Category Archives: Long Term Recovery
This is the view from my kitchen sink, looking over our island banquette to a pasture of horses and ponies. Please join me for a coffee at my new kitchen table, which was custom made of salvaged lumber from the old Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee (no kidding!). The ceiling beams, too. I love this kitchen and this view. I am a designer and this is one of my final projects before we retire.
But wait. What is that field of mud between my fence and the pasture? What are those stakes in the ground?
Yes, I live in a new neighbourhood – the homebuilder’s curse. By summer there will be houses blocking our view, so I am enjoying the vista while I can.
Occasionally my husband and I speculate on what type of homes are most likely to go up before us – front loading garage, two story, hopefully not too tall so we can still see the mountains from our second floor. Then we stop ourselves, it’s beyond our control. This is our home, our neighbourhood. We will embrace what comes and make our own corner the very best it can be.
We have a plan for this. The wooden fence you see pictured is part of a courtyard that will have a carefully planted canopy of trees arranged on both sides, to offer privacy and to become our own view. While I will soon lose sight of distant horses, I’ll gain an arrangement of branches, leaves and blossoms closer by.
The Serenity Prayer applies to landscaping as much as recovery: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change those I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
So, too, does the old adage to “stay on your own side of the street”.
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.
On Monday I celebrated six years of life without alcohol. How is it that the days became years?
The past few months went from trying to taxing to gruelling. I kept my chin up after breaking my leg and spent January indoors. Meanwhile we were preparing to move to a new house, and I paced myself for the challenges of this transition. Being non-weight-bearing on crutches meant giving up a significant amount of my cherished control. Then, just before the move my dad was hospitalized and began a final month-long decline. He passed away earlier this month.
I got through it all, as we do. It so happens that a dear friend of mine went through an eerily parallel experience just a few weeks ahead of me – a cast and crutches, the death of a parent – and she seemed so strong and capable. I resist comparing my insides to her outsides, instead following her lead for getting things done and moving forward.
My leg is slowly healing, my heart is mending, but my mind is dull. I feel kicked and drained. I have nothing left to give at this moment, I need time to fill up again.
I will be back with more podcasts and posts, but I need some time. I read your comments and messages, and they make me smile. I feel behind on responding, but I try not to pressure myself too much. Expectations and resentments, and all that you know.
Six years sober, but these past few weeks were not so easy. It occurred to me on the night my dad died that I had good reason to drink, though I chose not to drink. Drinking dreams have returned, vivid and unsettling – a sign that something needs attention.
Six years of learning, lessons, tribe building, clarity and growth have come to this, prepared me for this. I will gather it all around me like a soft blanket and wrap up in the safety of my recovery to get me through and fill me up, until I have enough reserves to begin sharing and giving again.
Yesterday was a blur of appointments, waiting rooms, and long walkways – an exhausting combination in any condition. Everyone I encountered was friendly and professional, but it was a long day.
I was happy to have my fibreglass cast removed (oh, that poor bruised limb inside – was that mottled swollen mess really my foot? The one I knew so well? It looked like it belonged to someone else) and replaced with a boot contraption that can be removed to shower. It is a walking boot but I am not allowed to walk on it – I’m stuck with crutches for the next month and a boot the size of a VW hanging off my leg. But still…showering is good!
My hand is back in a splint and I’m being passed onto another specialist for possible surgery on the thumb (yes, this is yet another blog post tapped with my right thumb on my smartphone).
When my leg (or whomever’s leg that is down there) was being lifted from the shell of the old cast and laid into the new boot — which by the way looks disturbingly storm-trooperish– it was explained to me that I’d feel some pain as the soft tissue adjusted to changes in position, but not to worry because the bone itself was healing. It’s just that the muscles and tissues had been in the same position for two weeks inside the old cast and the slight change in the new one would cause pulling and tenderness as things settled into a more natural alignment.
Oh. My. God.
At first the pain felt good – the way a morning stretch or cracking the knuckles does. Within an hour or so my leg was achey,the aches became shooting pain, and by bedtime I knew it was going to be a long night.
I was distraught. Fuckity fuck, ability to shower or not, this boot was torture!
Today I’m 100% resting. No yoga stretches, no stairs, no going out. The pain wasn’t a setback, it was necessary in order to keep moving forward, and after a rest I’ll be back on track.
You just know there’s a recovery analogy here or I wouldn’t bother writing about it. A broken leg isn’t a fascinating topic on its own (to me) unless there’s something to be learned.
Here it comes:
Recovery can be painful at times, maybe even disappointing, but keep going. Something better is ahead. Settling into a new position can be uncomfortable and even scary.
Last night, knowing the pain was not a distress signal from the bone but rather other parts stretching and repairing helped make the discomfort more tolerable. It was temporary and beneficial – I just had to hang in there.
You will have hard days in sobriety. You’ll have emotional pain and no numbing agent, but you’ll get through. You’ll have awkward moments and no go-to solution, but you’ll manage. You’ll have moments to celebrate and feel flat.
It will happen. And then it will pass.
And you will be better off.
No time to write a post tonight as I was busy interviewing ELLIE as my guest on The Bubble Hour! The Hour flew by. Have a listen. I hope you enjoy it:
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.
Oh my goodness, July was a whirlwind of boxes, garbage bags, take out meals, and car rides!
We went to our niece’s wedding in Vegas, moved into a rental after selling our house with a lightening-quick possession, continued building our new home, and welcomed a new grandson into the world. On top of that, my parents just moved into assisted living so my sisters and I are tasked with helping to empty their old home of everything from sewing patterns to office files to endless doilies to memories.
I am not going to lie, there were many moments that I felt overwhelmed and weary. There were some quiet tears in my car and the bathroom stall at WalMart. Not sad tears, just exhausted ones. As if the thoughts I was too busy to think found a way out of my brain through my tear-ducts. I cried sorting the shoes and purses in my mom’s closet, oh dear Lord I am suddenly crying AGAIN NOW remembering it.
Sidebar: I have just had the realization that my mother’s closet holds such emotion for me because I used to hide there as a little girl and fantasize about the woman I might grow up to be as I touched each scarf, bead and fringe. I felt so close to the childhood version of myself this month as I returned to that place – a different closet with decades-different shoes but the same smell of roses and soap. We women define ourselves through our mothers, whether by contrast or copy. My tears that day were because I saw how I drove myself in so many ways to be the woman I wished my mother was – one that’s more assertive and domineering – and to be the mother I wish I’d had (more protective and informed). I became overwhelmingly aware that by forever trying to better her I have failed to fully appreciate her for who she is, and this will need to be a new focus of direction in the years ahead.
Emotions and self-reflection continue to be one of the harder parts of life after alcohol for me – no numbing or checking out. I didn’t exactly feel triggered, but I had that heightened awareness: “It would be nice to not feel this right now.” I did yoga, ate things I shouldn’t, cleaned things that didn’t need cleaning, and walked the dog. Best of all, I’d visit our kids and grandkids and just soak their sweet presence into my soul. (I have grandkids! Plural! What else could even matter in this world?)
The first time I heard the acronym ‘H.A.L.T.” I cringed – I hate to see complex things reduced to mere acronyms – but there is so much truth to the notion that Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired are four of the biggest triggers. I have spent most of the past month perpetually feeling all four simultaneously. Ironically, when I feel uncomfortable I’d rather work harder than take the break that I actually need. My go-to numbing is frenzy. Whirling dervish. I feel safe when I’m in constant motion, no one can hit me with a dart of criticism – even now that I *know better* I still subconsciously hustle to avoid some imagined critic.
Here are the good things that happened this month:
1 – Recording Bubble Hour interviews has been a balm to my soul. An hour once a week to get lost in someone else’s story and connect and share.
2 – Visitors – This is crazy! One of the kind strangers who encouraged me via Twitter when I first got sober emailed (5 years later) to say his family would be vacationing in this area and that we should meet up. Oklahoma and Alberta are 1600 miles apart – I never imagined we would ever meet in person. I had the pleasure of thanking this kind man and meeting his family and sharing lunch and looking into the eyes of someone who literally cheered me through those first few scary days. What a gift.
3 – Enjoying new spaces. Here is my new (temporary) home office, where I am writing this right now:
4 – My new neighbourhood, where I walk my dog 3x a day:
Gratitude is getting me through and helping to turn a rough month into a good month, and keeping me on the sober path along the way.
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?”