Category Archives: Reflections on 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.
I did it, I survived six weeks in a leg cast.
“You’re done,” said the specialist. “Go home and throw away the air cast. Enjoy. Any questions?”
“Can I ski?”
“Didn’t you break your leg skiing…? Anyway, no. Anything that could cause an uncontrolled fall should be avoided. 12 weeks minimum. Take the rest of the season off.”
Okay, fine. There’s still plenty of activities to enjoy – yoga, snow shoes, Costco….
I went home and quickly discovered Problem #1: we moved into our new house a few days earlier and some boxes had yet to be brought from the old place. The only shoe I had was the one shoe on my good foot when we moved. So back into the car with my aircast to reunite with my beloved footwear collection.
What to wear first…? Wait, my choices would be limited by the snowy conditions. So then, which boots to wear first? Black, definitely the black boots. Maybe the red. Or the tan.
I burst through the door and tore off the air cast, sitting on the step to pull on my go-to black boots.
Cue record scratch. Hello, Problem #2.
My newly freed foot is still so swollen and sore that it wouldn’t go into the boot. Not even maybe. No amount of butter, prayers, or stubbornness could get my Fred Flintsone foot into the lady boot of my choice. I then began working my way through the closet, realizing to my disappointment that the only shoe to fit was a leather high top, the mate to the one shoe I had worn on moving day. Le sigh.
Furthermore, I now walk like a zombie. My leg is squooshy and the ankle is tender. It turns out that a lower leg break is generally preceded by a bad sprain – a limb twisted bad enough to snap the bone is going to have a lot of soft tissue damage, which is slower to heal than the bone itself. So yoga and snow shoes and shopping will have to wait.
I’d looked forward to February 9th as THE day, the cast would come off and rainbows would shine and crowds would part as I sashayed through on two feet, but what I got was….pfffft.
I’ve spent the past two days drawing analogies between all this and recovery, shaping a blog post to capture the lesson but…more pffft. I’m sick of myself. I’m sick of my thoughts, I’m tired of the voices in my head. I’ve spent way too much time there lately and I just. can’t. even. anymore.
I’d rather hear what YOU think. What lesson do you see in this moment? What analogy can you draw between this scenario and recovery?
Please comment with your insight, I’d love to hear it.
Meanwhile I’ll get back to drawing the alphabet in the air with my toes, which is supposed to help bring my leg back to life, pausing only to read your comments and give thanks.
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.
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.
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:
This is for anyone who is struggling today….
These are the stairs in my house:
We can do hard things.
Whatever you’re up against, be patient. Be in the moment and do what needs to get done. Every day is a little different. Nothing stays the same, so step by step just keep doing the next right thing until you’ve moved past it.
You’ve got this.
(Written from my bed…at the top of the stairs.)
While I am not a mental health professional, it feels like I’ve spent as much on therapy as a psychologist spends on education. To stretch the value for dollar, I like to tell others about some of the great strategies and lessons I’ve learned from my therapist – kind of like buying an album and making cassette copies for your friends. And truthfully, I am often so excited by how helpful the process is that I want to share it with others.
Sobriety is about not drinking, but recovery is about changing ourselves from within so that we can enjoy life without constantly feeling the need to numb out. I got sober on my own, but I am recovering with a lot of help.
Recently my therapist did some work with me around “Internal Family Systems”, which is a process developed in the 1990s by Richard Schwartz. It is an evidence-based practice that considers all the ways an individual can fragment into different parts of the self (think about how are you in different situations, how distinct aspects of yourself are more to the forefront at work, with family, in tense situations, at play, and so on).
First, my counsellor assigned me some homework: to list out all of the distinct part of myself. I filled an entire page! Even though I had never given much thought to them, I could quickly give names to distinct roles: The Critic, The Child, The Bad Me, The Entertainer, The Teacher, The Boss, The Mother and several more. The page filled so quickly that I re-wrote it in a new format, with my own notes of whether the parts were “good” or “bad”.
When we went through the list in session, the first thing I learned is that none of these aspects should be seen as bad. All of these parts emerge for a reason, to do a job. Maybe “The Bad Me” had done bad things, but her purpose was to protect and comfort me using any means necessary. When I feel scared, I might act in some immature ways, because The Child is the only part of me who is allowed to cry. The thing to understand is that it can be helpful to have all these aspects of ourselves, but they should be managed by what Schwartz calls the Self (I like to think of it as my Highest Self).
The Entertainer in me can charm a crowd and work the room because I created that part to overcome some natural shyness that wanted to hide in a corner. When I made the list, I identified this part as half bad because it feels fake when I am in The Entertainer role. Now I understand that it is not bad or fake, it is a useful tool. The key is to choose when to use a part and not be led by them, especially in extreme ways. It is good to have a little cry and allow myself to feel like The Child, as long as I don’t throw a tantrum in the grocery store. It’s fine to be The Entertainer in some settings, as long as it is by choice and appropriate.
We can think of that addictive voice in our head the same way, as a part that emerged out of a situation and is trying to be useful. It truly believes that alcohol is necessary for our survival and works hard to convince us that drinking would be the correct response to a situation. I have learned that the goal is to spend the majority of our time the High Self role, to call on our parts if necessary and to relieve them of their duties if they emerge unexpectedly and want to run wild.
A good example of this would be the old patterns we can fall into with our family of origin. Funny how we can find ourselves behaving in ways around our parents and siblings that are so different from how we conduct ourselves as adults in the world. We slip into those darn old parts without even realising it, until we hear ourselves whinging or arguing or feeling wounded and wonder “What the hell just happened here? How do these people push my buttons so easily?” It isn’t them pushing our buttons, it is us following some well-worn neurological pathways, like emotional muscle-memory. The part can be trance-like.
My therapist suggested when I feel myself being a part, I should pause to consider if that role is necessary under the circumstance or if I am just following an old habit. When I am in the closet changing my clothes for the 8th time because nothing seems like the right thing, I can pause and say, “Hey Critic, thanks for showing up. I know you are worried about me going to that event today so you are trying to trying to be helpful by telling me everything I put on looks terrible. I have this under control so I need you to be quiet now. I promise I will take good care of myself so you don’t have to worry.”
Other internal conversations for me sound like this: “Hi Martyr, you are getting very upset about how other people are treating me. I appreciate you are feeling threatened but I am going to be protecting my boundaries so you don’t have to. Thanks, I am taking over now.”
“I am talking so much right now and sitting up straighter than normal, I am in my Entertainer part. That feels okay for now, seems like the right thing to be.”
“I can’t stop thinking about drinking today, my Addicted part is on high alert looking for ways to comfort me today. What is really bothering me? Hey Addict, I know you want me to feel better right now so I am going to take over and book myself a massage. How does that sound?”
The goal is to spend the majority of our lives in our Highest Self, and take charge of the parts as manageable tools.
I hope this explanation does justice to the theory. It is my layman’s perspective of a process that has been very insights and helpful to my recovery.
Mull it over and give some thought to your parts. How would it feel to be in charge of them all instead of a step behind? Does the prospect comfort or frighten you?