02/25/2016 02:12 EST | Updated 02/25/2017 05:12 EST

I've Gone From Recovering Alcoholic To Sober Shepherd

Edison Yao

I'm coming up to my 19th anniversary of becoming clean and sober, and this time of the year for me is typically a moment of reflection -- a chance to be grateful for all the beautiful messiness my life has become.

I'm still not sure how I went from standing alone on a subway platform with the intention of taking my life 20 years ago, to standing in front of an audience of 200 people looking to me for guidance and hope.

With each year that passes, I'm more inclined to accept the fluidity of uncertainty and all of its slippery elusiveness. I now define transcendent beauty not by how far I've come, but as an ephemeral strength woven into the texture of every moment -- a space that is quite often etched in suspicion, euphoria and longing.

For far too many years, it was my inability to coexist with the discomfort of uncertainty that fueled my addiction. And today, it is not as though I've made peace with this discomfort as much as I've softened its edges and muffled its storm.

I was reading Marsha Lederman's column in the Globe & Mail this past weekend, and something she said certainly struck a chord with me. "We spend so much time in our social and occupational echo chambers, insulated. Venturing out may be a shock to the system, but it also seems essential for discovery."

When it comes to an addict's journey back from the self-annihilation of addiction, the one thing every addict is longing for is connection to community. And how ironic that the further one travels down the rabbit hole of an active addiction, the more tenuous that connection to love and support becomes.

It is a bitter truth to swallow; yet, I've had to acknowledge that it was my fear of connection that brought me to the edge of that subway platform.

I believe that I am one of the "lucky" ones, in that my addiction delivered me to a place where everything else in my life had been laid bare, and I was forced to confront my greatest fear -- the belief that I was unworthy of love and self-respect.

As is the case with most addicts in recovery, it didn't take very long for the pink cloud of early sobriety to wear off, and for the real work to begin. I was no longer drinking or drugging, but I was yet to excavate and unravel all those feelings that took me to a life on the margins.

Sobriety has been a process involving the internal work of making sense of and, at times, room for depression, anxiety and childhood trauma. There has also been what I would refer to as the "external work" -- learning when to reach out for help and when to jettison toxic relationships from my life.

During the past two years, I've entered a new phase of my life, one in which I have taken on somewhat of a leadership or mentoring role. I have to admit, for a natural introvert like me, it's a position I'm reluctantly allowing to grow on me rather than one I'm wholeheartedly embracing.

In order to feel more comfortable in this role, I've started to see myself as a "shepherd" as opposed to a leader. It may simply be a matter of semantics, but I really do identify with the core responsibility of a shepherd, and that by maintaining absolute communion and attention in this role, one avoids losing anyone travelling along the same path.

From the very beginning of my sobriety, I've tried to steadfastly follow one guiding principle -- to simply do the next right thing, whatever that may be.

And now that I'm no longer the person standing on the edge of that subway platform, but rather the person standing in front of an audience, I am trying to embrace and hopefully model three core practices. I thought I would end by sharing those with you:

  • Above all else, be honest even if it's messy, non-forgiving and painfully unpredictable. Honesty entails following the signposts to becoming more self-aware, and honesty bridges gaps between my community and me.

  • As the author and speaker Jon Acuff says: "When you start to see people as your platform, you stand on top of them." My greatest potential for enacting social change occurs at the intersection where I believe we should track towards and the path where my community is organically moving. Quite often these destinations do not align, yet that is the precise time at which the greatest possibility for personal growth begins.

  • And finally, something that you would think should be an easy thing to do is in fact, rather difficult - learning to accept praise. I have a natural tendency to deflect compliments and devalue my participation. I know I am in no way alone in this practice, but it is important to acknowledge that in so doing, I often leave the individual offering the compliment feeling deflated; and moreover, I feed into my natural ability to self-sabotage.

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