Jan 262012

I was at a zoo last month taking a boat ride through the “monkey islands.” The monkee islands are teeny pieces of land upon which each separate monkey lives. The islands are strewn throughout a big, beautiful body of water. There are no visible fences or barriers on the islands, but each monkey stays put anyway. I felt uncomfortable during the ride. The monkeys stood on the edges of their little islands and stared at us staring back at them. They seemed so human – and to me they looked lonely and sad. I felt a little ashamed, riding around, staring at them for my own amusement. I got the feeling that the other boat riders were uncomfortable too, because no one was talking. I raised my hand. Craig cringed. The tour director smiled and nodded at me. I said, “Why don’t the monkees just leave their islands? It looks like they could so easily escape.” The guide said, “They could, you’re right. They could easily get to each other’s islands or escape the entire zoo pretty easily. Their problem is, they don’t know that they can swim. Each stays on her little island because she doesn’t know she can swim.”

One of the most important parts of me is the recovering part. I am a recovering alcoholic, bulimic, druggie, liar, and jerk. The collateral and internal damage of my addictions once led me to sit alone on a couch in the filthy basement of an old boyfriend’s house and thoughtfully consider suicide.

Still. I consider each of those addicted years be a gift. Yes, there was suffering, but addiction was my path, and I needed to walk (crawl) it. I am not ashamed of my demons. They make me who I am, and I like who I am. I’m wild about myself, to tell you the God’s honest truth. And here’s a magical gift that came of that suffering: I am able to remember and write about what it was like to be an addict. I am able to explain why I chose it, how badly it hurt, and why I couldn’t escape for so long. This is something that people who are currently addicted can’t do. I certainly couldn’t have spoken for myself while I was addicted. Addiction is like being swallowed up by a whale. The addict is still in there – whole, screaming, human, precious and terrified – but all anyone can hear or see is the silent damn whale. It’s a nightmare. For those inside and outside the whale.

So I write about addiction. For all those addicted Monkees, whom I love so very, very much. So they will know that someone understands, and that someone will try to speak for them while they can’t. My Lovies – you are not bad, you are beautiful. You’re just swallowed up, and you need to start believing that you can swim your way out.

I also write for those who love addicts and want them back so badly. I don’t have advice for you. I just have stories. We share what we have and then pray that it helps.

Sisters, Everyday

My decision to get sober was more like a weary surrender than a bold march into battle. After I had allowed my life to fall into a thousand pieces for the thousandth time, Bubba and Tisha planned a loving intervention. Then I found out I was pregnant with Chase and I realized that I was running out of people and options. At the time, the path of least resistance seemed to be sobriety.

It’s not a cry that you hear at night, it’s not somebody who’s seen the light, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I called Sister and told her to do that thing she always does, which is to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do next, and then make that thing happen. A few hours later she gathered up my broken, cold, shaking self and drove us to our first AA meeting. Afterwards we came home, sat on my bed together and stared at the disaster on my bedroom floor. During my drinking decades, I lived like a pig. My room was nothing but a hazardous pile of stilettos, tube tops, wine bottles, ash trays, and old magazines. I valued nothing. Everything that came into my life was disposable – clothes, opportunities, people. My bedroom looked like my insides had spilled out onto the floor.

After a few minutes of quiet, Sister climbed down from the bed and started picking things up, one piece of trash at a time. She threw away the wine bottles and the cigarettes, she folded the tube tops, she gently tossed the magazines. I watched for awhile, and then joined her. We hung up every piece of clothing, wiped down every surface, poured out every hidden bottle of booze. We worked, silently, side by side, for two hours. Then we sat back down on my bed and held hands. My room looked so different. It looked like a place a girl might want to live again. I wondered if my head and my heart might one day be places I’d like to live again, too. It was the beginning of starting over.

The remarkable thing about that day is that it wasn’t remarkable. What Sister did for me that day is what she does for me every day.

I find life to be quite difficult. Painfully difficult and equally beautiful. Sometimes I wonder if I am missing some sort of protective layer that others seem to have which keeps them from crumbling and crying more. But then I remember that God gave me Sister as my layer of protection. I feel insulated from every painful and beautiful moment, because instead of being consumed, I am usually wondering…how will I explain this to her? What will she say? That’s probably how I became a writer, because most of my life I am simultaneously living and reshaping my experiences into stories for my Sister.

I do this because when I tell her my stories, her response sorts things out for me. Her voice and her face are mirrors to me. They say, everyday… It’s allright, Glennon. It’s allright.

Please, if you can, try not to teach me that it’s not healthy to depend on another human being this completely. I’m well aware. It’s terrifying. It’s why every time she leaves my house I stand at the front door and pray that she’ll make it to her bed safely. Please God, just get her home safely. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that it is.

We have a lot of songs, Sister and I. This is the one though, that feels to me like it was written for Us.

And it’s for you today, Monkees. Save somebody’s life today. Swim.

Carry On, Warrior
Author of the New York Times Bestselling Memoir CARRY ON, WARRIOR
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  159 Responses to “You Can Swim”

  1. You don’t know how much I needed to read this today. I am someone like your sister. Probably not as skilled as she, but someone who loves an addict.

  2. Tremendous issues here. I’m very glad to look your post.

    Thanks so much and I am taking a look ahead to contact you.
    Will you please drop me a mail?

  3. Wow! That’s what comes to mind after reading this. A very profound, Wow! My ex-husband is an alcoholic and we share 3 sons. Last year, I discovered Al-Anon and Ala-Teen and this year I discovered you! The 12 steps in AA and Al-Anon…well, I’m struggling with Step 4 as a lot of people do. But in this “searching and fearless moral inventory of [myself]”, I realized how much anger I’m holding on to and it scares me. By nature, I am a very forgiving person. But this addiction thing irritates the crap out of me. The chaos it creates in our family. The worry I have for my boys and their futures. But your writing brings the humanness back to my ex-husband. It reminds me that there is a good person in there somewhere. We don’t see that person anymore. And it’s unlikely that we will before his addiction kills his liver. But that doesn’t matter. I need to remember, and remind my kids more genuinely, that their dad is still in there…worthy of our love and forgiveness, even if that forgiveness is needed again and again.

    • Ann,

      I’m impressed, moved, and let’s be honest – rather jealous – that you’ve come to the place where you are with your husband’s addiction. I’m certainly not there with mine and the past few days of arctic cold in my home are the living proof. What I really struggle with is yes, he may be worthy, but so am I. And so are our children. We are worthy of love and thoughtful interactions and a life with somebody who doesn’t drink himself silly into the wee hours of the night and then be tired, irritable and unpleasant during the daylight. How do you find a balance?

      Wishing you the best in the ongoing journey.

  4. Dear G,
    I love your writing, and your voice of courage and strength . We do recover…. I started using when I was in my early teens, but next month I will celebrate 15 years in recovery. Life gets better, there are still some really hard days ( months and years) but it is much better. Just keep walking out on faith, thanks for all that you do…..

  5. I’m so glad — grateful, even — that you found your way, Glennon. Your beautiful words touch so many, myself included. It sounds like you and your sister have found what eludes so many of us — the addict and the people who love them, that is. And that is, a way to support and help each other without losing and hurting ourselves too much. The heartbreak of my life is the addiction of my daughter’s father, whom I will always love. And who, I finally had to realize, I cannot save. My efforts to help him only enabled his habits, and brick by brick tore down my life and my own self-esteem. Finally, it put my daughter’s safety and security in undeniable jeopardy, and that was my cue to leave. Like you, he is talented, and sensitive, and kind. He is also a professional writer, from a family of writers. And as I learned a little late into the game, a family of addicts. He is struggling today to remain sober and rebuild his life, post-rehab (again), and I hope to God he makes it this time. Meanwhile, I am trying to figure out how to raise our daughter who has, and also doesn’t have, the support of a father who wishes he could be so much more to her than he is. And how to live my own life without him. I have soldiered on — pretty mightily, I must say — to give her the life she should have had from the start. But it is with great sadness, just as I know he feels great sadness every day as well. Addiction is so cruel, and nothing like what people on the outside think of it. I have learned the hard way to judge no one, and to let go of stereotypes. But I have also lost trust, and the love of my life, in the process.

  6. […] that phrase came back to me when I read this article today by Glennon Melton of Momastery.  You probably remember me mentioning her blog about half a million times.  She is who I want to […]

  7. If only my mother knew she could swim…

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m picking up my brother from an 8 month stay in rehab next week and your words couldn’t have come at a better time. My brother is the sweetest, most caring person in the world…to everyone but himself. He has learned a lot of great things in rehab and has started on the journey to both loving and forgiving himself. I feel like I have my brother back. But with that being said, I’m so scared that he will relapse once he leaves what has become his safe place. Your blog gives me so much hope and I’m gong to share it with him. I know he’ll be inspired by your honesty and grace, just as I have been. Thank you a million times over for inspiring hope and love in people that you don’t even know.

  9. Glennon, I juts had to say thank you for sharing the way the you do — with so much love and honesty for addicts in their families. I spent several of these last years living with the dark secret of addiction. I Googled “sober moms” and got on WebMD and tried so hard to read something that would answer the question for me if I was alcoholic or not. It was a reality that I wanted SO badly not to be true. I can honestly say that the words you have written with such empathy and compassion helped to crack open the door to admitting and accepting that I am, indeed, alcoholic. You helped me find space to believe that I could be both an addict and also still worthy of love, especially love of self. I had believed that the two were mutually exclusive.

    In January I went to my first AA meeting it was there that I finally had the courage to face the truth about myself. The beauty is that finally admitting to the “A” word freed me up to connect with other people in a place free of shame and judgement. The irony is that once I could admit to being alcoholic I could let go of the darkness that I woke up with each morning and that led me to pour glass after glass of wine each night after my children were in bed. I’ve still got as many problems as the next girl, but the cloud of shame and self-hatred that followed me for so many years isn’t one of them. No matter what, I’m doing life sober now and I am SO VERY PROUD of that. Like you say, I’m more proud of that “recovering” label than any other. Thanks for letting me see you so that I could finally see myself. xoxox

    p.s. My sober sisters — Glennon, Brene, Anne Lamott… Such an awesome sorority to belong to, don’t you think? 😉

  10. This song by Jack’s Mannequin has helped me through so much. It’s called Swim.


    You gotta swim, and swim when it hurts. The whole world is watching, you haven’t come this far to fall of the earth. Swim for your families, your lovers, your sisters, your brothers, your friends.

    You gotta swim, don’t let yourself sink. Just find the horizon, I promise you it’s not as far as you think. The currents will drag us, away from our love. But just keep your head above, just keep your head above. Swim. Swim.

  11. I loved reading this. Im so happy for you that you have someone in your life who loves you unconditionally. I feel im on the other side on that story though. Like im the rock that others need. The problem with being the rock… is that everyone always assumes you’re ok. Always. I think I fell into the position of rock, it wasnt a choice but rather a necessity, for self preservation. I could go on and on but I just wanted to say this. Sometimes you have to push too sometimes you have to not take ok for an answer! Just because we are usually the strong ones doesnt mean we dont need just as badly as wveryone else.

    • Thinking of you today Missing. Take care

    • The problem with being the rock is you’re the one the storms constantly crash against, and it wears you away bit by bit. I hope you small find moments to shore up your foundation, and spackle your cracks! Art and knitting are lifesavers :)
      big hugs

  12. Glennon, I have so much to say… Not ‘you ought to’s’ which you’ve probably – like me- heard enough of…. But ‘we are so the same!’… Of course you are Glennon and I am Donna… I wish my sister (the one I speak to) was ‘there for me’…. The worst think I have done is depend on my daughter! I can never get beyond the emotional abuse… Yes, it is/was ‘abuse’! She says “forget it mom, just don’t do it again”. A mother herself, with a very successful self made career.. She is still my “go to”. I don’t trust anyone else with my feelings…. That’s my addiction now, self deprecation… “Wasting my life” .. Can’t get out of my way… “You have SO MUCH to be thankful for!”… Yeah, sure.

  13. My heart goes out to you, and especially to Sister. As the wife of an alcoholic, I’ve had to learn a lot about letting go and letting people be respsonsible for their own shit. You cannot want something for someone more than they want it for themselves or it will leave you in ruins. You cannot drag someone to the top of their mountain … they must climb to their summit alone just like you did to yours. My husband has forgotten that he not only knows how to swim, but that he is an excellant swimmer. Alcohol has robbed him of his memory.

  14. Six months ago I swam. I did know I could swim because my father was a swimmer, and we spent so many years in Alateen. But I was so ashamed because I KNEW HOW TO SWIM AND FOR SOME REASON COULDN’T! I lived in my own private hell trying to figure out why I just couldn’t swim when I knew that it was the one thing that could make everything alright. Ultimately I got there when God, the Universe, the angels sent me someone to swim by my side. And here I am, sober and so so very happy I am here.

    • I’m like you, MJ. Sober six months as of last week. Keep swimming, sister. I’m so grateful you’re here.

  15. This post gave me the chills. I actually love the concept of the monkey’s not even realizing that they can swim. Because sometimes in our own lives, in the midst of our addictions, we begin to tell ourselves that there cannot possibly be any way out and so we stay there, stuck, trapped by our own voices and vices. But then when someone we trust comes to us and says, “you don’t have to live this way”, we feel empowered to jump off the island and into our new lives.

    I’ve struggled with addiction in my life too, although some believe it’s a made-up addiction. I’m a compulsive buyer, so much so that I landed myself in prison because I was stealing money for 5 years. FIVE YEARS. So much money stolen and spent, so much “stuff”, thinking I could fill myself up with it all, while never, ever getting the satisfaction I thought I’d get. And so I kept doing it, until one day, I was forced to face my decisions head on. I got caught. And on that day, I was certain my life was over. But in truth, it was God’s way of saying, “take my hand and let’s walk through this together.” So we did, along with an amazing and supportive family. I still struggle – every. damn. day. And sometimes I fail…miserably. It’s not that I’ve failed because I spent money, because, really, I can’t go the rest of my life not spending a dime. But it’s the filling-up of the unnecessary that my heart still searches for. Maybe I’ll always be searching for it, but at least now I can recognize the signs – in myself and in others.

    Thank you for sharing your stories. You allow the door to be opened so we can share ours.

  16. I am reading this as I am anxious about my 20 year old son who is in recovery from drug addiction. He is supposed to be meeting with his probation officer for the last time of a year of probation. I am trying to reach him by phone to assure myself that he remembered his appointment and his phone goes directly to voice mail because he didn’t charge it up last night. I can’t reach him and I have to deal with my lack of trust. You see, his past behavior has created this “lack of trust syndrome” in me that I can’t seem to shake…it’s a perfect storm…I can’t reach him and I have to rely on faith and trust…I have to let him swim or sink and I have to rely on faith and trust…so thank you for mentioning those of us who love addicts. We want so badly to live their lives for them…so it can be our perfect life lived for them…I realize that that is not loving my son but a very selfish addiction in its own right…So thank you again…for the shout out to those who love the addicts in our lives (maybe we start with loving ourselves and only in that way can we love the other)…

  17. Thank you for your raw, real, painful, & BEAUTIFUL honesty!
    We are all in this together…the battle to be WHOLE, and true, and loving, and generous to the world around us. My mom is dying in a nursing home from
    Her addictions, so I can relate. I pray for FORGIVNESS & PEACE…because some weeks I get so stuck in bitter rage & resentment it
    Prevents me from visiting. And mom & I were once very close & the best of friends. I write at Caregiving with Grace about my journey.
    Your analogy of being swallowed like a whale helps me to understand
    Her better and have compassion for all she has suffered.
    God bless your work!

  18. My mother in-law is a recovering alcoholic. My husband and I have been married for 10 years and she has had 3 relapses during our marriage. The toll it has taken on us as a family is so tough. I have tired to support her through the rough times but it get’s harder and harder each time she falls off the wagon. Trust is lost each time and it takes longer to build back. I feel for everyone who is struggling but I also feel anger towards them. Every time my mother in law takes a drink It is like a bomb goes off and the shrapnel hits the people who are around her. We are hurt people limping around trying to “recover ” from another’s persons selfish choice to take a drink. Addiction is rough on everyone and the one thing that has started the healing again and again is communication and forgiveness. And so we march on all of us wounded warriors together.

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