Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri is a god-forsaken place in the middle of March. It’s probably that way in July too, actually. It’s cold in a damp, bone-deep way. It’s barren. There is a lot of horizontal sleet and winds that can knock you backwards. The whole place is ugly: all barracks and training buildings and dirt and cratered firing ranges where there is no shelter from the constant wind. The only part that might have been beautiful was the woods, but it was winter when I was there, so it was all naked trees and frozen mud and shallow foxholes.
It’s where I spent my nine weeks of Army Basic Training.
I vividly remember one morning. Like every day that wasn’t Sunday, we were up and out and in formation at 0500. It was inky dark and freezing. My stomach felt queasy. I was struggling with a cold that I’d had for three weeks. (They call it the crud and everyone gets it. Too much sleep deprivation and living in close quarters, I suppose). I felt lousy. The temperature was right around 20 degrees and there was a stiff wind that was blowing occasional bands of sleet right into my face. One of our burly, seemingly non-human drill sergeants announced that in honor of the beginning of week 9, we were going to run to the airfield and back. There was a collective groan from the whole platoon. The airfield and back was a 10 mile run. Since it was week 9, those of us that had survived that long were in great shape. But I wasn’t feeling it at all.
A little back story: we had started our training with sixty two women in our company. We graduated with six. Of the 200 men that started, only 110 made it all the way through. Those numbers launched an investigation that took two years and which ended in multiple dishonorable discharges and a conviction of soldier abuse against the Commander of the company I was in. We were clueless that anything we were experiencing wasn’t what everyone experiences when they go through the hellish, “mind and body breaking down and building back up” process that was Basic Training before it became the kinder, gentler version they have now. We were so exhausted and numb and cut off from the outside world that we just accepted it as reality, put our heads down and pushed through to the end so we could get out of there. In the end, we endured a lot of things that other soldiers on the same base weren’t experiencing and which we later discovered weren’t in the Army’s training doctrine, but a product of the mind of our ex-special forces commander who had a few screws loose. It was unorthodox, but I have to admit that it made us tough in every way. Looking back, surviving that really set me up for success in the Army So much of my flexibility and ability to endure tough things; problem solving instead of breaking down; a large part of my personality developed there. I still have my old battered Basic Training Soldier’s manual and I had written on the side of it NEVER QUIT. And I never quit anything, until 81 days ago when I quit drinking.
Ok, back to that dark morning.
I was shivering uncontrollably as we warmed up with some stretches. My drill sergeant stalked past me, stopped and said “Are you cold, Private?” Through chattering teeth, I managed to say, “y-y-y-es, D-d-rill Sergeant.” He looked me directly in the eyes. Though he was wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, he looked perfectly warm and unbothered by the sleet that was dripping into his eyes. He bellowed “Center your power.” And then he walked away.
I had a long ten mile run to think about what that meant, exactly.
And I don’t think I really gave it any more thought in the many years that have passed since then. I’m not sure why it came to mind today, but it did. I used to think that it meant being strong no matter what; cultivating a core of strength that you draw from. I thought it meant never ever admitting weakness, ignoring the sleet, pushing through and never admitting defeat.
So, when it came time to finally surrender to my powerlessness over alcohol, to admit defeat and to finally say “I QUIT!!” it meant undoing a way of thinking I have believed was true for my entire adult life.
Mental toughness can’t overcome hypothermia or addiction. I used to believe I could think my way out of any circumstance, use my wits, my smarts to just overcome whatever was in my way. Unfortunately, alcohol didn’t get that memo. And so I’m dragging myself up out of the abyss that my life had become and am stepping out into the light. But I am not doing it alone.
When I think of that phrase, I think of it in terms of community. How community is helping to keep me sober. The invisible army of other alcoholics that I am meeting on this journey are helping me to center my power, to grow, to challenge my thinking, to reframe external circumstances, to heal the gap between the person I feel I am and the person I became when I drank. To allow my soul to heal from the soul sickness and shame that have made the last few years so very dark.
Instead of drinking to numb my feelings, I am learning to feel them. I am willing to admit when I am weak, when I need help and when I’m freaking out, I can reach out to others who “get” it. They can talk me down, remind me of the good, the privilege of this journey. In giving up one thing: drinking, I get to change the ending to my story. A story that was only going to end in my premature death and an utter waste of life. For “just one more” drink. I am choosing a different ending.
I have the awesome task of rebuilding a life from the wreckage. Some days I am weary, tired of thinking endlessly about my sobriety. It’s WORK. It feels like I am unbeaching a whale. But I have the privilege of taking on this challenge in the company of others who are wiser than me, who have had the way paved for them by others who went before them: a gentleman in my online sobriety support group calls it ” an endless chain of souls all supporting each other no matter what.”
My loneliness when I was drinking was immense and breathtaking and I just drank more when I would start to feel it. In sobriety, I am finding connection, community, and hope. I could never have imagined the life that I’m discovering, when I was in that hole. The changes are immense and the feelings are too.
But I’m finally learning to truly center my power.