Three days before I walked into my first 12-step meeting, I had a fly rod in hand. Little did I know that day that I was about to embark on a lifelong journey of recovery and discovery. Fly fishing (and the help of my program) would soon guide me through some of my most trying times, all the while teaching me to enjoy calmer waters.
I will never forget that hot week in August of 2016. It was a week of what many in 12-step recovery programs call a "dry drunk." My life had been on a cycle. I went to work, and then I went to the bar. The next day, back to work and another happy hour come 5 PM. Weekends were, of course, spent deciding what outdoor patio I would drink on with my friends and what bar we would find ourselves at that night. Other than the career I loved so much my only other focus was the never-ending party of my youth.
Meanwhile, my peers were busy not only excelling in their careers but getting married and building families, becoming financially stable adults, buying houses, going on vacations, (you see where I'm going with this). I was tired of being stuck. Or as they say in the program, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I yearned for change, but I knew I couldn't do it alone.
On August 26, 2016, I made the decision to give it over to the goddess and decided that I was ready to live my own personal truth – a life without alcohol.
I remember the emotional roller coaster of my first six months in sobriety like it was yesterday. I cried a lot. I went to a lot of meetings. I dived into the literature. And I tried my very best to take it one day at a time. After all, that was the motto of this program – I just had to get through 24 hours and then wake up and do it all over again. I was learning to live in the present.
To be in the moment was very hard for me, as I was always living in the wreckage of a tomorrow that hadn't arrived yet (one of those character defects that working the 12-steps pointed out to me, and one that I'm still working on). But there was something freeing about this new way. Little did I know that this practical application of being PRESENT would help me understand how to live my very best life.
Remember how I said I had a fly rod in my hand three days before I decided to admit that I was powerless over alcohol? Fly fishing soon replaced my daily wine and whiskey consumption. It was a reprieve from the stresses of my day-to-day life. When I wasn't on the water fishing, I was reading about nymphing, practicing my cast in the driveway, learning new knots, or watching YouTube videos and listening to fly fishing podcasts. I became the girl who wanted to go to bed early so she could get up early and go fishing, instead of the girl who wanted to stay up all night partying.
Fly fishing challenged my mind those first few years in recovery. Because it required focus, it became a healthy mental escape in combination with working my 12-step program. When I was fishing, I wasn't thinking about my lists of things to do, how much weight I'd gained, my debt, or obsessing about all of the mistakes I'd made in my past. I wasn't worrying about things I couldn't control. Instead, I was living in the moment and developing strategies for fishing that day. What fly would I choose? How would I present it to the fish? I was focusing on something outside of myself, which began to delay the instant gratification patterns that I battled during my days of drinking. I was finding myself for the first time.
I soon realized that I could take many of the lessons that the 12-step literature taught me and apply them to my time on the water. And that's what got me through another 24 hours. Before finding the peace and serenity that comes with sobriety, I would get so frustrated at the behavior of others. One of my biggest life lessons over the past three years has been that the only thing I have control over is myself and how I act (or react) to situations in life. I have been able to apply that lesson to my time on the water as well.
In fly fishing, I'm not able to control the elements when I'm out on the water, which may cause me to get "skunked" for the day. I have learned that I can only control what I do to try to improve the situation – maybe it's trying every fly in my fly box until I find the one the fish are eating. Maybe it's improving my drift. Or maybe it's even hiking down to new water instead of staying at the same old run I've caught fish in before.
And when I do get skunked (because, as my program has taught me, life will always happen at some point or another), I now see the silver lining. I see the good in spending the day out in nature and at peace. I see the good in spending real quality time with friends or my family or even having those cherished moments alone and in silence.
Fly fishing is honestly the best therapy I could have ever asked for. I've said it before – there's something about stepping out into a stream with nothing but the sounds of nature around you. There's something spiritual about the way the light peeks through the trees at dawn, or the way caddis dance over the water right before dusk. In the past three years, fly fishing has helped me find a power greater than myself. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
Recently a friend in the program showed me a short film, One Cast at a Time, about an angler conquering his addictions while on an adventure to catch a trout from all 50 states within one year. In the film, the angler visits rehab centers in each city on his fly fishing adventure encouraging others struggling with sobriety to embark on their own adventure. This man's story sparked a flame inside of me – I wanted to share my experience on the water with other women in recovery.
And so the Reeling in Recovery event was born.
This summer, I hit the river with six other women in recovery. Our goal – to celebrate life by embracing nature and the spiritual connection that fly fishing has brought so many.
Many relate to the meditative effects moving water has and its ability to decrease stress. Besides the immediate gratification of feeling relaxed on the water, lowering stress can also help you sleep better, decrease levels of anxiety and depression, and improve your physical well-being. It is a total body workout for your arms, back, core, and legs. In recovery, we learn that our physical health - in addition to emotional sobriety, a spiritual connection, and good mental health - is so important to our program. And all are connected. They are like the four corners of a chair. If we lose sight of one of these elements, we topple over.
"Easy does it," said one participant as she maneuvered her way around some particularly technical wading spots before slipping and flooding her old neoprene waders. I smiled thinking about all of the sayings we hear in the rooms of recovery and how we were applying them to our time on the water that day. "If we are going to fall, we need to fall forward," she said, as she stood up smiling and went to dump the water out of her boots.
My new friend was spot on. I had been telling the ladies earlier that afternoon during casting instruction to make sure to "practice the pause" in their backcast to give the rod enough time to load. Practicing the pause was one of the biggest take-a-ways of my program of recovery. This simple concept has allowed me a restraint of pen and tongue more times than I can count.
"This is the best I've felt all year," I heard one of the women say to another participant. "I feel like I'm ready to tackle the week with real energy and enthusiasm. I have clarity for the first time in a long time."
I knew that feeling all too well. I, too, felt re-energized every time I wrapped up a day on the water. It renewed my spirit.
And once again, I found myself grinning from ear-to-ear.
By fate, I was paired with a woman I had spent time partying with years ago. At the end of the day, she shared with me that my passion and love for the group and my recovery, combined with my skills in teaching fishing, had brought us together in a way that was simply beautiful and so much more than any night we would have spent in the bar.
The day was inspiring, emotional, and full of such incredible support from both the women in recovery and the volunteer guides. "Women in today's society spend so much time and energy comparing themselves to others and tearing each other down when we really should be lifting each other up with kindness and support," one of the guides shared with me. "Today accomplished that and more."
"This sport and the supportive environment of the women here today reminds me of the kindness and warm welcome I received at my first [12-step] meeting," a participant shared with the group as we sat together over lunch for fellowship, laughs, and a few tears.
Another guide, who happened to be in recovery as well, shared with me her take-a-way soon after the trip. Her words warmed my heart and gave me hope. "What was very emotional for me was the sharing that these women did," the guide explained. "When I was on the water with my partner, it took a lot of courage for her to share some of the more painful and personal parts of her recovery with me. I think we both sort of felt the river washing away a little more of the shame and guilt we felt from our days in active alcoholism."
I know that the river guides left that day with a new admiration for those six women who took the steps that day to learn and explore new opportunities to bring them joy. And, our participants felt a kind of gratitude that they hadn't experienced before. A gratitude that many shared would keep them sober another 24 hours.
When we were releasing the only fish caught that day, I heard someone nearby whisper to herself, "Live and let live."
There it was again, another principle of recovery right at that moment on the river. And as that tiny rainbow swam away to freedom, we could all relate to the joy we imagined it feeling as it moved forward to embrace a new day.