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Recover Your Body, and Your Mind Will Follow

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After I relapsed at the beginning of 2010, I decided I would have to do something different if I were going to stay sober. By that time, it had been well over a year since I’d detoxed, and the post-acute withdrawal symptoms – restless legs, insomnia, my body’s inability to regulate its own temperature, and deadening fatigue – had largely settled down.

As I took stock, however, I had to admit to myself that although I was no longer wide awake at night, I wasn’t sleeping well. In addition, even though it didn’t feel like my body was a sack of sand, I was dragging around with no real energy. I also realized that even though I’d begun riding a stationary bike during my active detox, I had long since quit that, too. I’ve always preferred to exercise outdoors, and I hate using machines.

Then three or four months after I relapsed, my friend Julie asked me to play tennis with her.

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I hadn’t picked up a tennis racquet since I’d stopped seeing my college boyfriend twenty years before. Dave had played varsity tennis, and in our freshman year, with an enormous amount of patience, he taught me to play. He helped me acquire the only racquet I’d ever owned until then – an oversized Head, in aluminum.

“They don’t even make them like that anymore,” I thought to myself.

I wondered if that old racquet were still floating around in the basement. Dave had believed I was capable of learning to play, and he had been right: I’d taken to it like a greyhound to the track. By the end of the first year of his teaching me, I could sometimes ace him with my serve. He took the little girl who had been chosen last for every team and inside her, found the seeds of an athlete.

But a funny thing happened in my mind while I was learning to play tennis. Despite all evidence to the contrary (my boy’s surprised grins when I’d ace him; the college tennis coach asking me to try out for the women’s team; and last and always least, my own enjoyment), I’d never “believed” I could play any sport, so that’s what I kept telling myself.

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So I didn’t try out for the team. I didn’t play with anyone but Dave and his family. And when I lost contact with them, I stopped playing.

When Julie asked me to join her on the courts, I dug out my old metal racquet from a cobweb-covered corner of the cellar and cleaned it off. Julie was a real beginner and I thought, so was I. But once on court I realized the benefit – the priceless gift – of excellent early instruction.

Good form and habits are hard to learn for any discipline, and I’d already learned them years before. It was spooky: I could feel the old movements and instincts Dave had ingrained in me still living inside my body. It was almost as if he were some- where on the opposite side of the net, shouting the same advice he used to call to me years before, good advice that I needed to hear then and I still need to hear now, on and off the court, and in my recovery discipline:

  • Loosen your grip
  • Watch the ball
  • Follow through
  • Don’t be afraid
  • Relax

I hadn’t “believed” I could play tennis – but in spite of my “belief,” in spite of my negative attitudes about myself and my capabilities, my body had so thoroughly learned how to play that its muscle- movements came back to me after a hiatus of more than twenty years.

Or, rather, I came back to my body after such a long absence.

In almost the same way, I hadn’t “believed” I could ever recover from addiction, and yet my body had gotten clean and sober. Once I recovered my body, I could inhabit it and then recover my feelings, attitudes, values, and “beliefs.” I hear people in recovery quite often asking how to “believe” in God/Higher Power/Whatever when you can’t see it, when that power doesn’t talk back. I don’t conceive of myself as “believing in God.” I think about my approach.

“Approach” is another tennis action – another way to gain advantage over the opponent. We fire an “approach-shot” that’s hard for our opponent to return and lets us get close to the net.

In recovery, my opponents are obsession, delusion, the panel of judges in my head – the so-called Itty Bitty Shitty Committee. Today, my approach to “God” is, I try not to pay much attention to what I “believe.” Would it have mattered what I “believed” about my athletic abilities if I had just gone ahead and kept playing tennis?

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What matters is what I do and how much I practice. The ways in which I hit the shots, turn my body, lean into the ball, how dedicated I am to staying healthy, and keeping my body and mind moving.

And I remember that, whatever I do, no matter how much I practice or how dedicated I am to my recovery, I’m bound to double-fault or hit the ball out-of-bounds. I miss the mark. I’m human, and I screw up. To strive for a goal of perfection is to participate in the great delusion, that maddening ongoing saga of perfection I like to write in my mind.

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