I remember my early days in rehab like I imagine someone waking from a coma remembers their first few days of coming to. The details are there but they’re fuzzy and filled with a lot of what-happened’s and where-am-I’s.
One thing that stands out the most (aside from the sleepless nights, alcohol withdrawal, sweats, loneliness, shaking hands and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into) are the emotional, tear-filled early therapy sessions.
Specifically the day I learned about rocks, pebbles and sand.
I eat analogies for breakfast, so it only makes sense I fell in love with this idea, despite it meaning I had to spill my stones all over the place so I could begin sorting through what I’d been carrying around so long.
I didn’t change. My priorities did.
A philosophy professor once stood before his class with a large empty jar. He filled the jar to the top with large rocks and asked his students if the jar was full.
The students said that yes, the jar was indeed full.
He then added small pebbles to the jar, and gave the jar a bit of a shake so the pebbles could settle among the larger rocks. Then he asked again, “Is the jar full now?”
The students agreed that the jar was still full.
The professor then poured sand into the jar to fill up any remaining empty space.
The students then agreed that the jar was completely full.
The professor went on to explain that the jar represents everything that is in one’s life. The rocks are equivalent to the most important things in your life, such as spending time with your family and maintaining your health. This means that if the pebbles and the sand were lost, the jar would still be full and your life would still have meaning.
The pebbles represent things in your life that matter, but that you could live without. The pebbles are certainly things that give your life meaning (such as your job, house, hobbies, and certain friendships), but they are not critical for you to have a meaningful life. These things often come and go, and are not permanent or essential to your overall well-being.
Finally, the sand represents material possessions and the remaining filler “stuff” in your life. These could be small things like watching television or running errands. These things don’t mean much to your life as a whole, and are likely done to waste time or get small tasks accomplished.
The lesson here is that if you start by putting sand into the jar, there will be no room for rocks and pebbles. This holds true with the things you let into your life. If you spend all of your time on the small and insignificant things, you will run out of room for the things that are most important.
It was my job, and critical to my sobriety, to take a long deep look at what I had filled my jar with.
At first glance, all I could see was sand.
When you’re deep into drinking and have lost your grip on the bottle and it’s now gripping you, the priorities in your life start toppling down like Jenga: Mid-Life Crisis Edition where the blocks are all wonky and it’s impossible to stay balanced. The more big, important pieces you remove, the closer you get to total collapse.
If there were any rocks left in my jar, they were obscured by sand and buried in a stoney grave of pebbles.
Alcohol and my obsession with it had become the sand, overflowing my jar and leaving no room for rocks. You see, sand slips into every crevice and congests the little pockets of air where you can breathe. It overtakes and obscures the big stuff to the point where you start tossing your rocks away just to make room for more sand. If I could paint a picture of my journey up to that point of my addiction, it would look like Hansel & Gretel and the trail of white rocks they left behind on their journey through the woods.
I had left a trail of everything important to me behind in favour of filling my jar with more sand.
Of trading the big stuff for the bottled stuff.
Action expresses priority.
Judging from my actions and behaviour in the
years decades leading up to this point of finding myself on a remote island in rehab for alcohol addiction (like, what? Seriously? This happens to other people, not me…) it was becoming crystal clear how my priorities had changed. I had become Shawn, Certified Sand Specialist.
Before I could start making room for any rocks in my jar, I first had to come to admit – and own – the very hard and real truth that I had chosen alcohol over what I valued most over and over again. And that’s an uncomfortable thing to own, like trying to squeeze into leather pants two sizes too small.
It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t feel good, and you certainly don’t want them hanging in your closet anymore.
I began by making lists and not overthinking it. One for rocks. One for pebbles. And one for sand. Like, really real lists – with a paper and a pen and a very open, broken heart. Then I started digging deep to discover where everything in my life landed on those lists. What were my absolute non-negotiables, the things I valued the most and would defend to my last breath?
Essentially, all the rocks I had left behind me on my path to this point in favour of that one big Everest-sized alcoholic mountain of sand.
And I did the same for pebbles – the stuff that enriches my life but doesn’t define it.
And sand – the small stuff that is wasteful of my time, health or relationships. The stuff I can happily live without (but had drunkenly fixated on for decades). The booze, the bad habits, the isolating and procrastinating.
It turned out I had my entire jar filled backwards and inside-out. And it was no surprise. It’s the nature of alcohol to displace all the good from your life until you find yourself sinking in quicksand.
Sending myself to rehab – or even that fatefully honest day where I finally admitted I needed help – was the first step in spilling my jar all over the place so that I could start filling it back up.
So I could place my priorities back in order, and stop carrying around all the sand that was only weighing me down. Sobriety had to become one of my big rocks, and as long as I treated it like a pebble or sand, I would never have a jar that made me happy.
It’s easy for me to sit here and say “this is what I did and this is how I thrived” but I’d be feeding you a great big pile of bullshit. It wasn’t cut and dry, and let’s not forget my epic eight month relapse just a couple months after returning home from rehab.
It’s a process. It’s a series of spilling your jar over and over again until your rocks are always there – the first ones in and the last ones out. It’s learning to see the sand as it starts to collect again – and trust me, it collects and creeps in without you knowing, just like how it ends up all over your car after a day at the beach.
Sand has a way of coming along for the ride, whether it’s been invited or not.
The trick is in keeping your jar so full of rocks and polished pebbles that there’s less room for all that small stuff.