This morning I was awake much earlier than necessary. BOING! Eyes open at 6 am. Go back to sleep, I told myself, you have a late curling draw tonight. You need the extra sleep if you’re going to make it through this day….
But it was too late.
COFFEE said my brain.
PEE! said my bladder.
Shhhhhh, go back to sleep, said my grown up voice, soon drowned out with chatter:
Yippeee morning! Coffee and news and what should I wear today and hey I wonder if I lost another pound and oooooh what oil should I diffuse in the sunroom while I read the paper and and and if I get up now I can read for an extra hour instead of sleep!
Who can resist that kind of enthusiasm? I can’t help myself, I love mornings. Do not confuse this with being a morning person. Morning people get stuff done. I don’t. I love to sit and read and drink coffee and have a slow start without interruptions.
Things sure have changed.
I used to shuffle to the kitchen and reach for Tylenol first, then coffee – both of them extra strength, please. Everything used to hurt in the morning and I never questioned it – I powered through. Hangover? No, of course not. I just had chronic daily headaches and body pain for no reason. It’s not like I was throwing up and calling in sick for work, right?
But a few months after I quit drinking I realized that I was no longer taking those little red pills every morning, and eventually I even had to toss a mostly-full jumbo bottle because it had stale-dated. That’s when I knew things were really different.
Six years later, things continue to change.
I no longer stand in front of the mirror and stare into my own eyes, looking for answers to a question I am afraid to ask. Or inspect my nose for whatever it is that supposedly happens from too much alcohol.
I still check my outfit in the mirror before leaving the house, but only to see if I like the combination – not with the scrutiny of an imposter trying to cover her shame and fear with perfection.
I used to arrange and rearrange the furniture and decor in my home, then inspect it by standing at the entrance and surveying the scene with a visitor’s eyes. Is this good enough? Are there flaws? Is it welcoming? It is right? Oh, my home is still quite perfect – once a designer always a designer! – but I please myself first.
As mentioned, Wednesday night is our curling league and I have fun visiting with the other teams. I love to throw a good take-out shot that clears the house, or sweep a teammate’s rock with all my might, but I no longer imagine that people are watching me or judging my form. We often socialize afterwards and it doesn’t faze me that most teams split a pitcher of beer while I have water, though in truth I can’t wait to get home and watch Survivor.
Yep, this is a huge departure from the old days. My husband and I started curling in our 20s before we had kids and oh my, the drinking we used to do! It was all in good fun back then. In my 30s things had started to change – with little kids at home curling was our one night out so we had to get a week’s worth of partying into that one night. I probably drank a similar amount of alcohol as before, but with a different urgency and attitude. Curling was once a prelude to alcohol. Now I actually focus on the game and play hard and feel happy.
I could go on. I drive differently. I listen differently. I work and socialize differently. Everything is better, even though some things are harder now. I got through profound grief this year without the help of alcohol and it was so very large and real, but I did it (am still doing it, to be honest).
I look better. I feel better. My chest doesn’t hurt constantly and I sleep like a baby (at least until 6 am!). I hardly have to think about not drinking now, that part gets SO much easier. But when it does hit me, the old urge to escape – WHAM! There it is like the smell of mould and I pull back in surprise.
Except now I know to ask, what is making me so uncomfortable that I want to check out? Then I deal with that thing, and if I can’t identify it I comfort myself anyway with something safe – a stretch, a treat, a nap, a walk, an unnecessary purchase.
That’s where I am at now, and in time I will surely be in some even more enlightened place.
But one thing is for sure: I am never going back.
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.
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.
Sometimes kind words fall on deaf ears.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” my friends would often tell me, and I never knew how to respond. In fact, it was strangely validating. I felt that I had to be hard on myself, to push for an extra measure of excellence that might ward off criticism or rejection. If I could pinpoint and eradicate faults before others identified them, I could spare myself pain.
I believed in this process, I put my faith in my ability to protect myself with vigilance and attention to detail. I never expected anyone to accept me as I was; I simply wasn’t good enough.
Where I got this idea, how these messages were instilled, when the mighty inner critic was born I cannot say. My best guess is around age 7 or 8, when self-awareness begins. I believe I have elementary school report cards on which teachers took note of my exacting habits, using words like “driven” and “ambitious” in ways I felt were affirming. What began as an effort to “be good” swelled to monster proportions as the years went by.
I quit drinking in order to fix the only perceptible imperfection in my otherwise great life. If I could just tweek that, all would be well. Nothing else need change. Thank God, it wasn’t that simple. In order to stay sober, I had to unearth the reason I drank and with that I had to reconsider the effectiveness of constant self-condemnation.
Even as I became more aware of my habits and their negative impact, I faltered to replace them. I had to imagine what it might feel like to be accepted as I am. In wide-eyed wonder, I’d consider “What if it didn’t matter if I said something dumb or wrong? What if i just made a mistake and it happened and I moved on?” I tried it. I went to the grocery store without makeup. I admitted it when I didn’t know how to do something. I stopped overscheduling myself, overcommitting, and overdoing in general.
Little by little, it came to me: I don’t have to earn my place in this world. It was mine to claim on the day I arrived in my mother’s arms. I already felt that way about my own children, and I believed it was true for everyone else. Then I stumbled upon the work of Brene Brown who gave such wonderful language and perspective to these ideas I struggled to understand. Her phrase “hustling for our worthiness” made it all so clear.
And then came another bonus of recovery. Just as I did not expect that healing from addiction would also mean undoing my entire concept of self-worth(lessness), neither did I realize that learning to value myself would change my appreciation for others.
You see, the belief that I was an unworthy person implied an inherent truth that human life can be valued in varying degrees. No one’s life is worth more than anyone else’s. There is no such scale. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t true.
I was always working to avoid being hurt by others, and this caused me to constantly judge and assess other people. Who might hurt me? Who might be critical? Who to avoid, to befriend, to please? The harder I was on myself, the harder I was on those around me. I learned that being a people pleaser is a form of manipulation. Manipulation?! Yes, and that one really turned me around.
It is all starting to sink in, and I see the difference in how I relate to myself and others. Last week I attended a She Recovers retreat (fabulous, and wonderfully described here by Anne of “A in Sobriety”) and nervously entered into a sharing circle with 28 other women. In the old days, I’d have been trying to figure out my place in a group like that; sizing up each person and preparing how to handle them. Thanks to the work of recovery, I looked at each new face and wondered what we could learn from one another. 28 new friends! It never even occurred to me to brace myself for rejection or to prove myself worthy. I’m sad that I ever thought I had to live that old way, and grateful that I can see things differently now.
I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Wayne Dyer speak earlier this year, and something he said resonated with me. He explained that when an orange is squeezed, orange juice comes out for one simple reason: because that’s what is inside. Likewise, he went on, we can also expect that what comes out of us when we are under pressure is an indication of what we hold inside.
If we fill our hearts with anger, we lash out under pressure. If we are full of hatred, out it sprays when the chips are down. And if we fill ourselves with love, positivity, grace, and acceptance, that is what we spread to others even in the worst of times.
That is the dot on the horizon I want to get to, the one I want to be: a woman who responds kindly in all circumstances.
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
Imagining the worst case scenario comes easily to us anxious types. I regularly remind myself to stay in the moment and dispel runaway thoughts. I’ve learned to say, “Nevermind the worst that can happen. I trust I will handle it as it comes.”
Last week, I had to face a dreaded worst.
One of my little dogs was mauled to death by a large dog that wandered onto our lake property, and I had the misfortune to witness the attack. I reacted appropriately in the moment: I was strong and brave as I ran towards the scene and called for the brute to stop and drop my dog. I quickly assessed the horrific damage – death was imminent – and focused on comforting my little friend as he passed. I whispered “thank you Copper, you’ve been a good dog” over and over so the last thing he heard on this earth was my gratitude, and I silently thanked God that all the kids had already gone home. No one else had to witness this terrible, heartbreaking sight.
I am shaken, but I am strong.
This sad story has a purpose as it relates to recovery. I have often told myself that abstinence would serve me well in life’s most horrible moments. I was right. Not only did I have the clarity and focus I needed to deal with the traumatic ordeal, but I was spared the temptation to numb out.
I am feeling the feelings, processing the pain, and moving through. No numbing with booze – that’s just a pause button that drags out the heartache indefinitely.
Some of you wonder if abstinence is necessary in recovery. My belief is that abstinence is a best practice because it closes the door on the possibility of drinking my way through grief and misery. Perhaps moderation might actually be possible for me under everyday circumstances, but in crisis I am greatly relieved that drinking is simply not an option. Because, let’s face it, eventually the shit hits the fan and we have to deal with the tragic, the bloody, the messy, the unwanted. Life is only smooth sailing for so long.
They say that tough times don’t last, but tough people do. I don’t know that I am tough, but I feel thankfully equipped to get through. Considering that there was I time when I could not endure any emotion – good or bad – without alcohol, this sad event has shown me how far I have come as a result of working my way through recovery.
RIP, little Copper. We’ll take good care of Scout for you – your sister and partner in crime.
Four years sober last week and guess what? It still takes effort.
This comes as a surprise. I thought it would be easy-breezey-nothing-to-it by now, and more often than not it is easy and enjoyable to live alcohol-free. But sometimes….sometimes….I feel a sucker punch of emotion: anger, jealousy, fear, resentment. I’ve spent the past few weeks in a mental stagger – that rocking feeling that something is off yet nothing is really wrong.
I hear from hundreds of people each week in various stages of recovery, and I am honoured to give help and encouragement whenever possible. Often this correspondence comes from people who are struggling with chronic relapse or who give up on recovery because it is harder than they expected. I’ll be honest – I’ve been finding those kinds of messages harder to handle lately. I want to instantly “fix” them…and not entirely out of kindness.
I want them to stop failing because it bugs me. I want them to keep their failure out of my face because if I can see it, it’s real and I don’t want failure to exist. I want us to all hold hands and skip together into recoveryland. I want everyone to love their lives and get better, dammit. Just. GET. BETTER. It scares the shit out of me that failure is even an option.
(See what I did there? I made someone else’s pain about ME.)
This is where I am going wrong and I know it. I understand full well that other people’s actions are about them, not me. I’ve learned the value in the recovery adage “Keep to your own side of the street”. The moment I view someone else’s story through the lens of my own feelings, I am setting myself up for trouble.
I have found myself saying, “I am sorry you are hurting, this is hard stuff” and meanwhile thinking, “How come you get to fall apart and I have to keep being strong? It is hard for me, too but I don’t get to relapse.” (I am literally cringing as I type this brutal truth.)
A better response to these situations is compassion – my heart aches for those who want recovery and can’t seem to grab on, and I feel for people who would rather tolerate an unhappy relationship with alcohol than work through the discomfort of breaking up with booze. Over the past four years I have learned to feel for others while allowing them full ownership of their situation, knowing that the pathways to recovery are available for those who are ready.
So why the backwards shift in my thinking? Why is my knee-jerk reaction suddenly the opposite of what I know to be good and useful? Why revert to the old self-centered patterns that contributed to my drinking in the first place?
My friend Ellie reminded me to take my gloomy mood seriously, since this type of discontent can be one of the early signs of relapse. Me, relapse? Never! (Hah, denial is the next stage.) I dug through the Bubble Hour archives for the most recent episode on Relapse, remembering that I’d been shocked during the show to learn that relapse is preceded long before the event by 11 various warning signs. This has been researched and documented in the work of Terence Gorski and can be read here.
Am I subconsciously looking for an excuse to relapse? Possibly. My husband and I are leaving soon for a dream trip to Italy and I am anticipating the abundance of wine that will be offered. There is plenty to see, do, eat and enjoy in Italy without wine, but I am bracing for at least a little discomfort. Some corner of my psyche must be considering whether it is truly possible (or necessary) to stay sober on this trip. Much as I hate admitting to imperfection, this bit of doubt is worth acknowledging, considering, and working through.
So keep writing and posting here about your ups and downs, because your journey is your journey. I will do my best to let you own it, and I do hope you will. For those who are struggling, I think you will find Gorski’s work a tremendous resource.
Try doing this assessment called the Aware Score, which stands for “Advanced Warning of Relapse” and consider if you need to boost your recovery efforts. I scored an 85, indicating to me that I need to do some serious work on self care and reach out to my support network.
I am in awe of the changes and insights the past four years have given me. Even more so, I am amazed that at this point in my recovery I still find things that need attention. It is a gentle reminder that recovery is never over, but is more like a garden; as long as we keep to the task of tending it, good things grow in abundance.
Well friends, we are 8 days into the New Year and by now some of us have already blown our resolutions. Last week on The Bubble Hour, I publicly vowed to stop using the F word and I confess that one slipped out the other day. No one else was present to hear it and I was totally justified in using it (having burnt the pizza I was making for supper), but nevertheless I swore I wouldn’t swear and I still swore. I am back on the F-less train and optimistic about my chances of staying on board.
Today I am reaching out to anyone who woke up January 1st saying “never again” to alcohol, only to find themselves back in its grip within days. Don’t give up. Don’t think you have to wait until next year to try again. Don’t even wait until after the weekend party, the big conference, that upcoming wedding or the vacation you have planned. There will always be something on the calendar to justify drinking, but you can make a change today and persevere through anything life throws at you. It is hard at first, but eventually we get to a place where parties, conferences, wedding, and vacations are MORE enjoyable because we are sober.
Does that sound impossible? I thought so too at first. I worried that I would never have any fun or be any fun. I thought no one would want to be around me, and that would probably be fine because I didn’t want to be around others either. I thought everyone would notice I wasn’t drinking, and I would be ostracized. I thought I would be in constant misery watching the wine go by.
The first few weeks of recovery are pretty tender, it’s true. There’s the physical discomfort of alcohol withdrawals, the mental wrestling with a brain that has been programmed to only recognize one form of comfort, the social awkwardness of handling invitations and obligations while feeling incredibly vulnerable, and the emotional pain of grieving the loss of something so dearly loved. That is a lot to handle all at once.
Little by little, these layers of discomfort fall away. Our bodies start to mend. We go for coffee or breakfast with a friend and realize there are other ways to socialize. We order an iced tea with dinner and no one notices. We feel our grief, cry and sleep our way through it and in time is lessens, as grief does. The most resonate aspect of recovery is the mental one, in my experience. We spent a long time training our brains to recognize alcohol as a reward and over time our pleasure-reward circuitry became hard-wired to demand this substance it perceived as essential.
We have also spent a lifetime investing in beliefs about the world and ourselves that may have ultimately contributed to the need for comfort we found in alcohol. If you asked me about my life 4 years ago (as evidenced in my early posts), I would tell you I was a hard-working, high achieving individual who loved everything about my life except for one little thing: I needed to stop drinking. I would tell you proudly that I was a perfectionist with high expectations for the people around me. I saw that as a good thing.
There are also many things I would not have told you about myself (mostly because I refused to acknowledge the existence of these things): I often awoke at night and wept over my failures and shortcomings. I felt unworthy of my success, my spouse, even my children’s love. I wouldn’t tell you that my hands shook with fear as I stood before an audience to give a speech or perform music, that I saw myself as an ugly person who hid it well with good hair and makeup, or that I felt I had to earn love because otherwise I simply didn’t deserve it. I wouldn’t tell you that I had binged and purged through my university years and as a young mom – no one knew about that. I wouldn’t tell you that I got really good at keeping secrets when I was 9 – the summer another kid molested me and I went along with it because I wanted that kid to like me (clearly I was “bad” from a young age). I could not have told you about my ongoing anxiety because I called it “stress” – anxiety was for weak people, strong people get stress.
And then there was this weird thing I’d always done in private – picking and tearing at hidden areas of my scalp. If I was very “stressed” (certainly not anxious, right?) in a meeting or social setting I would raise one finger and rub behind my left ear, but that was as much as I permitted myself in public. At home, that rubbing would turn to scratching and tearing. I never understood why I did it – it was embarrassing and gross. I was always worried about having dandruff on my shoulders – we must be perfect! – but I could not stop myself from this behaviour. Oh, but never mind about that, because I wouldn’t have told you anyway.
My life was perfect and I just needed to quit drinking so that it would be FULLY perfect and I wouldn’t have secrets (except the late night crying, self-loathing, self-harm which were just normal and had to be tolerated because that was just “me”).
This is hard for me to write. This is hard for me to imagine others reading. But this needs to be said because I believe it will help someone.
After I quit drinking, other people in recovery encouraged me to reflect on my anger, resentments and expectations of myself and others. They told me that these things had fueled my addiction. This was intriguing to me, so I started considering these ideas. Many new truths came to light.
Perfectionism is not a good thing, as it turns out. I worried too much what others thought of me, I felt unworthy, I dreaded judgment, so I strove for perfection as a way to pre-empt these things. All of this is rooted in anxiety – and once I stopped pretending it was stress and acknowledged the truth of what I was experiencing I could start finding ways to cope better. It was humbling, but I had to admit it – I have crippling anxiety.
I also found out that my embarrassing, gross skin-picking habit is a form of OCD called “Dermatillomania” – very common among those of us with anxiety disorders. It can be based in unexpressed anger, which we turn towards ourselves because we fear that others will reject us if we displease them by showing anger. Dermatillomania is mainly treated with behavioural therapy, and I have found that simply keeping my nails done at the salon with an acrylic or gel coating makes them too thick to do damage and has greatly reduced my behaviours. That said, I removed my fake nails last week for a few days and immediately found myself right back at it. I headed straight in for a full set and order was restored. There is lots of information online about the condition – just search the name and see what you learn.
Therapy was another thing I considered “weak” and I moved a long way through my recovery by simply reading, communicating with others (online and on this blog), listening to podcasts, and reflecting quietly on everything I learned. But after about two years I felt like I was stuck and kept encountering the same negative patterns with some people in my life. I still had a lot of anger and pain. A friend suggested therapy and suddenly I realized that I had held it as a “shame identity” – something for the weak and stupid and self-indulgent. By this time, I had come to see that all of my old ways of thinking were what led me into addiction and I was open to change. Talking to a professional moved me forward like a slingshot because I was so eager to find whatI needed to do differently.
So here I am, and I offer my story as a message of hope to anyone who is struggling, hiding, crying alone, and wondering where recovery will take them. Quitting drinking is only the beginning, and soon you will start to see many other parts of life improve – things you may be refusing to acknowledge or scared to change. Things you tolerate because you think that’s “just how it is” may not be true at all. Shame you feel can be lifted. You can be free in so many ways. I wish this for you.
I am not perfect, but I am getting better. I enjoy my life so much more now. I am present for it, and I do not constantly feel the need to get numb. By ignoring all the things that hurt and shamed me, I was tolerating the pain they caused – it was like a constant background noise. Now that I am dealing with them, their power is diminished.
If you are wavering in your resolve to get sober in 2015, please hang in there. You are not alone – there are many of us on this pathway with you to light the way and encourage you along. You may feel that you are just signing up for a boring life without alcohol, but I promise you that there is MORE joy, MORE freedom, and MORE opportunity ahead. Don’t give up. It gets easier, it reaches further, and it will bring you to a version of yourself that is stronger and more real than you ever thought possible.
Finally, I encourage you to seek out other sober people. Be it a recovery program like AA, SMART Recovery, Life Ring, Celebrate Recovery, Women for Sobriety, or talking to someone you may know who is in recovery. Consider treatment – you don’t have to be a hot mess to go to treatment; it’s just another way to kickstart recovery. I got sober on my own, many do. It is possible. However, there is something magical about talking to another person that will add a whole other dimension to your journey. Start by commenting here, and see how great it feels when someone responds. Real-life support is exponentially greater, I promise.
Here’s to 2015, my friends. It is going to be effing great!
Are you holding onto anger towards someone? I have been and it is a lot of work to continually remind myself why I am angry, how they hurt me, how amazing I am for enduring unfairness. The nursing of wrath is exhausting, which in itself adds another check in the “poor me” column.
I knew that this was not helping my recovery process at all. Facing and releasing resentments is an important component in healing our addictive thinking patterns. Being hurt and angry all the time fuels the need to numb and escape by drinking, so the thirsty brain will lock into destructive patterns in order to subconsciously perpetuate the cycle. I get it. I see it. I worked on it and cleared away many obstacles.
But man, some people just so deserve to be resented! They just keep repeating the same asshat maneuvers; so predictable that often they don’t even have to say anything at all. I can sense their disrespect and I know without hearing it that they’re going to speak badly of me the moment I leave the room. They drop those hints, just trying to poke at me. It never fails. I always leave upset.
Truly toxic relationships need reconsidering, but what about the grey area before toxic? How do we handle the key people in our lives that are upsetting yet vital?
I’ve grown so much as a result of working through recovery, and yet I just kept bumping into this particular situation. After patiently listening to my bitter complaints, a dear friend suggested I see a counselor who could help devise a better approach.
Within a few sessions, I was seeing things in a whole new way. My old habit of “expectation” was a big part of the problem, because I have changed so much and was expecting others to engage with me on my new terms – not just as a non-drinker but also at a new level of honesty, respect and loyalty. The problem is, they aren’t on this journey. They haven’t changed at all, and I know that. So why then would I expect them to be different than they are? Perhaps it was that part of my brain that wants a reason to suffer and an excuse to comfort.
If it’s a mistake to expect them to understand me, should I then just prepare to be wounded? That’s the opposite approach, but that doesn’t make it the antidote. Bracing for someone to hurt us only leads to resentment if they don’t, or sends us looking for slights that didn’t exist.
What has helped me is shifting my expectation to a specific goal: I am here to show kindness. I am here to bring joy. I am here to be respectful. Those things I can control, even if the kindness, joy or respect I bring are not well received or even noticed.
This was all positive but I kept going back to each therapy session with a “yah, but….” which always boiled down to the same question: “It still hurts. How do I learn to live with the pain?”
The answer came as epiphanies do – not in a therapy session but unexpectedly, perhaps as the cumulative result several sessions. I was driving in my car and listening to “The Dr Jenn Show” when I heard something that made my brain PING.
In paraphrase, Dr Jenn told the caller, “When you change how you interact with other people, you change your life profoundly and forever.”
That’s when it hit me – I shouted with joy! I can stop asking how to live with the pain because the purpose of changing my approach is to stop creating pain in the first place.
I don’t control other’s actions, only my own REACTION.
I knew this intellectually but I have never felt the truth of it so powerfully. I get to live the rest of my life free from this burden! I can set it down, step over it, and still engage with people I care about even though our old patterns are messed up.
The small changes I have made in my thinking are coming together to effect giant shifts. Each time another piece lumbers into place I feel relief in areas that I didn’t even realize were hurting.
The future looks bright.