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.
Having conquered 100km of The Cotswolds on foot, we moved on to the next phase of our adventure: a cruise on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, Netherlands.
It is pure luxury but booze is everywhere – including the cake and chocolates here in Germany where we toured today. It keeps me on my toes and I have to remind myself that there are things I could do to further protect my sobriety, if needed: call the desk to have our mini bar cleared of alcohol and pull a waiter aside and tip him to be my guardian angel (removing wine glasses from my setting and delivering a preagreed order on arrival). If I were travelling alone, I would do this on a heartbeat. As it is, my husband is very considerate and gives me accountability and support.
I’ve grown weary of my puffball hair and booked an appointment for a blow out with the onboard stylist for the hefty fee of 35 euros. Hopefully it will last a day or two. I have otherwise purchased nothing but a book at Heathrow airport (“The Year of Living Danishly” by Helen Russell) and a teensy amber angel today in Heidelberg, so paying for a few hours of sane hair feels justifiable. I’m telling myself it’s also a courtesy to the other passengers, because this current mass of fluff and doingers I’m sporting is plain disrespectful to onlookers. (Post salon update: normality restored!)
We’ve been on board 2 days and have toured castles, listened to opera (which I loved, who knew?), and walked a thousand cobblestone streets already. I write this from a quiet balcony, watching the beautiful German shores go by. Because we are between cities, the internet is quite weak so I am unable to upload photos for now. More to follow when conditions allow, because I so want to share this wonderful experience with you.
PS – Sober is better!
Remember six months ago when I broke my leg skiing? Today I walked 25km – the most difficult portion of our week-long walking tour through England’s Cotswolds. Hills, muddy trails, fields of sheep, steps, I did it all. I’m so grateful to be healed and strong again.
Remember six years ago when I quit drinking and thought vacations would be a drag? We have been smiling and laughing this whole trip.
Remember six hours ago when my flat iron refuse to work on a converter? Welp, that’s not even bothering me. Look at this picture, wonky hair, no make up, sweaty and full of JOY!!
If you’re struggling today, keep going. Do the next right thing, and then the next, and then do it some more. Things will get better. I promise.
PS – We were overtaken by no less than 5 elderly couples today. I’m talking, WHOOSH! Brits are serious walkers, they don’t mess around. As I watched yet another pair of silver heads bob past us and into the distance, I remembered “COMPARISON IS THE THEIF OF JOY” and giggled.
Yesterday we walked 8 miles in the rain through fields of cows, past gorgeous old homes, moss covered graveyards, and finally into Stow on the Wold where we spend the night in a 400-year-old inn.
A walking tour is a great choice for a sober holiday. We are too tired for much besides supper and a good rest at the end of the day.
This morning we set out for a second day of walking and promptly got lost, so we turned back and returned to the town square where we bought fresh cheese and bread for a picnic along the path (once we locate it!). Then I suggested we stop at the local coffee shop for the wifi, bathroom and a Flat White before heading out again. Cheers!
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.
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.
My leg freaks me out.
My heart was pounding when the fibreglass cast was lifted off a few days ago because I wasn’t sure what I’d see below that clinical white shell. If not for the maroon gel polish matching the other foot, I wouldn’t have recognised the foot and leg at all. It was tender and fragile and bruised.
The left foot I know is in perpetual motion – walking, running, bobbing nervously when I sit. It is a partner in crime to the right. The limp, mottled limb I saw emerge from that cast is a burden, a stranger. I felt like I was looking at a kidney or other internal organ inadvertently exposed; seeing something I shouldn’t see, a fragile thing in need of protection. My leg was then transferred into a large, removable aircast and strapped in place beneath layers of foam and plastic. I was relieved it was safely out of view.
It bothered me all day, that encounter with my leg. Never mind the pain that ensued from the new cast, I couldn’t stop thinking about the disconnect I had experienced from this poor hurting part of me that had spent two weeks in exile. I was such a bad leg owner!
But there is one thing I can work to repair right now, and that is my relationship with this estranged part. You see, after I quit drinking and started to unravel the all the emotional junk I have been cramming down inside I had a startling realization: I have a cat-perch in my chest. I was ignoring that parts of my body I didn’t like: my big feet, my coltish legs, my bony wrists and the hand with the amputated finger. The wobbly bits on my belly and thighs. The curves that draw male attention and the lumps that draw self-loathing. I would climb up up up inside myself until I was safely located in my chest, shoulders and head. It felt safe up there. No wonder I have chest pains and headaches! A whole body worth of energy was confined to an area that could barely hold it.
I stumbled into yoga a few years ago. I’d previously dismissed it as too slow and woowoo, but once I tried it I was stuck by the way it relieved the head and chest pain I had constantly felt for years. It got me off my cat perch. At the start of every yoga class, the instructor will often say, “Take a moment to set your intention for this class today.” I have no idea what others’ intentions involve (if you do this please share, I am so curious!) but mine is always the same: to accept and appreciate every part of my body, to be here now in my entirety.
I did the same thing with my life. Anything I didn’t like I would ignore and pretend wasn’t real, wasn’t me. That didn’t happen, I didn’t say that, I don’r remember. I raced to the future in my mind, always anxious to get to the next moment. Always planning, thinking, worrying. Too busy for the now. Definitely not looking back, it is scary back there.
Healing my life involved making peace with the past, trusting in the future, and living in the now. Healing my relationship with my body meant learning to inhabit all of me. This is why I do so much yoga, because I can unhook for thinking and just follow the instructor’s voice: breath in and do this….breath out and do that. I need every part of me to balance and twist and move through the poses. I fill up my body, and it is safe…I am whole.
So I know I can’t allow myself to see this poor broken leg as “other”. I can remove the cast to shower and get dressed, which frankly scares the shit out of me because IT IS BROKEN and one little bump will hurt like hell and possibly screw up the healing, but I force myself to free my foot for a few minutes to give it some loving care. I clean it, roll on essential oils said to speed healing and keep the skin soft, and gingerly run my fingers from toes to knee.
This morning I whispered, “Thank you for breaking so that my knee didn’t blow. You took it for the team. Get well soon, leg.” Then I realized I was talking to it like it wasn’t mine, so I stared at it a little longer until it felt more familiar, and tried not to notice that it needs a shave.
Before returning my leg into its robo-shell, I allowed my feet to just rest side by side on the floor. For the first time in weeks, both feet felt the same thing at the same time and I felt connected. It was a sweet, peaceful moment; just sitting and feeling my feet touch the floor.
If you have exiled parts of yourself, whether physical or emotional, it is worth while to sit quietly and experience wholeness. It can feel odd or uncomfortable (okay, you don’t have to talk to it, unless you’re quirky like me!), but just allow it for a little while every day until it starts to feel natural. It has been a powerful experience for me, and this week I was reminded that it will be an ongoing process, something I will have to keep working at to overcome a lifetime of sitting on my perch.