“I’m not sure I really need to quit, I’m not that bad. I can’t stop drinking but I’m not that bad.”
I hear it all the time. I used to say the same about myself.
Today I got a new splint for my hand. This is the third splint in as many weeks, ordered by the specialist after multiple referrals and appointments. The ligaments are torn and I’ll have to wear this custom, hard-shell cast-like splint to bed, in the shower, 24/7 for at least another month. Longer than the cast on my broken leg!
Most people would agree that Skiiers Thumb is *not as bad* as a broken leg, yet the treatment for both is immobilization and protection.
I think we can say the same for addiction. You might not bad as bad as someone else, but never mind that.
Just do what you need to do to get better.
If only someone could find a way to translate all the blog posts I write in my head while I’m driving or cooking or doing books at the office. If only I could collect a ticker tape of my brain activity (dreams excluded, those are wacky) and cut and paste the best bits for this blog.
I had so many good ones in “the hopper” (which is what I call the mental centrifuge that filters obsessive thoughts into actual truth nuggets).
A few things I planned to write about this week:
– The way my throat clamps shut when I visit a church, and I cannot sing along with the hymns. Even in my son’s hipster congregation on where instead of a choir there’s a “worship team” with a drum kit and bass guitar and the songs are all catchy and upbeat. As a former singer/songwriter I feel strange standing in silence while those around me sing, but some old anxiety clamps on my throat and seals my lips. Instead I close my eyes and sing in my mind, and trust that God understands this little mystery even if I don’t. But then I feel guilty, because if everyone did the same the sanctuary would be silent…and then I wonder, “Wouldn’t God still hear choir, I mean worship team, of our hearts?”….
– That I realized only yesterday at I had confused Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” with 80s actress Terri Garr, who I’d assumed reinvented herself as a radio personality after retiring from acting. I was so impressed how her ditzy, perky blonde stereotype had been shed for the deep-voiced intellect on the radio. “She was a better actor than I thought!” To be fair, I am Canadian and our national NPR equivalent is CBC (tv and radio) and I only recently picked up NPR on satellite radio. The Garr/Gross mix up was the result of catching occasional promos, but minutes into listen an actual episode I was searching “Terry Gross photo” followed by “Phoebe’s mom on Friends” and laughing at my mistake.
– That I spent 4 days at the lake without a packing along a carefully planned array of non-alcoholic beverages for myself. This used to be a big deal – How many days? How many dinners, cocktail hours, card games and evening fires did I need to soothe myself through? This time around, all I worried about was morning coffee and bedtime tea. Seriously. What a shift.
– That we stayed in a theme room at West Edmonton Mall, and like the note above, booze did not even cross my mind. Wine and hotel rooms used to go hand in hand, and I made a point of packing bottles, corkscrew, and glasses in my drinky days because God forbid I might be stuck in a hotel room without my much needed wine. When I quit drinking, I needed to replace all that and you will see in some earlier posts how I kitted out my bag with all kinds of replacements.
– How sometimes it can be hard to be of service to people who are active addiction. I want to help everyone and not everyone wants to be helped, even when they have reached out to ask for help. It is a delicate dance. I am learning and doing my best.
– How I tired AVE (audio visual entrainment) and what a little trip that has been.
But damn, all of those posts wrote themselves in my head and I failed to capture them. Instead I am writing this recap in between appointments and hoping you can hop from dot to dot to build some kind of picture. What did it form? What do you see? A happy, sober lady living a full life? Or a scattered flibbertygibbet who needs to focus and schedule more writing time?
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.
Last weekend we went to a wedding in Las Vegas and I’ll admit I wondered how it would feel to be sober in THE party town.
Sparks were flying before we even left the airport, as one rowdy passenger was pulled aside at the gate and told he wouldn’t be served alcohol on the plane. Seated nearby once on board, we listened to him pleade and argue with the crew throughout the three-hour flight. Delightful! When we landed, he muttered “See you next Tuesday” to the flight attendant, which my husband informed me is code for the nasty C-word.
I had a small epiphany as we walked the strip after arriving: Vegas might be easier for me sober than it was before. I’d been there twice for conventions many years ago, before drinking became entirely problematic for me. I was there for business conventions and wasn’t interested in the other distractions. If I had visited the city during the time of my active addiction, I would have been very bothered by the public displays of drunkenness because I so cherished my hidden secret. I drank on my own terms, as a reward after working hard all day. Vegas offers no chance to maintain that front! There is no work to be rewarded, no pretence of anything but indulgence. I rejected that image, resented that idea. I drank in a private, regimented way that Vegas would have totally disrupted. I don’t think I could have enjoyed myself there in those days.
It was good to see our family at the wedding, the bride was stunning and the Elvis minister was charming. We had a lot of laughs, ate some very good food, spent a few hours shopping, and were soon on our way home again without ever even sitting at a slot machine.
Earlier in my sobriety, I was very dependent on a certain routine of morning coffee and bedtime tea that would have been difficult to replicate in Las Vegas because there wasn’t even a coffee maker in our hotel room (clearly the hospitality industry is hell bent on keeping visitors out where they can spend money!). I think the noise, crowds, stimulation, and general ick-factor would have spiked my anxiety and I would have been a mess. I doubt I would have drank but I might have taken Gravol to knock myself out, which in some ways is a relapse (pills to escape, even just Gravol!).
One of the great lessons of recovery for me has been withstanding discomfort. I did feel overwhelmed at times, and instead of letting the feelings rule me I breathed and waited. I did see people who were rowdy and loud, and I released the urge to judge. I saw people who made me sad – homeless people, young women who seemed exploited, and foreign workers handing out smut cards – and my heart went out to them.
The most lasting impression – aside from the gorgeous bride, our reason for being there – was a couple we sat behind on the flight home. There was tension between them, clearly. The wife was quite obviously hung over, a shroud of shame and pain clung to her shoulders. Her eyes looked dead in that way many of us in recovery know all too well – a mix of defeat and defiance. Her husband was silent before, during, and after the flight. He sheparded her through the crowds but walked a step ahead. He acknowledged when she spoke to him but his eyes were quiet steel. Jesus,what happened with these two? Whatever it was, the fallout was evident. My heart ached for them both, and I couldn’t help feel that their story was a long way from over.
Just as I wished a life of happiness or the bride and groom, I went home hoping happiness might find the cast of real-life characters whose faces wouldn’t leave my mind: the young man who was drunk at the airport, the homeless man who ran for his life throug the hotel lobby with a stolen sandwich in his hand, the young woman in a leather miniskirt and platform shoes with glazed eyes leaning heavily on an older man, that angry couple on the flight home.
I’d had just as much fun on Freemont Street with my Lime Perrier as everyone else with their booze, but my heart was glad to go home and get back to normal.
Recovery looks like two friends having coffee in the sunshine.
Here I am with Anne (ainsobriety.wordpress.com) as we hung out on my front steps after recording an episode of The Bubble Hour for y’all to enjoy.
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.
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?”
I am up to my eyeballs in life right now. Nothing bad, just a lot. Like a LOT, a lot, and all at once. And here’s what happens when the “to do” list is long: I eat poorly, I get stressy, my social life takes a dive bomb, and I don’t sleep well. In other words, I’m perpetually hungry/angry/lonely/tired – the dreaded ‘H.A.L.T.’ triggers that undermine recovery.
We are in that awesome/shitty situation of selling our house super fast and packing for a move before we even know where we are going next. Our new house is under construction so we need an interim rental before the end of the month. (But hey, our house sold so YAY!) At the same time, my parents are downsizing to a seniors’ lodge (more packing!), our son and his wife have baby #2 due in a few weeks, AND we are headed to Vegas for a wedding in the midst of it all. See – all good things, just a lot all at once.
I like a plan. I like my calendar to be orderly and concise and fully detailed. I like to know where to forward my internet and mail, and maybe where I’ll be waking up on any given day. I don’t think it is too much to ask from life, and I feel deprived in the absence of certainty right now.
Last week I drove two hours to Calgary to meet my friend Anne (ainsobriety.wordpress.com) for lunch. Hers is one of the thousands of families displaced by the Alberta forest fires; 90,000 people evacuated en masse through flames with little notice a month ago. We met another dear friend, Jan, who is also in recovery and in the midst of a stressful time with health concerns for her elderly parents. We sat for hours over lunch sharing our struggles and triumphs, marvelling at our respective abilities to deal with enormous amounts of tension and pressure. All of us used to drink heavily and regularly just to get through the everyday stuff, and now we are managing much heavier loads without any alcohol at all.
“They seem like overly simplified platitudes, but they really are true,” said Jan, referring to recovery slogans like one day at a time and just do the next right thing. Getting sober is a lesson in small victories; overcoming addiction requires the ability to stay in the moment and just work on the situation at hand, whatever’s before you, and not drink. It got each of us through those shaky early days; through cravings, discomfort, and moments of weakness. In our own ways, we have learned that our years of sobriety were built moment by moment of just doing the next right thing.
Recovery has taught us skills that are serving us well in life and getting us through difficult times. Bit by bit, we move through them. As Anne recounted her evacuation experiences, I was as entranced by both incredible drama of the tale and the amount of strength she has discovered within herself. We can do hard things.
The old me would have been miserable with this whole crazy packing-and-moving situation. I would have been cranky, panicked, and constantly venting. I would have exaggerated and heightened the problem to justify my negative response. And I would have drank at it, a lot. A LOT, a lot.
But now I know better. I will pack and work hard, and try to remember take time for yoga and coffee with friends and maybe even a pedicure if I can squeak it in. I will look for things to be grateful for, and I will continue to reach out to friends who are going through their own difficulties. I will try to address those H.A.L.T. issues, and make this busy month the best it can be.
Recovery really is a life-long process of discovery and growth. It shows up in all kinds of ways, and lends itself to every corner of our experience….if we let it.