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No Matter What

We returned from our vacation to a difficult reality: my husband’s father has entered into the final stages of a terminal illness. He won’t be with us much longer, and it hasn’t seemed right to post all the happy photos from our trip while our family is so heavy with sadness. 

We drove through a hailstorm to visit him on Sunday. My new car took a beating – cracked windshield and hail damage to the body – but it was worth it to see him, to be where we needed to be and where we were needed.  A car is nothing. Family is everything. 

I returned home last night and tried to go through the motions of normal life today. 

I was shampooing carpets at one of our rentals when the machine made a strange noise and began to spew smoke. With the receipt for this new machine in my wallet, I decided to load it all into my car and return it to the store. Backing up, something didn’t seem right. I stopped and ran around the car. Apparently, I’d  only set the box of parts behind my car, not IN it, and backed over the damn thing. The good news, however, is that I was able to return it anyway. 

A phone call came in on my cell. My mom’s condo building was on fire. She made it out safely and was staying with a friend a few blocks away.  I drove by, so much destruction. Her unit was untouched by there is no doubt smoke damage to her belongings. No one was hurt, that’s all that matters. 

On the way home I picked up a stir fry for supper. It flipped over inside the bag and the contents came out of  the container. Teriyaki chicken and rice smoosh. 

My car is damaged but I am safe. 

My mom is displaced from her home but it’s only temporary. 

My carpet shampooer blew up and then I drove over it but the store still gave me a refund. 

My dinner dumped all over the bag but I poured it on a plate and ate it anyway. 

Is this fucking day over yet?

No, it’s not. It’s messy and it sucks but it’s life and I’m living it. 

My heart feels like it’s going to drop into my feet with dread and grief. I don’t want my sweet, funny father-in-law to go. I don’t want to think about the world without him in it. And at the same time I wish him a gentle end. 

We can do hard things. It would sure be nice if we didn’t have to do it all at once, though. 

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Six Years

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.

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Chairing the Committee of Voices in Our Heads

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?

Anxiety or Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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