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.
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 was pleased to be interviewed by Liv’s Recovery Kitchen last week, a cool site where blogger Liv writes about recovery, shares kitchen-tested recipes, and posts interviews with sober people from all walks of life.
Liv asks great questions, and as a result she had me covering everything from early recovery to my thoughts on (not doing) the 12 Steps to what the heck “Recovery is Leadership” means.
When sober people gather, we often start to speak a different language.
“He’s one of us” means someone is an alcoholic, whether or not in recovery. Someone who “went back out” has relapsed. “Normies” are drinkers who are not addicted.
There are dialects to this language, depending on program influences. For example, people in AA often refer to themselves as “friends of Bill W”, and call quitting without a program “white knuckling”. Meanwhile, people in SMART Recovery use a lot of acronyms such as CBA (cost-benefit analysis), DIBs (disruptive irrational beliefs), and REBT (rational emotive behavioural therapy). AA uses acronyms too, but they are more to remember helpful cliches rather than therapy tools (“YET: You’re Eligible Too”, “KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid”, “ODAAT: One Day at a Time”.
Usually these phrases, words, acronyms and cliches are clear and helpful. One word, however, can give us some trouble: EGO.
Most people (normies, that is) equate ego with vanity and narcissism, considering it to be a negative quality. Recovery puts a more complicated twist on those three little letters: e, g, o. Given that the main difference between AA and SMART recovery is powerlessness vs empowerment, respectively, it only makes sense that each would have a different take on the concept of ego.
AA offers another acronym to illustrate its perspective on ego: Edging God Out. Ego is that part of us that is deeply affected by addiction – pushing God away by simultaneous feelings of pride (“I can handle things just fine on my own”) and shame (“I don’t deserve help from God”). The program is based on this chasm between us and God as being the void we try to fill with alcohol – a spiritual sickness that our addiction leverages to sustain itself. The 12 steps work to address the ego, admitting powerlessness and handing things over to a Higher Power – a process that brings healing and insight.
On the other hand, SMART Recovery looks at ego in more psychoanalytical terms. It is our self-awareness and identity, something we can harness and use to drive change. Ego is who we are, not what we do. This program focuses understanding the connection between thoughts and behaviours, working to understand why we have over-invested in maladaptive coping strategies and creating new ways to respond to our environment. Making these changes means using the ego rather than overcoming it, while assessing whether the self is being influenced by irrational beliefs or fears.
My goal here isn’t to show one perspective as being better than the other, but rather that we have to understand the very different premise of both pathways in order to make sense of what sometimes feels like mixed messages. Both programs champion abstinence and connecting with community. They have the same goals but take different routes to arrive. Each has something to offer and some find one fits better than the other for them. Many, like myself, make use of both as resources and have friends in both programs. This is where the language can overlap, where patience and understanding must come into play.
Ego kept me drinking, it’s true. I felt too proud to ask for help, and believed I couldn’t possibly be addicted to alcohol – that was for “other” people. That is the ego that AA speaks of, the prideful mind that causes destruction by attempting to hold power.
Yet it was also ego that got me sober by whispering, “I can change, I can make this happen!” It was self-awareness and self-respect that helped me press on – something SMART Recovery advocates identify as an “internal locus of control”. Ego served me well, in that case.
I admit that sometimes the ego-cliches frustrate me. It can be a “garbage can” phrase that serves as a catch-all for aspects of willfulness, arrogance, pride. But we have to remember that things aren’t always as they seem. If someone is offended by criticism, what appears as injured pride could easily be self-protection from the opening of an old wound – such as a painful childhood memory resurfacing. To brush that off as mere ego would be a missed opportunity to heal and grow.
So do we feed the ego or annihilate it? I think the answer lies in being gentle with ourselves and others. Understanding the many facets of and uses for ego helps us know ourselves better. The question I am learning to ask, regardless of recovery pathway embraced, is “what’s really going on here?” The acronyms, cliches, theories, and memes are simply tools to help us better answer that essential question.
Back up, reassess, move forward differently. That is recovery.
It’s Thankgsiving Day here in Canada so I thought I’d pop in quickly to share how sincerely grateful I am for each and everyone one of you who reads, comments, shares, asks, answers, challenges, celebrates, encourages and connects through this blog. It’s an honour to share this path with you.
Everything is better with friends – especially recovery! Here is how I would fill out today’s gratitude board:
Today I’m Grateful For…
1. Another day of freedom and peace in my life
2. The crazy idea to blog my way sober
3. Each and every person reading these words.
Back in university, a good friend was on track to graduate with honours in the fine arts program but blew her final tuition installment on designer boots and cosmetics. She finished all her courses and had top marks, but her degree was witheld because of the overdue fees. She later realized that she was afraid of the pressure to make her living as a performer. She loved school and was proud of her grades and acheivements as a student, but could not see how to translate that to a career as a working artist. In short, she was afraid of the responsibility that came with success.
I often think of her when I encounter someone who appears to be undermining their own recovery plan. Why would anyone do that, you wonder?
Well, for starters some people are deeply invested in drama and crisis. This is how they stay connected to people in their life; by being needy. This type of person is terrified of allowing others to choose to be with them so, fearing abandonment, they orchestrate situations that make others feel obligated to help and support them. Someone in this situation may fear having long-term sobriety, because the extra attention from loved ones they may receive during early recovery could fade away. You may know them when they say, “It’s not my fault I relapsed. I need more help.”
Others may sabotage their sobriety for exactly the opposite reason – they WANT to push people away. Some people invite rejection from others because it allows them to paint themselves as the victim and gives someone else to blame for shortcomings and failures. Consider the Karman Drama Triangle discussed in an earlier post, with its victim, villain, and hero roles. For someone who is deeply invested in remaining a victim, doing something as heroic as getting sober represents a huge identity shift, and one that requires taking responsibility for oneself. If this prospect feels overwhelming, a person will consciously or subconsciously act in ways that bring their heart’s desire (blamelessness and victimization). This type of person says, “Thanks a lot, it’s your fault. If you’re going to keep screwing up my recovery then I might as well keep drinking.”
But let’s not waste time on asking why. Let’s just get right down to what you can do today to sabotage your recovery. Whatever your reason for wanting to screw things up, that’s your own business. I am not here to judge. I am sure they are very good reasons and only you know what it is you get out of jumping in and out of recovery. Whatever the payoff, the process is pretty simple.
Based on the thousands of letters I receive from readers, here is my list of the top three ways to ruin your own recovery*:
- Quit by Committee – tell everyone that you are quitting drinking, especially people who you usually drink with, and value their feedback more than your own understanding. (Note: do not consult actual people in recovery. They will try and help you get sober!) This will ensure you are fed with a steady stream of “you’re not that bad” and “just cut back” and “if you’re an alcoholic then what does that make me?”. Really try to focus on how others see you and let their opinions drown out your own thoughts. Worry about hurting their feelings or offending them with your decision to get sober, and socialize with them as much as possible – especially when they are drinking. If you ever start to have your own thoughts about “I need to quit” just replay their voices in your head telling you that’s silly. Really wear down your motivation and resolve with input from people who don’t realize you are in pain and who are threatened by your efforts to better your life.
- Stay Angry – this is an excellent tool to sideswipe your recovery. Get mad and stay mad at all the people and all the things that aren’t fair. On a nice sunny day it might take a lot of effort to work up a good angry lather, but don’t be tempted into cheerfulness. Close the blinds, put a rock in your shoe, close your eyes and focus! Relive old arguments, recreate hurt feelings, and count the ways that others have wronged you. Say, “I am a victim of the universe” aloud and plot revenge. After really getting those emotions stirred up, put a smile on your face and walk into the world. If anyone asks you how you are, say “fine”. Keep those wounds hidden from the world do that no one can help you heal them or give you insights. You don’t want that.
- Do Everything Else the Same Old Way – this is a quick route to recovery sabotage and it’s effectiveness has been proven again and again. Quit drinking but do everything else exactly the same way as before. Do not change your routine, your social habits, or read any self-help books that might give you crazy ideas. Avoid recovery people, groups, books, and podcasts. If anyone tries to accommodate you, insist that they treat you like everyone else. Give special focus to all of the ways that it sucks to not be drinking in these “normal” circumstances and pause at every opportunity to consider this. Really notice how your way of life is disrupted by the absence of alcohol and reflect with self-pity.
There are many more ways to ensure that sobriety doesn’t work for you, but these three should do the trick for you within short order. If you find yourself accidentally succeeding, simply go on Facebook to read wine-lovers memes and drinking slogans – THOSE ARE HILARIOUS! Be sure to repost silly things like “wine o’clock” so you can feel validated by all “likes” you get.
*caution: may contain sarcasm
“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.
I first heard it on a Dr. Drew podcast and it whizzed over my head. I read it elsewhere weeks later and took note. Then yesterday while walking my dogs I was listening to this podcast (Sober Conversations with Dr. Harry Bell: Guest Joe Schrank) and there it was again:
If alcoholism and addiction are chronic conditions, why do we treat them as acute illnesses?
Alcohol addiction grows over time and the brain changes remain permanently (i.e. a chronic condition), so why is it only considered worth treating once it reaches crisis (i.e. acute illness)? Why watch the problem escalate to dangerous levels but then only treat it with episodic care? Do we do this for any other health issues?
How many of us ignored our growing drinking problem for years because it “wasn’t that bad” in our own opinion? How many had some idea in mind of what behaviour or consequence would be “bad enough” to require change? Isn’t this the opposite of how we have been taught to care for ourselves?
We check our moles for change and our breasts for lumps, rushing in for assessment at the first sign of trouble. No doctor ever says, “Yep, that looks bad buuuuut let’s wait until your life is threatened before we treat it.” The idea is preposterous, but that is how we think about getting help for addiction: wait until it is the worst that a person can tolerate before getting help. And by the way, the help available is 30-90 days of treatment generally, and though the care may be excellent, shouldn’t the medical system then follow patients for a lifetime if they have a life-long condition susceptible to relapse? My sister had cancer and she received routine scans for 20 years after her treatment.
I’ve always felt a bit apologetic about getting sober pre-crisis. I used to feel pressure to explain that even thought my situation wasn’t “that bad”, the process was clearly well underway and needed curtailing. I’ve since discovered that most people in recovery don’t need to hear this justification – they understand that all of us follow a similar trajectory and our differences are really just “yets”. By that I mean we can take all the things we didn’t do (I didn’t lose my license, I didn’t publicly humiliate myself, I didn’t blackout) and tack the word “yet” onto those statements, because if we kept drinking they likely would have happened to us.
I hadn’t lost my license, yet
I hadn’t publicly humiliated myself, yet.
I wasn’t blacking out, yet.
The “yet” is a reminder that I stopped before those problems arose, but they were certainly as possible for me as for anyone if I continued to drink.
Like myself, many readers of this blog have stopped drinking before their condition reached an acute stage. This can leave us wondering if we over-reacted, over-compensated, over-corrected. It can mean that those around us are not as supportive or understanding because they were not personally impacted by our behaviours…yet.
It is simply wrong to think that help is only necessary for the worst cases. I suspect that recovery care providers would LOVE the opportunity to work with people earlier in their addiction, but so many of us have been conditioned to think that we are not worthy of help unless we have had a horrendous “rock-bottom” experience.
Even though this whole blog is about how I self-managed my recovery, I hope one day it is easier for everyone to talk about this and ask for help. Shame and stigma kept me hidden and sick for far too long. I was lucky it didn’t kill me, and I am glad it didn’t kill you either.
Perhaps the real obstacle is public perception. Funding, legislation, and treatment protocol all respond to societal demands and until Joe Average starts to understand the “Chronic vs Acute” issue, there is no outcry against the system, no support for proposed changes, no money for tv campaigns with catchy jingles.
Maybe there are a lot of us in recovery who need to understand it better ourselves before we can hope anyone else will.
Note: shout out Bubble Hour co-host Catherine for introducing me to the concept of “yet”. We all learn together.