Monthly Archives: December 2015
Are you feeling introspective and withdrawn as New Year’s approaches?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.”