When I was twenty I was dating someone who was sober and so I was attending Al-Anon meetings both to support him and because my (also sober) best friend was encouraging me to go. At that time in my life I had this idea that getting sober was an event with a before (drinking) and an after (no drinking). I don’t know why I thought this but I think it was part and parcel of being twenty and not knowing very much and thinking that things could be as easy as that. Back then I thought there was a finish line marked “success” and that grown ups who had any sense were living there and that’s where I — and my boyfriend and my best friend — were headed because we were doing what the experts said, going to meetings, stepping forward one day at a time.
I trusted the straightforward path with straightforward rules and I trusted that as long as we were moving forward and following the rules we would end up at the finish line. I didn’t know then that life is more like a labyrinth — meant for wandering — and that there is no finish line. I didn’t understand that life is process and it’s the process that matters.
When I began working at a women’s shelter in my mid-twenties, the life-as-labyrinth became clear to me. I expected shelter to be a point of resolution, the place where Before met After. But most of our clients were moving in circles that were slowly (we hoped) growing wider. They were living — and in many cases reliving — their particular crises, gathering information as they went. Instead of a signpost, clearly delineating the way, our shelter program was a rest stop: a place to be nourished and nurtured (if the client wanted our nourishment and nurturing) but not a step towards anything in particular unless she chose to make it one.
I remember one client in particular, who I will call Jill. She was a stand-out client, the one we asked to speak at our fundraisers and the one whose story we told when we wrote grants. She came to us after her time ran out at another shelter and she worked our program hard, managing the myriad of appointments that she had with us and with the other programs — the programs for jobs and housing and care for her kids. She would put her two children in a make-shift double stroller and head out the door to push them up the big hill in front of our building to get them to the top where all the buses lined up, heading out to meeting after meeting. She did this because she wanted to and because she was ready to. She wanted to stay sober and safe; she wanted a better life for her kids than the one she’d been living.
She was amazing and she remained a success story after she left our program securing a good job, long-term housing, and therapy for herself and her boys. But it wasn’t because of us (her case managers); it was because she sought us out and thankfully, we were there. I have no doubt that our presence had an integral role in her life but she was the author of her own change. She was able to see a way out of the circle in her labyrinth to someplace wider with better opportunity.
Here’s what’s important: it was not her first stay at shelter. She’d been there before when she had only one child and was still using, eventually going back to the man who hurt her. That first visit with us she wasn’t ready so she left (actually she was asked to leave when she came back to shelter drunk).
Did her success the next time around make her a failure before? No, not in the big picture. Her failure in our program was part of her process in life’s labyrinth. Jill’s way was complicated, as it is for many of us. The first time she came to shelter is as important as the second because it’s where she had to be before she could get to where she was going. She is the one who came to us the second time, she is the one who remembered the way and she is the one who used our help differently than she was able to use it before.
In my own life I see the same widening of a circle that looks familiar. I meet people and think, “Oh, it’s you again!” a particular kind of relationship I need to get better at, a friendship that feels an awful lot like a friendship I’ve lived before. There’s always something to learn on the way, a better understanding of who I am and who I want to be. Parenting my kids is a chance to reexamine the ways I was raised. Arguing with my husband is a chance to understand each other better. Sometimes the sameness seems stifling and then I know it’s time to find my way to another part of the labyrinth, that the frustration I’m experiencing is a sign that it’s time to grow.
Healing is a process. Where someone is in their process is where they are. Perhaps they can hear only every other thing we say or maybe only every third or four or fifth or even TENTH thing we say. Perhaps a client will have only one epiphany in a program or in counseling but that epiphany may be enough to get them to turn a corner six years down the line. Maybe one day they will remember that thing they learned and that will be the important thing they need to step out of the path they’re on. Or maybe they will not get any epiphanies but they will learn that there are places where people will sit and listen to you; that there are places where hope drives the conversation. Maybe what they need to know is that there is refuge for when life gets too complicated, for when they’re finally ready to stop and rest awhile on the way to where they’re meant to be.