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.
My last post may have left you with the impression that I had a good cry one afternoon and then everything felt better. That was not the case.
I did feel better for an hour or two, but then the tears would return unexpectedly and with intensity. A familiar tightening of my chest and throat emerged and remained for days; something I used to call “stress” because I was ashamed to say “anxiety”. These symptoms persisted but I knew what to do…
…I knew what to do because of this community’s raw, honest comments about their own experiences, such as the following from an anonymous reader to whom I express sincere gratitude:
Jean….please make sure you call your therapist and please make time for therapy to cope with this difficult time.
My dad passed away in February of this year after a long and courageous battle from Parkinson’s…
How I wish I had asked for help. I hit the bottle HARD to cope and it did not work. I drank because trying to remain present in the moment caring for a parent with Parkinson’s was just too damn hard for me at times and while I couldn’t change the situation I wanted an escape. Alcohol numbed the feelings because I felt emotionally trapped with nowhere to go.
You’re going to have a real challenge on your hands because this next journey is painful and all about having to respond constantly to the unexpected and being in crisis mode – you will not be in control. This alone is a major threat to sobriety and will be a cause for relapse. (Anonymous)
…I knew what to do because other bloggers like Anne of “A in Sobriety”, who has written so openly about her approach to mental health, work to shrivel the stigma and shame around asking for help.
…I knew what to do because nearly 50 years of “pressing on” and “being strong” when I’ve felt this way in the past caused me to embrace coping strategies that were ultimately harmful and self-defeating. I won’t make those mistakes again.
…I knew what to do, so I saw my therapist and my doctor and I told the truth: I am struggling. I have chest pain and throat cramps and I cry constantly. They helped me to see that my body was telling a truth that I could not mentally register: I am grieving a parent who is not yet gone. I am ashamed of my sadness because it feels like I am wishing him dead, and yet I am dreading the indignities of witnessing my father further succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease.
He is literally half the size he once was. He needs help to stand or walk, and gentle coaching to find his way down the hall or perform simple tasks. He speaks in a jumbled whisper as his face and throat muscles have atrophied. This is my father and yet it is not, so the time I spend with him each week keeps the heartache fresh even as I grieve the loss of the man I knew.
In the past I would have drank to quiet these feeling and numb the pain. Now I understand that drinking would have made things worse, creating an illusion of comfort that would silently accelerate anxiety and stall true healing.
I have made slow progress these past weeks, patiently tending my routine responsibilities while waiting for the effects of my medical care and talk therapy to loosen the knots. Also I embraced the self-care I so frequently suggest to others and went for a massage, got a fresh cut and colour, went to yoga classes, switched my coffee to half-caff, and spoke honestly to my family and friends about my situation. On my doctor’s advice, I booked a week on the beach (choosing, of course, my favourite getaway: a She Recovers retreat in Mexico that miraculously had a last-minute cancellation).
My emotions are better regulated and my chest pain is dialed down by half.
Last night came a true test of my progress, serving as emcee at my niece’s wedding. Weddings are notorious triggers for people in recovery, and as the official host for the evening I could not rely on old standbys like slipping out the back door when things got uncomfortable.
Hosting hundreds of Bubble Hour interviews prepared me well for staying comfortably professional in front of a microphone while feeling deeply vulnerable and human and flawed. I focussed on my affection for my niece, the happiness of the day, and the script I prepared in an extra-large font for easy reading. I was in my element, in my body, and in the moment. I gave service by way of warmly hosting the proceedings, and felt grateful for the ability to do so.
My father was seated right before me as I spoke. He is no longer able to smile his big grin or laugh from his belly, but he seemed to quietly enjoy the festivities from behind his hazy gaze.
Now as I reflect on that scene – me at the mic and him in the audience – I realize that I did not look to him for approval: he has none left to offer or withhold.
Maybe that is part of my grief too, knowing that something I spent my life striving for is officially off the table. The notion brings me sadness and relief. I allow myself to feel them both fully and move on.
I cheerfully signed off my last post with a mention of my New Year’s plans for hosting family at the ski hill. A raclette dinner was in the works, lots of extended family arrived, and the snow was deep and powdery. All of the right conditions for a perfect New Year, except for one small problem: I was sick.
I’ve written about my ulcer before, and since Christmas Dinner it was back with a vengeance. I was enjoying the cabin – skiing daily, cooking for a steady stream of family and guests, being the hostess-with-the-mostest – but feeling bloody awful. The day before New Year’s Eve, it got so bad that I decided to leave my husband in charge of the guests so I could return home to rest in quiet.
My doctor squeezed me in for a quick appointment before closing for the long weekend, promising bloodwork results on Monday. I went home to spend New Year’s Eve alone under a blanket on the couch, terribly uncomfortable and suspicious that this was no ulcer. By Saturday night I was planning my own funeral.
Fast forward a few days and I was in the local emergency room, getting lots of attention for what turned out to be acute gallbladder problems. The surgeon was called in and I was admitted. First thing the next morning I had a procedure to clear out the gallstones that were lodged in my main bile duct, followed by surgery to remover the gallbladder itself.
I’d gone from a wonderful, fun family vacation to a lonely, uncomfortable sick bed for days and then finally three nights in hospital. Things can turn on a dime!
The hospital was noisy and chaotic. I was in pain and alone. It could have been terrible, but I was too grateful to wallow. As I lay there, I realized that many things I’ve learned in recovery were getting me through this ordeal:
- Ask for Help: When I was sick at home and certain I was dying, I should have called an ambulance or a neighbour for a ride to the hospital, but I didn’t. I wanted to be helped but I didn’t want to ask for help. I was afraid they would say I wasn’t sick enough to be in hospital and send me back home. This was reminiscent of when I knew I needed to quit drinking but was scared to go to a meeting for fear they’d say I wasn’t addicted enough. Don’t be silly – help is there and the people who provide it are caring.
- Be Grateful: If you’re new to sobriety, you might not yet be aware how important a role gratitude can play in your journey. Sober or not, everyone can benefit from taking time every day to list three or four things for which to give thanks. Stop right now and look around you – what are you thankful for? This simple act is a life-changing habit. As I laid awake through the night in my hospital bed, wishing for sleep but surrounded by noises and activity, I reflected on all the positive things deserving thanks: the iv that was replenishing my hydration, the kindness of the nurses and doctors, the ultrasound tech who quickly confirmed the problem, the warm blankets an orderly brought when I shivered on a gurney. I was sick, uncomfortable and a little scared of the surgeries ahead, but reflecting on the situation with gratitude kept me smiling.
- Give Service: Service is another concept that helps sober people stay the course. Helping others get and/or stay sober strengthens our own recovery efforts, and having a helping attitude spills over into the rest of our lives as well. How could I help anyone while I was sick in bed? I spoke kind words to each nurse, attendant, and worker who came through my room, thanking them for their work (see also: gratitude). I sent kind thoughts and prayers for the well-being of the doctors and nurses who were working all around me. I looked over at the sweet 92-year-old in the next bed, and sent prayers for her comfort and healing, for her family and caregivers. Thinking about others took my mind off of my own pain and fear, and allowed me to reciprocate some of the kindness I was receiving so thankfully.
- Be Present: Hours passed by slowly in the hospital, and at times my mind would bounce between two unhappy places: the pain of the previous days and fear that the next day’s surgery would have complications. Bouncing between past pain and future fear is a rollercoaster ride of depression and anxiety; I’ve learned this lesson well in recovery. So if I caught myself slipping in either direction, I coaxed myself back into the present by deep breathing exercises. Staying in the present is enormously helpful in sobriety when we are likely to ask ourselves, “Is this forever?” “Can I make it through the weekend?” “Am I a horrible person for all the bad things in my past?” Stop. Breathe. Stay in the moment, just do the next right thing. Moment by moment, we can get through anything.
So although I was sidelined for a few days, I am feeling much better already and should be back to normal in no time. Having an alcohol-free lifestyle (as well as smoke-free and drug-free) lends itself to a strong, healthy body that bounces back quickly from these things.
The new year always brings lots of new readers who are looking for help and insights as they consider sobriety as a resolution. I am sorry that I was not able to respond quickly to those of you who have written this past week – please know you are very much on my mind and I am cheering for you.
If you are in the early days of recovery or experiencing a post-holiday wobble, I hope this post shows you how the principles of recovery can serve you well in all areas of your life. Stay well. Seriously.