Well friends, we are 8 days into the New Year and by now some of us have already blown our resolutions. Last week on The Bubble Hour, I publicly vowed to stop using the F word and I confess that one slipped out the other day. No one else was present to hear it and I was totally justified in using it (having burnt the pizza I was making for supper), but nevertheless I swore I wouldn’t swear and I still swore. I am back on the F-less train and optimistic about my chances of staying on board.
Today I am reaching out to anyone who woke up January 1st saying “never again” to alcohol, only to find themselves back in its grip within days. Don’t give up. Don’t think you have to wait until next year to try again. Don’t even wait until after the weekend party, the big conference, that upcoming wedding or the vacation you have planned. There will always be something on the calendar to justify drinking, but you can make a change today and persevere through anything life throws at you. It is hard at first, but eventually we get to a place where parties, conferences, wedding, and vacations are MORE enjoyable because we are sober.
Does that sound impossible? I thought so too at first. I worried that I would never have any fun or be any fun. I thought no one would want to be around me, and that would probably be fine because I didn’t want to be around others either. I thought everyone would notice I wasn’t drinking, and I would be ostracized. I thought I would be in constant misery watching the wine go by.
The first few weeks of recovery are pretty tender, it’s true. There’s the physical discomfort of alcohol withdrawals, the mental wrestling with a brain that has been programmed to only recognize one form of comfort, the social awkwardness of handling invitations and obligations while feeling incredibly vulnerable, and the emotional pain of grieving the loss of something so dearly loved. That is a lot to handle all at once.
Little by little, these layers of discomfort fall away. Our bodies start to mend. We go for coffee or breakfast with a friend and realize there are other ways to socialize. We order an iced tea with dinner and no one notices. We feel our grief, cry and sleep our way through it and in time is lessens, as grief does. The most resonate aspect of recovery is the mental one, in my experience. We spent a long time training our brains to recognize alcohol as a reward and over time our pleasure-reward circuitry became hard-wired to demand this substance it perceived as essential.
We have also spent a lifetime investing in beliefs about the world and ourselves that may have ultimately contributed to the need for comfort we found in alcohol. If you asked me about my life 4 years ago (as evidenced in my early posts), I would tell you I was a hard-working, high achieving individual who loved everything about my life except for one little thing: I needed to stop drinking. I would tell you proudly that I was a perfectionist with high expectations for the people around me. I saw that as a good thing.
There are also many things I would not have told you about myself (mostly because I refused to acknowledge the existence of these things): I often awoke at night and wept over my failures and shortcomings. I felt unworthy of my success, my spouse, even my children’s love. I wouldn’t tell you that my hands shook with fear as I stood before an audience to give a speech or perform music, that I saw myself as an ugly person who hid it well with good hair and makeup, or that I felt I had to earn love because otherwise I simply didn’t deserve it. I wouldn’t tell you that I had binged and purged through my university years and as a young mom – no one knew about that. I wouldn’t tell you that I got really good at keeping secrets when I was 9 – the summer another kid molested me and I went along with it because I wanted that kid to like me (clearly I was “bad” from a young age). I could not have told you about my ongoing anxiety because I called it “stress” – anxiety was for weak people, strong people get stress.
And then there was this weird thing I’d always done in private – picking and tearing at hidden areas of my scalp. If I was very “stressed” (certainly not anxious, right?) in a meeting or social setting I would raise one finger and rub behind my left ear, but that was as much as I permitted myself in public. At home, that rubbing would turn to scratching and tearing. I never understood why I did it – it was embarrassing and gross. I was always worried about having dandruff on my shoulders – we must be perfect! – but I could not stop myself from this behaviour. Oh, but never mind about that, because I wouldn’t have told you anyway.
My life was perfect and I just needed to quit drinking so that it would be FULLY perfect and I wouldn’t have secrets (except the late night crying, self-loathing, self-harm which were just normal and had to be tolerated because that was just “me”).
This is hard for me to write. This is hard for me to imagine others reading. But this needs to be said because I believe it will help someone.
After I quit drinking, other people in recovery encouraged me to reflect on my anger, resentments and expectations of myself and others. They told me that these things had fueled my addiction. This was intriguing to me, so I started considering these ideas. Many new truths came to light.
Perfectionism is not a good thing, as it turns out. I worried too much what others thought of me, I felt unworthy, I dreaded judgment, so I strove for perfection as a way to pre-empt these things. All of this is rooted in anxiety – and once I stopped pretending it was stress and acknowledged the truth of what I was experiencing I could start finding ways to cope better. It was humbling, but I had to admit it – I have crippling anxiety.
I also found out that my embarrassing, gross skin-picking habit is a form of OCD called “Dermatillomania” – very common among those of us with anxiety disorders. It can be based in unexpressed anger, which we turn towards ourselves because we fear that others will reject us if we displease them by showing anger. Dermatillomania is mainly treated with behavioural therapy, and I have found that simply keeping my nails done at the salon with an acrylic or gel coating makes them too thick to do damage and has greatly reduced my behaviours. That said, I removed my fake nails last week for a few days and immediately found myself right back at it. I headed straight in for a full set and order was restored. There is lots of information online about the condition – just search the name and see what you learn.
Therapy was another thing I considered “weak” and I moved a long way through my recovery by simply reading, communicating with others (online and on this blog), listening to podcasts, and reflecting quietly on everything I learned. But after about two years I felt like I was stuck and kept encountering the same negative patterns with some people in my life. I still had a lot of anger and pain. A friend suggested therapy and suddenly I realized that I had held it as a “shame identity” – something for the weak and stupid and self-indulgent. By this time, I had come to see that all of my old ways of thinking were what led me into addiction and I was open to change. Talking to a professional moved me forward like a slingshot because I was so eager to find whatI needed to do differently.
So here I am, and I offer my story as a message of hope to anyone who is struggling, hiding, crying alone, and wondering where recovery will take them. Quitting drinking is only the beginning, and soon you will start to see many other parts of life improve – things you may be refusing to acknowledge or scared to change. Things you tolerate because you think that’s “just how it is” may not be true at all. Shame you feel can be lifted. You can be free in so many ways. I wish this for you.
I am not perfect, but I am getting better. I enjoy my life so much more now. I am present for it, and I do not constantly feel the need to get numb. By ignoring all the things that hurt and shamed me, I was tolerating the pain they caused – it was like a constant background noise. Now that I am dealing with them, their power is diminished.
If you are wavering in your resolve to get sober in 2015, please hang in there. You are not alone – there are many of us on this pathway with you to light the way and encourage you along. You may feel that you are just signing up for a boring life without alcohol, but I promise you that there is MORE joy, MORE freedom, and MORE opportunity ahead. Don’t give up. It gets easier, it reaches further, and it will bring you to a version of yourself that is stronger and more real than you ever thought possible.
Finally, I encourage you to seek out other sober people. Be it a recovery program like AA, SMART Recovery, Life Ring, Celebrate Recovery, Women for Sobriety, or talking to someone you may know who is in recovery. Consider treatment – you don’t have to be a hot mess to go to treatment; it’s just another way to kickstart recovery. I got sober on my own, many do. It is possible. However, there is something magical about talking to another person that will add a whole other dimension to your journey. Start by commenting here, and see how great it feels when someone responds. Real-life support is exponentially greater, I promise.
Here’s to 2015, my friends. It is going to be effing great!