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.
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.
Recovery looks like two friends having coffee in the sunshine.
Here I am with Anne (ainsobriety.wordpress.com) as we hung out on my front steps after recording an episode of The Bubble Hour for y’all to enjoy.
Raise your hand if you’ve taken an online drinking assessment.
Raise your other hand if you took the same assessment more than once, trying different variations of answers in order to get a better result. (Jazz hands if you switched to a different country’s website to see if they had looser guidelines.)
Nod your head if you then took those results and tried to work them backwards, in order to figure out how much you should cut back in order to drop into a lower risk category.
Rub your belly and pat your head if you then tried to moderate to those levels, failed, took the test again, and got an even higher score.
Yah, me too. You are not alone.
The one phrase that really stuck in my mind was, “No more than 10 drinks per week, no more than 2 drinks most days, and no more than 3 drinks on any single occasion.” (Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines) The gears in my head began to whir as I read those numbers, trying to comprehend what living within those guidelines might entail. My mental computations resulted in one-word: IMPOSSIBLE.
Impossible is exactly what moderating proved to be for me – I was well past the point of drinking within the guidelines. Living alcohol-free has not always been easy but it is certainly simpler than that hellish cycle of calculations, bargains, failure and regret.
What’s worse, the guidelines are based on a 5 oz serving of wine, something I considered to be a half-glass. I expect my average was an 8 oz pour, meaning what I called 3 drinks was closer to 5.
When I take that assessment now with complete honesty, my end habits were in the “Severe Risk” category – and no one even knew I had a problem!
I am grateful for these guidelines and assessments because they were an important wake-up call for me. There is a lot of rhetoric and nonsense out there that implies no one can tell if someone else needs to quit drinking. I feel that’s a misinterpretation of that fact that the will to change must come from within. But the numbers don’t lie and high-risk drinking is self-evident based on patterns and numbers alone.
So if you’re struggling with alcohol, pay attention to those assessments and guidelines. Share them. Talk about them.
Remember that many of us seemed to be functioning just fine but still fell into the “High Risk” and “Severe Risk” zones. Forget the stereotype of what we all think addiction looks like and trust the evidence.
Yesterday I spoke to a reader who has been struggling to hang onto her sobriety. She is able to go alcohol-free for weeks at a time but then drinks for reasons she doesn’t understand. Each time it happens she can feel herself make the decision to drink again, but doesn’t know why she does it.
“I am a strong person,” she said. “I have always been strong and can handle anything. Why can’t I get this?”
Here is what I have learned about being a strong person: it’s easy to fool ourselves. We mistakenly think we are being strong when we don’t get upset, don’t let things bother us, and then press on despite discomfort. “Suck it up” we tell ourselves, and then somehow we find a way to keep going.That looks like strength on the outside, but in truth it is denial. True strength is dealing with these things, not stuffing them down and refusing to acknowledge how we really feel.
When we deny reality for the sake of appearing strong, we are destroying ourselves from within. We live with some niggling discomfort we can’t name (refusing to address the real cause), and so look for relief in some acceptable form. This is how it started for me – a glass of wine before bed worked so well at first. It relaxed me, comforted, and brought on sleep. I kicked ass in the world all day, then came home and kicked off my heels and enjoyed a lovely glass of wine – a perfectly reasonable strategy. A glass of wine a day is even said to be healthy so no need for concern.
But over the years….
One glass a night became two or three or more and the wine glasses got larger and the bottles became boxes. I couldn’t quit, or even cut back. Each morning I vowed to quit, but by mid day I’d found a reason why it was important to still drink that day: if something good happened I needed to celebrate, if something bad happened I needed comforting, and if nothing at all happened I drank out of boredom.
I felt the same bewilderment as my friend: I am so strong. Why can’t I stop drinking?
Two reasons: because the illusion of strength I’d cultivated depended on a release valve, and because the addictive nature of alcohol caused it to become the one and only release I wanted. I was caught in a vicious cycle that was camouflaged (and perpetuated) by the outward appearance of achievement and strength.
It is easy to think that life is perfect except for the black mark of the addictive element, and if we can just get rid of the wine (or drugs or roulette or shopping or Chigaco-style popcorn – whatever is being stuffed into the void) then everything will be finally, fully perfect. That’s it, that’s all.
So we quit drinking, or try to quit drinking, but then things go sideways because we no longer have any release valve – the wine goggles destroyed the ability to recognize other pleasures. “What was I thinking? Things aren’t better without alcohol! They’re WORSE! I might as well drink because this sobriety nonsense is screwing up everything.”
First, it helps to recognize that our old ways of doing things were probably not as effective as we thought, or else they wouldn’t have led us to seek ongoing relief. The idea of what strength really is must be revisited and revised. Strength is grounded in honesty, in saying “no” to the things that aren’t serving us well and dealing with painful issues instead of sweeping them under a rug. This is the work of recovery (changing for the better), which takes us past mere sobriety (abstinence from the addictive substance or behaviour). It is possible to get through life without constant discomfort.
The crucial role of self-care then, is to not only nurture ourselves through these changes but most importantly to teach ourselves how to enjoy all of the pleasures that our addiction overshadowed. A walk in the sunshine, a massage or pedicure, a cup of coffee. It is important to plan activities or pleasant actions throughout the day and especially during the “witching hour”, so when cravings for alcohol come we can recognize them as a longing for comfort and offer an alternative. The most difficult part is that in early recovery, we don’t necessarily feel like doing much and little else is appealing. Do it anyway. Try lots of different things and little by little those discoveries will come. The herbal tea I once sneered at has become an indispensable part of my evening routine. The yoga I assumed was stupid is now my favourite way to unwind. Connecting with friends is about conversation, tears or laughter, and not just an excuse to drink. I can even sit still and do nothing, which I avoided before because that’s when all the hurts I had buried in the name of strength would surface and pester.
Be open to approaching things differently and you’ll learn to avoid unnecessary discomfort. Practice self-care and you’ll find new ways to console yourself when needed (and to celebrate the good things, too).
Undo, redo. Unlearn, retrain. Understand, rethink.
Un Un Un. Re Re Re.
This is what recovery is all about.
What are your favourite means of comfort and self-care? How has that changed throughout the course of your recovery?
A few weeks after I got sober, I wrote a lengthy post entitled “What Do I Drink If I No Longer Drink?” expressing a state of great bewilderment. How anything could ever replace wine in my hand, in my glass, in my life?
I had two great concerns that seemed like opposite problems: what to drink when alone and what to drink in social situations. My pattern as a daily drinker was to consume the majority of my alcohol intake alone or away from other people. Socially, I seemed quite normal and was careful to avoid appearing drunk in front of others (part of my charming social anxiety and extreme need for control). I would definitely need a glass or two of wine to feel more comfortable at an event, but I couldn’t wait to get home from the party so I could get in those last few drinks that “did the job”. Without alcohol, how would I manage socially? And how would I manage alone?
When alcohol has become an obsession it is unfathomable that anything could take its place, let alone satisfy. The idea of watching tv without a glass of wine was utterly mystifying. I could remember a long-ago time in my life when I’d choose a glass of water or a cup of cocoa and I didn’t recall being unhappy, but still I couldn’t picture enjoying it either. Now I love to sit down for the evening with a cup of herbal tea and am understandably partial to the flavours that offer some promise of comfort: Sleepy Time, Tension Tamer, Calm.
The solution I have settled on for a social situation is most often a non-alcoholic beer. I like that it arrives at the table in its can or bottle and I know for certain what I am getting. I will be very honest – if I ordered plain tonic water and accidently received a gin and tonic, I am not 100% certain that I would send it back. There is a devious part of me that might drink it anyway and act like nothing’s amiss. I am three years and eight months sober, and I don’t want to play games with my recovery success. Even when I order a plain Diet Coke in a restaurant I will often have my husband take a sip to ensure it is safe (“Oh that’s gawd awful – yes it is plain diet coke,” he’ll grimace, taking one for the team).
I have become very specific when ordering and say, “I will have a non-alcoholic beer and also a big wine glass to pour it into please.” I specify the wine glass for two reasons. First, I still like holding a wine glass. It feels feminine and familiar, and it makes me happy. Second, other people do not generally drink their beer from a wine glass, so it lessens the likelihood of picking up the wrong drink if I am mixing about the room. If I feel happy and safe, then mission completed. Servers do not care what customers order, their focus is to deliver what is asked for and keep the customer happy.
I was sharing my brilliant ordering logic with a recovery friend recently who expressed mild shock that I drink non-alcoholic beer. “Oh, yes!” I said, “It is kind of my go-to. Strangely one is usually more than enough. I also keep a stock of non-alcoholic cider in the fridge as a treat for parties or with dinner.”
“Jean,” she said with serious concern, “non-alcoholic drinks are only safe for non-alcoholics. No one with a drinking problem should be messing around with pretend booze.”
Whoa, this was news to me. I posed the question on Twitter (@unpickledblog) and one response that stood out was, “I don’t tease my disease.”
This is a serious debate. Are non-alcoholic beers, fake coolers, de-alcoholized wine, and mocktails dangerous for sobriety? Was I putting myself in more danger than I realized?
The internet abounds with articles (here is an example) encouraging alcoholics in recovery to refrain from drinking NA (non-alcoholic) beer because it does contain a very small amount of alcohol that could trigger a relapse, as could the mere experience of simulated “drinking” . Many AA discussion board participants are adamant that drinking NA beer is considered a relapse, and many recovery organizations say avoiding it entirely is a best practice.
Here is my opinion, one that comes with no expertise except my experience of 1333 days of continuous sobriety: know your triggers and stay away from them.
I eat some food that is cooked with wine (i.e. pasta, soups and stews) but I don’t eat deserts such as tiramisu or rum cake. I feel safe drinking NA beer and the occasional NA cider, but I don’t drink de-alcoholized wine. To me, the benefits of having a NA beer delivered to my table outweigh the risks of ordering a mocktail and possibly getting the wrong drink. I stay aware and keep myself safe, but what works for me might not work for someone else.
After a recent Bubble Hour episode in which I discussed being married to a “normie” (that is, a normal drinker) and allowing alcohol in our home, a commenter suggested that I should have left my husband if he wouldn’t give up alcohol in support of my recovery. That is pretty extreme and frankly, a little offensive. However, I acknowledge a kernel of truth to that sentiment – if I was struggling to quit and if having alcohol in the home was a threat to my sobriety, then we would have to make some hard decisions. But that wasn’t necessary in my particular situation.
Best practices are important to know and aspire to, but each of us must understand our own needs and tailor our lives accordingly. If beer triggers you, then best stay away from NA beer. If bars trigger you, stay out of bars. If wine was your downfall, drinking fake wine could be playing with fire.
Do whatever it takes to get (and stay) sober. Understand that my way might not be your way, and that the next person might disagree with us both. There is no definitive “right” way, but when in doubt err on the side of caution.
It has been a year now since I joined my favourite recovery podcast as a host. The Bubble Hour had been a huge help to my own healing and I jumped at the chance* to get involved in the show.
What is The Bubble Hour? It is a weekly podcasted conversation on sobriety-related topics discussed by real people in recovery. It’s like eavesdropping on a coffee date or group therapy. Many listeners use it as a boost between meetings, and many use it in place of meetings, or to help build the courage to attend meetings by hearing that other alcoholics don’t fit the stereotype they imagined.
What does the title mean? The title came from one of the show’s creators and former host Lisa, who refers to the safe space she creates around herself as her “bubble”. This can be your home, car, or head; and into this space you bring tools, tips, treats, and people – anything that supports recovery and helps you to stay strong and protected.
How big is the show? Our most recent stats show 30,000 listens per month and rapidly growing. That is over 1000 downloads per day (!), which is HUGE for a little homegrown podcast that spreads only by word of mouth. No ads, no sponsors, entirely run by four volunteers as an act of service.
How do I hear it? You can stream live as we record on Sunday nights at 9pm EST, listen from our website any old time, or subscribe via iTunes so shows automatically download. There are approx 100 episodes in the archives so you won’t run out of topics to explore! I listen while getting ready for my day, and also chose an episode for my morning run or when walking the dogs.
How is the show recorded? The show is pulled together by phoning out from a web-based platform (we use Blogtalk Radio). The hosts are scattered about – Amanda, Ellie and Catherine the Eastern States and me in Western Canada. Guests might be located anywhere, as far away as Mrs. D in New Zealand! Timing in itself can be an exercise in logic and coordination, since we are dealing with multiple time zones. While the other hosts might be in their jammies ready for bed when we record at 9pm EST, I am most certainly rushing through the Sunday supper dishes to be sequestered in my quiet home office ready for the 7pm MST call. Catherine and I both travel a lot, and regularly are connected from various random locations. I have participated in the show from a business conference in Edmonton AB, a holiday home in Palm Springs CA, my brother-in-law’s motor home on a camping trip, and a recovery retreat in Kelowna BC.
Catherine travels for work and I’m always amazed at the energy she has despite being on the road giving presentations all day, then joining the broadcast at night from a hotel room. Other times she is racing home from the airport in time to record, and never sounds tired or flat despite the long day behind her. Ellie is usually at home, in a room that muffles the sound of kids and dogs and her menagerie of animals. Amanda has a favourite chair in her quiet house, I’m told. The four of us have never been in the same room at the same time, ever.
What are the other hosts really like? I have been involved in a lot of collaborative projects before, but I’ve never experienced a group that is as generous and cohesive as this. There is no ego, no showboating, no agenda beyond service and helping others. The warmth and sincerity you hear on air is absolutely genuine.
In my past life as a performing musician and cable tv host, I was always amazed at the ability some people have to turn their charm off and on. A fellow performer who had been a genuine asshat moments before air could flick an internal switch when the recording light came on and transform in my best buddy. (Canada is waking up to the reality of this phenomenon with the recent Jian Gomeshi scandal.) I always worked hard to be as authentic as possible on-air, although I was hiding anxiety, OCD, and alcohol dependence so perhaps I just delayed removing the mask until home alone.
When I joined The Bubble Hour I braced myself to see behind the curtain, prepared to discover that the charming voices I had come to love might be more flawed in reality. My experience has been the opposite – as wonderful as they are on-air, they are even more amazing behind the scenes. Amanda is funny and laid-back yet a very hard worker with tons of energy. Ellie is warm and thoughtful, and her absolute honesty throughout her difficulties – relapse, cancer, losing a parent, separating from her husband – calls us all to keep it real. Catherine is brilliant, sweet, beautiful and unbelievably well-read. How she juggles her corporate career, travel schedule, recovery program and still do the show amazes me. And Lisa, with whom I’ve only recorded one show, is in my same online recovery group so I am familiar with her crazy sense of humour and adorable demeanor. If you are a fan of the show and love these ladies, I can tell you without reservation that they wouldn’t disappoint you if you were to meet in person.
(Ironically, Lisa says my blog helped her in early recovery. She was reading my blog, I was listening to her podcasts, yet we had no idea we were affecting each other.)
How do you plan shows from across two countries and four locations? Every few months we do a meeting on Google Hangouts to talk about show ideas, share feedback and suggestions from listeners, and go over any concerns we are having. I love these meetings because it is such a treat to see each other’s faces! I wish these meetings could go on for days but they are always hard to schedule and we never feel like we have enough time. We take turns producing episodes and booking guests, using a shared Google calendar to keep track of whose turn it is each week. The producer for the week does research (if necessary) and creates an outline for the show which is uploaded to a drop box file so all can access it. This gives the other hosts a chance to print the script, review it, and make a few notes for themselves about personal contributions they might want to share. Amanda does the lion’s share of the pre-show work by uploading show descriptions, booking the airtime, posting to Facebook, and probably other things I am not even aware of. Did I mention she is a hard worker?
What goes on behind the scenes during the show? We can all see an online studio board that lists which hosts and guests are on the line, and countdown clock of the 90 minutes of airtime we have booked. That’s about it. The script is in front of me, and I scribble all over it during the conversation to remind myself of questions I might want to ask or takeaways to share at the end of the show. I talk on my land line, look at my computer screen, and have my iphone handy because we group message if needed behind the scenes. Our format lately has been to have one co-host sit out the discussion and live tweet snippets. Catherine has been the “tweeter” twice now and is great at it – she is quick witted and picks out the best nuggets to share.
Last night it was my first turn at tweeting and I was scrambling from the get go. As Amanda was announcing guests and reading the introduction, I was sending a flurry of messages to Catherine and Ellie to get on the twitter account, get the script, get the dang show to stream. They are calm under pressure, thankfully. They helped me get straightened out and never missed a beat on air. I listened to the show from a muted line, jotted down quips as fast as I could and tweeted them as my brain caught up with the process. (Catherine messaged me behind the scenes, “Did you get that, Jean? As a reference to “balance” in PAWs?” I answered, “Catherine I don’t know how you do this. I feel like a Chihuahua in a horse race!”)
Recently I was hurrying home from a weekend trip with only 15 to spare before an episode that I was producing and hosting. I raced into the house, grabbed a glass of water, flicked on the computer and realized to my horror that we had left all the phones off their chargers and there was not one phone in the whole house I could use to do the show. It was now 5 minutes before line time (when we get everyone on the line before the show opens), which I was in charge of, and my only options was to hop in my car and get to my (thankfully nearby) office. I was surprised that I didn’t feel my usual anxiety, just a sense of hustle and purpose. We hit the air on time, and the show went smoothly. That’s how it goes when we participate in something we truly love, care about, and feel we were meant to do.
If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you enjoyed this glimpse behind the scenes. If you’ve never listened, please check us out! Many listeners are friends and family of people in recovery, and tune in to gain insight into their loved one’s journey. Many listeners are still actively drinking but want to know what it is like to live without alcohol. And many are using us as an essential part of their own personal “bubble”!
* Full disclosure: I didn’t just jump at the chance, I created the opportunity. I clearly remember the day: I was listening to the podcast while sitting at my little vanity fluffing and plucking and prepping myself for the day, as was my usual routine, and co-host Lisa announced she would be leaving the show to give more time to self-care, family, and recovery. I was sad – everyone loves Lisa and her southern charm – and then I was happy for her to be asserting her priorities…and then a crazy idea presented itself: offer to help the other two hosts if they are short handed. I walked straight to my computer and sent Ellie a message via her blog. We had never met, but she was familiar with this blog and welcomed me to the show. Best crazy idea I ever had!
I picked up my new glasses yesterday. Thanks to a “BOGO” sale I purchased two pairs to cover my dual identities: “posh businesswoman” and “sporty grandma on the go”. I’m just one week into my health insurance coverage calendar and I’ve already spent the entire year’s allowance.
It’s my first rodeo with progressive lenses – the kind with a distance prescription in the top, a reading part at the bottom, and an intermediate range between them. The sides are a no-man’s land of distortion so good-bye to peripheral vision.
“It takes some getting used to,” said the young optician, whose trendy specs were either blanks or single vision. This bi-focal stuff is for the over-forty crowd. I assumed her advice comes from customer anecdotes rather than first-hand experience, but her glasses were so alluring that I listened intently. Her style gave her credibility.
“At first you may feel like you can’t see but it will be because you aren’t looking through the right part of the lens. Move your head slightly until you can focus clearly.”
“Ah,” I smiled. “So it is a matter of retraining myself. Well, I have a lot of experience with that.”
I popped on the sporty grandma pair and hopped into my car, eager to start the new experience. I could see the road! I could see the speedometer! I could see the dash! The lights! The trees! Whoops, the crosswalk was a bit blurred, better watch that. I went to the grocery store and delighted in my ability to recognize other shoppers, read product labels, and check my watch while wearing these new glasses.
In the past, a trip to the store meant I would wear my distance glasses (necessary for driving) and then upon arrival I’d have to remove them to be able to read prices or labels, which involved lots of oh-so-attractive squinting. Of course, then I couldn’t see people around me very well, so if a familiar-looking blur approached I’d do the squint thing again until they were close enough to recognize, by which time I’d potentially offended them with my “stink eye” expression and oddly delayed greeting. Awkward interpersonal exchanges were common.
Like so many things in life, the situation had to get uncomfortable enough to require a solution. There are inexpensive reading glasses scattered throughout my house – six pairs at least – yet rarely is one within reach when I need it. Over the past decade I have also accumulated four pairs of pricey prescription distance glasses, which float between my car, kitchen, purse and desk but only occasionally turn up in the right place at the right time in coordination with my ensemble. It was a constant crap-shoot and even when I had the right pair when needed, they still only partly solved the problem.
I even tried monovision contacts, presuming them the answer to my prayers: a reading lens in one eye, a distance lens in the other. After a few days of experiencing a fish-bowl effect, the brain sorts out which eye to use and which one to ignore. That left me only doing the weird squint face for the intermediate range – generally at my computer screen. I loved the freedom of wearing contacts and the constant wonder of my brain’s ability to adapt, but my eyeballs took issue with the intrusion and regularly spit out the lenses.
I was starting to recognize a pattern that echoed my experiences as a person in recovery: this is too complicated; I am a special case; what works for everyone else won’t work for me; I am finding my own ways to manage; I tried adapting and it didn’t work; I don’t really want to change; I reject the ultimate solution.
I am 47 years old and I don’t want to wear glasses all the time. I thought if I just kept them handy and popped them on when I needed them I could get by. And it worked for a while, but my vision worsened and now I need a new solution; one that requires change, adjustment, and a willingness to accept a new version of myself.
As the optician told me, “Just remember, if you aren’t seeing something clearly it is probably not the glasses, it’s how you’re holding your head. Adjust yourself slightly and you’ll be amazed at the difference.”
I smiled at the irony of her earnest advice, words that reflected a profound life lesson that came as a result of overcoming my addiction to alcohol. Be willing to change yourself, and everything else will improve. Bless her heart, I expect this young woman has no awareness of the metaphor.
As for me, I simply love my new world view; figuratively and literally.
Ask a person in recovery – a happy one, that is – the secret for long term success and the answer will likely include the word “service”. What that involves may be much different than you’d expect.
I was shocked and pleased by the outpouring of support I received from others when I began blogging on “Day One” without alcohol. There were so many kind, encouraging comments from complete strangers who simply understood the struggle. What a wonderful surprise! As it turns out, the twelfth step of AA is to help others selflessly because giving sends strength in both directions.
I am not in a twelve step program or any program, but I respectfully draw from the wisdom they provide. I reviewed AA’s 12 Steps and SMART Recovery’s 4 Principles to ask why each one is helpful, how I could make use of it or adapt it for my own self-managed pathway.
At first I assumed the concept of “service” simply referred to being a sponsor of someone else in a program. Then I realized that all the comments and support I was receiving on my blog were acts of service, and that I was benefitting greatly from them. I began to follow suit and encourage new readers in the same way – a wonderful shared experience. Eventually I saw many opportunities to be of service in everyday life, as well.
I’ve always been a people pleaser, but that is not the same as service. People-pleasing is doing things to make others like us. At its core, it is manipulative and self-centered. Service is about helping others without any expectations. Big difference. BIG difference. Check your motivation: are you doing things for others as an act of pure kindness or because you want them to like you, feel beholden to you, or to prove that you are a martyr?
I have had to work hard on this shift, I confess. I see the results in lowered resentments, higher self-esteem, and a true feeling of joy.
Here are ten simple ways that I gave service this week:
- Answering UnPickled blog comments and emails. It takes courage for a reader to make a comment on a recovery blog, whether it is to ask for help or to say “me too”, so I always do my best to respond. In fact, any time we take a moment to respond to any blog post or comment – regardless of the subject matter – we are acknowledging another person’s efforts and showing gratitude.
- Sending surprise gifts. I was shopping and stumbled across a clearance rack of cute socks. Impulsively I scooped up ten pairs for friends, and realized I would then need envelopes to send them by mail. I hunted those down next and brought home my little bundle. I went through my address books and randomly chose names, reminding myself that the purpose was kindness and not to be a people pleaser. I tucked a short note into each parcel, which only took a moment but is itself a rare gift these days. This was a great exercise and I am so excited to drop them into the mail today.
- Shoveled beyond my own sidewalk. Yesterday was out first big snowfall of the year here in southern Alberta and it was a doozy. Instead of hopping on the treadclimber for exercise, I headed out to shovel our driveway and noticed that our neighbours on both sides were not yet cleared. One neighbour has two small children and often works late shifts, the other has a son in hockey and is out the door before sunrise on Saturdays to head for the rink. I knew both would appreciate having their sidewalks cleared, but I stopped myself. Maybe they won’t appreciate the gesture. Maybe they won’t even notice. Maybe they will never reciprocate. Pause, focus Jean. Kindness, right? Is this a kind thing to do? Yes. Will it help them regardless? Yes. Okay then, let’s proceed.
- Next I was headed to the grocery store. I took a moment to call my elderly parents and ask if they needed anything. Again, had to remind myself that this was not a “good girl” move but an act of kindness to save them from having to go out on a snowy day. They needed nothing, and I was interrupting Murdoch Mysteries.
- I saw that an obituary in the paper for old acquaintance of my father and offered to take my dad to the funeral. This was not someone either of us knew particularly well, but I had a feeling that he might want to attend if given the opportunity. My dad is no longer able to drive and hates to ask for rides unless absolutely necessary. I am so glad we went, as it was a chance for my dad to offer a gesture of kindness to the grieving family. His days of shoveling snow for the neighbours are over, and he needs opportunities for service just as much as anyone else.
- I take my neighbours garbage can to the curb if it isn’t already out when I am moving my own. Missing garbage pickup sucks, and as I said they re a busy family with little kids so I presume that their garbage can is full of diapers that really need to be emptied!
- I tweet kudos whenever I receive good customer service, taking care to tag the business. Another option is to simply thank someone who treats you well and say, “I appreciate the way you do your job.” This goes a long way, I promise. One of my sons works in the food industry and he often shares how meaningful and encouraging he finds customer compliments. They not only make his day, but perpetuate his resolve to continue to work hard.
- I let the neighbours know that I enjoy their children. Our kids are grown and our household is pretty quiet, and often our neighbours will apologize for their kids’ noise. I could easily say, “no problem” and stop at that, but I make the extra effort to say, “You have great kids and we love hearing them play. It is a happy sound.” Again, the point is not to be sugary sweet so they will like me better, but to ease any worries they may have – don’t young parents have enough to worry about already?
- Recovery has made me a nicer driver! I let people merge. I wave if they let me in. I assume the slow driver ahead of me is learning, elderly, or lost – not an “asshole” or an “idiot”. In my drinking days I was careful not to drive drunk, but I surely was dysfunctional behind the wheel. All my resentments, anxieties, and insecurities were aimed at everyone else. I can literally feel the difference in my heart now when I am in traffic.
- I rarely walk past littler without picking it up and tossing it in the nearest garbage can. Nothing gross, of course, but if someone has randomly tossed a cup or wrapper I think nothing of whisking it up on my way by. This is a habit I formed long ago, hoping others would notice and (a) think highly of me and (b) follow suit. (Or at least stop effing littering. Jeez!) My new perspective shift has me checking myself to do it simply as an act of service – see or unseen – because it is right.
Now it is your turn to reflect. What can you do for someone else today? What kindness did you perform yesterday? What do you do every day to be of service, and do you have the right mindset? Please share your thoughts and ideas below – an act of service in itself to inspire us all!
If there is one question I am most asked about living alcohol-free, it is “How did you know it was time to quit drinking?”
Only occasionally is this question asked with dancing eyes that reveal a quest for titillation: I want to hear every detail of rock bottom. If I sense that is the motive, I generally let them down easy: I was the most boring alcoholic ever – I have no stories of catastrophe. I just knew I was losing control and needed to take charge.
More often it is asked with genuine interest, either because someone would like to know me better or is trying to understand addiction better for personal reasons. Sincere questions deserve honest answers.
I have been reading about the “transtheoretical model of behaviour change” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transtheoretical_model) and I can easily see how it correlates to my journey. In short, it identifies various stages of decision-making and behaviour changes as such:
- Precontemplation (not ready) – in my case, using wine as a daily antidote for stress and anxiety; enjoying the relief it brought; feeling very comfortable with my routine and experiencing no negative thoughts or consequences.
- Contemplation (getting ready) – I began to feel an acknowledgement and growing discomfort with the reality of my habits. I started to pay attention to the red flags (see below). I began watching Celebrity Rehab with intense focus (while drinking).
- Preparation (ready) – I got up the courage to assess my drinking patterns online (I used http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov) and received confirmation that I needed to make changes. I started trying to quit and failed each day. I took no steps to make myself accountable and did not reach out for help, but these initial unsuccessful efforts confirmed my worst fears. Not only could I not quit, but also not moderate or reduce. Throughout this stage, my intake instead steadily escalated and I began to realize where this was headed.
- Action (initiating change) – for me, this was speaking honestly to a friend, starting this blog, and reaching out to the online community for help and support. I threw myself into the task at hand and little by little made it through each difficult day.
- Maintenance (supporting the change) – I guess this is where I am at now – you could call this ongoing recovery. This is a great place to be and many recovery advocates say the goal should be to engage in this phase forever.
- Termination (completion of change) – remembering that the transtheoretical model of behaviour change is not about recovery specifically, there comes an end point where the change is complete and the new behaviours are effortless and normal. There are different schools of thought in the recovery community as to whether or not one can ever end the process. Some pathways teach that if you stop going to meetings and working their program you’ll either start drinking again or fall into the miserable life of a “dry drunk”. Some pathways encourage striving for a point of supported closure on the change – which does not mean it is possible to start drinking again normally but rather that you can go forward as a “non-drinker” and be done with it. I don’t take a position on this – at this point it doesn’t matter to me because I have a lot of work still to do and see myself in the maintenance phase for many years to come.
So what were those red flags for me? It wasn’t any one single “big” thing that led me to change; it was the accumulation of little things. Here are some I recall:
- Unable to stop drinking daily
- Unable to reduce or limit amount
- Drinking alone
- Shame about bottles in recycling bin
- Hiding extra alcohol in cupboard
- Continual concern about having enough alcohol on hand
- Obsessive awareness of alcohol at every event – planning when and how to get in the “right” amount to get through the evening while still managing to drive sober to and from events, and appear “normal” to the outside world
- Becoming very agitated when unplanned changes disrupted my pattern – specifically I recall a friend dropping by and my husband poured her a glass of wine. I began to panic knowing that it meant there would not be enough to get me through the evening. I secretly drank shots of scotch before bed to compensate. I felt guilty about resenting my friend for visiting unannounced.
- Spending the last hour of work each day deciding if I would stick to my plan of quitting drinking or stop at a liquor store on the way home, all the while knowing I would certainly pick up more wine.
- Rotating stores because I was embarrassed of buying wine every day, but never buying more too much at once because I was planning to quit “tomorrow”.
- Finding out that my drinking habits fell into the “high risk” and “heavy drinking” categories. I knew my drinking was only increasing, never declining, and I was running out of categories. Next stop: rock bottom. No thanks.
Now what about you, readers? Do you recognize yourself in the stages of behaviour changes? What were your red flags, and was it many little things or one big incident that initiated your decision to live alcohol-free?