all part of my family. For me that’s a precious feeling, especially around the holidays, because I don’t have much family. Both my parents died of the consequences of addiction. I watched my mother die at age 58. And I’m emotionally very close to my sister, but we live far apart, and I don’t get to spend much time with her.
So I’ve built a big family-of-choice. Some are folks I’ve met online, through my blog, and through social media. But since I write about the body and its wisdom, I find it even more powerful to connect in person—or, as my son used to say when he was little, “In Real.” Which leads me to the next antidote.
The best In-Real connection is human touch. Connecting In Real with a loved one’s skin reduces cortisol (a damaging stress hormone) and releases a cascade of oxytocin, the body’s natural bonding hormone. We feel the calming waterfall of oxytocin during orgasm, breastfeeding, and when we hold a friend’s hand or put an arm around a buddy.
After the meeting, I stood behind Magdalene and combed my fingers through her hair for five or ten minutes. Brazilians call this cafuné—it’s one of their words for which there’s no English equivalent, and that’s because Brazilians touch each other a lot more than Americans do. “That feels good,” Magdalene said, and her shoulders relaxed.
American men, don’t stop reading! While writing my book about sex, I learned how strong, especially for men, is the American aversion to touch. But as human animals, we survived Paleo-predators, ice ages, and poverty through the millennia by living and sleeping huddled like puppies. Touching each other is not only a healing act, it’s now a radical move of rebellion against our culture of isolation and addiction. Which leads me to the third antidote.
Renowned Canadian addiction doctor Gabor Maté long ago told me that those who stay sober long-term are those who build community. When I regularly hang with my family-of-choice and hold their hands, kiss their cheeks, look into their eyes, and give them cafuné, it wraps a golden net of safety and community around me (and them!) that I can’t feel if I don’t take these actions. Hanging with my community is a power greater than me that protects my mind from the booby-trap of distortions of truth.
I’m not perfect at enacting any of these antidotes. But I have a tiny little problem with perfectionism, so I’ve been practicing actually being not-perfect at recovery and the rest of life—or, accepting my not-perfectness.
Anyway, these are some ways I return to sanity when I have the feeling that God has split and the attacker has taken over. I realize that, like The Dude, God abides. As for the attacker, he may wreck the country, but the country is not where my sobriety lives.