Have We Whitewashed Authenticity?

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen a yogi on Instagram sharing her “authentic” self — with the accompanying hashtags “#authentic,” “#spiritual warrior” and “#yogaeverydamnday” — so much so that over the past five years, we’ve now come to associate the word with the use of crystals, culturally appropriated bundles of ceremonial sage, palo santo, and Buddhist figurines.

Did you know that the hashtag #authentic has been used in 8.9 million posts? Is that a lot of authenticity, or a lot of misrepresentation?

I wonder if by championing the development of these relatively new kinds of spiritual warriors, we’ve diluted the true meaning of what it means to be authentic? Given that we don’t know we’re appropriating sacred cultural traditions, can we make the guess that we’re just as unware of the meaning of authenticity? Or have we whitewashed the meaning of the word too?

According to Miriam-Webster, authentic is defined as:

  1. a:  worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact // paints an authentic picture of our society

b:  conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features // an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse

c:  made or done the same way as an original // authentic Mexican fare

  1. not false or imitation : REAL, ACTUAL // an authentic cockney accent
  2. true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character is sincere and authentic with no pretensions

Leading a life of sobriety requires authenticity. Coming to the realization that we had had a problem so severe that medical and spiritual intervention was required is pretty real. Admitting that to another person is a big step towards truthfulness.

But to get to a stage of authenticity in recovery takes time and is rarely achieved in the early stages. Posting photos only of the rosy parts of recovery, with the hashtag “#authentic”, is the least representative meaning of the word we can use because it is quite the opposite from the reality of recovery. Frankly, it’s harmful because it sets the expectation to others that we too should aspire to have a recovery that looks like a blissful yoga teacher, or an enlightened Buddhist. Often, we experience the inverse of that and jump to the conclusion that we’re doing something wrong because we feel the exact opposite of blissful. My first few years of sobriety felt like a shit show, not a spiritual retreat! 

Jumping into the spiritual realms of yoga and Buddhism in a few short months, and then displaying it on Instagram as a spiritual transformation, is a bit of a stretch. I’m not suggesting that we cannot pursue a spiritual path that is of interest to us, or that we shouldn’t practice yoga every day. I’m saying that the reality is that we have no idea who we are for the first few years in recovery, so it feels inauthentic to me to portray this new identity. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, because the study of yoga and Buddhism takes an age of dedication and commitment — just like recovery — it cannot possibly be achieved in the first year.

The very meaning of recovery is to recover our ability to connect to our true self — our authentic self, if you will. But it’s a long process to get there. That’s why recovery is often referred to as peeling back the layers. My favorite quote describing this process so beautifully is this one by Cynthia Occelli: “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

You see, recovery is messy. It’s heartbreaking. We go through a process of stark and deeply painful realizations as we grieve our lost selves and come to terms with our traumas. We learn the extent of the damage that we have caused and the hurt that we’ve endured. We have to heal ourselves and learn how to get in touch with our bodies and our feelings.

There’s a reason they say the first five years are the hardest. They are. Coping with life with ill-equipped is hard. We no longer have the anesthesia of alcohol to numb our pain and drown our stress. We have to learn new and healthy coping strategies, often in our thirties and forties. It is humbling, and we experience shame. How could we have gotten to this age and not realize we’re so broken?

I started drinking when I was 12 — that was my learned coping strategy: too much pain, or depression: drink, smoke, and use drugs. Bingo. Except I only deepened my depression and dissociated from my fractured self even further. For the last six and a half years, I have grieved the loss of my formative years and my twenties. I discovered I have a long-standing eating disorder. I have learned that I am an empath and an introvert, and that means I need to be even more in tune with my body and emotions than others might have to be. It took a whole six years of recovery to realize that I had complex PTSD. I couldn’t believe that it took that long to connect the dots with my trauma, and finally understand the complexity of my being. Yet it did.

And the process? It was disordered and confused as hell. It’s certainly not linear. I’ve cried hysterically, sobbed, and experienced the darkest depressions. I’ve gotten into relationships as a distraction. I even took to food again to escape the painful reality of recovery. I became so completely undone that I no longer recognized the person in the mirror. Many days I struggled to get out of bed, and others I managed to shower and brush my hair. My recovery was a process of destruction.

I admit that I’ve been someone who has shared these experiences on Instagram and Facebook. But I have done so showing the whole picture, the messy truths of recovery: the face of a woman who doesn’t know how she’s going to pay her medical bills that month, the swollen face from a root canal, the tears of joy inspired by people contributing to my dental bills, the food I’ve eaten to nurse my body back to health, the failures around food and the recommitment to health over and over again. I’ve shared it all because true authenticity is showing all of us — not just the big hair, yoga poses, Botoxed faces, and statues of the Buddha.

To not share our true selves paints an inauthentic picture of recovery, and when it doesn’t align with others’ messy experiences they think they’re doing something wrong. I need to see the depths of your pain as well as the sparkle in your eye, because I need to know that I’m not on my own — that you hurt too, and that it has taken years to recover who you are. To me, that’s true authenticity.

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