For one sweet week in 2008, my indie folk album charted one spot ahead of Blue Rodeo on a Canadian campus radio station’s “Top Ten” listing. A small Canadian campus, but nevertheless ‘TOP TEN” and “ONE SPOT AHEAD OF BLUE RODEO” are the key phrases here.
Around that same time, I had been awarded “Woman of Distinction” by my local YWCA for creating a clothing bank of career-wear for unemployed and underemployed women, was on the cover of “Profit” magazine as one of the “Top100 Canadian Women Entrepreneurs”, became President of my local industry association, organized a weekly farmer’s market in the parking lot of my office, and was busy writing and recording a second album of original music. All this plus a husband, three kids, a family business, and a dog.
Oh, and on top of it all I was struggling with a growing dependence on alcohol.
I got a lot of positive attention during those years. I was heralded as a role model, a renaissance woman, and a high achiever.
It was a remarkable, frantic, bittersweet time of life. I look back on it now from a different perspective. I am grateful I did not self-destruct entirely. I can reflect and feel more pride than I was able to at the time. Back then, I was numb. I couldn’t stop to breathe in the beauty of a moment; I was too busy scrambling after the next project in hopes that staying busy enough could protect me from criticism, self-doubt and worthlessness.
On a recent episode of The Bubble Hour (“Sober on Stage”) I explained I was driven by an insatiable hunger for accomplishment and approval. I couldn’t do anything for the purpose of simple pleasure. It might start out that way, but very quickly I’d be going all out and leaving others behind. It was a way to isolate, to stay safely ahead of criticism, and to feel worthy.
You can imagine that my friendships were limited to those who could keep pace and refrain from either being intimidated or critical of my chosen state of perfectionist overdrive. Fortunately the handful of strong women that I allowed into my “inner circle” are more balanced than I seemed to be and when I quit drinking in 2011, one by one they were the first to know and the strongest of my supporters. I thank God for these friendships – they are treasured gifts.
Initially, I considered all that I had accomplished despite ending each day with a heavy dose of alcohol (“the brick on my head to slow me down” as I’ve often referred to it) and thought, “Wow, if I did all that while drinking, imagine how much more I will accomplish in recovery!”
Life in recovery IS very different than before. I have learned that my prized perfectionist tendencies are self-destructive. In healing the part of me that only valued myself as others see me, I am now motivated differently.
I’ve stopped performing music, because the anxiety and stage fright was overtaking the enjoyment I experienced once on stage. I have less time for high-profile community volunteering, because I devote my spare time to recovery advocacy – blogging and podcasting anonymously. No magazine covers, no awards, and yet I am greatly fulfilled by these efforts.
As luck would have it, the market changed and so did our business. In order to respond, my husband and I were faced with the decision to either go bigger or smaller. With an eye on retirement in the next few years, we opted for smaller. We revamped our business model, laid off most of our staff, and wrapped our heads around the positives of this change. It is a classic “back to the floor” situation, where my suit and heels have become blue jeasn and work boots. We’ve traded the boardroom for job sites, and essentially returned to everything we initially loved about the business.
This transition has been much easier for my husband, who never worries what others think. He always says, “The truth will come out in time” and he is right. It bothers me though, because even though this has been a good change for us – more profitable and more enjoyable – it LOOKS like defeat from the outside.
Our competitors have had a field day, telling customers we went broke or shut down. Often well-meaning people who assume I should want to confront rumors and set them straight report these words back to me. They are partly right – the old me would have done exactly that.
If recovery had been what I expected – that I’d keep everything else in my “perfect life” the same and only change the drinking – I would have been utterly devastated by downsizing the business, hanging up my (gorgeous) suits, and getting no press coverage for my daily activities, and fending off gossip and untruths.
Thank God I went beyond merely changing my alcohol intake and started addressing the “why” behind the need to drink. Many of the things I thought were strengths were weaknesses, and many things I felt ashamed of were, in fact, the keys to my strengths.
If someone told me back then that recovery would allow me to feel satisfied with less success, I might have continued drinking for fear that I’d lose my treasured drive to succeed! Yet there has always been a little light in my soul that quietly yearned for peace and contentment. Maybe that yearning would have surfaced, and reached for recovery.
I am not sure that I believe “everything happens for a reason” but I do accept that “everything happens with potential.” Recovery has allowed me to lean into this enormous change of identity and to embrace a more authentic, realistic version of myself.
I used to work so so hard and never felt satisfied. I used to get so much attention and never felt truly worthy. I pushed myself to be extraordinary, because it compensated for some imagined deficiency.
The message is this – leaving alcohol behind has allowed me to explore and heal myself in ways that I never thought possible. I look forward to living out my days as this refined version of myself. I loved my life before, but only tolerated myself in it. Now that I am learning to love myself, I can tolerate just about anything.
Everything is different now, and I am grateful.
Recommended reading: If you are struggling with overachieving and perfectionism, you may benefit from working through “Feeling Good” by David D Burns. It is essentially a cognitive behaviour therapy manual for depression, but the section dysfunctional attitudes and the worksheet to determine your areas of emotional vulnerabilities are extremely insightful and helpful.
I recently switched things up in my career. I am a self employed musician, and for twenty years I persued certain goals, and began to wonder what role booze played in the scenario. And as I suspected, booze was the glue, and when I quit, my relationship with my career underwent a “market correction”. A big overdue shift. Meanwhile, a new possibilty came up for me in a new genre. So to a lot of people it looks like I’ve dropped out, or downsized because I have new prioritues and am not pushing in unfulfilling ways. I know the new thing (solo instrumenal record deal) is what I have been wanting for myself. Living without alcohol allowed me to listen to my intuition and adjust, and be ok with however it might look from the outside. It has required some faith in the transition. Thanks for your post.
One of the truly remarkable aspects to sobriety is you do get to find out what you are capable of, and the results are utterly astounding. The time. Where did all of this time come from? And the energy? And the creativity. The thoughts. They don’t stop coming.
Great post Jean.
PS: I will check that book out.
I am so happy I found you! Thank you for the honest, thoughtful and optimistic perspective on challenges and problem solving. I bookmarked Dr. Brown’s vulnerability talk when I first saw it. Your blog is now bookmarked under that.
I hear you. I’m also a very high achiever who has very rarely felt “good enough” on the inside. Achievement gives me a powerful but temporary “high” that snuffs the feelings of inadequacy. But you wouldn’t know I felt this way just by looking at me. Everyone thinks I have my $#!+ wired tight, and on the surface, I guess I do pull my weight and then some. But to me, it seemed like the flaws would always outweigh the gifts.
I first drank to numb the constant feelings of anxiety that came with this mindset. Then, I drank to numb the feelings of guilt that came from drinking to numb the anxiety. Finally, when it all got to be too much, I drank to erase myself from my own life, a few hours at a time.
I do it far less now, but I’m still a work in progress.
I’m a musician too, a singer, and have had a weekly residency at a local bar for three years. Every week it would be at least three large wines while I was singing, that was just part of the process for me. I always felt horrible the next day and worried what people thought. The other six nights of the week I drank alone at home and still drank the same amount, but I didn’t have the worry of others judgement. I decided to leave that gig two weeks ago and apart from 2 nights, I have not had an alcoholic drink. I dropped in last night to check out the new singer, and had two wines and couldn’t sleep pretty much all night and now feel exhausted and blue today. I have done two sober gigs since leaving my residency and they have been great! Not as hard as I thought. I was brought up by two alcoholics who both started drinking in the late afternoon and started slurring by 7 and my father became abusive by dinner time when he had a captive audience of three kids to let all his anger out on (we weren’t allowed to leave the table without permission). He used to scream that God was pissing down on us and talk about murdering intruders and what he would do to them. Scary stuff for little children. Except for my two pregnancies (funny how I could only care about my body when it was for another human, not me) I have kept the tradition going, starting drinking around 5.30 and sometimes slurring through bedtime stories. I feel so ashamed and sad for my kids that the legacy has lived on through me. My sister is a full blown alcoholic and my brother has had periods of ‘problem drinking’ but doesn’t talk about it much. We are all high functioning, as our father was/is. All have good jobs and families. I am READY to walk a different path. I am so ready for be stone cold sober every night, be emotionally available for my children, read to them with love and joy no slurring. I am not sure how to move on from the shame and into forgiveness for myself so that I can make better choices. The shame is holding me back. The past two weeks I have felt clear and not as depressed (my 8 year marriage ended 4 months ago and I have 2 kids under 6) without alcohol. Because most of my drinking was secret and I have no family support, nobody knows what I am trying to do and I feel like it’s a big feat somedays. Thanks for reading. Thanks for all your stories, it helps. Christie xx
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Hi Christie, thank you for sharing your story with us. You have been carrying a heavy load for a long time. Once you start to get more comfortable with living alcohol free, you will start to feel the burden lift a bit. Connecting with other people in recovery can truly accelerate that process and make it more enjoyable. You might want to think about finding a recovery program in your community that appeals to you just for the purpose of strengthening that support network – honestly, there is nothing like talking (or sitting quietly) with someone who “gets it”. Big hug, sister.
Thank you for the hug, I needed that tonight. I’m still going strong and your kind words only push me further toward my new life. Hugs back to you xxxx
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Wow. This really hit home for me. I found this blog while searching “Quitting drinking mom”.
I, too, am a songwriter who had a small amount of success in my younger years. I now am a married, working mom of 3 who has struggled during the past 10 years to keep creative, stay relevant, feel like I’m more than just a machine here to serve my job and family. Drinking in the evening has always been the thing that I turn to to quiet that nagging feeling that I am nothing, worthless if I’m not writing music or performing. Approval seeking behavior.
Because I have built up this pressure in my head, I developed panic attacks when I DO get out to perform, which I temper with Xanax and alcohol, just to steady my hands to play guitar. My husband thinks that if I collaborate on songs with him it will alleviate the pressure I feel for personal success, instead of holding myself solely responsible for the music. Jury is still out on how I feel about that.
Anyway, day 2 without alcohol.
Oh wow, does that sound familiar! How did the weekend go? Thinking of you. You are not alone!
Day 6, still not drinking. Took your word and reading Feeling Happy and trying to quiet the voice in my head telling me I’m worthless. Thx for following up.
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Such thoughtful wisdom here, as always. I, too, suffer from the overachiever perfectionistic living and it hasn’t been until now- early sobriety- that I’m turning it around. From the outside, mine looked a little different, raising two small children on my own, going to grad school full time, working, and being the super mom. On the outside. On the inside, I was crying, yelling, screaming, and begging to be set free. Slowly, I’m recognizing that I deserve rest- that I deserve to love myself and care for myself, and very slowly I’m learning to let go of others perceptions of me. They just don’t matter. I have many of the books noted in your post and comments and look forward to chip away at them:) thank you 🙂
Tolerating myself is exactly what I was doing prior to my sobriety. I am learning so much about myself on a daily basis and I have so many people to thanks for this. She Recovers was the first page I started to follow. From Dawn, I have garnered so many recommendations such as, The Bubble Hour, BFB, and your blog, Unpickled.
There are so many I follow and so many I am learning from. I am so grateful each day to the individuals who share their life experiences of addiction and what the road of recovery is doing for them and how it has changed their lives.
You know what? I actually like me. I wish I had met me a long time ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone during the dark days of my life. Who better to know what I was going through than me, myself and I.
I love this post and can relate to it as I too strived for perfection, busy-ness, ran a business which I ended up closing, and always worried about what others thought of me. Keeping busy kept me from feeling the angst of potential failure which to me was not an option.
Thank you so much for sharing.
Hi Sue, thanks for connecting. Dawn at She Recovers is so encouraging and supportive of all of us! She reminds me each day that I am making an important contribution and also to be just as generous about listening and learning as I am about yakityyakking. Funny we ever felt so alone when it turns out that you and I and many many others have the same secrets and new discoveries. I am glad you are here.
Good luck with it all! Have just started on a similar vibe if you have a moment to stop by http://soberinlondon.wordpress.com/ xx
Hi, I’m new here. Day 1 for me, and this time I’m actually going to be involved online instead of just lurking. One thing that stood out for me in this lovely article was this quote: “Many of the things I thought were strengths were weaknesses, and many things I felt ashamed of were, in fact, the keys to my strengths.” I often talk about my drive to drink as the mischievous side of me, and I do love that part of me, I just wish I could use it for creativity, curiosity, romance, play, instead of just plain old drinking. I’m ashamed of drinking, but I think I need to learn how to cultivate my mischievousness rather than mess it up with alcohol. I get the idea about strengths actually being weaknesses… My moments of hyperactivity and joy end up being dangerous because I go binge.
On this Day 1 of mine I will make sure to be open to the possibilities that what I’m “missing out” on from not drinking may very well not be things that serve me, and things that I’m ashamed of may very well have the potential to be a discovered strength.
Thank you! I hope I stay involved in these blogs because I am so tired of failing and starting over.
I like that you are looking for ways to redirect that mischievousness instead of wishing it away! Drinking does suck al the creative ideas out of us and we forget all other ways to celebrate, have fun, relax, etc and think the only way to do an of those things is with a drink. It simply isn’t true! You can get into (positive) mischief so many other ways – practical jokes, whimsical writing, spreading joy, and entertaining your naughty side in better ways (I’ll leave that up to you). Best of luck with your sobriety adventure! It doesn’t have to be boring at all! Keep us posted.
Thank you for the insight.
The following quote from your blog really resonates with me: “I am not sure that I believe “everything happens for a reason” but I do accept that “everything happens with potential.”
I used to say everything happens for a reason, but can no longer reconcile that with things like my friend’s breast cancer, and the recent sexual assault that my daughter experienced.
“Everything happens with potential”. YES, YES, YES.
Carrie (38 days sober)
Every time I read one of your posts, I am more convinced we are cut from the same cloth. This post is inspiring Jean and I hope your readers who are new to sobriety or who haven’t embraced letting go of all the extra activities in their lives will hear your words and use them to make their own changes. As a fellow perfectionist and alcoholic, I too filled up my schedule with countless activities, boards, volunteer activities- anything to keep myself busy. I celebrated 7 months of sobriety last week and I made a commitment when I got sober 7 months ago to myself that I would start taking things off my plate that didn’t give me great joy. That was a tough decision because I’ve always believed that being busy=success. But success to whom? Who is judging that success? When I realized I was ultimately focused on trying to make others believe I was a rock star instead of looking for joy from within myself, I decided something needed to change. Life is completely different when you stop trying to capture every award, magazine cover and newspaper article. I’m so happy to hear you have found a new peace and joy in leaving space in your day. Amazing what a little space does for the soul.
Everything happens with potential. I really like this. I’m a mom to two young kids (5,10) have a high pressure job, and am recovering from cancer. I’m just developing a sense of really being good to myself. I now see my own happiness as a top priority and that feeding my happiness really nurtures those around me. I’m also just beginning to learn to feed my happiness with healthy things. I like walks and time alone and tea and baths and conversations. Who knows what else I like? I’m just learning. I’m just beginning. I am willing to change.
Today is my 49 th day of sobriety. Still not easy.
A to Z
Anger opens the mouth and shuts the eyes
Bad habits are hard to eradicate
Corrupt speech is suggestive of a corrupt mind
Depend not on fortune but on conduct
Example has more influence than authority
Frankness is the sign of a noble mind
Good offices are the cement of society
He who cannot make sport should mar none
Indolence is the mother of misery
Kind hearts are more than coronets
Little things disclose a person’s character
Make a slow answer to a hasty question
Never let leisure pass by in vain
Old reckonings breed new disputes
Perseverance plucks success from despair
Quality should be preferred to quantity
Rule the appetite and temper the tongue
Slander is the revenge of a coward
The purest treasure is a spotless reputation
Use soft words and hard arguments
Value true friends at their true worth
Wine has done more drowning than the sea
Youth should always give way to age
Zeal without knowledge is fire without light.
What a beautiful story. I am a bit different, I am not a perfectionist (just get the job done), very low self esteem, what confidence? Any ideas?
I think perfectionism and low self esteem stem from the same place. We are trying to not draw attention to ourselves. We are either hiding behind shiny achievements or hiding period.
I really think treating ourselves kindly and compassionately solves both of these. We nurture the parts of us that need it. We try to enjoy our lives.
We recognize that inside each of us is a light that is just waiting to be noticed. You have that light. Just like I do.
Brene brown has an excellent book called the gift of imperfection. It’s a guide to finding self acceptance and love. It’s worth reading.
It sounds corny, but every night before bed remind yourself you are worthy and valuable. Eventually your heart will believe it.
Have you ever heard of a “frustrated perfectionist”? That is someone believes that if you can’t do it perfectly, why bother doing it at all; someone who expects to be criticized and avoids it by doing nothing. I also agree with ainsobriety’s comment below – 100%. Check out the book “Feeling Good” and also “The Gifts of Imperfection”, and let me know what you learn about yourself! I’d love to learn with you!
This is wonderful. I need to study this at length after the demands of the day have fallen away and I am left to my own devices. I think you’re one of my new heroes.
Aw shucks, Greg – I must have just said what you were already thinking, that’s all. Process this info and let me know your take on it.
“Now that I am learning to live myself, I can tolerate just about anything.” Love this line Jean. Thank you 🙂 xx
I have never believed that “everything happens for a reason”. Sometimes, I think, sh*t just happens. But I really love that phrase, “everything happens with potential”. Such a positive way to look at life, and an excellent way to remember that what I want isn’t always what I need. The path might be different from the one I was looking for, but that doesn’t mean that it is worse, or wrong, or make me a failure. Thanks for your post 🙂 xx
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In the end, no one is going to list our achievements on out tombstones. But, like you, I chased success, achievement, recognition and praise for years. And drowned out the internal fears of criticism and disapproval with wine.
Stepping back to reconsider what is actually supporting me has been eye opening. I love cooking, reading, yoga. I’m content at home. I like my job. I am comfortable with my partial schedule, preferring the life heavy balance it provides. Measuring my personal worth through my work success is no longer necessary.
These are my realities of recovery. The more I nourish my soul, the more I like myself. And the more I like myself, the less I need external validation.
My recovery journey is to unconditional self acceptance. And with it freedom, joy and peace.
I love your story too, if you read my comment I would appreciate any help
You have no idea how this has helped me today. Here I am, right now, at my computer juggling work, the programs I run, and how many volunteer hours I can put in at Hospice AND the hospital. Then your notification pops up. I stop and read it….AHA moment… I wanted approval. I WANT approval for all my accomplishments. I want to fel worthy. If I stay busy, I can avoid the “inside” work. Today, I am going to sit and reflect on what really gives me pleasure. What really fills my soul with happiness? Can I make my volunteer work better for me? Today I will work on the “inside” stuff. Thank you so much. ❤❤❤❤❤❤
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