A reader posted an interesting question on About UnPickled that I wanted to address here so that more of you might add your feedback. Here is the original comment from sunandsand52:
I wonder if you have ever addressed those feelings that overwhelm so many when they desire to stop drinking. ..the feelings of, “Well, I may quit but I have been in this abuse pattern for so long that I most certainly have caused irreparable damage, so what’s the point?”
How did you handle these thoughts? How did you overcome this and other excuses to continue to drink?
The question contains a kind of blind spot we develop in active addiction, which is selective awareness: acknowledging that damage may exist but using it to justify continuation of the behaviour. This thinking also requires the denial that addiction tends to get increasingly worse; there is nothing static about it. So as the addictive mind is telling itself, “I’ve already done the damage so I might as well just keep hanging out at this level,” the reality is in fact that the damage will increase, the behaviour will progress, and problems will mount.
Problematic drinking does not often self-resolve or even remain at the same level for long. Tolerance increases until the body stops metabolizing alcohol, and then the proverbial shit hits the fan for most people. People at this advanced stage of addiction find that their response to alcohol is completely unpredictable – one drink could cause a black out. Additionally, heavy drinking impairs the digestion system so the effects of malnutrition appear as mental confusion, emotional instability, loss of appetite and sleep disturbances. Withdrawal symptoms present themselves if there is a break in alcohol intake. At this stage, a person feels terrible and ironically believes the only relief comes from the originating problem itself: alcohol.
Essentially, it is wishful thinking that the drinking habits (and the associated damage) can just continue at the same level unchecked. SOMETHING will tip the scales – it might be an emotional or physical crisis requiring hospitalization, social repercussions such as family or work-related consequences, or even criminal charges like a DUI or public drunkenness that force the necessary changes. In truly tragic circumstances, alcohol will cause injury or death – either to the drinker or to others in their wake.
So what’s the harm in continuing to drink if some harm has already been done? Plenty.
A better question might be, what’s the harm in living without alcohol? What is there to regret? Who could be hurt? Much of the physical damage can be repaired with abstinence and certainly the social/emotional damage can be much better healed in the absence of alcohol.
My hope for everyone who is drinking problematically is that they might find the willingness to quit before some dire consequence makes the choice for them. My wish is that the hurt, pain and damage that alcohol causes to families affected by addiction could be cut to the quick, and that no one would ever get behind the wheel of a car, tractor, semi truck or bulldozer while drinking. My dream is that we could be as aware of the health hazards of drinking as we are of second-hand smoke, UV rays, asbestos, and old sushi.
It is so confusing to onlookers why the drinker keeps drinking. They cannot possibly understand how addiction scrambles the messages from the body and brain so that alcohol looks like the solution rather than the problem; how a mom who is about to drive her kids to school would drink vodka to stop shaking, actually believing it will make her a safer driver. You can’t even call that a rationalization – it is pure delusion and that’s how addiction keeps itself alive.
I am thankful every single day that I got off the merry-go-round before I got to this point, but it could have happened if I had continued – it was only a matter of time and continued drinking. For me, that knowledge alone was enough – I didn’t want to get to the terrible places that alcohol was leading towards. I had a flashing moment of clarity in which the truth of my trajectory hit me, and it shook me to the core. That was what I needed, and I am grateful.
I could be flippant and say, “If awareness is not enough for you, keep drinking and let the problems build until you get uncomfortable enough to quit.” I hate to say that, though, because of all the innocent people whom that strategy endangers.
All I can do is tell you the truth and hope it is enough: my life is better without alcohol. It is easier, safer, happier and healthier. I do not regret a single day of not drinking; I’ve never gone to bed and wished I drank that day. I feel better about myself. I am more honest and authentic and just a better Jean all around.
I wish the same for everyone, whatever the burden: Lay it down, free yourself. Spare yourself and others the potential pain ahead by believing there is a better way. Know you are worth the effort. Know there is help, and you are not alone.
Know it is possible; know that we do recover.
I am a sensitive person and likely you are as well. How do I know that? Because insensitive people aren’t that interested in what others have to say and presumably don’t read blogs (just a hunch). Also because if you’re reading this, you’re likely in recovery or care about a person in recovery, so you are trying to understand yourself and others better; a sensitive objective.
It isn’t easy being sensitive. Emotions are more intense than necessary: I am overjoyed when happiness would suffice. If I’m sad I’m devastated and when angry I can become obsessed with proving a point.
I notice and react to the world around me constantly, and can’t seem to help but take in everything. If strangers are having a disagreement within earshot, fight-or-flight kicks in. When I witness someone behaving badly, a weight of shame descends onto my shoulders as if by proxy. I can cry over a dog food commercial.
It isn’t all bad. Constant thoughtful observance can lend an advantage – we sensitive types are often two steps ahead of everyone else around us – but it’s also exhausting.
Part of alcohol’s appeal was its ability to take the edge off of the sensory overload; to give me a break from the running tickertape of responsive feedback, criticism, and anxiety. What we sensitive people need is a good intake filter, and alcohol appears deceptively effective at first.
In recovery, we learn new ways to comfort ourselves and to change our perspective so that the world feels less prickly. Recently, I was tearing up over a television program, so I challenged myself: These emotions do not belong to me. Experiencing them will not change the situation. I choose not to feel this sadness. Then I pictured my chest as a Teflon-coated frying pan that tilted up and slid the feeling of heaviness away like eggs onto the floor and POOF – the feeling went away. HOLY SHIT. I was so excited I tried it again and again in the days to come, and it worked! Organic, real emotions are useful and powerful, but unfiltered empathy can be accepted or discarded.
I must confess, though, that as much as I claim to absorb others’ feelings, I am also the same person who believed wholeheartedly that the people around me did not really love me (because I believed myself unworthy and unloveable). How could I be so intuitive and connected, yet apathetically block the reality of the loving emotions of my friends and family? I drank to numb the pain of that disconnection as well, and recovery has allowed a new capacity for accepting that I am both lovable and loved.
It helps to understand empathy as a spectrum that we may move along, landing at different points depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in at any given moment: experiencing more apathy in some settings and yet feeling highly empathetic (and emotional) at other times. By developing emotional intelligence (sometimes referred to as “EQ”), we learn to harness the power of our experience and empathy to respond appropriately to situations. We choose whether to slide the emotional eggs off the pan, or if there is a benefit to continuing to experience those emotions as a means of connection.
Midway through the spectrum are behaviour patterns like Narcissism and Codependency. Although they are often presented as opposite extremes, in many ways they are closely related. Narcissism is a self-centredness that relies on others to feed a grandiose facade, whereas Codependent behaviour involves self-worthlessness that seeks identify through serving the needs of others. Narcissism obliterates others for the sake of self, while codependency obliterates the self for the sake of others. It’s hard for good things to come of relationships where someone is always obliterated, for whatever reason.
For me, recovery has involved self-awareness of both behaviours and an effort to shift towards empathy, which ultimately leads greater emotional intelligence or “EQ”. It isn’t always easy, but sometimes the temporary discomfort of self-awareness and change leads to a greater overall happiness with myself and my behaviour towards others. Harnessing sensitivity and establishing better patterns as a result reinforces a stronger mindset that is less likely to look for comfort in unhealthy ways.
The other day I wrote about my experiences with prescription pain meds following surgery and I have been inundated with comments and emails since. You can read the post here and please be sure to read the comments because there’s some important information added by readers.
So many readers indicated they planned to save the list of recommendations that I’ve put them into this graphic that can be saved or printed:
After absorbing all the feedback, it hits home that we really can’t expect anyone else to care about our recovery more than we do. Even the most well-meaning health as professional can be wrong, misinformed, or blasé about the risks of prescription pain medications.
Many of us who have struggled with alcohol have codependent tendencies, meaning we are inclined to care a little too much what other people think of us. We tend to be people pleasers and we want to be liked, especially by those in positions of authority. It can, therefore, be very uncomfortable for us to challenge or question a doctor who might be more concerned with solving the immediate problem of pain relief rather than the unseen (and often self-diagnosed) matter of ongoing sobriety.
We don’t have to treat these encounters as confrontation, but we do need to stand firm. “I am really enjoying sober life and I want to do everything I can to protect it” is a powerful yet positive stance. If you’re worried you won’t have the courage to speak up when required, practice saying that sentence in the mirror a few times a day. This will increase the likelihood that the words will come more easily in an unexpected situation (I’ve also practiced ordering soda and juice, or saying no thank you to offers of alcohol, which came in handy on many occasions!)
Finally, one more suggestion. Bringing a “wing man” to the doctor can be helpful, someone who might assume the role of “chief question asker” and who will reiterate your position if necessary. It’s important to keep a respectful tone and to value a doctor’s experience and expertise, but us “pleaser” types occasionally need some extra help to be heard.
My most sincere hope is that each of you enjoys such good health that you never find yourself in a position of pain management, but since life is unpredictable we must be prepared for anything. Take care, friends.
Ten days ago I came face to face with a problem that most of us in recovery eventually have to reconcile: pain management. In my case, the situation involved post-op pain from emergency gallbladder surgery that was thankfully short-lived, but even so I knew enough to be aware that prescription pain medication can be extremely dangerous for people in recovery.
When I quit drinking nearly five years ago, my only concern was to avoid alcohol. For years, I had started each morning with two extra-strength Tylenol (for aches and pains, I’d tell myself, because I certainly wouldn’t acknowledge I was hungover every morning). I had no worries about prescription painkiller addiction because I did not use them, and the need for morning Tylenol mysteriously (*wink*) disappeared within a few months of living alcohol-free.
I’ve since listened to enough Dr. Drew podcasts to know that prescription pain medication is a gateway to opiate addiction, and interviewed enough people on The Bubble Hour to be aware that kicking a pill habit is a serious bitch. I’ve learned so much about addiction basics – the hijacked pleasure-reward circuitry, the genetics, and the personality traits – to know that I am in a higher risk category, and respect that good protocol for me includes avoiding anything potentially harmfully addictive.
So when I found myself in the local emergency room, exhausted and weak from painful Choledocholithiasis (a big word I had to Google meaning gallstones in the bile duct), I mustered both courage and strength to appraise the attending doctor that as a person in recovery, I have to be careful with pain medication.
Whew. I get flutters just thinking about it! It was hard to utter those words because:
a) I had never seen that doctor before and had no idea how he would respond
b) I actually really wanted to escape from the pain
c) I was not 100% certain how to self-advocate.
The doctor was very positive, beginning with a slightly patronizing “Alright, high-five! Good for you!” Then, in a more serious tone, he said,”There’s some misinformation about that. When you have pain, the meds treat the pain and you don’t get high. It’s when people take more than they need or take them without pain that a euphoria occurs. But we have something that should work well for you and you don’t need to worry.”
I’d like to tell you that I sat up and asked a dozen insightful questions, but the truth is I just cried with relief and trusted. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.
Following my surgery, I was given a drug called Tramadol for pain. It was mixed with acetaminophen, like a T3 but without the opiate. Tramadol is said to behave opioid-like for pain relief but without the euphoric side effects, and is sometimes used to treat depression. (A quick internet search shows, however, that addiction to Tramadol is, in fact, a concern for many.) My experience was that it did relieve my pain and made me sleepy. I took it every 4 hours in hospital, and once I went home I took it only at night for the first two nights. After that I found that regular strength Tylenol was effective for my pain around the clock, and within a few days I needed nothing at all. I am not giving a recommendation or endorsement for any medication, but simply relating my experience for information.
In the days since, I have reflected on what I did to help me successfully navigate the dangerous waters of pain management in recovery. I was fortune that my situation was resolved within a matter of days, and recognize that this issue becomes much more complicated for chronic conditions and complex injuries.
Here are five things I did that contributed to my success:
- Be aware of the dangers. Simply understanding that some medications could pose a threat to my sobriety, especially narcotics for pain. Although the doctor I spoke with may have been correct in his assertions about pain negating euphoria, I’ve since discovered a recent study from McMaster University showed that 52% of female patients at Ontario methadone clinics indicated that their opioid dependence began with doctor-prescribed pain medication. It seems the problems begin after the pain begins to subside, and the patient is by then at home and left to figure out appropriate dosages without medical monitoring and guidance.
- Speak up. I told the doctor I was in recovery. I asked the nurses each time they brought me the meds to confirm that it was, in fact, Tramadol. I told my husband I was concerned about having pain medications in our home, even ones that the doctor had deemed to be a safe option. Yes, I felt vulnerable – especially with the nursing staff for some reason – but I also felt fiercely protective of my sobriety. I never EVER want to be dragged back into addiction and especially not into that death spiral of pills.
- Enlist an accountability partner. I kept the pills where my husband could see them and kept him posted when I used them. I have heard that some people even hand their meds over to someone else to administer them. I think the hole in the system is that patients are sent home with those little bastard pills to figure things out alone. No education, no written protocol, no follow up.
- Do not use them longer than absolutely necessary. Pain relief is proven to speed healing, but I made a conscious effort to get off of painkillers as soon as possible. Because much of my discomfort was from the gas that is put into the abdomen during surgery, often just a bit of gentle movement and walking around the house was enough to reduce pain. I rested more than I wanted to, whereas the old me would have tried to do too much too soon and then I would have medicated the resulting pain. Instead, I did relaxation exercises and short meditations which also alleiviated a surprising amount of pain.
- Get the leftovers out of the house. When I finished with the meds, there was more than half a bottle remaining. I knew those had to get out of the house, despite temptation to keep them around for the next migraine. Even though Tramadol is said to be less addictive and non-euphoric, I knew I might want to use them to escape a bad mood or feeling because they put me right to sleep. When I drank, it was to escape by falling asleep, and I did not want to have that possibility whispering to me from the medicine cabinet. It wouldn’t be a relapse or anything….Tricky thinking. Nope, get rid of it. I took them back to the pharmacy and asked my pharmacist to safely dispose of the remaining pills. He was somewhat taken aback, so I explained the situation and we had an interesting discussion about this very topic.
Although I am glad that I was granted what is considered a safer option than opiates, I see some flaws in the system. I wish I had been given more education on how to use and then discontinue use of pain meds when I was discharged from hospital. I wish I was given further information when the prescription was picked up. I wish someone touched base to follow up. I understand that there is no provision for these things in our current system, but imagine the lives that could be saved if those steps were taken.
The bottom line is, my sobriety is my priority and my responsibility. I guard it with the same passion and ferocity as I do my own children. Getting sober gave me whole new view on life, and I won’t let anything take that away from me!
I cheerfully signed off my last post with a mention of my New Year’s plans for hosting family at the ski hill. A raclette dinner was in the works, lots of extended family arrived, and the snow was deep and powdery. All of the right conditions for a perfect New Year, except for one small problem: I was sick.
I’ve written about my ulcer before, and since Christmas Dinner it was back with a vengeance. I was enjoying the cabin – skiing daily, cooking for a steady stream of family and guests, being the hostess-with-the-mostest – but feeling bloody awful. The day before New Year’s Eve, it got so bad that I decided to leave my husband in charge of the guests so I could return home to rest in quiet.
My doctor squeezed me in for a quick appointment before closing for the long weekend, promising bloodwork results on Monday. I went home to spend New Year’s Eve alone under a blanket on the couch, terribly uncomfortable and suspicious that this was no ulcer. By Saturday night I was planning my own funeral.
Fast forward a few days and I was in the local emergency room, getting lots of attention for what turned out to be acute gallbladder problems. The surgeon was called in and I was admitted. First thing the next morning I had a procedure to clear out the gallstones that were lodged in my main bile duct, followed by surgery to remover the gallbladder itself.
I’d gone from a wonderful, fun family vacation to a lonely, uncomfortable sick bed for days and then finally three nights in hospital. Things can turn on a dime!
The hospital was noisy and chaotic. I was in pain and alone. It could have been terrible, but I was too grateful to wallow. As I lay there, I realized that many things I’ve learned in recovery were getting me through this ordeal:
- Ask for Help: When I was sick at home and certain I was dying, I should have called an ambulance or a neighbour for a ride to the hospital, but I didn’t. I wanted to be helped but I didn’t want to ask for help. I was afraid they would say I wasn’t sick enough to be in hospital and send me back home. This was reminiscent of when I knew I needed to quit drinking but was scared to go to a meeting for fear they’d say I wasn’t addicted enough. Don’t be silly – help is there and the people who provide it are caring.
- Be Grateful: If you’re new to sobriety, you might not yet be aware how important a role gratitude can play in your journey. Sober or not, everyone can benefit from taking time every day to list three or four things for which to give thanks. Stop right now and look around you – what are you thankful for? This simple act is a life-changing habit. As I laid awake through the night in my hospital bed, wishing for sleep but surrounded by noises and activity, I reflected on all the positive things deserving thanks: the iv that was replenishing my hydration, the kindness of the nurses and doctors, the ultrasound tech who quickly confirmed the problem, the warm blankets an orderly brought when I shivered on a gurney. I was sick, uncomfortable and a little scared of the surgeries ahead, but reflecting on the situation with gratitude kept me smiling.
- Give Service: Service is another concept that helps sober people stay the course. Helping others get and/or stay sober strengthens our own recovery efforts, and having a helping attitude spills over into the rest of our lives as well. How could I help anyone while I was sick in bed? I spoke kind words to each nurse, attendant, and worker who came through my room, thanking them for their work (see also: gratitude). I sent kind thoughts and prayers for the well-being of the doctors and nurses who were working all around me. I looked over at the sweet 92-year-old in the next bed, and sent prayers for her comfort and healing, for her family and caregivers. Thinking about others took my mind off of my own pain and fear, and allowed me to reciprocate some of the kindness I was receiving so thankfully.
- Be Present: Hours passed by slowly in the hospital, and at times my mind would bounce between two unhappy places: the pain of the previous days and fear that the next day’s surgery would have complications. Bouncing between past pain and future fear is a rollercoaster ride of depression and anxiety; I’ve learned this lesson well in recovery. So if I caught myself slipping in either direction, I coaxed myself back into the present by deep breathing exercises. Staying in the present is enormously helpful in sobriety when we are likely to ask ourselves, “Is this forever?” “Can I make it through the weekend?” “Am I a horrible person for all the bad things in my past?” Stop. Breathe. Stay in the moment, just do the next right thing. Moment by moment, we can get through anything.
So although I was sidelined for a few days, I am feeling much better already and should be back to normal in no time. Having an alcohol-free lifestyle (as well as smoke-free and drug-free) lends itself to a strong, healthy body that bounces back quickly from these things.
The new year always brings lots of new readers who are looking for help and insights as they consider sobriety as a resolution. I am sorry that I was not able to respond quickly to those of you who have written this past week – please know you are very much on my mind and I am cheering for you.
If you are in the early days of recovery or experiencing a post-holiday wobble, I hope this post shows you how the principles of recovery can serve you well in all areas of your life. Stay well. Seriously.
Are you feeling introspective and withdrawn as New Year’s approaches? Me, too. It’s a time for looking back, looking forward, looking inward and still some how looking sparkly at parties.
I invite you to make a cup of tea and read a few of my favourite posts, which may trip some insights or ideas for you as you contemplate the year that was and the one to come.
First, “Don’t Give Up” – a post I wrote just after last New Years, in which I laid bare old wounds with brutal honesty in hopes of encouraging others to look honestly at themselves. Reading it now still takes my breath away. I can’t believe I had the courage to ever post it but I’m glad I did because it has helped a lot of people.
Next, take a look at “Are You a Recovery Hero” and guage what position you’re at on the hero’s journey as it relates to sobriety. If you read this when it was originally posted last year, you may be surprised to find that you’re now in a different spot. I really love this post, it’s one of my favourites.
Then check out a New Year post from two years ago when I asked readers to comment with messages of encouragement for anyone contemplating sobriety as a resolution. Over 200 responses resulted and the bounty of wisdom and insight there is astounding.
And finally, a post about how to ask the people’s your life for what you need. You can print the graphic from this post to give to loved ones or use it as a guideline to customize your own list. “Top Ten List for Supportive Normies” is a must-read.
As for me, I’ll be spending my FIFTH (!!!) sober New Year’s skiing with family – grateful for the good health to enjoy the snow and sunshine, and the good fortune to have four generations of family to share the experience.
I wish every single one of you joy and peace, those unexpected gifts of recovery, in the year to come. I wish I could sit with you to drink tea and discuss these things in person because truly, there is nothing better than a heart to heart that’s face to face. Many of you I have managed to meet; from Rome to Calgary to Boston and Palm Springs – I love that wherever I travel I’ve been able to connect with you in person. I hope to do more of that one day.
Hmmmm….perhaps that’s something to consider during my own quiet time.
Happy New Year.
The night before last an unwanted visitor crept into our house. As my husband and I drifted to sleep she was already inside, stealthily moving to her target. If the automatic ice-maker on the freezer hadn’t dumped its load just then – its familiar rumble jolting me from the verge of dreams – I would have dozed on, never the wiser. But my eyes opened and there she was, watching me. She went into action the moment I discovered her presence, slipping under the covers and whispering in my ear.
Her method is always the same. She starts out friendly enough, chattering about the events of the day as if from my perspective, but then quietly points out the things that escaped my notice: a worry, a slight, a misstep, a failure. Soon she is connecting decades’ worth of dots, reminding me that I should always worry, always guard myself, that I always get it wrong, that I am unworthy. Then she flicks the switch on her projector, playing scenes I don’t want to see.
She first appeared when I was three or four. I cried and sobbed so loudly my sisters awoke and ran for my mother, who sat on the edge of my bed and asked “What’s wrong, Jeannie?”
“I’m scared of the magic pictures!” I wailed.
“What are magic pictures?”
“Mean faces that float in the dark. They won’t go away.”
“Oh Jeannie, that’s just your imagination!” mom laughed with relief. “It isn’t real. It’s just in your mind.” My mother was well acquainted with my active imagination – I had numerous invisible friends and hippity-hopped around the yard constantly making up songs and stories to amuse my pretend entourage. Mom rubbed my back and told me the magic pictures were all in my head.
Her words were meant to comfort, but this new knowledge frightened me. If the magic pictures were coming from inside my head, then no one else could help make them go away. It was only up to me, and I had no idea how to stop them. So I learned to wait them out, to cry more quietly so my sisters couldn’t hear. As the years went on, the magic pictures became scenes from real-life, full of biting criticism; the past replayed through a lens of self-loathing.
In sobriety, recovery begins as we go back and understand where our thinking got off-track. Minor misalignments from childhood carry us far off-course by the time we become adults. We heal by identifying these points in our lives and resetting (this is the concept of “UN RE” that was so powerful for me I put it onto coffee mugs and t-shirts).
The other night, as I endured archived mental footage of shortcomings, failures, and bad behaviour from years gone by, I sobbed in the silent way I’ve learned (only now it’s not my sisters I’m afraid of waking, it’s my gentle husband next to me). An hour went by. My visitor was relentless.
I tried to think my way out of it by remembering my mom comforting me all those years ago, telling me it was just my imagination, but the visitor would have none of it. She immediately twisted that thought into guilt: I misinterpreted mom’s explanation back then. How many times have I thought I was comforting my own children but instead I was screwing them up? Soon a fresh wave of tears came as I reflected on possible parental failures.
Then another voice emerged, perhaps this very voice I’m using to write with now.
“This is why I drank,” it said frankly. “Drinking helped me fall asleep before the whispering. Why am I allowing this? This is nothing but lake diving.”
“Lake diving” goes back to a lesson from Sunday School. When we ask for forgiveness, the thing we did wrong is forgiven and tossed into the bottom of a deep lake. Once we take responsibility for something and acknowledge regret, we have to accept the forgiveness for which we’ve asked. Going through memories is like scuba diving for old garbage from the bottom of a lake, emerging triumphantly with a shout. “I found it!”
My tears stopped suddenly as I realized the ridiculousness of waving decaying old dug-up relics over my head, reliving the pain, and calling, “God can you ever forgive me?!”
I pictured God in Billy Crystal form, waving his hands and shaking his head.
I’m busy over here, what do you need? I’ve already thrown that in the lake, why do you keep diving after it? Why do you ask me to do the same thing again and again? I’ve got the refugees to worry about, d’ya mind? You’ve been forgiven already, what you don’t believe me? I’m God! I should know. Cut it out. Leave it alone. Enough already.
Huddled under the blanket, I started to smile. As my mind became more alert, the dark visitor and all her power faded away. She doesn’t come often anymore, but clearly I need a plan to deal with her.
I thought about a powerful book I’d recently read called “The Buddha and the Borderline” by Kiera Van Gelder, and some of the techniques used to help those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) regulate emotions and process triggers.
When Kiera relates an upsetting encounter to her therapist, he asks her which of her “parts” was engaged in the event. The concept is that all of us have different personality parts that we draw on in various circumstances: at work we engage one part, socially another part, in confrontation a different part – we draw on familiar past experiences and bring out that part of us. It’s why we might be competent leaders at work but fall into childish patterns at family events. Traumatic events from the past can lock in some “parts” that are not so helpful – a crisis might bring out a “deer in the headlights” response that comes from being powerless as a child, for example.
Kiera’s therapy involves envisioning all of her various parts together in a room, familiarizing herself with all of the ways she has learned to engage with the world: the tough girl, the frightened child, the academic, the victim, the dominatrix. Once engaged with awareness, she can call forward the most appropriate part of herself. Most people do this instinctively and have lots of healthy parts to work with. Trauma and/or mental illness can create parts that are injured and disruptive, however, and these need to be nurtured and understood.
In recovery, it is common to hear people talk about their addictive voice as a separate part of themselves. Some give this part names like Wolfie, Trixie, or The Itty Bitty Shitty Committee. I’ve never named mine; she’s too slippery and enmeshed to single out. But as I laid there in the dark, I was pretty sure she’d just left the room, chased out by Billy-Crystal-as-God’s sweeping gestures.
“What part of me was that?” I asked myself, emulating the therapist from Van Gelder’s memoire. “Who sneaks in here and whispers and plays old movies and makes me cry? Why does she do it?”
I found the answers in my mind, and fell asleep soon after.
Last night I crawled into bed with lingering dread, fearing the whispers as I have since childhood. Then I remembered that I could call forward a different part, so I asked the wise, kindly woman who’s been developing these past few years to comfort me to sleep. Her voice was raspy and warm as she murmured, “You are safe…everything is fine.”
With a twinkle in her eye she added, “No lake diving for you any more. God is busy taking care of the world. Time to get the rest you need.”
There’s something hypnotic about watching a hairstylist separate, colour, and foil my hair. The same Scottish heritage that curses me with hours of regular eyebrow maintenance and leg shaving also carries the blessing of thick abundant locks. Strand-per-strand, I get my money’s worth out of the beauty industry. I have therefore become quite familiar with my hairdresser, because it takes a whole afternoon to do a bi-monthly colour.
Like most stylists, she is a good conversationalist and makes me feel comfortable in her chair even as she turns me into a foil-headed monster. I’ve told her all about my recovery, and she asks thoughtful questions about sobriety.
The other day, we’d been talking about her hectic work schedule over the holiday season and how she gets through some days by looking forward to that sitting down with a glass of wine at the end of the day. Then she thought for a bit and asked, “What do YOU do? How DO you unwind when things are stressful if you can’t have a glass of wine?”
Normally I would launch into my list of self-care supplies and indulgences – tea, yoga, reading, chocolate, tv, recovery podcasts, reaching out – or explain how *one* glass of wine holds no appeal, how I crave the relief of the second and third glass more than anything. But she’d heard me say all of that before, and I didn’t feel hurried to speak (…okay she was massaging my scalp just then and my eyeballs were rolling…) so I paused to reflect.
“I think what is more important is that I’ve learned to stop living my life in a way that makes me want to numb out at the end of the day, so I just don’t have many bad days anymore.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, extending the massage. Ahhhhhhh…… I’m sure I flatlined for a moment.
“Well I was running my life in a way that left me exhausted – a workaholic approval junkie who felt like if I even sat still I wasn’t justifying my space in the world. So everyday I drank because every day was stressful, and then once it became more of an addiction I also stayed busy to justify drinking. I had to fix a lot of things to make it different – healing old junk so that I didn’t have to run myself ragged trying to feel worthy of being alive.”
“Okay, but when there IS a bad day now how do you treat yourself?”
“Same as anyone, except without booze – ice cream, nail polish, time with friends. But I also do a lot of preventative stuff, like going to yoga or connecting with sober people. And I have learned that not every bad feeling requires a comforting antidote. Sometimes it’s okay to just feel like shit and know that it will pass.”
Our conversation moved on from there – discussing the Amy Winehouse documentary (powerful, a must), then our admittedly-shallow analysis of Amy’s weird bee-hive led to how much we love Gwen Stefani’s hair on The Voice even if the whole Blake Shelton things is sketchy, and suddenly we were away from important recovery talk and into beauty-salon-girl-talk mode.
Still, a buzzing sensation lingered as our conversation replayed in my mind throughout the day; a kind of fresh awareness that recovery has been about changing so much more than my drinking habits. As Tom Waits said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
Later that night my husband and I went out for a quintessentially Canadian date night to the local hockey game. Our small-town arena was half full with about 3500 fans, not bad for a Wednesday. For me, going to a game is as much about socializing at intermissions as anything. I chatted with friends I don’t often otherwise see, popped over to my parents’ seats to say hello and bring them warm mochas, and wandered through the modest crowd.
The mayor was there, a friendly fellow showing team spirit in a jersey comfortably visiting with those around him. As I passed by, he reached out a hand and said hello. My previous workaholic nature saw me sitting on numerous volunteer committees and often this overlapped with municipal politicians. Between my business life and performing as a musician, I used to be seen about town quite a lot before I began reconsidering what’s really right for me. Some people are surprised that I’ve quietly disappeared from their sphere of influence. “How are you keeping these days?” he asked. “You seem to be staying well below the radar.”
“I am happily below the radar,” I laughed in reply, “and it is great. I like it much better down here.”
I’m guilty of saying “I’ve got this” to myself as affirmation and “you’ve got this” to others as encouragement, but those words should be used with caution. There is a natural progression from inspiration (“I can do it”) to astonishment (“I am really doing it!”) that can easily slide into complacency (“Easy peasy, no big deal.”) if we aren’t careful. Thinking “I’ve got this” shows the positivity and confidence we aspire to, yet it doesn’t mean we can let our guard down entirely.
I am not saying we have to stay hyper vigilant and afraid for ourselves long into sobriety, but rather that it is important to continue prioritizing our own wellness. Keep growing and learning, keep checking in on ourselves.
Thanksgiving weekend has just drawn to a close for readers in the U.S., and many of you may be breathing a huge sigh of relief for successfully navigating the tricky business of family dinners, large gatherings, and all the stress that can accompany the holidays. Oddly, the quiet times can be just as challenging as the great trials.
Even though you didn’t drink, if afterwards you continually replay conversations that annoyed you, or call up one family member to discuss another, or worry what people thought, or what exactly so and so meant, then you could be burbling away with growing resentments that can put you at risk of reaching for a drink – the familiar solution to familiar pain.
Another phenomenon that many readers write to me about is the feeling that making it through a big family dinner (or other event) without drinking must mean that there isn’t such a problem after all, and ideas of moderation emerge. This never works out well, and many people are thrown right back into the same awful mess with alarming speed. Those who have experienced this say that quitting after a relapse is harder.
Holiday weekends throw many curveballs – everything from misery to joy to plain old habit can be triggering. If you made it through unscathed I salute you. If you stumbled, I send love and encourage you to get back up and move forward. If you stayed sober and had fun, wow that is awesome. If you stayed sober but were kind of miserable to be around, ah well that’s okay too.
Whatever went down this weekend, tomorrow is a new day. Even if it feels easy, let’s all remember to greet each day with gratitude and fresh resolve to continue honouring ourselves and our recovery.
Raise your hand if you’ve taken an online drinking assessment.
Raise your other hand if you took the same assessment more than once, trying different variations of answers in order to get a better result. (Jazz hands if you switched to a different country’s website to see if they had looser guidelines.)
Nod your head if you then took those results and tried to work them backwards, in order to figure out how much you should cut back in order to drop into a lower risk category.
Rub your belly and pat your head if you then tried to moderate to those levels, failed, took the test again, and got an even higher score.
Yah, me too. You are not alone.
The one phrase that really stuck in my mind was, “No more than 10 drinks per week, no more than 2 drinks most days, and no more than 3 drinks on any single occasion.” (Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines) The gears in my head began to whir as I read those numbers, trying to comprehend what living within those guidelines might entail. My mental computations resulted in one-word: IMPOSSIBLE.
Impossible is exactly what moderating proved to be for me – I was well past the point of drinking within the guidelines. Living alcohol-free has not always been easy but it is certainly simpler than that hellish cycle of calculations, bargains, failure and regret.
What’s worse, the guidelines are based on a 5 oz serving of wine, something I considered to be a half-glass. I expect my average was an 8 oz pour, meaning what I called 3 drinks was closer to 5.
When I take that assessment now with complete honesty, my end habits were in the “Severe Risk” category – and no one even knew I had a problem!
I am grateful for these guidelines and assessments because they were an important wake-up call for me. There is a lot of rhetoric and nonsense out there that implies no one can tell if someone else needs to quit drinking. I feel that’s a misinterpretation of that fact that the will to change must come from within. But the numbers don’t lie and high-risk drinking is self-evident based on patterns and numbers alone.
So if you’re struggling with alcohol, pay attention to those assessments and guidelines. Share them. Talk about them.
Remember that many of us seemed to be functioning just fine but still fell into the “High Risk” and “Severe Risk” zones. Forget the stereotype of what we all think addiction looks like and trust the evidence.