I’ve been watching the Olympics every night, and while I enjoy the athletics to a certain degree, I find myself more touched by the human experience of the athletes. In a weird way, their interpersonal relationships of parent-athlete, coach-athlete, and teammate-teammate, are similar to the ones I have been experiencing on my journey of recovery. These athletes train for most of their lives to become as talented and strong as they are, and they do not do it alone. Like an athlete, I have performed the physical and mental feat of getting and staying sober (I have a year now!), and I have not been able to do it alone. Obviously, I have more of a mental recovery to go, but it is one of those journeys that never truly ends. Similar to the athletes, I never could have achieved any length of sustained sobriety without the support of my sponsor (equivalent to a coach), my parents, and my sisters in sobriety (equivalent to teammates or the people I practiced with).
My sponsor trains with me on a daily basis. I call her and either leave her a message with an assignment (i.e. the Third Step Prayer or the Seventh Step Prayer and what character defects I’m working on), how I’m doing, and/or we talk if I need her. The practice of accountability and assignments is like the practice of an athlete. Obviously some steps are more demanding than others, and as we grow, the program takes over our life. Each day and each interaction applies to the 12-steps, taking into consideration how we behave and if we are serving others. When I do something that shows my character defects or is generally inappropriate, my sponsor calls me out on it and suggests a new way of behaving, much like a coach would suggest a way to work on technique. My therapist serves as a different type of coach or another coach specializing in a different event, and my psychiatrist could be compared to a nutritionist.
My parents and the parents of some of my peers reflect some of the athletes’ parents. For example, much like Gabby’s mother who let her move to Des Moines, Iowa at age 16 to pursue a higher caliber of coaching, I went to boarding school when I was 14 for a more academically rigorous school. Also, I could see my parents in Aly Raisman’s parents, who got a fair amount of publicity for their excessive squirming and shouting of encouragements and commands from their seats. Basically, they looked crazy and could not contain themselves. They could not hold their emotions or separate their emotions from their daughters. Yes, it is exciting that their daughter is in the Olympics, but does squirming and shouting make a difference in the outcome? My parents have been very similar over the years. There was an inability to know that I was unhappy without sweeping me off my feet and coddling me, securing me in a safe environment, and feeding me (food=happiness in my family). I was the unhappy one, and as such I was making the whole family unhappy.
As we’ve gotten further along in the therapeutic processes of development, they have gotten better about that overall. I am allowed to have my emotions independently of them. We got to celebrate my one-year birthday together, and I gave them both a hug. My mother and father have been working with therapists about understanding what I’m going through. I secretly believe that Al-Anon might help them understand what I’m doing with the 12-steps (not to say they go through it all the way, just go a few times to understand the theory). Going to the Olympics and going into treatment and/or sobriety are high pressure situations. While the mothers in a Parent’s Magazine blog say that they’d never pressure their kids, it is obvious from the display Aly’s parents gave or even just the age that most of these athletes started intensive training that there is pressure. I’m not saying that excessive pressure helps in either, just that it is present. When my parents cried and told me how they felt about my past behaviors and where I was at, I felt heartbroken, but I’m not sure that it pushed me in any positive direction.
The last relationship I see in both my recovery and the Olympic Gymnast is the teammates and fellowship or fellow clients at treatment centers and other sober people. Just like the teammates of the Gymnast, my fellow alcoholics go through trials and tribulations with me, and work and play hard together to build a strong and meaningful bond. I can’t entirely explain how it happens in treatment, but it is almost instant. A new person comes in, and within a few hours to days, they are a part of the group. They are vulnerable and we are vulnerable, so we stick together. I imagine that there is a certain similarity in the sports arena. While the athletes are strong and sometimes have hardened faces, they are all being judged by the world and competing in a situation where they may lose. They may look bad. They may be the worst. This vulnerability to the scrutinizing eyes of the judges and clock and world bonds them. You can see it in the way that each female gymnast supports the next when they finish an event, regardless of if they did well or poorly, even though they are technically competing against each other for the top two positions in order to be a part of the all-around final.
When I was watching the gymnastics, I was struck by how so many of the gymnasts seemed to almost be wincing as they performed or at least as they walked off. It almost made me anxious and certainly made me enjoy watching them less. However, Gabby always had a confident look about her and occasionally even smiled. She seemed to enjoy that activity and was calm about the scores. It wasn’t as if she didn’t care, she simply seemed at peace. At the end of the competition, in an interview, she attributed this to her faith in a higher power. She meditates on scriptures. I think it is important to point out that in a way, through meditation; it makes it a Higher Power of her own understanding—personal. I, too, require my Higher Power of my personal understanding to feel at ease in my sobriety. When I don’t rely on my Higher Power, I have to come back to that place.
All in all, I found myself intrigued by looking at the Olympics through a new lens. I appreciated the athletes on a deeper level than I ever did before, and realized that I am an Olympic Athlete for staying sober one day at a time. Congratulations to the Olympic athletes, the recovering addicts, and the parents and friends that support them.
By Emily F.