In many twelve-step programs newcomers are either consoled or chastened by being told that it can take three to five years to “get out of the woods.” It’s a way of saying that recovery takes time. Later, at about the five-year mark, after attending a considerable number of meetings and working the steps and making countless life changes, many of us realize that it has actually taken that long simply to get into the woods. It is there—to continue the woodsy metaphor—that we start to recognize the trees and to know the creatures and critters of the woods for what they are.
Then the near-magical thing happens. Long-term recovery begins to take hold. Slowly, especially for women, there is a sensation of coming out of the woods. It’s a sense that we absolutely have changed, that there is some stability in our lives, and that we are truly new people. Of course we are not “fixed” and we’re never “cured,” but in double-digit recovery, another kind of life begins. And it remains, even after ten or fifteen or more years, to be about “progress, not perfection.”
After ten years of meetings and working the Twelve Steps, recovery often shifts into a different pace and schedule. This can be baffling to people in other stages of recovery and it can be troubling to those who are at that ten-plus place: What does it mean that I go to fewer meetings? Why am I spending more time on other projects, people, and other kinds of personal development? What does it mean to be a recovering woman in double-digit recovery?
The number of women who began to attend various twelve-step programs in the 1980s created a significant demographic bump. Those women are reaching key milestones now. Today, women are coming into twelve-step programs in ever growing numbers. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependencies (NCADD) estimates that women make up more than 35 percent of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) membership and more than 45 percent of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) members. In Overeaters Anonymous (OA) and Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) that number is closer to 75 percent. There are larger numbers of us in recovery. And a surprising number of us have been around for more than ten years, but we don’t always speak up about what happens. I have come to believe that we need to share our perspective.
At the five-year mark we start to get a sense of what is truly ours and what belongs to other people, or to the past. We begin to have new habits, new skills, and new friends. Working the steps and learning from others takes us through layers of self-examination. We begin to grow up.
Our spiritual growth starts to dovetail with our psychological work. We begin to look at our careers, our relationships, and our spirituality. We find spiritual practices that work for us. In years seven to nine we “dig deep or die” and recommit to our recovery. At ten years we have rich lives, and we work to balance our life in “the rooms” with the rest of our life.
We are coming out of the woods.
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So why make a point of the ten-year mark in recovery? Why a special book for women who’ve been recovering for ten or more years? Because while the basics remain the same, some issues are different after you have been in recovery for a while.
Most women with long-term recovery have a sense of this. There are situations we mention or describe in the rooms and the details we share only with recovering friends. And we have good friends. One of the striking phenomena about later recovery is that we even have friends who are not in recovery—and who don’t need to be.
Yes, we still struggle, and no, we’re not perfect by a long shot. If we’re lucky and we have a sense of humor—that grows over time, too—we’ve given up any hope of perfection and we’ve come to have a comfortable relationship with our flaws and with ourselves.
What most of us have learned is that the Twelve Steps and a recovery program are part of a good life, but that even recovery does not protect us from illness, job troubles, problems with our kids or family, and experiencing all types of losses. We, like everyone else, will get to experience plenty of “life on life’s terms.”
Recovery Is a Subtle Game
My favorite bumper sticker has always been, “I didn’t quit, I surrendered,” and I love sayings like, “Give time time,” and “Trust the process.” But now, with nearly thirty years in twelve-step recovery, I feel a kind of nostalgia that time has indeed passed and that the doors that opened so generously years ago to welcome me into a twelve-step fellowship now open again and deliver me—drug-free, sane, and still healing—back into the world. It’s like riding in one of those elevators with doors that open on either end. You get in, and it goes up or down, but you have to turn around and face the other way to get out. That is what it feels like to be a woman in recovery coming out of the woods.
Of course this doesn’t mean we graduate. Nor do we leave recovery. But it’s different. Long-term recovery has a kind of ease and grace to it. That is what the newcomers are seeing when they “want what you have.” Not that there aren’t days that I hurt like hell, or act like a brat, or suffer with emotional pain. The difference is that on those days—like the day my brother died or when I learned that my husband was seriously ill—even then, as I was lying on the floor and crying, there was a part of me that could watch myself do that and say, “Go ahead, cry; you will be okay.”
That’s another plus of long-term recovery: I no longer automatically assume when something bad happens that I did something wrong or that I am being punished.
Years ago, before I came into the rooms of recovery, when something bad happened it was likely that it did have to do with something I’d done. I drank to excess, lied about it, made crummy decisions, and drank more to tolerate the shame and guilt. I swung back and forth between compulsive work and sloth, tried bulimia and compulsive eating, got into financial trouble, and made a mess of most relationships.
I remember going to see a therapist in those painful days before my recovery began. She listened to me pour out my pain, asked a few questions, and then looked me in the eye and told me that I would need to be in therapy for about three years. I left her office in tears. She did get through my defenses but I felt hopeless about her prescription. How could I possibly do anything for three years?
Then one day at work I heard some women gossiping about a woman I admired. I didn’t know her well, but she seemed smart and kind and had a refreshing sense of humor. The women at work were whispering, “Well, you know she goes to AA.” I know they thought they were saying something awful about her, but I thought, “Oh my God, she goes to AA . . . and she’s so pulled together . . . she goes to AA!” It was my first experience of “If you want what we have . . . ,” and I hadn’t even been to a meeting yet.
I think of that day whenever I hear someone say, “You may be the only Big Book someone reads.” That gossip was a gift. It was the first of many experiences in recovery where something bad, like listening to gossip, turned out to have a higher purpose.
So I went to my first recovery meeting. In a church basement of course, and the rest is history—or my history, actually. I remember how in those first months I would hear people with three or five years talking about their lives and “working a program.” I could see that they had decent lives; they smiled and laughed and seemed to be moving forward.
Some of them had been in recovery for many years. It seemed impossible, but in that way that recovery happens—one-day-at-a-time, and spending so many hours sitting in folding chairs and drinking coffee—one day I had ten years. My gratitude was inexpressible. My life was new in almost every way; my faith in the recovery process absolute.
But in these later years, I have begun to have new questions and different ideas. There are life issues that no one talked about when I was younger in recovery. It seems that when I look around I see fewer of “us”; people with ten or more years are harder to find. Does it mean that we relapse or we simply drift away after ten years? Does it suggest a lack of commitment or gratitude?
When I look closer though, that is not what I see happening.
I am gifted with a group of women friends who have between ten and thirty years of recovery. Sometimes when we have dinner or we take walks together we talk about these changes in our recovery. We share about the tools that we still use and those that we depend on less now. We talk about what has stayed the same and what hasn’t. When I take a close look at these friends, and myself, I see happy, busy women. Like another recovery slogan says, “Recovery didn’t just save my life; it gave me a life worth saving.” And that is now truer than ever.
I notice how subtle recovery can be. After a period of ten years we are different people. The big glaring chunks of our disease have been removed. We look better both inside and out. Sometimes we tell stories about what we struggle with today—yes; struggle remains as long as we are committed to growth. “Progress not perfection” is the slogan of choice. There are rewards that begin to come true with ten or more years of recovery, but those specific rewards sometimes take us away from the people and practices that built our good recovery.
The good news is that with double-digit recovery there often is less pain. The bad news is that pain was what motivated us toward change and continued spiritual growth. So what is a recovering woman to do? And what does remain? I think the answer is in more questions and more vigilance.
In earlier stages of recovery our shifts of mind and changes of attitude were mirrored by external changes. We saw people gain or lose weight, or cut and color their hair. We dressed differently, dated differently, took jobs, quit jobs, changed career fields, got married and got divorced, and sometimes got married again. The changes were obvious and dramatic. If you laid the photos of our first year next to the photos from years five and seven and ten, you could see women change. It shows on the outside, but if we could X-ray the minds and hearts of women in later recovery we’d see that dramatic change continues, but now more than ever, it’s an inside job.
In later recovery we find our stride and our style. The work we do is less obvious from the outside. Now it’s not so much about losing weight or getting a promotion or a diploma. We’ve learned to incorporate self-care; we can be decent coworkers; we’ve changed careers or gone back to school. Now maybe it’s about being kinder and not about being the smarty-pants; it’s about taking pride in our work and not needing applause—or even better, now we can be the one who applauds others. It’s more about what we don’t do than what we do.
All These Years and You Are Still Not Alone
What women in recovery for ten or more years have is a set of skills and a wealth of experience to fall back on. We recognize our patterns, we can cut through our defenses sooner, and we learn not to fight the inevitable. We learn to surrender when we see the wall coming at us instead of waiting, as we did in the past, to slam right into it.
We are also able to see those difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in with a tiny bit more perspective. By the time we reach the ten-year mark, most of us have had at least one or two experiences of having something we were sure wasn’t supposed to happen, turn out to be the stepping stone to something unexpectedly good.
Life at ten-plus years can have its challenges. This book was written by a woman for women with ten or more years of recovery. To help us compare notes, to see that there is common ground, and to reassure us that there is no one right way to be a recovering woman. I hope to enhance your recovering lives and offer you markers along the path as you grow out of the woods.
“Diane Cameron has illuminated the special challenges and opportunities that women with several decades of addiction recovery share, and has brought the wisdom of that journey to all who decide to get on that path. What it takes to stay in recovery as you weather financial, sexual, professional and interpersonal challenges, and she shows that while you don’t need to worry about relapse all the time, there are always new things you can explore to become the best version of yourself.”
Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, best-selling author of My Name is Caroline and Creating Your Best Life
Diane Cameron’s stunning new book maps the territory of “longtime recovery”—acknowledging that the process at its best inexorably promotes the transformation of almost every area of life. Out of the Woods is an important achievement, because it systematically explores territory that—remarkably enough—has simply not been mapped in any serious fashion. We’re fortunate that it was Cameron who undertook this important task—fortunate in no small part because she is a superb writer. Her voice itself radiates the maturity of longtime recovery: never doctrinaire, but rather lively, fun,inspiring, engaging and non-reactive, but relentlessly challenging stale assumptions wherever she finds them. I predict that this book will soon be on the night-tables (and in the purses) of untold numbers of recovery explorers!
Stephen Cope, Director, Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living; Author, The Great Work of Your Life
“With the clear-eyed view of a woman with over 30 years of recovery, Diane Cameron’s Out of the Woods is like an intimate conversation with a wise and loving sponsor. She shares the tools of the Twelve Steps in ways that speak to women in long-term recovery, who are dealing with life changes, body changes, an evolving spirituality and an expanding sense of service to a larger community.
Amy Weintraub, founder, LifeForce Yoga; Author, Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapists
“Diane Cameron offers us a wonderfully comprehensive view of the myriad facets of life in long-term recovery. She provides a very hopeful and practical perspective offered in a very human, self-disclosing and witty manner. Readers will find this book inspiring.”
Dr. Johnel D. Bushell, Co-Director Center for Cognitive Therapy of the Capital District; Founding Fellow and Diplomate Academy of Cognitive Therapy