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Sharing a Foreign Language

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There have been many times in my life when words or phrases came to mean something other than what many understand them to mean.  Off the top of my head I can think of a few examples.

My husband and I communicate in ways often causing our friends to do a double-take and wonder what in the world we are talking about.  For example, I might be in the living room doing something and yell down to my husband in the basement to bring me “that thing next to the big thing.”  Seconds later he hands me exactly what I needed.  We share a language created during our many years of living together.

Another opportunity to share a unique means of communication is in the work environment.  When I was still active in the corporate world, my team of many years knew exactly what each other needed or what we meant by a simple nod of the head or a raised eyebrow. We had spent hours together creating, editing, masterminding and learning to trust one another.  In all that time we eventually understood things without needing to say a word.  When we were in situations where verbal connection wasn't an option, those non-communication actions spoke volumes.  I was somehow comforted by this; feeling a sense of security knowing I was part of something uniquely special.

When I was drinking and rarely eating, there was a lot of conversation in my head which was uniquely special for me too.  I never shared these ongoing internal dialogues with anyone because I couldn’t explain them.  I had a difficult enough time myself just trying to understand how and why the subject matter would roll back and forth like a pendulum. One moment I’d be justifying my irrational behavior and the next I’d be mentally berating myself for having such thoughts.

I carried on with this silent metronome of conversation for years.  I was absolutely certain if anyone else could hear what I heard, they’d consider my train of thought not only foreign but nowhere near normal.

That all changed when I began attending recovery-based meetings.  At first, I was thrilled to be told to just sit and listen. I dreaded the idea I’d be required to talk about the pendulous train of thought I carried.  Moreover, in those early days, my thinking was foggy as I was mostly still working on getting my health back on track.

As I listened to other people talk of their past and how they were living their lives today, I had trouble deciphering some of the words and phrases being used.  To me they were speaking a foreign language.

For example, I had absolutely no idea what these “steps” were which everyone seemed to refer to.  They kept pointing to a big poster on the wall listing these twelve steps as they spoke of their gratitude for having “worked” them.  After a quick review of what was written on that poster, I was completely convinced I wasn’t going to do any of the things these steps required.

Before long, as people continued to share stories of how this process of “working” the steps helped them find solutions to situations they encountered or thoughts they harbored, I started to recognize bits and pieces of my own internal language.  I couldn’t believe my private thoughts were actually being said OUT LOUD by other people. Men and women were saying things I had secretly kept in my head.  This is the first time I realized maybe these people might actually understand me and my pendulum way of thinking.

And they did. They did because they used to think that way too. Over time, and with a good deal of help from those who had the kind of recovery I wanted, I started to understand their language, the language of healthy recovery.

Today, when family and friends outside the rooms of recovery read what I write about, they have no idea how to respond, let alone wrap their heads around the subject matter. However, my friends (my "family") within the rooms of recovery understand me completely. They’ve all experienced in one way or another, the same types of things I went through.  Through their stories and their willingness to talk with me one-on-one, I slowly started speaking the language that once seemed so foreign to me. I soon realized I didn’t need to have our conversations deciphered for clarity.

The true beauty of this is I now have the opportunity to share the evolution of this language with so many others who walk through that same front door.  In time they will do the same for someone else.  That’s the way this foreign language education works and I’m eternally grateful I now speak the words fluently.

Alison Smela, is in long-term recovery from alcohol and an eating disorder following a 30-year struggle with both. She’s an active member of a 12-Step Recovery fellowship and serves on the Board of Directors for MentorCONNECT, the first global non-profit online eating disorder mentoring community. Alison is also a writer and author of the forthcoming book, “Slow Down. Breathe. Recover” while she maintains her blog, “Alison’s Insights” focused on the life lessons she’s learned through the course of her recovery process.


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