On March 4 of 2001 I checked into a psych ward with the help of my parents, and the following day voluntarily admitted myself into rehab for alcohol and drug addiction. At the time it was the most radical self-care choice I had ever made. For years up until that point my life was all about how I could get out of my body as often as possible (preferably all of the time). I existed to hide in the shame of who I had become, the terrifying situations I found myself in, and the desire I had to disappear every day. Admitting that I wanted to live and needed help was such an honest action because the truth was, deep down, I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t want to keep living in the spiral of darkness and destruction that encompassed my entire life.
Many things have changed around my recovery in the last handful of years and I have felt a little hesitant to share them. A good indicator that I am onto something important with my writing is that I have feelings of resistance around sharing it. The biggest changes that I have been sitting with as of late are my decision to stop calling myself an alcoholic or addict. After spending 13 solid years in 12-step programs and spending the last four carving out a new path for myself, this, too, feels like a radical self-care choice — one that I am embracing a little more publicly these days.
I teach my clients that the words we use and the things we repeat to ourselves matter. There is nothing more powerful than the sound current of our own voice — it trumps what our parents, lovers, friends, and bosses say to us. It’s our own voice that calls the loudest to our spirit.
Several years ago, I recognized that I was no longer comfortable sitting in meetings saying the words, “Hi, I’m Ashley and I’m an alcoholic.” While those same words were the medicine I needed in the early days to heal through the process of naming, recognizing, admitting my struggles in public, and taking responsibility for many of my past choices, they no longer resonated with me.
In fact, every time I said, “Hi, I’m Ashley and I’m an alcoholic,” I felt my body contract. It was in these moments of feeling my body’s response to those potent words that I realized it was time to let them go.
Often times my body knows what is best, but it takes my head and ego a bit longer to onboard. While it might not seem like a big deal to stop labeling yourself an alcoholic and addict, to me it has been revolutionary. I stopped drinking a long time ago. I was young, desperate, on the verge of death, and needed a container to hold space for my healing. 12-step groups provided me with that, and then some. It was amazing to be part of a secret society where I always had people to connect with and folks I could relate to all around the globe. I am in no way saying anything disparaging about 12-step recovery groups. In fact, I still pop into them from time to time because I’ve always needed help navigating intimate relationships with people than with substances.
But the thing is, I’m not broken anymore. I’m not crazy. I’m not suffering like I was in my early sobriety days and I have zero interest in connecting with people from that place.
This has been a long time coming and far from an easy transition. I’ve let go of friendships I’ve had for ages. I’ve released parts of myself that just aren’t who I am anymore. I’ve turned off the loudspeaker on the tapes that want to broadcast that I’m still a fuckup. Because the truth is, I never was a fuckup. I was in a tremendous amount of pain and doing everything I could to try and make it stop.
In my first year of not drinking a man said to me that the 12 steps aren’t a bridge back to the 12 steps… they are a bridge back to life. I have never forgotten those words and know today exactly why he shared them with me.
Making the decision to claim my health, sanity, and joy has been the exact medicine I have needed these last few years. Relating to people from a place of strength, passion, creativity, and openness is far more powerful than relating from a place of pain, stagnancy, suffering, and unresolved trauma.
This is something I have been meditating on a great deal, especially this past year. For a long time I thought that it was most healing to relate through the deep wells of our wounds, and that relating through love and joy just wasn’t as profound. I learned this way of thinking in 12-step meetings, with my sponsors, and in many other spiritual communities I have been a part of since. Our culture is obsessed with trauma and being wounded. And, while I am 100% in support of doing our work to transform our traumas with whatever assistance we need, there is something to be said for up-leveling the way we relate to people. This upgrade has never been more apparent than in my personal relationships and with my clients.
Sharing our stories from a place of strength is an art. Relating to people with vulnerability and courage takes practice. Naming our struggles, wounds, and traumas without dumping our problems onto people takes us being resourced enough to be able to feel through the subtle differences between connection and off-loading.
Brené Brown talks about the power of waiting to tell parts of our stories until they are more resolved and I completely agree with her. Deciding to no longer call myself an alcoholic or addict has been one way that I have moved towards relating to people from a place of wholeness rather than brokenness. And it’s that wholeness that has shifted the way I share about my life on a larger scale.
There is something to be said for stepping into the light of no longer being broken — for making the choice to update my story and recognizing that my alcoholism and addictions were deeply rooted in not loving myself. Working to heal this trauma through the somatic breath and energy work I practice (and take my clients through) has opened up my life to so many more possibilities than the limited framework of saying, “I’m in recovery” and the need to identify in that way.
Will I still say that I’m sober? Absolutely. I don’t have any aversion to that word, and now that being sober is trending like crazy, it’s fun to say I’ve been living this way for a long time. Saying that I’m sober doesn’t carry the same vibration as labeling myself an alcoholic or addict because the truth is, I’m not an alcoholic or addict anymore. I am healed. I am restored. I choose to not drink or use drugs today because I want to be embodied. I live for being present and have no desire to check out or take the edge off in those ways. I want the full range of sensations, emotions, and intuition, which all get cut off when I use drugs and alcohol.
Getting to the actual root of why I didn’t feel safe in my body was what ultimately healed my addictions.
Not feeling safe in my body and growing up with intense relational trauma is what caused my addiction. I needed a way to cope — and alcohol and drugs were the remedy. I recognize this might seem like a radical statement but it’s really in line with what I learned in 12-step programs about how alcoholism is a spiritual disease. To me, ‘spiritual sickness’ is just another way of talking about trauma, which is why we isolate and cut ourselves off. Feelings of being alone and misunderstood eventually lead to the need to self-medicate if you don’t have any other tools or support.
My journey of choosing not to drink or use drugs has been one of incredible healing, profound learning, and has taken me to places I never imagined I would actually get to. I am excited about what the future holds and am grateful that my parents offered me an opportunity to have a second chance at life. I know the decision to be sober is why I am who I am today, why I teach what I teach, and why I am so passionate about holding space for people to tell their truths. There are no mistakes. There are no accidents. We are constantly evolving, learning to love harder, and getting more and more real with ourselves.
No matter where you are on your path, my prayer for all of us is this:
May we shine light on our darkness to illuminate the way for others.
May we radically accept our faults, limitations, and judgments with ease, grace, and openness.
May we stay curious about each moment and willing to investigate the parts of ourselves that scare us the most.
May we be generous space holders for ourselves and our communities.
May we laugh loudly, shine brightly, speak with intention, and sing off key.
And may we do our best to lead with love everyday.
Ashley Neese is a leading expert in the breathwork field. She works with clients all over the world and is regularly invited to speak at conferences and podcasts, as well as teach for major corporations. She has been featured in Vogue, Well + Good, Jenni Kayne, The Chalkboard Mag, MindBodyGreen, ELLE Japan, and The Nourished Journal, amongst many others. Ashley lives between Los Angeles and Oakland with her fiancé Nic, their dog Greta, and Falcor, the cat.