Category Archives: Marriage and Alcohol 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”.
On Valentines Day 2011, I rushed to the local drug store on my way home from work to purchase a hasty but heartfelt gift for my husband. I chose a few items from the dwindling inventory and stood in line with the other last-minute romantics.
I glanced back at the growing line behind me and spotted a familiar handsome blonde fellow: my better half. Our eyes met and we burst out laughing.
“What are you getting up there?” he asked over the curious folks between us.
“What are YOU getting?” I replied.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!”
Now the whole line was laughing along with us.
We stepped to the side and looked over the impersonal gifts we’d selected for each other.
“It really is the thought that counts,” one of us wisely concluded. “We don’t need any of this stuff. This was already the best part of the day.”
We put everything back and went home chuckling.
I had forgotten all about that incident but since I wrote about it on Facebook, it cane up this morning as a “Memory” update.
I read it aloud to my husband while we sipped our morning coffee together. He’d forgotten it also and we both laughed all over again as if hearing it for the first time.
Growing old isn’t so bad, especially together.
Happy Valentines Day.
Like many busy moms, my wine habit began with a glass of wine to help me fall asleep at night. It helped smooth the edges off the one part of my day I dreaded: laying in bed, alone with my thoughts. I have written about this in several other posts, and spoken of it often on The Bubble Hour podcast.
Stillness was my enemy, because old memories would jab my brain until shame and regret became an unending loop. Eyes open or closed, I couldn’t look away: a teacher embarrassing me in elementary, the terrible way I sometimes treated my friends in high school. Inexplicable moments of scattered promiscuity, cruelty, apathy, or weakness. Shitty mom moments of being short tempered with my kids. Instances of insensitivity towards employees because I was overwhelmed myself. I never knew what old gem would come floating back if I laid my head on the pillow but it hardly mattered. They all affected me the same way – bringing tears and eventually long silent sobs into my pillow that I hoped my husband wouldn’t hear.
I drank to skip that. I drank to fall asleep the moment BEFORE my head hit the pillow, to avoid the torture of looking inward. I’d been raised to pray before I slept, to take a quiet moment to reflect and give thanks or ask for help to do better. Over time this morphed into self-loathing, until I no longer felt worthy of involving God in the conversation. The more I drank to avoid my inner landscape, the more I had to hate about myself. It was a vicious circle.
Navigating these thought patterns was daunting without a numbing agent, but I had no choice once I left alcohol behind. I’ve talked myself through it, revisited my old rItaly of prayer, and when all else fails I just allow myself to cry.
Thanks to a friend, I’ve learned a new technique that is proving to be the most effective tool yet for banishing those ruminating thoughts.
Memories, it turns out, are neither all that reliable nor accurate. Every time we yank one out of long-term storage, it is momentarily vulnerable to change. Plastic, if you will. So if we retrieve it in a moment of sadness or self-loathing, it will be affected by that perspective and highlighted or tweaked to conform. Likewise, it can also be altered in a more positive way.
My friend shared that her therapist had been helping her rewrite a traumatic memory from her childhood by imagining what characters she needed there with her in that moment – a protector, a nurturer, a companion. She learned to pause the story and bring in those characters, to change the outcome into a happier ending. If it’s all in her head anyway, what’s the difference? If she was remembering an inherently inaccurate version anyway that was painful, why not invent a better, safer version?
This is the basis of memory modification, and here’s how I’ve adapted it for myself. Now if I find myself fixating on an old memory that’s painful, I pause it like a photograph. Then I step into the memory as I am today, taking the form of my highest self – the nurturer, the grandmother, the mom, the wiser, kinder me. I step forward into the thought and face the old me in the memory, coming between she and the other person in the frame (and there’s always another person involved, it seems). I wrap a favourite blanket around the younger me’s shoulders, and I pull her close in a warm, strong hug. In that instant, I can feel in my chest everything that I had been needing in that moment (assurance, affection, acceptance, love, forgiveness) and I am able to transfer that very thing from me to her. I tell her she is safe, that everything will be okay.
Then I take her out of that moment and tuck her into the passenger seat of my car, still wrapped in the blanket. I drive her through Starbucks and buy her anything she wants, and we head for the mountains – then me and now me like the closet of friends. It’s a beautiful drive. She feels calm and safe in my presence. We arrive at our cabin, the stuning mountain home she doesn’t know she will one day own, and I usher her inside. There at a large dining table are three handsome young men playing a board game, laughing together. These are your sons. A blonde, fun-looking grandpa with two little boys. This is your husband and grandchildren. Three radiant young women: your daughters in law.
This is your family. This is your future. All this happiness awaits you. You are safe here. Stay and play.
Its amazing how this process deflates the negativity out of old memories. If the thought returns, I can say, It’s okay, she’s safe at the cabin having fun with the people who love her. She found what she was looking for. If a new memory surfaces, I know what to do: blanket, hug, Starbucks, cabin, future family. It works every time.
I’m not a therapist, I don’t pretend to be, but I hope my version of memory modification sparks your curiosity – especially if you are haunted by your past. Think of it like a photograph, one you keep pulling out to reexamine. It’s time to take a felt marker and draw a moustache, a bluebird, a rainbow. It’s time to stop carrying that photo in your wallet and cut it into a snowflake.
You are that powerful, that creative….that free to change.
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.
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.
“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.
Heads turn when our bright orange 1973 VW camper van passes by. People smile, kids wave, hipsters nod approval. I don’t need to smile back because I’m already grinning as soon as the engine starts.
I call the camper van my time machine. It’s retro AM radio and clunky controls take me back to being a kid in the 70s when a dashboard was eye level (at least on those occasions I was lucky enough to ride in the front seat). My husband and I keep the windows (cranked) down when we drive because it’s hot as blazes in there, and the breeze whips my hair as I gaze at the passing landscape. How is it that same view looks so different with the window rolled down? I feel like I am part of the scenery instead of a moving observer. I reach my hand out the window and let the air bob it up and down, something my mother never allowed. I hear the echo of a scolding voice in my head but I decide nothing will tear my arm off, as I was once led to believe. I feel free and happy and unfettered.
We bought this sweet old van to celebrate our 25th anniversary this summer and retraced our honeymoon route through the Rocky Mountains. Back then, a camping trip in my parents’ motorhome was all we could afford and we hoped someday we would be able to travel in luxury. Now we can afford to travel as we wish, and this humble classic is what we choose.
In my early posts, I feared I would no longer be any fun or have any fun on vacations. I feared life would be dull and I would be a wet rag who dragged down the spirits of those around me. I wrote this on my 7th day of recovery:
My husband and I have had many wonderful adventures together and the mental postcards I’ve collected all include a beverage: Wiki Wackers on Catalina Island, Margaritas by the Riverwalk in San Antonio, PinaColadas on the beach in Dominican Republic, wine at an outdoor café on the promenade in Santa Monica. As we plan and save for our retirement, we dream of vineyard tours in Italy and having a pint in an Irish pub.
Would I have any fun without alcohol? Would I BE any fun? Would my husband dread the rest of our lives together, saddled with a tea-tottling ninny for a wife?
Let me tell you something. Buying this van was MY idea and retracing our honeymoon was an amazing adventure. We laughed, talked, hiked, made out, roasted hotdogs, and genuinely enjoyed ourselves.
It isn’t that life is really all that different without alcohol. It is that I have changed. I am able to feel my joy in my bones; a deep peaceful resonance. I am able to relax, to be unhurried. When I drank wine, it was to speed up the process of unwinding and I was never successful at drinking my way to the good feelings that I find myself experiencing regularly in recovery.
It has taken time to get here. For the first year or more I wrestled with feeling awkward and self-conscious as a non-drinker. Then I started to get some results from addressing the underlying issues and became ravenously introspective. And recently this peace emerged, maybe some of the old hippie vibes from my van rubbed off on me.
Do I have any fun without alcohol? Can I BE any fun? Does my husband dread the rest of our lives together? Look at the smiles in this picture, and you tell me.
It can be a deflating experience: building up the courage to tell a close friend about the decision to part ways with alcohol, only hear “That’s ridiculous. Don’t be so dramatic.”
Here are some of the more awkward things people have said to me personally:
“Great! Now we’ll always have a designated driver!”
“You can have a drink now and then. It’s not like you’re a raging alcoholic like my brother.”
“It’s okay with me if you don’t drink, but you probably shouldn’t go telling people that.”
“If you were able to just quit, you probably weren’t an alcoholic.”
“I don’t really know if I believe in that.”
Have you seen this too-true video Frankie Norstad a.k.a “Little Miss Addict” made for YouTube called “Sh#t Normies Say to 12 Steppers”?
Anna David wrote a great article for The Fix about how to answer such clunkers. You can read it here: http://www.thefix.com/content/shit-non-addicts-say91717
What’s really behind these questions? What are our friends really trying to say? Why are their words so hurtful?
In early recovery, we are sensitive. We worry so much about what others think, and are coming to terms with our inability to control that very thing. Words do hurt, but compassion lessens the sting.
Here are some common douche-y things normies say and the insights to help you be less affected by them:
Normies say: “Are you going to stop coming out with us now?”
We hear: “You’re ruining our fun.”
It likely meant: “We still want to spend time with you. What’s the best way to do that?”
Normies say: “Did I do something to make this happen?”
We hear: “Your recovery is about me.”
It likely meant: “I would never knowingly hurt you” (or…”I feel guilty for something I’ve done.”)
Normies say: “Do I have to quit drinking around you?”
We hear: “I don’t want to be with you now.”
It likely meant: “I am not ready to face my own issues around alcohol.”
Normies say: “What are we supposed to do after baseball now?”
We hear: “I only want to be your friend if I can drink with you.”
It likely meant: “Is this going to change our relationship? I like things the way they are.”
Normies say: “It’s no big deal. I don’t care if you’re drinking or not.”
We hear: “Don’t expect me to do anything differently to accommodate you.”
It likely meant: “I’m acting nonchalant to show you that I’m supportive.”
Normies say: “My cousin was in rehab and it made him worse. Stay away from recovery programs.”
We hear: “All alcoholics are the same. I know more about this than you do.”
It likely meant: “I don’t know what to say so I’m relating the only thing I know about recovery.”
Of course, while friends can say stupid things there is also the possibility that this person is, in fact, an asshat. How do we tell the difference between friends and asshats? By forgiving the occasional awkward comment while paying attention to actions. Friends will treat us with respect, enjoy finding new ways to connect and grow the relationship in situations that don’t involve alcohol. They will show interest in our wellness, and they will buffer us in social situations.
Asshats and douchbags will reveal themselves through selfishness, disrespect, and a willingness to endanger our sobriety. Allowing ourselves to remove these types from our lives is an important act of self care.
There’s no need for a dramatic blow up. No “friends off” speech required. Just know that we’ve shown them a better way to be, and that for now the friendship has run its course.
After more than two years of life without wine, my mind is less focused on constantly monitoring what’s in my glass and instead I notice how I react to various situations and why.
When things are ticking along and all is well, I am a happy girl. Give me a clean house, sunshine, a manageable schedule and a great pair of shoes, and I am my cheerful bubby self.
However it doesn’t take much to knock me off course. I am easily hurt or quickly rattled, and although I press on it isn’t easy.
“You kids pipe down,” my grandmother used to bark at my cousins and me. “My nerves are bad today.”
I never understood what the heck she was talking about – she was just sitting there crocheting, how stressed could she really be? But we all knew it meant stay out of her way or you’d end up getting scolded harshly for some minor offense.
Now, as I am getting upset because my day isn’t going as planned or because people are letting me down, I understand how she must have felt.
Anxiety is woven through so much of my being that I have mistaken it for a personality trait. It fuels my perfectionism (fear of criticism). It feeds my drive (fear of failure). Sadly, at times Anxiety parented my kids, ran my business, pushed me on stage, and even decorated my Christmas tree.
As time went on and I relied more and more on wine to slow me down, I hit some kind of equilibrium between the tension and release – but that was only temporary equilibrium. Soon it was wobbling and the thing that was supposed to ease my anxiety was adding to it.
Now, without my old buddy alcohol, I’ve simply had to learn better ways to deal with anxiety.
It starts with calling myself out. “I am feeling anxious right now because (insert minor crisis here).”
(Here are some of the most recent ones: dog barf on sofa; bangs that are wayyy too short; the guinea pigs my son brought home from college for the summer; same son announcing he is not going back to college in the fall.)
Truth be told, I am one wound up chick and I get shit done. Getting shit done is important, but so is not killing yourself with a wacked out sense of balance. Staying sober is about finding new ways of self-care, and taking off a little pressure so that the need for comfort is not a constant demand.
Recently I stumbled on a Psychology Today article that completely captured what happens in my head. “The Problem With Perfection” by Mel Schwartz explores the motivation behind perfectionism – namely, fear of criticism. This article NAILED me, once again blowing my theory that I am SOOOOO unique and special. Turns out, I am just a normal, predictable human who got herself into a normal, predictable pattern of addiction by living out the normal, predictable outcome of certain childhood experiences.
Here is the excellent article – go and have a read but please come back and share your thoughts on the subject: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shift-mind/201105/the-problem-perfection
And here are some of the things I do to shift gears when I feel my anxiety rising:
- Sudoku – the really hard ones that require serious concentration
- “3,2,1” – focus on 3 different sights; then listen and identify 2 sounds; and then feel 1 sensation (right now: 3 sights – the flowers outside the window, my dog’s cute little brown nose, the grain of the wood floor… 2 sounds – the hum of my laptop, the tv announcer being very excited….1 sensation – my own cold toes against my leg)
- Get outside and move – the sky is big and my problems are relatively small
- Fill an online shopping cart with ridiculous choices and then DO NOT BUY ANY OF IT!
- Brush my teeth. And floss.
- Grab my guitar and try to learn a new song
- Pull up a TED Talk and learn something new
Essentially, engage the body and/or brain in something that is either consuming or pleasantly distracting. Get out of the moment until the feeling subsides, and once the emotion passes take some time to assess things objectively. This is my strategy. What’s working for you?
My husband and I were high school sweethearts.
I know. Barf.
A funny story from our early dating years comes back to me now as one worth sharing. At the time, it was just an embarrassing incident but now I see it as having greater significance as a true “life lesson”.
At the time, we both lived with our parents in cities some 5 hours apart. I would often drive up for a weekend and sleep on the lumpy hide-a-bed in his parents’ basement. It takes some getting used to life in other households, especially when you want desperately to fit in and win everyone’s approval so they will endorse your candidacy for future spouse.
Now you must understand that my (then future) husband’s family were and are warm and gracious hosts who welcomed me in every way. His mother is an amazing cook who serves beautiful dinners every night and always had home made desert afterward. There was just one teeny problem: their stoic devotion to not eating after supper. Like, ever.
It is pretty common for teenage girls to be self-conscious about eating in front of a boyfriend and it’s likely I was shy about taking that second or third helping I would have certainly eaten back at home. And moreover my family is famous for the enjoyment of a bedtime snack – a bowl of cereal or a slice of pie left from dinner is as much a part of preparing for bed as brushing the teeth and saying good night.
So not only was I eating less than I’d have liked at supper, but also I was dearly missing that bedtime snack and sorely in need of it. It was more than just shyness that kept me from saying I was hungry, though. It was shame.
Shame that I lacked their discipline. Shame that I was weak. Shame that I had failed to be honest at supper and eat what I needed. I was hungry and I was ashamed.
One restless night, I laid on that sofa bed in the basement and waited for the house to fall quiet (all but for the gurgling of my stomach). When I was sure everyone was asleep, I tiptoed up to that kitchen as quiet as a mouse and stood in the dark kitchen in my white flannel nightgown. I couldn’t open the fridge – they might hear it or notice the flash of light. But I remembered that the bread was always tucked out of sight behind a recipe stand and I reached behind it. Slowly, quietly, I took a piece of bread from a bag and stood nibbling it in the dark.
It was rye bread, a little dry and in need of some butter but I ate it anyway and felt better. I crept back down to the basement and was finally able to sleep.
The next morning, I came upstairs and joined the family in the kitchen where Sunday brunch preparations were already underway. Juice, fruit, bacon, eggs, pancakes with whipped cream – these people know how to eat a good breakfast! I quickly volunteered to make the toast, worried that if anyone else reached for the bread they might notice that the bag had been moved or a slice was missing (As if! Who on earth knows how many slices of bread are left in the loaf? But a guilty conscious make such things seem possible).
I moved the recipe stand to get the bread and gasped. There were two loaves of bread there. One fresh white load of bread…and one not-so-fresh, very green and moldy loaf of rye bread.
“Eeeek!” I shrieked. “It’s moldy!”
My stomach started flopping and tears began welling in my eyes. I realized to my horror that I stood in that kitchen hours before and eaten a slice of that rotten, disgusting bread.
Of course, my future mother-in-law had no way of knowing this – all she saw was a silly girl over-reacting to seeing a little mold. “Well, throw it out and toast the fresh bread,” she said in her practical, no-nonsense way.
I started to laugh. I ‘fessed up through tears and giggles: “I ate that. I snuck upstairs and ate a piece of bread in the dark and it was the moldy loaf.”
29 years later, I can still feel the anguish and relief of that moment. I had to get real with these people, and thank God I did. Because as much as they value discipline and self-control, they value honesty and a good laugh even more.
The moral of the story here is that shame causes us to hide and in doing so, we fool even ourselves into thinking we have found satisfaction in things that would utterly disgust us by the light of day.
We filled the glass before it was empty so we could say it was still “just one”. We bought wine by the box so even we couldn’t see how much was gone each night. We pulled the damn bag out of that box and squeezed each last drop into the glass, hoping no one would see our desperation. Shame made us hide. Shame made us lie. Shame burdened us and caused us to keep drinking because the truth was just too embarrassing to face.
And now, those of us lucky enough to be standing in the light of truth – having pushed past shame as some life-preserving instinct told us we must “STOP!” – we can see those moments with all the disgust and amazement as my young self holding that bag of rotten bread.
The truth is hard to accept, but it’s a darn sight better than fumbling shamefully through the darkness.