Why Can’t You Just Listen??
Before the day I completely erased the word “should” from my vocabulary, there was Sarah.
Sarah was a few years younger than me, and had been sober and clean for a couple of months. We met through a mutual friend, and connected immediately. She was in the midst of making some of the same relationship choices I had in early sobriety, and suffering much of the pain. When she asked me to help her make some changes in her life, I was thrilled by her willingness and eager to assist.
Sarah called me every day because I told her she had to. We talked about all sorts of things, but she called me many times with pain in her voice. My immediate responses where usually wrapped up in something she should be doing to feel better. It made perfect sense to me to simply provide this girl with the solution to her problems when she brought them to me. After all, that is what she had asked me to do; help her change. I had the information she was lacking, because I had done the work she needed to do. I had all the answers. I was sure if she just got out of her own way, we could get to work, and she would be happy in no time.
I remember exactly where I was standing the day Sarah left me speechless.
She called, as scheduled, with yet another issue stemming from the same problem we had talked about the day before; still unwilling to see that she was the cause of this turmoil. As usual, I gave her the simple solution to her problem, and told her what she should do. And even though I had all of the answers, and was confident that there was nothing this girl could say that I could not combat with “solution,” her next question baffled me.
“Why can’t you just listen? Why can’t you ever just say ‘wow, that really must suck for you?”
She said she understood that there would be times that I would be a “hard ass,” and remind her that she could take certain actions to change the way she felt. She wanted that. But she also wanted to talk to someone human, who identified without judgment, who could provide even the slightest bit of compassion. Someone who remembered what it was like to be “IN” the tornado of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again, despite knowing better.
It took me a while to process what Sarah had said. Her question was more than valid, but it made me extremely uncomfortable. I went back in forth in my mind for days between thoughts of ‘how dare she,’ and the gnawing, disturbing, unfamiliar feeling that she was 100% right. Why couldn’t I just show compassion? What was so difficult about giving her a hug before laying into her about whatever steps she should take to not feel terrible?
After mulling it over for about a week, praying about it, and trying to be open to the truth, it came to me.
I was uncomfortable with her pain, and I wanted to change it.
Instead of respecting Sarah’s right to be where exactly where she was, I tried to force my will into the situation. I tried to play God. I projected in my mind the beautiful life she could have if only she followed my example. I decided she didn’t have to experience the pain that I did because I could save her from it. I hadn’t realized how selfish or egotistical I was being.
The truth was, I had no idea what pain Sarah was supposed to experience in her life, and it wasn’t mine to dictate. I thought about all of consequences I had suffered, even in my sobriety, which had molded future choices and guided me into the woman I was. I realized that it was the intense pain that motivated those vital changes.
Who was I to rob someone else of that pain and tremendous opportunity?
That conversation changed my life. I will be forever grateful for Sarah’s courage to challenge my beliefs and allow me the opportunity to grow. I don’t think she will ever know how much she helped me that day.
It was that day that I erased the word “should” from my vocabulary for good. Regardless of what I imagine my intentions are when I use it, they are selfish. I do not know what God has in store for anyone. It is not my job to be any kind of guiding force in someone’s life. It is my only job to share my experience. PERIOD.
I have taken what I learned that day and used it to combat many of my own demons. I took a hard look at why other people’s negative feelings make me so uncomfortable, and I did some work on ME. It has opened my mind and my heart to opportunities to simply be supportive of people no matter what choices they make.
This was part of the inspiration behind Sober Mommies. I want it to be a place of compassion and understanding regardless of the specifics in our journeys. No matter how you got sober, stay sober…regardless of whether or not you are sober;
I want Sober Mommies to be a safe and loving place for all to land.
It makes me sad to see someone ask for help and be bombarded with “suggestions,” and “solution” today. I understand the intention behind it, and I know it always comes from a loving place. How many times I have read, “Just go to a meeting, get a sponsor, and do the steps” in an online sober support group and thought about Sarah. We bear our souls in some of these groups, and trust each other immensely. Is that really the best we can do? Maybe it is, but I hope not.
There are so many ways to recovery. The most beautiful part about recovery is that it can look different to everyone. Only I can decide what it looks like to me. The 12-steps have helped many people, (myself included), into a wonderful way of life, but it’s not for everyone.
To assume that the only way to get and stay sober MUST be through a 12-step program is unfair and a bit naïve. People are entitled to their own journey, and it’s not a script for me to write or edit. I try to have the faith to let go of my need to control, my fears for you, my “know better” voice, and let people just be. I have by no means perfected this art, but I work at it every day.
I find incredible freedom in letting go of everything and having faith that it will work out the way it’s intended. I understand that it’s okay for me to admit that I don’t know what’s best for people. I know that sometimes, even if you’re asking me what you should do, you might just need to know you’re not alone. It doesn’t mean I can’t help you, it just changes the way that I do.
Today I try to listen more than I speak. I try to ask tough questions that may invoke the answers that you already have. I am a true believer that we all have the answers inside of us. If we can just quiet the noise long enough, the truth will always emerge.
Julie Maida lives in Massachusetts with her amazing husband and three children. She has been in abstinence-based recovery since May 2, 2000.
Julie is eternally grateful for all the gifts of recovery and fiercely determined to advocate for, and connect ALL women with the appropriate support and resources necessary to achieve their personal recovery goals. She writes about mothering with mental illness at juliemaida.me.