41 Years in the Wilderness

How excommunication, divorce, alcoholism, and trauma saved my life.

Heyo folks. Today I’m 41 years old. I think I’ve earned every single candle. Thinking about what my man Motherfuton does every year on his birthday, and I felt like if that hairy beast can do it, then dammit, so can I. Also, I’ve been trying to find my way of writing down what the last three years have been like and every time I tried, I sat down to write an entire biography.

On June 16, 2016 I started my second and last journey into quitting alcohol, started a difficult separation of a 13 year marriage, started what I didn’t know then would be a long CPTSD recovery, started a new spiritual journey, and started the first day of the rest of my life. (That chronicled over on Instagram at @matthew.lloyd..smith)

  • Thank you suffering. You have taught me more than anyone else in this life. I am so grateful for all that you give and will give. I am in your debt.
  • Thank you alcoholism and trauma. Without you I wouldn’t be forced to need the community of fellow travelers, weaklings, sufferers, addicts, and despicables who are beyond doubt the best people on earth.
  • Thank you friends who left me during the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Without your absence, I could have never faced the terrors of being alone and being okay alone.
  • Thank you friends who supported me during this season. You let me be the man I didn’t know I could be. You gave me myself. Friendship is family. Thank you Emily for being my best friend and walking beside me into and through the wilderness. Thank you Nate for never leaving my side after all these crazy years.
  • Thank you dad. Happy Birthday to you as well. Thank you for your awkward phone calls during these last three years of recovery and your willingness to deal with emotion when I know it makes your skin crawl.
  • Thank you church for all the community you taught me, and for letting me go, so I could find god in the breathing.
  • Thank you Matt and Chris at Atlas Local for supporting me when I was a blubbering mess.
  • Thank you Jamin, Jeremy, and Zach for being such incredible team mates at Fathom & Draft.
  • Thank you Mike, Matt, and Matt for being there at Really Good Emails. You all are such hustlers.
  • Thank you Michael for believing in me as a man and designer.
  • Thank you Brighton, Levi, and Lucy for being such badass little humans. Your love and acceptance of me as a papa is magical. You are my teachers.
  • Thank you Amy, my ex, for having the bravery to change direction and get what you needed. You are the best co-parent a man can ask for.
  • Thank you Ako. You are a bright sun in this universe, even though you are basically always cold and looking for any possible way to get warm.
  • I’ve stayed sober for 1156 individual days. Sobriety has meant that I could begin to look at, appreciate, and be honest about all the things that are outcomes of a rich, full, difficult, challenging life. I attend AA and ACA (recovery for those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families) meetings, and work with sponsors, and sponsees. 12 steps isn’t the only way to get and stay sober, but it’s one of the most effective ways and I’m not interested in half-measures. If you have any questions about this in your own life, it would be my joy to share my experience, strength, and hope with you.
  • I’ve learned a lot more about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their cumulative effects on health, neurological trauma responses, and Complex PTSD (CPTSD). I began to see a kind of string down the long line of my family and all their challenges, and the way we all have responded to being raised by people with those challenges. There’s no blame in all this, it’s just the way our brains work. It’s a difficult part of humanity. CPTSD is the response to these difficulties. It’s my body’s memory sending me into fight, flight, freeze to protect me when it feels anything that even vaguely smells like those ACE’s. A client asking to talk triggers memories of a well meaning dad coming down hard on me—even if the client‘s request is neutral. Triggers are everywhere for those of us with CPTSD. Recovery means moving from reaction, to pausing, and being able to choose action or inaction. Recovery has primarily been daily mindfulness practice which is sometimes meditation, sometimes walking, sometimes just breathing. I’ve also listed some helpful therapies below.
  • I’ve learned to functionally love myself. I’ve learned it’s the most powerful thing I can do to heal my mind and heart. It’s not just a nice thing to say. It’s a practice. It might be a hand on my heart when I’m feeling stressed. It’s a kind compassionate reminder when I’m feeling stupid or fearful. It’s choosing to stay sober so I can enjoy whatever life I have left to the greatest measure. It’s letting go of needing others to approve of me. I must approve of myself at my core, not because of what I’ve done or what I do, but simply because all life is valuable at it’s core and I’m alive.
  • I shed the weight of my Christian faith. In the process of separation I was excommunicated from the church and it’s turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. There was no infidelity in my marriage, but I sure was cuckoo before my recovery (still cuckoo actually, just more aware of it). I don’t blame the church or my ex wife for their decisions in the least. I am 100% certain the community that excommunicated me meant it for their good, my ex-wife’s good, and my good. It certainly has been good for me. As I began to understand that trauma leads directly to challenging behavior patterns, that often involve addiction, I could no longer hold the theology of sin and redemption in the same brain. No good father would ever have any anger at a child born with a disability. I’m thankful for people like Richard Rohr who’s narrative of a completely loving God sans substitutional atonement and a underworld for “bad people” give me hope for that tradition. In many ways now, I’ve returned to where I started when I was young, which is curiosity. I can’t ignore the incredible spiritual experiences I’ve had in 20 years of Christian faith, but I see those through a new lens now and I have more wonder about life than I’ve ever had. It’s enough just to breathe, see, taste, touch, hear, and feel—right now.

I continue to grow and run Fathom & Draft, a small but potent remote friendly design studio in the United States. I am scaling Really Good Emails from a glorified blog into a real product. I’m excited to be working on a new community and product for recovery which I hope to launch later this year. I’m a better dad than I’ve ever been, though parenting is always messy for someone with my challenges (and everybody else too). I’m learning to let go of control and do some more resting in work and play. I’m learning to listen and be curious rather than opinionated.

Let me know if you or someone you know is going through divorce, recovery, CPTSD, or something else I can help with. Helping is one of my great joys and keeps me sober and happy.

Below are the most valuable resources I came across in the last three years. I hope they help you.

  • AA
  • ACA This is recovery for anyone who group up in a dysfunctional family. Don’t let the name confuse you. More than AA this program has been the most effective in giving me the tools toward freedom in my life. Can’t recommend it enough.

Matthew Smith is either two wily bear cubs stacked in a trenchcoat or a full-grown man — some days it’s hard to tell.