Category Archives: Insights for Supporters
It seemed easier to talk about sobriety and grief than write about it so I recorded this episode of The Bubble Hour, including insightful comments and messages from readers of this blog. Heartfelt thanks to all who have commented about your own experiences with grief and alcohol – good or bad. I have learned so much from you and taken strength from your honesty and kindness.
We pretty much all go through this eventually and we can all learn so much from one another.
Please have a listen.
It’s always fun to look back over the analytics for my site and see what posts have been popular and which ones slide by unnoticed.
A post I wrote three years ago continues to be the most-read, and a cool graphic I made last year gets pinned and repinned on Pinterest constantly, making it a common visit as well. Meanwhile, some of my personal favourites – ones that were so raw and honest my hand shook as I hit “post” – are far from viral. I am sure every writer has those darling pieces that seemed certain to change the world but received little response.
#1 Top Post: How I Knew It Was Time to Quit Drinking This post is read and shared on my site more than any other, perhaps because it answers a desperate question that Google is constantly being asked: how do I know when to quit? Even more interesting than the post itself are the 1000+ (!) comments and interactions that follow.
#2 Top Post: Up and Down the Empathy Spectrum I wrote this to work out my
understanding of emotional intelligence, sometimes called EQ to show it as a balancing factor to IQ. In doing so, I made a graphic to show the difference between apathy, co-dependence, narcissism, and empathy which turned out quite nicely if I do say so myself. Someone kindly shared it to Pinterest and it has made the rounds there, which was a happy surprise when I was searching for hairstyles and new recipes one day and saw my own graphic float by!
#3 Top Post: Is Non-Alcoholic Beer a Safe Option for Alcoholics? This is a contentious question and I have taken some major slams for my opinion but hey, I get it: Some people protect their sobriety ferociously because it is life or death. I wrote this over two years ago and got several “you’re gonna relapse!” messages as a result, but as you can see I am still going strong despite the occasional non-alcoholic beer. Check it out and consider where you stand on this issue.
If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t post it. But….looking back I sometimes cringe at my obvious denial or shortsightedness in some posts. It is tempting to go back and edit out those parts, or at least provide a sidebar to explain my evolution of perspective, but I’ve decided to let them stand as written to document my overall of growth and change.
The ones I’ve highlighted below were especially insightful as I wrote them and sparked some great exchanges in the comments sections.
Are You A Recovery Hero? My English degree comes in handy occasionally, like trying to sort out my life according to narrative tools like the hero’s journey.
Don’t Give Up I felt sick to my stomach after posting this utterly vulnerable truth bomb but willing to lay it all out there in hopes of helping someone. It did help others, it still does. And it still scares me a little.
The Drama Triangle I love this tool, love it. Understanding the Karpman Drama Triangle changed my life. Check it out and see how you can apply this powerful insight to address patterns of behaviour you fall into yourself.
This morning my guest appearance on the “Your Kickass Life” podcast with Andrea Owen was released and one of the topics discussed was managing life with a “normie” (aka a normal drinker).
I get asked about this a lot. In fact, just this morning in the comments section as a matter of fact. Tracy wrote:
I have contemplated my drinking over the past 16 months and have tried to cut back. My issue is not drinking ever when your spouse drinks! It is a truly huge trigger for me and I feel like a kill joy when everyone wants to go to happy hour and I am looking for alternative drinks and I get soooo bored sitting there after a bit. How do you handle spouse drinking when I want to quit?
Let me start by saying that there are a lot of variables in every relationship, and my experience is limited to my own marriage to someone who drinks “normally” (society views “normal drinking” as that which is asymptomatic of addiction – ironic when you consider alcohol is an addictive substance). Additionally, our relationship is stable and relatively uncomplicated. So when we had to face my decision to quit drinking, there weren’t a lot of compounding issues. My husband was supportive of my decision.
Here are some of the ways that I manage those times when we are out socially in situations that involve alcohol:
- First things first: I ask myself if I really want to go. Do I need to be there? Want to be there? Will it be a safe environment for me? Am I likely to enjoy myself or will I just be tolerating it? It is totally okay to pass on things you really don’t want to attend. I promise.
- Then I make a plan: Is there a way to make it work better for me? Should I take my own car so I can leave if I feel uncomfortable (I did this A LOT in early recovery. I made sure to discuss options before we left with my husband: “Are you willing to take a cab home alone if I decide to leave early and you want to stay? Could you walk home or get a ride with a friend?” Because we had discussed it ahead of time, it was easier for me to slip away knowing he had my back and that there would be no conflict about it later.)
- Go prepared: if it is a house party, I bring my own drinks as well as a hostess gift. I make sure my glass is always topped up with my alcohol-free drinks, which limits the amount of attention other people pay to what I am drinking. When people are offering you drinks, they’re usually just trying to be good hosts. Your empty glass is their cue to pour, so make it easier on everyone by keeping your own glass topped up. Even if you don’t want more to drink – especially if you don’t want more – set a full glass in front of yourself. If anyone offers point to it and say, “I’m good here, thanks!”
- I allow my husband to be my knight in shining armour, protecting me and my sobriety. At events with a bar, he will go and speak directly to the bartender to ask for a non-alcoholic drink for me and then watch the preparation to ensure there are no mix-ups. It is so sweet when he hands me a drink and whispers, “It’s tonic and lemon, I watched them pour to be sure.” Be still my beating heart!
- One thing that really helps me is to build some “treats” into the evening, even if that means driving through DQ for a sundae on the way home as a reward for staying sober. It is hard to watch other people have treat after treat in the form of a drink while you are sitting there stirring your Shirley Temple. Order some damn chicken wings, you deserve them! Get up and dance, go work the room, take your phone to the bathroom and read sober blogs. Try not to feel like you are missing out, instead give yourself a different experience than others are having.
As I understand it, existing problems in a relationship can be highlighted when one partner seeks sobriety. Sometimes a spouse will undermine their partner’s recovery because they feel threatened by it – perhaps because they have gotten comfortable with the role of victim, villain, or hero that they’ve cast themselves into in relation to the other person’s drinking. Perhaps because it makes them feel uneasy about their own drinking. Perhaps because one or both were drinking to cope with unhappiness in the relationship. Counselling can be very helpful, at least for yourself if your partner won’t participate.
Please share your experiences. Was your spouse helpful? What made you feel supported and what didn’t? What are your best tips for socialising?
My interview on Your Kick Ass Life is here.
My last post may have left you with the impression that I had a good cry one afternoon and then everything felt better. That was not the case.
I did feel better for an hour or two, but then the tears would return unexpectedly and with intensity. A familiar tightening of my chest and throat emerged and remained for days; something I used to call “stress” because I was ashamed to say “anxiety”. These symptoms persisted but I knew what to do…
…I knew what to do because of this community’s raw, honest comments about their own experiences, such as the following from an anonymous reader to whom I express sincere gratitude:
Jean….please make sure you call your therapist and please make time for therapy to cope with this difficult time.
My dad passed away in February of this year after a long and courageous battle from Parkinson’s…
How I wish I had asked for help. I hit the bottle HARD to cope and it did not work. I drank because trying to remain present in the moment caring for a parent with Parkinson’s was just too damn hard for me at times and while I couldn’t change the situation I wanted an escape. Alcohol numbed the feelings because I felt emotionally trapped with nowhere to go.
You’re going to have a real challenge on your hands because this next journey is painful and all about having to respond constantly to the unexpected and being in crisis mode – you will not be in control. This alone is a major threat to sobriety and will be a cause for relapse. (Anonymous)
…I knew what to do because other bloggers like Anne of “A in Sobriety”, who has written so openly about her approach to mental health, work to shrivel the stigma and shame around asking for help.
…I knew what to do because nearly 50 years of “pressing on” and “being strong” when I’ve felt this way in the past caused me to embrace coping strategies that were ultimately harmful and self-defeating. I won’t make those mistakes again.
…I knew what to do, so I saw my therapist and my doctor and I told the truth: I am struggling. I have chest pain and throat cramps and I cry constantly. They helped me to see that my body was telling a truth that I could not mentally register: I am grieving a parent who is not yet gone. I am ashamed of my sadness because it feels like I am wishing him dead, and yet I am dreading the indignities of witnessing my father further succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease.
He is literally half the size he once was. He needs help to stand or walk, and gentle coaching to find his way down the hall or perform simple tasks. He speaks in a jumbled whisper as his face and throat muscles have atrophied. This is my father and yet it is not, so the time I spend with him each week keeps the heartache fresh even as I grieve the loss of the man I knew.
In the past I would have drank to quiet these feeling and numb the pain. Now I understand that drinking would have made things worse, creating an illusion of comfort that would silently accelerate anxiety and stall true healing.
I have made slow progress these past weeks, patiently tending my routine responsibilities while waiting for the effects of my medical care and talk therapy to loosen the knots. Also I embraced the self-care I so frequently suggest to others and went for a massage, got a fresh cut and colour, went to yoga classes, switched my coffee to half-caff, and spoke honestly to my family and friends about my situation. On my doctor’s advice, I booked a week on the beach (choosing, of course, my favourite getaway: a She Recovers retreat in Mexico that miraculously had a last-minute cancellation).
My emotions are better regulated and my chest pain is dialed down by half.
Last night came a true test of my progress, serving as emcee at my niece’s wedding. Weddings are notorious triggers for people in recovery, and as the official host for the evening I could not rely on old standbys like slipping out the back door when things got uncomfortable.
Hosting hundreds of Bubble Hour interviews prepared me well for staying comfortably professional in front of a microphone while feeling deeply vulnerable and human and flawed. I focussed on my affection for my niece, the happiness of the day, and the script I prepared in an extra-large font for easy reading. I was in my element, in my body, and in the moment. I gave service by way of warmly hosting the proceedings, and felt grateful for the ability to do so.
My father was seated right before me as I spoke. He is no longer able to smile his big grin or laugh from his belly, but he seemed to quietly enjoy the festivities from behind his hazy gaze.
Now as I reflect on that scene – me at the mic and him in the audience – I realize that I did not look to him for approval: he has none left to offer or withhold.
Maybe that is part of my grief too, knowing that something I spent my life striving for is officially off the table. The notion brings me sadness and relief. I allow myself to feel them both fully and move on.
I was about to post the following quote on the UnPickled Facebook page but stopped short for fear of backlash:
I love this saying and I use it all the time when I am talking to people who are struggling, but it can sound like a cop-out to someone who doesn’t understand addiction.
Addiction comes from using, so how can it not be the addict’s fault? If someone chooses to use, shouldn’t they accept the blame for what comes next?
Well that’s the thing, you see, it’s not necessarily a choice to keep using.
Casual drinkers experience alcohol in a way that is social and fun, but they have the ability to stop drinking. They can take it or leave it. It’s a treat, and they know not to over-do on treats. From a casual drinkers perspective it can appear that people who drink too much are choosing the pleasant treat too frequently and need to use more self-control.
If you scroll through the 6000+ comments on the pages of this blog (holy shit!), you will find virtually no one who says, “I should quit drinking but I am just having so much fun.”
Addiction is not fun. Addiction is not a life anyone wants.
Addiction means drinking (or using) to feel normal. Addiction means that without the substance, withdrawals start in the form of pain, anxiety or obsessive thoughts or more obvious symptoms like shaking or sweating.
The thing to blame for addiction is the fact that alcohol is addictive and yet people are expected to use it without consequence. We know not to start smoking if we don’t want to get addicted. We know that drinking coffee every morning will get us hooked on caffeine. Addiction is the normal course of action for using addictive substances. To drink or use drugs WITHOUT becoming addicted is abnormal.
Why why why why do we expect alcohol to be anything other than it is?
The other tricky thing about addiction is that it creeps in slowly and alters self-perception, so it can take a long time to become aware it has developed. Even then, so much shame and stigma exists around addiction that the first reaction can be denial out of self-preservation.
To be fair, it should also be said that people in the throes of addiction can be mighty assholes who defend indefensible behaviour by blaming others. How painful and frustrating it can be for those living with an addict who appears to be having a great time at their expense while taking zero responsibility. How infuriating it must be to see a quote saying “addiction is not your fault…” when you see the same pattern repeating again and again. Fair enough, that is hard, but please understand: addiction isn’t anyone’s fault.
Forget fault. Forget blame, shame, and guilt.
Addiction is a reality, and realities must be dealt with. Trade blame for acceptance and responsibility. Yes, this falls squarely on the shoulders of the addict, who can only assume responsibility by accepting the reality of their own addiction.
Blame lives in the past, hope lies in the future, but recovery happens in each present moment where acceptance and responsibility are found.
A reader posted an interesting question on About UnPickled that I wanted to address here so that more of you might add your feedback. Here is the original comment from sunandsand52:
I wonder if you have ever addressed those feelings that overwhelm so many when they desire to stop drinking. ..the feelings of, “Well, I may quit but I have been in this abuse pattern for so long that I most certainly have caused irreparable damage, so what’s the point?”
How did you handle these thoughts? How did you overcome this and other excuses to continue to drink?
The question contains a kind of blind spot we develop in active addiction, which is selective awareness: acknowledging that damage may exist but using it to justify continuation of the behaviour. This thinking also requires the denial that addiction tends to get increasingly worse; there is nothing static about it. So as the addictive mind is telling itself, “I’ve already done the damage so I might as well just keep hanging out at this level,” the reality is in fact that the damage will increase, the behaviour will progress, and problems will mount.
Problematic drinking does not often self-resolve or even remain at the same level for long. Tolerance increases until the body stops metabolizing alcohol, and then the proverbial shit hits the fan for most people. People at this advanced stage of addiction find that their response to alcohol is completely unpredictable – one drink could cause a black out. Additionally, heavy drinking impairs the digestion system so the effects of malnutrition appear as mental confusion, emotional instability, loss of appetite and sleep disturbances. Withdrawal symptoms present themselves if there is a break in alcohol intake. At this stage, a person feels terrible and ironically believes the only relief comes from the originating problem itself: alcohol.
Essentially, it is wishful thinking that the drinking habits (and the associated damage) can just continue at the same level unchecked. SOMETHING will tip the scales – it might be an emotional or physical crisis requiring hospitalization, social repercussions such as family or work-related consequences, or even criminal charges like a DUI or public drunkenness that force the necessary changes. In truly tragic circumstances, alcohol will cause injury or death – either to the drinker or to others in their wake.
So what’s the harm in continuing to drink if some harm has already been done? Plenty.
A better question might be, what’s the harm in living without alcohol? What is there to regret? Who could be hurt? Much of the physical damage can be repaired with abstinence and certainly the social/emotional damage can be much better healed in the absence of alcohol.
My hope for everyone who is drinking problematically is that they might find the willingness to quit before some dire consequence makes the choice for them. My wish is that the hurt, pain and damage that alcohol causes to families affected by addiction could be cut to the quick, and that no one would ever get behind the wheel of a car, tractor, semi truck or bulldozer while drinking. My dream is that we could be as aware of the health hazards of drinking as we are of second-hand smoke, UV rays, asbestos, and old sushi.
It is so confusing to onlookers why the drinker keeps drinking. They cannot possibly understand how addiction scrambles the messages from the body and brain so that alcohol looks like the solution rather than the problem; how a mom who is about to drive her kids to school would drink vodka to stop shaking, actually believing it will make her a safer driver. You can’t even call that a rationalization – it is pure delusion and that’s how addiction keeps itself alive.
I am thankful every single day that I got off the merry-go-round before I got to this point, but it could have happened if I had continued – it was only a matter of time and continued drinking. For me, that knowledge alone was enough – I didn’t want to get to the terrible places that alcohol was leading towards. I had a flashing moment of clarity in which the truth of my trajectory hit me, and it shook me to the core. That was what I needed, and I am grateful.
I could be flippant and say, “If awareness is not enough for you, keep drinking and let the problems build until you get uncomfortable enough to quit.” I hate to say that, though, because of all the innocent people whom that strategy endangers.
All I can do is tell you the truth and hope it is enough: my life is better without alcohol. It is easier, safer, happier and healthier. I do not regret a single day of not drinking; I’ve never gone to bed and wished I drank that day. I feel better about myself. I am more honest and authentic and just a better Jean all around.
I wish the same for everyone, whatever the burden: Lay it down, free yourself. Spare yourself and others the potential pain ahead by believing there is a better way. Know you are worth the effort. Know there is help, and you are not alone.
Know it is possible; know that we do recover.
Yesterday I spoke to a reader who has been struggling to hang onto her sobriety. She is able to go alcohol-free for weeks at a time but then drinks for reasons she doesn’t understand. Each time it happens she can feel herself make the decision to drink again, but doesn’t know why she does it.
“I am a strong person,” she said. “I have always been strong and can handle anything. Why can’t I get this?”
Here is what I have learned about being a strong person: it’s easy to fool ourselves. We mistakenly think we are being strong when we don’t get upset, don’t let things bother us, and then press on despite discomfort. “Suck it up” we tell ourselves, and then somehow we find a way to keep going.That looks like strength on the outside, but in truth it is denial. True strength is dealing with these things, not stuffing them down and refusing to acknowledge how we really feel.
When we deny reality for the sake of appearing strong, we are destroying ourselves from within. We live with some niggling discomfort we can’t name (refusing to address the real cause), and so look for relief in some acceptable form. This is how it started for me – a glass of wine before bed worked so well at first. It relaxed me, comforted, and brought on sleep. I kicked ass in the world all day, then came home and kicked off my heels and enjoyed a lovely glass of wine – a perfectly reasonable strategy. A glass of wine a day is even said to be healthy so no need for concern.
But over the years….
One glass a night became two or three or more and the wine glasses got larger and the bottles became boxes. I couldn’t quit, or even cut back. Each morning I vowed to quit, but by mid day I’d found a reason why it was important to still drink that day: if something good happened I needed to celebrate, if something bad happened I needed comforting, and if nothing at all happened I drank out of boredom.
I felt the same bewilderment as my friend: I am so strong. Why can’t I stop drinking?
Two reasons: because the illusion of strength I’d cultivated depended on a release valve, and because the addictive nature of alcohol caused it to become the one and only release I wanted. I was caught in a vicious cycle that was camouflaged (and perpetuated) by the outward appearance of achievement and strength.
It is easy to think that life is perfect except for the black mark of the addictive element, and if we can just get rid of the wine (or drugs or roulette or shopping or Chigaco-style popcorn – whatever is being stuffed into the void) then everything will be finally, fully perfect. That’s it, that’s all.
So we quit drinking, or try to quit drinking, but then things go sideways because we no longer have any release valve – the wine goggles destroyed the ability to recognize other pleasures. “What was I thinking? Things aren’t better without alcohol! They’re WORSE! I might as well drink because this sobriety nonsense is screwing up everything.”
First, it helps to recognize that our old ways of doing things were probably not as effective as we thought, or else they wouldn’t have led us to seek ongoing relief. The idea of what strength really is must be revisited and revised. Strength is grounded in honesty, in saying “no” to the things that aren’t serving us well and dealing with painful issues instead of sweeping them under a rug. This is the work of recovery (changing for the better), which takes us past mere sobriety (abstinence from the addictive substance or behaviour). It is possible to get through life without constant discomfort.
The crucial role of self-care then, is to not only nurture ourselves through these changes but most importantly to teach ourselves how to enjoy all of the pleasures that our addiction overshadowed. A walk in the sunshine, a massage or pedicure, a cup of coffee. It is important to plan activities or pleasant actions throughout the day and especially during the “witching hour”, so when cravings for alcohol come we can recognize them as a longing for comfort and offer an alternative. The most difficult part is that in early recovery, we don’t necessarily feel like doing much and little else is appealing. Do it anyway. Try lots of different things and little by little those discoveries will come. The herbal tea I once sneered at has become an indispensable part of my evening routine. The yoga I assumed was stupid is now my favourite way to unwind. Connecting with friends is about conversation, tears or laughter, and not just an excuse to drink. I can even sit still and do nothing, which I avoided before because that’s when all the hurts I had buried in the name of strength would surface and pester.
Be open to approaching things differently and you’ll learn to avoid unnecessary discomfort. Practice self-care and you’ll find new ways to console yourself when needed (and to celebrate the good things, too).
Undo, redo. Unlearn, retrain. Understand, rethink.
Un Un Un. Re Re Re.
This is what recovery is all about.
What are your favourite means of comfort and self-care? How has that changed throughout the course of your recovery?
“I can’t quit drinking this weekend. It’s the July long weekend and there’s a zillion parties.”
“I’ve got a few weeks of sobriety but I am scared I’ll relapse on the long weekend. There’s alcohol everywhere.”
“I have a friend who aways gets way too drunk and I am scared to invite him to my party” or “I don’t know if it’s okay to invite a sober friend to an event that has alcohol”
There are 3 main readers of this blog: people who are in recovery, people who are considering recovery, and those “supportive normies” who don’t have an alcohol problem but care about someone who does.
Whichever category you fall into, I encourage you to declare today, July 4th, your own personal “independence day”.
If you are in recovery but feel triggered by the holiday weekend….(here in Canada we celebrate our nation’s birthday on July 1st, which fell on Wednesday this year – wah wah, always a bummer when it’s mid week – so I’m borrowing America’s day, which has a better name for my purpose in this post anyway)…Backyard parties, hot weather, fireworks…Okay sober warriors, let’s get you through the weekend festivities. Here’s what works for me: 1) plan ahead 2) stay motivated 3)gather support.
Plan ahead by packing your own little cooler with things you enjoy. In my drinking days, this was simple: wine. Once I quit drinking, I thought this meant if I would normally drink 8 glasses of wine I needed to pack 8 non-alcoholic drinks. The funny thing is, you probably won’t want 8 non-alcoholic drinks in a single afternoon. One or two will suffice, maybe some extra water if it’s hot. However, you will want a number of pleasant little diversions because you will still miss the 8 glasses of wine somehow. So tuck in a few little nice things to treat yourself with when the pangs hit: a mini lotion to massage into your hands, a cheese string, eye drops, a KinderSurprise egg (sorry Americans!), a little book of poems to read in the bathroom – you get the idea.
Stay motivated by remembering all the reasons you got sober in the first place. Write your future self a note and bring it with you everywhere you go. I encourage people to do this in the morning when they are feeling strong and clear. Sometimes it feels like we are completely different people by 4 pm and opening that note can bring back the resolve from earlier in the day. Make a little photo album (on your phone or an old-timey real one) of things that matter to you – people and images that represent the reasons you want to stay alcohol-free. It might be something that reminds you of a future goal (a beach, a classy looking grey-hair couple climbing mountains, a yoga position), or a little face that warms your heart (human or animal). Go on etsy and order a personalized piece of jewelry (did you know you can have a bracelet stamped on the inside with a secret message no one can see? Maybe your sobriety date or a phrase that’s meaningful to you). Anything that acts as a positive reminder that being sober is awesome, recovery is leadership, and you are doing a wonderful thing by freeing yourself from addiction. Strong and proud. Declare this your own personal independence day. Own it, it’s yours.
Gather support and take it with you. Comment here and ask for encouragement. Take your phone with you and check back for messages. Twitter is excellent for following sober people who give one another encouragement. Start with @unpickledblog and @thebubblehour – we love to cheer on others! Search for recovery apps. Join a message board or recovery forum. That smart phone is more powerful than a bottle opener. And never underestimate the power of telling a friend or two that you are living alcohol free and would like their support. Think about whom to enlist – maybe not a drinking buddy, but someone who is understanding, trustworthy and supportive. I have a friend who always keeps weird non-alcoholic stuff in her fridge for me to try. It usually awful but it is so sweet of her. She says it is fun to shop for me when she is getting party supplies, and her efforts make me feel more accountable and cared-for. Even when you feel alone in a crowd, I guarantee that someone in that room would be glad to help you out by engaging you in conversation, getting you an n/a drink, or rescuing you from an annoying drunk.
If you are struggling with alcohol and feel that this weekend’s festivities give you a free pass to keep drinking, here is a loving little kick in the butt. There is always an excuse around the corner – your sister’s wedding, your vacation, your birthday. When all else fails, Friday night rolls around every 7 days and well, don’t you deserve a drink on Friday? We all did it. It’s a pattern. Become aware of it and break the cycle. I can’t think of a more appropriate day to get sober than July 4th. Independence (From Alcohol) Day.
And for you wonderful “supportive normies” who read this blog because you know and love someone affected by addiction…Of course you have already learned a few things you can do by reading the sections above intended for the people whom you support. That’s your nature – to pay attention and try to figure out how to help. That is a wonderful quality and we love you for it. Thank you for your caring nature and big heart. However…I also remind you to claim some independence for yourself today. Remember that on top of all the things you can do to help someone who is in recovery (or wants to be), you cannot change them. Their recovery is not your responsibility. Their choices are not your fault and are not a reflection of your worthiness.