On a quiet walk in the woods of Qualicum Beach this morning, I saw a tree growing on top of an old stump.
I reflected on the ability of one life to fuel the next. Again and again it appeared, new growth sprouting from the decaying past.
Some of us push away our past, hoping to deny or overcome the things we’d rather forget. But maybe we can instead embrace it, not erase it, and use it to fuel our futures.
Oh the simple life. Crawling into our cozy van-bed with a book, quickly drifting to sleep and clocking a miraculous ten hours of deep rest, night after night. Amazing! I rarely sleep longer than seven hours a night at home. How is this even possible?
Our daily adventures look something like this: a gorgeous drive, a good meal, a pretty campsite, a nice walk, a deep sleep, morning coffee, repeat.
A cartwheel on the beach…and a hike through the forest at Porpoise Bay…No make up for days on end! I literally have not gone a week without makeup since I started wearing it (hiding behind it) in the 7th grade.
There is a lot to be said for breaking routine and doing things differently. I realize how stuck in my ways I am at home – from morning coffee to bedtime tea. Being overly entrenched in routine is how I got stuck in the wine loop, and then I leveraged routine to break free.
I’m far from a “Free Spirit” (as our van boasts) but I am embracing this version of freedom on our vacation. It’s nice to know I can do this, to just *be* and just *enjoy*.
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 running yesterday — yes, running, more on that in a moment — tossing around ideas for what to write. Where to start after the past few weeks? Life has served up extreme ends of the spectrum this year – so happy, so so very sad – it’s hard to talk about one without slighting the other. (For a recap of this year’s rollercoaster, listen to the intro on last week’s Bubble Hour. Then, of course, listen to the rest of the interview after because Meaghan’s story was captivating.)
We are spending the week at our family’s lake cottage on Lac La Biche, situated in the edge of Alberta’s Boreal Forest. Sometimes there are 18 or more of us here and it’s a blur of beach towels and corn cobs and trying to remember which phone charger or coffee cup is mine.
This week, however, there’s only three of us and the focus is on puttering – clearing, burning, building, cleaning – and relaxing in equal measure.
I take long walks every day, something I’ve done since first coming here in the 80s as a teen (gah!). On a recent walk, I reflected on how grateful I am to have healed so quickly and completely from my broken leg and got the idea to try running a few paces. I was dressed in jeans and flats, so I didn’t want to appear to actually be out for a run — not that there was a soul around to see me anyway. But oh my gosh!! I ran and it worked and it didn’t hurt so I just kept running. And the next day I dressed more appropriately and alternated between 100 steps running/walking. No pain! No swelling!
I was so excited that I didn’t turn around at the usual spot, I kept going until our little side road joined the highway and then without thinking I stepped onto the skinny shoulder of the busy logging/oil route. Every minute or two a rig would rumble past but I didn’t care. I felt reckless and free and powerful. I could run! (And then walk, and run, and walk, and RUN!).
When I got back to the cabin, I burst through the door with sweaty jubilation, eager to share my achievement with anyone who’d listen. When it came out that my route had taken me onto the highway, my family was understandably horrified.
“That is so dangerous – don’t do that again!”
So yesterday I set off for another run, mostly motivated by the fact that I’d forgotten to pack milk and had been substituting whipping cream in my coffee since arriving. The events of this year have contributed so a 15 lb weight gain as it is, and something should be done. Clearly that something does not involve black coffee, so running it is.
I found myself on the route towards the highway, debating whether to turn back at the stop sign or (secretly) run the forbidden loop. Sure, I had promised I wouldn’t, but there it was.
As the red sign got closer and closer, and my mind bounced from blogging ideas to sneaking onto the highway like a naughty child, I suddenly felt an accountability to YOU, dear reader, to “do the next right thing” – just as I’m always telling others to do, even though this time it had nothing to do with alcohol.
Or did it?
Who do I hurt when I indulge the part of me that says it’s okay to do something risky as long as I keep it quiet? Who do I slight when I think “no one knows”? Myself, that’s who. If I know, someone knows. Secret behaviours can be just as dangerous as running on the highway.
I decided to capture this moment of awareness to post here, to show you that you’re with me, to remind us all to just keep going and do the next right thing.
Tom Cochran was right: the secret IS to know when to stop – be it drinking or withholding truth or putting heavy cream in coffee or not writing.
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.
Like many busy moms, my wine habit began with a glass of wine to help me fall asleep at night. It helped smooth the edges off the one part of my day I dreaded: laying in bed, alone with my thoughts. I have written about this in several other posts, and spoken of it often on The Bubble Hour podcast.
Stillness was my enemy, because old memories would jab my brain until shame and regret became an unending loop. Eyes open or closed, I couldn’t look away: a teacher embarrassing me in elementary, the terrible way I sometimes treated my friends in high school. Inexplicable moments of scattered promiscuity, cruelty, apathy, or weakness. Shitty mom moments of being short tempered with my kids. Instances of insensitivity towards employees because I was overwhelmed myself. I never knew what old gem would come floating back if I laid my head on the pillow but it hardly mattered. They all affected me the same way – bringing tears and eventually long silent sobs into my pillow that I hoped my husband wouldn’t hear.
I drank to skip that. I drank to fall asleep the moment BEFORE my head hit the pillow, to avoid the torture of looking inward. I’d been raised to pray before I slept, to take a quiet moment to reflect and give thanks or ask for help to do better. Over time this morphed into self-loathing, until I no longer felt worthy of involving God in the conversation. The more I drank to avoid my inner landscape, the more I had to hate about myself. It was a vicious circle.
Navigating these thought patterns was daunting without a numbing agent, but I had no choice once I left alcohol behind. I’ve talked myself through it, revisited my old rItaly of prayer, and when all else fails I just allow myself to cry.
Thanks to a friend, I’ve learned a new technique that is proving to be the most effective tool yet for banishing those ruminating thoughts.
Memories, it turns out, are neither all that reliable nor accurate. Every time we yank one out of long-term storage, it is momentarily vulnerable to change. Plastic, if you will. So if we retrieve it in a moment of sadness or self-loathing, it will be affected by that perspective and highlighted or tweaked to conform. Likewise, it can also be altered in a more positive way.
My friend shared that her therapist had been helping her rewrite a traumatic memory from her childhood by imagining what characters she needed there with her in that moment – a protector, a nurturer, a companion. She learned to pause the story and bring in those characters, to change the outcome into a happier ending. If it’s all in her head anyway, what’s the difference? If she was remembering an inherently inaccurate version anyway that was painful, why not invent a better, safer version?
This is the basis of memory modification, and here’s how I’ve adapted it for myself. Now if I find myself fixating on an old memory that’s painful, I pause it like a photograph. Then I step into the memory as I am today, taking the form of my highest self – the nurturer, the grandmother, the mom, the wiser, kinder me. I step forward into the thought and face the old me in the memory, coming between she and the other person in the frame (and there’s always another person involved, it seems). I wrap a favourite blanket around the younger me’s shoulders, and I pull her close in a warm, strong hug. In that instant, I can feel in my chest everything that I had been needing in that moment (assurance, affection, acceptance, love, forgiveness) and I am able to transfer that very thing from me to her. I tell her she is safe, that everything will be okay.
Then I take her out of that moment and tuck her into the passenger seat of my car, still wrapped in the blanket. I drive her through Starbucks and buy her anything she wants, and we head for the mountains – then me and now me like the closet of friends. It’s a beautiful drive. She feels calm and safe in my presence. We arrive at our cabin, the stuning mountain home she doesn’t know she will one day own, and I usher her inside. There at a large dining table are three handsome young men playing a board game, laughing together. These are your sons. A blonde, fun-looking grandpa with two little boys. This is your husband and grandchildren. Three radiant young women: your daughters in law.
This is your family. This is your future. All this happiness awaits you. You are safe here. Stay and play.
Its amazing how this process deflates the negativity out of old memories. If the thought returns, I can say, It’s okay, she’s safe at the cabin having fun with the people who love her. She found what she was looking for. If a new memory surfaces, I know what to do: blanket, hug, Starbucks, cabin, future family. It works every time.
I’m not a therapist, I don’t pretend to be, but I hope my version of memory modification sparks your curiosity – especially if you are haunted by your past. Think of it like a photograph, one you keep pulling out to reexamine. It’s time to take a felt marker and draw a moustache, a bluebird, a rainbow. It’s time to stop carrying that photo in your wallet and cut it into a snowflake.
You are that powerful, that creative….that free to change.
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.
Last weekend we went to a wedding in Las Vegas and I’ll admit I wondered how it would feel to be sober in THE party town.
Sparks were flying before we even left the airport, as one rowdy passenger was pulled aside at the gate and told he wouldn’t be served alcohol on the plane. Seated nearby once on board, we listened to him pleade and argue with the crew throughout the three-hour flight. Delightful! When we landed, he muttered “See you next Tuesday” to the flight attendant, which my husband informed me is code for the nasty C-word.
I had a small epiphany as we walked the strip after arriving: Vegas might be easier for me sober than it was before. I’d been there twice for conventions many years ago, before drinking became entirely problematic for me. I was there for business conventions and wasn’t interested in the other distractions. If I had visited the city during the time of my active addiction, I would have been very bothered by the public displays of drunkenness because I so cherished my hidden secret. I drank on my own terms, as a reward after working hard all day. Vegas offers no chance to maintain that front! There is no work to be rewarded, no pretence of anything but indulgence. I rejected that image, resented that idea. I drank in a private, regimented way that Vegas would have totally disrupted. I don’t think I could have enjoyed myself there in those days.
It was good to see our family at the wedding, the bride was stunning and the Elvis minister was charming. We had a lot of laughs, ate some very good food, spent a few hours shopping, and were soon on our way home again without ever even sitting at a slot machine.
Earlier in my sobriety, I was very dependent on a certain routine of morning coffee and bedtime tea that would have been difficult to replicate in Las Vegas because there wasn’t even a coffee maker in our hotel room (clearly the hospitality industry is hell bent on keeping visitors out where they can spend money!). I think the noise, crowds, stimulation, and general ick-factor would have spiked my anxiety and I would have been a mess. I doubt I would have drank but I might have taken Gravol to knock myself out, which in some ways is a relapse (pills to escape, even just Gravol!).
One of the great lessons of recovery for me has been withstanding discomfort. I did feel overwhelmed at times, and instead of letting the feelings rule me I breathed and waited. I did see people who were rowdy and loud, and I released the urge to judge. I saw people who made me sad – homeless people, young women who seemed exploited, and foreign workers handing out smut cards – and my heart went out to them.
The most lasting impression – aside from the gorgeous bride, our reason for being there – was a couple we sat behind on the flight home. There was tension between them, clearly. The wife was quite obviously hung over, a shroud of shame and pain clung to her shoulders. Her eyes looked dead in that way many of us in recovery know all too well – a mix of defeat and defiance. Her husband was silent before, during, and after the flight. He sheparded her through the crowds but walked a step ahead. He acknowledged when she spoke to him but his eyes were quiet steel. Jesus,what happened with these two? Whatever it was, the fallout was evident. My heart ached for them both, and I couldn’t help feel that their story was a long way from over.
Just as I wished a life of happiness or the bride and groom, I went home hoping happiness might find the cast of real-life characters whose faces wouldn’t leave my mind: the young man who was drunk at the airport, the homeless man who ran for his life throug the hotel lobby with a stolen sandwich in his hand, the young woman in a leather miniskirt and platform shoes with glazed eyes leaning heavily on an older man, that angry couple on the flight home.
I’d had just as much fun on Freemont Street with my Lime Perrier as everyone else with their booze, but my heart was glad to go home and get back to normal.