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.