Anxiety or Imagination

My work as a designer and home builder requires me to spend a great deal of time in my head, translating lines on a blue print into visions of colour and space. I am always working months into the future, which means I hover over the “date” section when filling any given form because I must pause to consider which month it is presently – I live that far into the future.

Designers don’t just walk into a shop and order tile, cabinets, finishes and fixtures on the basis of simply coordinating colours; we have project all the selections into a mental image that moves from room to room conceptualizing corners, ceilings, logistics, building code and finally, visual appeal.

My hyperactive imagination serves me well in my work; to me a floorplan is just as interesting as a novel. It is a thrilling experience to walk through a home we have built, seeing my thoughts come to life. I did that, I made that happen. I dreamed it and made it real.

Yet the same gifts that allow me to be creative have also caused me a lot of grief, since for much of my life I just observed my thoughts without applying any discipline to them. I was along for the ride to wherever my imagination took me, believing it was beyond my control. I so enjoyed the good things that my thoughts produced –  music, stories, homes, crafts, thoughtfulness and insight –  that I was willing to to tolerate the inherent negatives: dread, anxiety, fear, worry.

I can imagine criticism, shame, disaster, pain and harm with the same ease and clarity as a sunroom with shiplap walls and oversized lanterns. I believe that a big part of alcohol’s appeal to me was the quieting of my mind, the numbing of unwanted images and noise.

Once I stopped drinking, a new self-awareness began to emerge that invited me to take a more empowered approach with my thoughts. I could control them, pull apart the jumble to assess for validity or benefit. Imagination and anxiety both require a willingness to plunge into the unknown and look for shapes in the darkness. Recovery, for me, has largely involved identifying when I’m spinning out in anxious thoughts and experiencing emotions based on what *could* happen rather than what is *actually* happening.

Maybe for you the line that gives you trouble is something different. Maybe you struggle with the line between friendly vs flirtatious, or entertaining vs attention-seeking, or introverted vs isolated. The idea is to examine our tendencies and keep what serves us well, knowing that left unchecked our gifts can naturally slip into variations of harmful forms.

It’s easy to justify our character flaws when they masquerade as positive traits, and it takes courage to call ourselves on crossing the line. I used to think my thoughts weren’t hurting anyone, yet they have a funny way of creeping into tone and action, which over time becomes habit and character. If my thoughts made me anxious, and being anxious made me snappy, and being snappy made me defensive, and being defensive made me withdraw, well…I guess I was hurting those around me on a regular basis – so regular it maybe seemed normal. No wonder normal hurt.

I love that I am now free to challenge my own thinking in ways I never considered before. I love the simplicity of asking myself, “Is that true?” when a negative idea takes hold.

I’m so stressed out right now. (Is that true?)

These people are judging me. (Is that true?)

Everything needs to be perfect. (Is that true?)

I work harder than others. (Is that true?)

Hey! I have to work harder than others (not true), to make things perfect (not necessary), so that when others judge me (if they do, but they probably don’t)  they won’t find things to criticize (not necessarily true), so I am stressed out (by choice).

I wouldn’t trade my creativity for the world, so I have to learn to manage the anxiety it can produce. This is recovery, folks. This is what’s it’s all about. These changes of thought are just as important to staying sober and not drinking.

What are your gifts and what are their flipsides? What has sobriety and recovery taught you about being present and aware? What answers do you find when you ask, “Is that true?”



  1. I have reread this post multiple times as it definitely rings true for me. As a high-level executive assistant, my ability to manage numerous small and large projects with a long mental “to do” list serves me well, but it is also what can cause me great anxiety when I’m not at the office. I’ve been working with a harm reduction therapist regarding changing my drinking and one of the most important questions that I have answered is, “what is the drinking giving me?” The answer is extremely clear, it stops the chatter, the long list that starts when I wake up in the morning – things I need to do, haven’t done, should be doing to be worthy, lovable, etc. I am working to do the things that I know help – yoga, meditation, therapy, reading great fiction, and reaching out. For a long time, a glass or two of wine helped. I was in an extremely stressful job (which I finally recently left), very lonely (I’m now in my first healthy relationship), and wracked with my own personal blend of insecurity and doubt. Those glasses of wine served me for a while. Of course, as we all know, it shifts from being helpful to being a habit/problem because when we are floating off in the calm red wine ocean, we aren’t growing, aren’t challenging ourselves to go deep and ask the hard questions, to feel the hard feelings (that usually bring growth and new understandings). I truly believe in and understand the idea that to change your drinking, you must build a life that you do not want to escape from. And while changes in my outside life are all positive (leaving job, positive relationship), it’s my internal life that I need to continue to change – letting myself off of the hook, remaining compassionate and curious about what comes up for me, not letting my anxieties/ fears drive me. True self care. And with that I am heading to an afternoon yoga class, then to a Moderation Management meeting (where I am working to start a 30-day break from drinking), and then back home for a hot bath, tea, and a novel. Sending tons of compassion and support to everyone who is working on their own journey back to themselves. Thank you for this blog!

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  2. Interesting – one of my strengths that I fit very well the Jungean archetype of The Sage ( … now the fact I’ve just cut and paste a link to a useful little guide here is so typical of that archetype! I research, I seek knowledge etc etc – what then I struggle with is when I present well researched facts and figures and people “ignore” them since they simply said “Whatever. I don’t care about your facts I feel that I’ll still do x”. So it is strength, I am knowledgeable, people do turn to me for factual advice and knowledge but it’s weakness is that I expect people to use it when I provide it. They don’t!


  3. Thank you so much for this post, so very thought provoking and all so true. My partner must be having such a hard time since I’ve been AF. The wine voice !may be virtually unheard and ignored anyway, but the other voices still chatter on and on and if anything have become a right pain in the rear end at times now they’re not being numbed out. With the alcohol blinkers off I’m starting to see life for what it is and its not always what I thought it was but what it is was part of why I drank …. Does that make sense at all …. What I’m now realising is that what it is is something that is my creation and that it is only in sobriety and accepting responsibility for it will life ever have a chance of getting sorted …. Negative chatter leading to negative feeling which then become negative actions is not getting me anywhere.


  4. You have to acknowledge before you can review/dissect, resolve and accept. Are we always rational in our thinking? Nope, sober or not. Minimizing feelings is what got me into trouble, I now acknowledge regardless if I *think* I should be feeling this or that. I can say that since getting sober, I no longer carry baggage. I unloaded that bitch on my back, and refuse to carry her.That one thing as made a huge difference in my life and has effected every single relationship I have. No regrets, simple hurts heal instead of festering, saying what needs to be said without inflicting horrible wounds, sincerely apologizing instead of saying anything to cover up and make things go away….authenticity was the bane of my drinking existence, and is now the life blood of my sobriety.


  5. I could say “me too” in so much of your post, which is so comforting to know I’m not alone. I so much loved the magic of wine that quieted my inner critic and negative judge mental chatter that went on in my head about myself and others. The wine slowed me down mentally and my lens seemed happier and more positive. I’m learning to live in my thoughts, recognize the feeling and validate it then say to myself, that is just a feeling not necessarily a truth and it will pass. Giving myself permission, forgiveness and grace to feel whatever I am feeling without judgement but, the big aha realization through therapy is differentiating my feelings from truth. I really always thought that however I was feeling was grounds for making decisions. Now, trying to Not make decisions on how I feel. Still learning this. I am looking at it as a challenge to not numb away from my inner chatter. To talk back to it, talk it off the ledge of emotion turning towards truth. Not sure if any of that is making any sense. My creativity is who I am and recognizing the down side to the creative mind as just a part of the package and accepting it. Loving all of me, the broken parts too. It’s. A. Process! Thank you for taking the time to put yourself out there, sharing your heart and personal connections is very helpful to others.


  6. I believe that most of my panic attacks and anxiety are exacerbated by my drinking. I am only 3 days sober but had 17 years of sobriety before I relapsed About 10 years ago and am struggling to accept responsibility for my disease again


  7. Seems all my bad qualities are my good qualities gone 180. LOL When I was reading this post I was thinking of Byron Katie and her work. She changed so much of how I thought (and coach) with her ‘4-Questions’. Most everything I feel anxiety around is simply not true. I just need to go-to-my-mountain and breathe it out. Thanks for the reminder. ♥


  8. Jean…thank you for this. Reading your post I tried to answer your question about “gifts that have flipsides”. I do…For me, I’ve found success in being very good at analyzing a complex system, and understanding all of it’s moving interrelated parts with a clarity, then finding creative solutions that help repair the system, make it more efficient, troubleshoot it’s sick parts,etc to obtain a certain result or group of results. I often find solutions where there appeared to be none and it’s pretty gratifying professionally… It’s a great business skill to have. But taken out of context, and without human understanding, it can be plain awful to analytically pick apart the people around you in a less-professional, emotionally driven way. I’ve been learning to step back, and allow people room to discover things for themselves (instead of thinking…wow…if they’d only listen to me their lives would be perfect because I can see everything they are doing wrong). Wow that sounds really awful when I type it out.Gotta watch that for sure. I’m so glad I read your post today Jean.


  9. Having experienced anxiety and panic in my past, I never equated it to drinking. I went through a two year spell when I drove on the Interstate or Expressway, I would find myself feeling anxiety and panic. I was trying to address it around the time I quit drinking but the anxiety and panic seemed to disappear when I quit drinking, Maybe it was withdrawal from the previous nights drinking causing the anxiety? (Could it be true?)

    I’m not sure I ever posted on your blog but wanted to say thanks. I still have your “How I knew it was time to stop drinking” at the top of my page, one of the first resources I used. Is It True? (Yes it is)


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