How to Trust: Vulnerability as an Act of Courage

I often think about the mental and emotional gymnastics it takes for someone new in their recovery to be able to trust. I’m specifically thinking about people who have to take a leap of faith to open up to someone like a counselor, a coach or – in 12 step fellowships – a sponsor who will hopefully guide them through those fresh trails of new sobriety. Just as an inexperienced hiker puts their trust in their guide, a person who decides to embark on an emotional, psychological, and spiritual journey of sobriety must suspend some of their misgivings and prejudices and give themselves to the process. This is never easy. Even for those of us who felt we were ready and who were willing to try just about anything, trusting another person is always a challenge. Everything in us is rebelling against the idea of opening ourselves up to this stranger because we often have had experiences with strangers that didn’t end well. And if you were at this thing called addiction for a while, opening up to another seems like such a foreign concept that no wonder most of us think this is possibly the craziest idea we’ve ever had – even crazier than it was drinking or using to oblivion.

My own path is the perfect example of how these fears and doubts unfold. Sure, I was ready and sure I wanted to be sober more than anything in my life, but did I blindly go into this recovery thing without suspecting my guides of possible ulterior motives? Nope. I did not. For one, I didn’t understand why someone would care – why would they see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself? Their assurance that recovery was a wonderful thing that could one day bring me happiness was preposterous. I knew happiness and I knew that it didn’t happen without the aid of chemicals. These people were not only pathetically naive, but they were also liars. Even the ones who told me they were once like me, I doubted they had any idea about what I had been through and could possibly understand. So, there I was, being asked to trust … liars! Me – someone whose trust had been broken so many times, who didn’t have the best experiences connecting with people in general, family and friends included, never mind strangers. But since I didn’t have any other options and it’s almost impossible to get sober completely on your own (I’d say it’s impossible but maybe there’s an exception to the rule somewhere in Antarctica), I had to rely on people.

I had a number of guides over the years – sponsors and counselors and therapists and other professionals who helped me find the way in my recovery journey. Some were excellent and some probably had no business being in the business in the first place. Just because someone has sobriety or a degree, that doesn’t automatically make them trustworthy. But what I had learned was that as long as I saw my guides as people – just like me – and didn’t assign them god-like expectations, I would be able to find ones who really did help me along and who did teach me how to open up and thrive. I didn’t learn how to trust right away either, but little by little I learned to suspend my suspicions and allow myself to lean in – even though it took me forever to lean in and relax about it (and that only genuinely happened with my loved ones). Looking back I can also say that what I perceived as rigid on my part, or what made me panic thinking that I was doing this thing wrong, was just my natural response to being asked to be brave. I was being asked to divorce my old identity, I was asked to give up my ideas of happiness (chemical), some of my values, even what I knew about love and friendship – all those things that were such a part of me that leaving them behind brought on panic. But despite all of that, I continued to try to trust and I continued to let myself experience this uncertainty and even fear because I had a sense that there was light at the end of that tunnel.

These are some of the things I think about as an addiction specialist when welcoming new clients. I bring myself back to those first days and I find empathy for even the most disgruntled candidate. I was once them and knowing what I know, I cannot help but acknowledge that they are people engaging in the most courageous act they could ever engage in and that’s allowing themselves to be vulnerable.

Photo by Liza Summer