5 Messes I've Had to Clean Up in Recovery

By Maria Newsom 05/23/19

When I’m on top of my 10th step game, it goes something like this: Sorry, my bad. How can I fix it? The apologies come easily, and I promptly follow up with offers to make up for all harms done. But I'm not always on top of my game.

Woman looking at paperwork, frowning, remembering to keep her side of the street clean in recovery.
I’m starting to think that lasting emotional sobriety depends on my willingness to really yank at those defective roots of self-centered fear and vanity.

What Does Recovery Feel Like to Me Right Now?

Good question.

It feels like making less mess, less often and...
It feels like cleaning up the messes I still manage to make.

When I’m really on top of my 10th step game, it goes something like this: Sorry, my bad. How can I fix it? The apologies come easily throughout my day, and I promptly follow up with offers to make up for all harms done. Then at night, under the covers, I make sure to scribble in my journal for those few minutes before Mr. Sandman knocks me out cold. Surprisingly, I learn a lot about myself in those last illegible minutes of consciousness. I see the patterns within the actions, where someone (sometimes me) gets hurt.

But I’m not always on top of my game.

Here are five messes for the first five months of 2019 and how I’ve managed to mop them all up.

1. My Kid’s Library Fines

In January I tore open another notice from the collection agency looking for me to make good on my son’s library fines. It was at least the sixth notice, and it had been years since I’d declared the book lost. ‘Til that point, though, I’d refused to send payment, both for the late fees accrued while I waited for it to turn up under the bed or at school, and for its replacement charge (because it never did).

I was waiting for amnesty. I’d heard the library does this from time to time, waive all late fees. I didn’t feel I should have to pay $41.10 on a fantasy book about cats. My kid’s read all of them: the series on cats, dogs, wolves, and bears—for free, but I couldn’t cough up $41.10 for accrued fines? That’s insanity!

Finally I saw it. I could screw up my kid’s credit before he gets the chance to do it himself. Everyone should have the right to ruin their own credit. No one should be robbed of that privilege by say, a spendthrift spouse, or a stingy, stubborn parent.

So last week I finally fed three twenties, one single and one dime into the fine box at the local library. It felt great: a clear account and a clear conscience. The cost of coughing up proved well worth the relief it bought. Lesson learned: going forward, I’ll suck it up, pay promptly, and stop getting those “important notices” in my mailbox which have a way of souring my serenity.

2. My Speeding Ticket

Contrary to what the bumper sticker reads, I want to believe my choices behind the wheel don’t really matter.

Not long after the library’s collection agency stopped courting me, I tore open another “important notice,” this time a $50 citation for speeding in a school zone.

My first response was to defend myself: Oh brother, I wasn’t speeding! According to the fine print, I was going “41 mph in a 30 mph zone.” My second response was to rationalize: Come on, I was only going 11 miles over the legal limit. And my third response, finally, was acceptance. Yes, I was unlawfully speeding.

I don’t write out many checks anymore, which might be why I get all pouty when I have to actually do it. It’s so damn involved: the writing, folding, sealing and licking (do I have a stamp?) and then the envelope knocks around my backpack for a week before I remember to mail it. But the mailing of that check made payable to the NYC Department of Finance felt good — the act of popping it into the blue box on the corner, both a physical acknowledgement of my error and a conscious effort to rectify it. It was another Step 10 moment, making amends to my fellow drivers and pedestrians of central Brooklyn. And hey, I found myself feeling a fourth response rising, gratitude: Hey, it was a school zone after all. I could have hit a kid crossing Ocean Parkway on the way home.

3. My Unhappy Downstairs Neighbor

Who does jumping jacks at 10:30 at night? I do, and it’s a problem because I have a neighbor below me who doesn’t sleep well. Sometimes my teen doesn’t get around to practicing piano until 10:30 pm either, and if it’s Haydn, I’ll break out into pretty awful pirouettes on the living room rug. Born about when Stalin first came to power, my neighbor always smiles kindly at my kids on the elevator. This babushka’s done nothing to deserve my thoughtlessness. It’s taken her banging the broom handle against her ceiling — more than once — to make me realize her reality and stop. This last time she knocked on my door in her housecoat.

It shouldn’t have come to that. I apologized, again, but this time it felt different. I felt her frustration with me, and her chronic fatigue, bordering on despair. I prayed for the willingness to find a solution, and got one. My teen now practices by 9:30 pm, or not at all (mostly not at all). And instead of performing leaps and bounds to my reflection in the living room mirror, I’m using a folding chair from a funeral parlor as a ballet barre to do late-night low-impact leg lifts and silent swan arms. And I’m saving all jumping jacks for the laundry room.

4. My Coffee Table Catastrophe

Clumsiness isn’t a defect per se, but the carelessness that leads to avoidable accidents is. If you’re a good housekeeper, and sober, you don’t usually break shit. But when you’re willful, preoccupied, or impatient —whether drunk or dry — the odds are less in your favor. I was feeling all three when, to earn a few extra bucks, I was cleaning my neighbor’s home recently.

It was an Ethan Allen bicentennial-era colonial table from the ‘70s, with a smoky glass insert. I could have just wiped down the glass. Or I could have taken a few moments to study the situation, then gingerly lift the glass to clean the crumbs along the maple-esque ledge upon which it rested. I did neither. In my haste to move onto activities more worthy of my talents coupled with my resolve to get at that damned dirt at all costs, I reached down underneath the glass and pushed it up with force. In slo-mo horror, I watched the six-foot tinted glass oval slip from my fingers, tilt up, then fall smack through the frame and shatter against the parquet floor.

Oh f*&$%!

Thankfully, after a little conscious breathing and a lot more profanity, I had the presence of mind to pray. I credit the serenity prayer for helping me come up with a sober 10th step strategy: apologize, clean it up, save a shard, identify a glass factory in the tri-state area that makes custom inserts for vintage coffee tables, place the order, pick it up and deliver the replacement glass to its rightful spot, nestled in that oval frame set between two plaid sofas in Mr. Donald’s living room. Good as new!

The problem was, I didn’t want to do any of this. I wanted to cry and run home instead. I wanted to bail on this good neighbor, who’d been a true friend to me, my sons, even my ex, all these years, pre- and post-divorce. This neighbor who brought me fresh mint from the farmer’s market and cannolis from Bay Ridge, who got my latchkey kids off the doorstep and into their home when they’d forgotten their keys. I wanted to leave this true friend with a true mess. Fortunately, though, I didn’t. I sucked it up and swept it up, and followed through on all the rest. Today I’m even more grateful for the friendship of my forgiving neighbor. And I’m not ever allowed to touch his new coffee table.

5. My $700 Face Cream

And here’s a real dollop of sloppy spending. One recent morning I was trudging that road to happy destiny and stumbled. I fell, hard. Nose to pavement, that mindful breath knocked clean out of me, knees bleeding through the exposed portions of my distressed denim, I saw the cause: it was those stubborn roots of that ancient tree — my character defects. They’d buckled the pavement and tripped me up again.

I’d just performed the single most obscene act of overspending in my not-short lifetime: I dropped down the Visa for a $765 face cream. My sober spending habits — and my sanity — snagged by those sinewy tendrils: vanity and fear. In that shockingly short-sighted moment when I confirmed the purchase, I sought false comfort in cosmetics instead of in the care of my creator.

Pre-sobriety, I tried to self-soothe with a bubbly Bellini or a pitcher of sangria. Towards the end, it was bargain barrel red and Four Roses blended whiskey. Typical addict’s descent: desperately seeking substance for relief from self. So it was humbling now, five years into recovery, to admit to this irresponsible oopsie with the ol’ plastic. And no surprise, the high from spending on skincare lasted only as long as it took that confirmation email to hit my inbox. Almost instantaneously, I added panic and guilt to my shopping cart.

That nagging itch of fear around aging, illness, and dying with a Siamese instead of a soulmate was now the sharp pain of fear and remorse that I might not make next month’s rent, and my kids’ summer holiday could be spent at the rundown neighborhood triplex — rumored to have bedbugs — instead of lobbing lemony tennis balls all day long at camp.

I was stunned and embarrassed by my reckless misuse of purchasing power — certainly too embarrassed to admit to my sponsor that, in my quest for an eternally youthful jawline, I was galloping straight into the jaws of debt instead.

Luckily I had just enough recovery to rein it in, and turn towards Step 2. I asked HP for guidance and got it:

The solution was obvious:

Return it.

And still more lucky, dermstore.com, with more than 10K visitors monthly, takes all returns, no questions asked. What’s even better is that when those unsaleable items in my character — fear and vanity — trip me up, I can pick myself up today, blot my bloody shins, and choose a different path. In my drinking days, I was down for the count on all my defects….

So, thanks, Second Step, you stopped the runaway horse of spree spending, and you too, Step 10, because I was able to reverse the financial harm done to self. My face, while not slathered in luxe cream tonight, feels radiant and clean, because I can face the Visa bill in the morning.

My Sober Strategy for the Second Half of 2019: Steps 6 and 7

But the habit of relying on Steps 2 and 10 to bail me out of scrapes is wearing on me. It feels un-sober. I’m starting to think that lasting emotional sobriety depends on my willingness to keep plugging away at 6 and 7, to really yank at those defective roots of self-centered fear and vanity.

Soon after that life-affirming afternoon five and a half years ago, reading my 5th step aloud in a garden gazebo as mosquitoes ate me alive, my sponsor suggested I follow up by reading Drop the Rock: Steps 6 and 7: Removing Character Defects. Four years after that, I finally Primed the paperback to my doorstep and began reading. One story is resonating right now. A gal beset by sloth, who struggled with clutter for years, finally struck on a solution that pretty much sums up my strategy today:

“I now know that if I don’t want to live in a mess,” she realized, “I need to pray to God for the willingness, courage and motivation to clean up my own mess.”

Isn’t that what I tell my own teen 20 times a day anyway?

I may never completely stop this habit of compulsively punching 16 digits into devices for ill-conceived purchases (did I mention I want to lease an Audi Q5?) but this week my impulse purchase was three Wham-O Frisbees. Progress.

Half-measures avail me nothing. I gotta push myself to make those 10th step amends, to others and to myself, as promptly as possible, but better late than never! And I can use the steps (and the slogans, and my sponsor, and my sober sisters) to help me break each amends down into baby steps, steps that will take me further from, rather than closer to, that first drink. This feels like recovery, and a better set up for long-term sobriety and my happy life.

Final Takeaway: Do the right thing, even when I don’t want to, even when it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Or, even when it is actually sort of a big deal; in fact, it feels so big, it’s kinda overwhelming:

Still do the right thing.

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Maria is an amicably-divorced single mom of two adolescent males, a teaching assistant in a Brooklyn middle school by day, and a freelance writer at night. She's grateful for her sobriety, her sons, and happy occasions like seeing her work published in The Fix. Maria contributes to Bklyner.com and The Good Men Project, and she also publishes through Medium. An archive of these stories, as well as her sober blog "happy hour," and her mommy blog "mush," along with casually-measured recipes, live at marianewsom.com