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A Tale of Two Valentines

On Valentines Day 2011, I rushed to the local drug store on my way home from work to purchase a hasty but heartfelt gift for my husband. I chose a few items from the dwindling inventory and stood in line with the other last-minute romantics. 

I glanced back at the growing line  behind me and spotted a familiar handsome blonde fellow: my better half. Our eyes met and we burst out laughing. 

“What are you getting up there?” he asked over the curious folks between us. 

“What are YOU getting?” I replied. 

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!” 

Now the whole line was laughing along with us. 

We stepped to the side and looked over the impersonal gifts we’d selected for each other.

“It really is the thought that counts,” one of us wisely concluded. “We don’t need any of this stuff. This was already the best part of the day.”

We put everything back and went home chuckling. 

I had forgotten all about that incident but since I wrote about it on Facebook, it cane up this morning as a “Memory” update. 

I read it aloud to my husband while we sipped our morning coffee together. He’d forgotten it also and we both laughed all over again as if hearing it for the first time. 

Growing old isn’t so bad, especially together. 

Happy Valentines Day. 

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Stranger on a Plane

I'm Sure I KNow That Guy

You’re on a plane and you start to notice that the fellow in front of you looks very familiar. Well, at least from behind. You didn’t see him sit down so you’re not sure what he actually looks like but each time he turns his head the glimpse of his profile reminds you of someone. And his mannerisms…He touches his ear again, just like that guy in your math class back in university. Wasn’t that guy a farm kid? You remember him telling some story about a tractor. This guy could be a farmer – he looks very healthy and tan from back here.

By the end of the flight you know him better than he probably knows himself: should you tell him his barber missed a hair on the back of his neck? Maybe his farm-wife clips his hair for him on their front porch (you’ve noticed the sensible gold band). And that mole looks worrisome – his wife would surely have noticed it when she cut his hair. She likely booked him a doctor’s appointment. Country doctors are so kindly. You are so happy that your former classmate has a nice life.

The the plane lands and you wonder briefly what he’ll say, what you’ll say, if (when) he recognizes you as he turns to wait hunched under the overhead bins while the other passengers lumber into motion. You prepare to act a little surprised at that moment of hello, since you suddenly feel weirdly ashamed of watching him so intensely. You are also busily gathering your belongings and these thoughts are so fleeting you barely notice them.

You watch. He turns. And…looks completely different than you imagined. There is nothing familiar – or farmer-ish for that matter – about this man. He is a a complete stranger, and now he is looking at you because you are looking at him. You look away, suddenly feigning disinterest.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Or am I the only one who composes stories for the partly-seen strangers before me on planes and in theatres or restaurants?

It occurred to me last evening (as the lady in front of me at The Lion King in Vancouver whose elegance I’d been admiring turned to reveal an unexpected visage) that this experience is not unlike the way we view our own lives at times.

Sometimes we get stuck looking at ourselves, our lives, our relationships from a limited perspective – like considering our parents from only the child’s point of view, or ourselves from the inner critic position. Maybe we are inclined to only see things as the victim or the hero (have you read my post on The Drama Triangle yet?). Our experience can be painful, which is why we then seek relief by drinking (or a myriad of other coping behaviours like shopping, eating, working, escaping by any means) and that process keeps us stuck. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Recovery is all about stepping back, sideways, forwards and seeing things differently. It is about looking at the whole picture and changing the perspective. Sometimes it is a huge AHA! moment just to become aware that what we thought was real was really a skewed version of the truth.

There’s nothing wrong with inventing a story for the back of a stranger’s head – it’s one of my favourite pastimes. However, when the moment of truth comes around may it serve as a gentle reminder for all the ways we fool ourselves with limited thinking and perspectives.

Keeping It Real

It is mating season here in southern Alberta, and this morning I watched a large buck chase a doe down a boulevard in my neighbourhood. The doe stopped suddenly and turned to face her suitor, hopping side to side flirtatiously before dodging towards an elementary schoolyard. It was thrilling to watch from within the safety of my car, and thankfully a chilly snowfall has kept the both the schoolchildren and neighbourhood dog-walkers inside and out of harm’s way.

I was giggling as I drove away, wondering if the amorous pair’s nature dance would culminate in lusty deer sex outside a classroom window. Talk about a teachable moment! This is how kids SHOULD learn about sex.  Instead they get twisted messages when Grandma fails to realize Family Guy and South Park aren’t kids’ shows or because the babysitter let them play Grand Theft Auto.

God Bless the brave teacher who doesn’t close the blinds on urban deer mating, because we all need to get more comfortable with reality. Real life is messy, beautiful, ordinary and extraordinary.  Real life happens in a flash and then the world moves on. No soundtrack plays for deer sex, car crashes, failure or triumph.

We are bombarded with fake examples of beauty, violence, terror, power or success that are such heightened versions they barely resemble reality. All that added colour and noise put up a barrier that makes us feel removed enough to disengage and observe. It is one thing to watch an over-the-top tv personality like Donald Trump yell “You’re fired!” but have you ever been in the room when someone actually gets fired? It’s awkward and uncomfortable. Where to look? What facial expressions are appropriate? Display kindness or outrage?

Our own realities can be too much for others. Someone who happily watches Intervention on tv may be very uncomfortable hearing about my experiences as a person in recovery. It is difficult to explain that I responded to a growing knowledge that something was wrong, but have no grand “rock bottom” story to go with it.

“Yah but what did you DO that was so bad?”

Nothing.

“Okay but what HAPPENED that made you decide to quit?”

I just knew I had to.  

Squirm squirm. Awkward pause. “But you’re not like an alcoholic or anything.”

Yah, actually I am. Sorry I brought it up….

Sandra Bullock in “21 Days” or Meg Ryan in “When a Man Loves a Woman” don’t resemble me any more than twerking resembles what went on between those two deer this morning.  And yet…who can blame us for looking away when things are too real?

I said hello to an acquaintance in a book store recently. “How are you?” I asked and he proceeded to tell me more than I wanted to know. Erm. I felt badly for him, it was a sad story. But I also felt badly he was compelled to tell that sad story rather inappropriately; felt badly for his lack of judgment. Then I felt badly for judging his judgment instead of listening with kindness. Pivot! Pivot!

I guess as humans we instinctively look away from things that frighten or overwhelm us. Proximity requires us to respond and perhaps the appropriate reaction isn’t evident or comfortable.

Recently I decided I need to watch the video for “Wrecking Ball” because it’s so often referenced and without seeing it I was missing the joke. I found it on Apple TV just as my husband walked in the room.

“Whoa, what’s this?” he asked.

“Pop culture. We need to keep up with the young’ins,” I said, patting the couch beside me. The two of us sat slack jaw, watching as Hannah Montana’s birthday suit swung back and forth on the screen before us.

Mid-song, our 20-year-old son passed through the room and stopped in his tracks. He paused, and then shouted “OH MY GOD! WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING? Don’t watch that. I can’t watch you two watching that! Why? WHY? Why are you watching this?”

The discomfort was palpable and existed in layers like an onion. Even the dogs were cowering. The only person in the room who wasn’t embarrassed was the naked singer on the tv. “I just wanted to know what the big deal was with this video,” I stammered, feeling more like the child than the parent in this situation.

I hopped up and quickly uttered the magic phrase that restores order in the universe:

“Let me make you a sandwich!”

Sometimes all you can do is let the moment pass and call for snack time.

Learning To Love Five

I wish every month was Na-Something-Something-Mo.

Some months could have designations that are fluffy and easily achieved, best saved for those short on days (February) or with pre-existing labor-intensive holidays (December):

Na-Clo-Cle-Mo (National Closet Cleaning Month – by then end of which you have a sparkling, organized wardrobe of perfectly coordinated outfits).

Na-Plu-Ha-Mo (National Pluck Hair Month – pluck 1500 individual body hairs every day for a month and be completely smooth from top to bottom in the grand reveal).

Na-Mee-Nei-Mo (National Meet Neighbours Month – knock on one door per day until you have 15 new friends in both directions of your front door).

During the months with lots of daylight and no significant holiday, we could up the ante with some heavier challenges:

Na-Nu-Lan-Mo (National New Language Month – learn a different language everyday and by month’s end you’ll be able to speak 30 languages!).

Na-Dri-Aw-Mo (National Drive Away Month – get in your car on the first of the month and drive in the direction of your choice for 3 hours per day. On the 30th donate car to charity in whichever location you find yourself and embark on the next challenge below).

Na-Hi-Ho-Mo (National Hitchhike Home Month – similar to previous month but in reverse direction begging rides from strangers).

I like a challenge. I like a deadline. I like the word “GO!” and I love the word “STOP!”

I like periods of extremely heavy work followed by periods of intense rest. It’s a pattern I see repeated again and again as I look back over my career and personal endeavors.

A friend recently asked why I don’t perform music anymore. I wrote and recorded two cds of original music, played solo shows and music festivals, and marketed my indie album to music stations across the nation. Then I just stopped.

“What happened?” he asked, perplexed by the sudden change.

“It’s my pattern,” I said. “Balls to the wall until I crash. That’s how I roll.” This had us both laughing, partly because of my ridiculous choice of words and mostly because they so perfectly described the trajectory of my songwriting career.

“I can’t just play guitar by a campfire. I can’t just write a song and leave it at that. I have to record. Have to perform. Have to push the album. I didn’t even like most of the work involved, I was just doing whatever it took to get myself on stage because I like singing for people. I hate setting up equipment, hate travelling to gigs, hate asking for my pay, hate selling cds, hate the stage fright and the awkwardness after the show when I’m still shaking from adrenalin but people want to chat with me. I got to the point where I was doing a thousand things I hated in order to have one hour I enjoyed, and it wasn’t worth it. So that’s that.”

As my mom had said with earnest pity, “You’re just so driven.”

I don’t know about that. “Drive” implies an and goal and a plan. “Compelled” is likely a better word.

Compulsion (kuhm-PUHL-shuhn) noun

A strong usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, especially one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.

As Ellie once said on The Bubble Hour, “Alcoholics love ten and zero, but we hate five.”

Recovery has been a journey towards embracing five. It is a lesson in balance, in avoiding extremes, in accepting that I don’t have to be either glorified or shattered to be alive.

I’ve learned that the secret to loving five is to stay present, to really take note of what is going on around me. This is hard for an anxiety bag like me to do; I am always rushing forward in anticipation of the next challenge, disaster or reward.

Sometimes this feels quite positive. I open my eyes in the morning and immediately look forward to coffee and the paper. I can’t wait to see what each day holds. Would it hurt, though, to linger a moment longer and enjoy a luxurious stretch under the warm covers, listening to the quiet breathing of my husband beside me? Could I take one extra moment to be grateful and feel the joy of safety and comfort and love in that room?

Gratitude is a key component in overcoming an addiction. My pattern was to numb anxiety with alcohol while simultaneously creating more of it, perpetuating the cycle to which my brain had adapted. We learn what we are taught and our habits train our brains. Now that I live alcohol free, I work to curb the forward-thinking that fuels anxiety (what if…it will…I must…it might…) and focus on what is actually happening around me in that very moment, finding something for which to be grateful (this is…I am…I feel…). Breathe. Focus. Do.

My purpose for joining NaBloPoMo was to challenge myself, grow my blog, and create some better writing habits. I must confess that I momentarily considered doing NaNoWriMo as well, because I want to be the girl who does BOTH. I immediately recognized this compulsion towards an extreme; a self-destructive rush in the direction of perfectionism, competitiveness and the false safety of superiority. Easy girl. Five, not ten.

I am doing all I can to ensure that my month of daily posting is not only accomplished but also thoroughly enjoyed. I make writing the morning priority so I don’t spend the day worrying if it will get done. I take time to poke around other blogs, learn more about the art of writing and business of blogging, and expand my network a little.  And then I stop, and turn my attention elsewhere. I try to keep it at five.

Because five is good. Five is where I need to be. That’s how I roll.

Life Lessons from An Optician

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.

A random sample of my goggle collection and a nod to my fellow recovery blogger Mrs. D

A random sample of my goggle collection and a nod to my fellow recovery blogger Mrs. D

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.

Bump In The Night

This is the hallway from my bedroom to my office.

Hallway from bedroom to office

It’s a four-step commute by day but takes an extra step or two if shuffling sleepily for a 2 a.m. pee. I could use the much-closer ensuite toilet, but journey to the office bathroom out of consideration for my sleeping husband.

I had a strange encounter with this hallway recently. Two steps into the mid-sleep-pee-shuffle I bumped hard into a closed door. Startled but still drowsy, I paused and then walked into it a second time. This jolted me into alertness.

I reached out for the door handle but couldn’t seem to find it in the dark. Wait. Why was it so dark? There is usually a glow from the programmable thermostat in the hallway. I spun around but was afraid I might wobble and fall down the stairs, so I retraced my footsteps backward to look for the glowing gadget on the wall. Nothing. The power must be out.

I stood still in the darkness, my mind now racing to make sense of the closed office door (which I was sure I’d left open earlier), the shortened hallway, the eerie darkness and possible power outage.

I must be somewhere else. Were we visiting some one? No, this was definitely my home’s hallway. I could see the dim outline of my bedroom window behind me, right where it should be. I could hear the dogs snorting on their floor beds. And I needed to pee. That was whole reason for getting out of my nice warm bed in the first place. Hurry Jean! Your bladder will explode! Think, think.

Taking my bearings from the window behind me, I cautiously moved forward down the blackness of the hallway and again encountered the office door entirely too soon.

“I don’t know why this door is closed or why it seems to be in the wrong spot, but I am going to open it and see what is going on here!” My thoughts were now coming in a clear, commanding tone.  I was Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster and Mayim Bialik rolled into one.

(Meanwhile, some other part of my brain was narrating the scene in a golf whisper: Jean is confused by this situation but she is handling it calmly, I must say. She’s a clever girl, folks. Let’s watch her figure this out.)  I giggled, perhaps for the sake of the imagined audience. “What the heck is going on here?” I said quietly, still careful to not wake my husband.

I began to feel the door for its handle (why couldn’t I find the handle?!) and touched something soft. Fabric?  Did the door slam in the breeze from an open window? Were the curtains somehow caught in the closed door? Impossible. The curtains wouldn’t reach. I had closed the windows before bed.

Oh God. I knew exactly what had happened: A burglar had cut the power, came in through the office window, and hastily shut the door as I approached – wedging his jacket as he did so and pinning him motionless on the OTHER SIDE OF THIS DOOR.

Sweet mother of mercy, I was inches away from an intruder!

My heart pounded and my head spun. (Golf whisperer: “Ladies and gentleman, this woman’s composure is astounding. She should be screaming right now but she is cool as a cucumber.”)

I leaned my ear towards the door to hear my killer’s breathing but couldn’t seem to land on it. I raised a hand in front of my face and in the blackness touched something so startling I gasped: a shoe.

A shoe I knew immediately: my own Fleuvogs.

Suddenly it all made sense.

Closet beside hallway

I’d missed entering the hallway from my bedroom by a sleepy stumbling step and was instead in my closet. The “door” I’d encountered was really a bank of drawers. The murdering burglar’s jacket was a protruding t-shirt. Above the drawers are shelves for my shoes – had I reached higher to begin with I would have figured this out immediately. Instead I had just spent several moments in the pitch black closet, pondering mysterious circumstances and then fearing for my life.

No time to reflect, though. Back to reality – I needed to pee.

Out in the (actual) hallway the thermostat glowed normally just as it should. The power was not out. Four strides ahead the office door was wide open, and within seconds I was gratefully completing my original mission.

I laid awake in bed afterward, smiling to myself. I have been sober for three years now, and one of the most unexpected gifts of recovery has been my ability to laugh at situations that would have otherwise felt disgraceful.

Had I drunk 5 glasses of wine before walking into a closet to pee, I would not feel so free to laugh at myself. I would have chalked up the misstep to shameful drunkenness, feared greatly for my sanity, and ultimately may have even peed in there. (Golf whisperer: “She is shuddering at the very thought of that. Urinating off-target was one of her greatest fears, folks. One of her greatest fears. And rightfully so.”)

The next morning, my husband asked, “What were you doing in the closet last night?”

“You knew I was in there?” I hooted. The thought of his awareness juxtaposed with my confusion made the situation even more amusing.

“Yes, you were in there for a long time. Just standing there mumbling to yourself.”

“Well, it’s a funny story,” I started and soon I had him laughing with me.

“You’re crazy,” he said, shaking his head.

“Nope,” I smiled. “I am just fine. Clear as a bell.”

“This girl can handle anything now, ladies and gentlemen. Anything that comes her way she can handle.”

(golf clap)

Powerless Over My Eyebrows

Throughout my forties, I have gradually gotten used to the fact that “things change”.

One day I woke up and my right boob was just…bigger. (Yes, I scooted in for a mammogram. Diagnosis: Right Boob Bigger.) High heels are no longer my friends. And don’t even get me started on the chin hair phenomenon.

It’s all okay, though. Truly.

I pluck, fluff, adjust and I don’t mind at all. I rather love getting older.

It threw me, however, when I sat down to my dressing table recently and noticed my grandmother’s eyebrows had replaced my own. Oh dear. How did this happen? I have always had great eyebrows, strongly arched and defined. I’d been plucking stragglers and taming the forest between them since I was 12, tinting them since 35, but now at 47 they’d gone rogue. Well, shit.

Ah, but here’s a lesson in everything, my friends.

Sometimes we are moving along, doing things the way we always do, and then suddenly (or so it seems) it all stops working. As a person in recovery, I know this pattern intimately. It worked until it didn’t, and then it needed fixing.

The analogy became crystal clear to me as I was lying in an esthetician’s chair for my emergency eyebrow repair consultation.

Katie had been recommended by a friend with excellent browscaping. Serious business, this was.  Peering through a suspended lit magnifying glass, Katie silently measured my face and lifted individual hairs delicately with a metal tool to assess the situation. At last, she spoke quietly and gravely.

“I can fix this, but I need you to stop everything you’ve been doing. Come back in two weeks. Do not touch them between now and then.”

I don’t think she understood. That might work for everyone else, but I am different. I’m special.

“Um, well you see, I normally pluck them every day. Like, I have to pluck them every day. So, there’s no way I could go for two weeks. That’s, um, impossible. I am sure that’s the normal process, and not to undermine your expertise, but I just can’t do that. My grandfather was Scottish.”

She was having none of it.

“Just pull your bangs forward. And quit trimming them.”

“My bangs?”

“No, your eyebrows. You’ve been cutting them. Stop that.”

I gasped. She could tell I trimmed my eyebrows? My secret shame exposed! I was horrified. Could she see up my nostrils as well? Oh God.

“I have to,” I whispered dryly. “They….grow…. long….like a man’s.”

It was too late for crying. She knew everything now. I hated those long-growing hairs so much that I had become accustomed to trimming them and pretending it never happened. The shame was buried so deep inside my heart; I hadn’t even thought to mention it.

“Oh Jean,” she said kindly. “Lots of women gets those, it happens. But cutting them is what has ruined your eyebrow shape over time.”

Wait, what? I was causing this to happen? My efforts to fix things were making them disastrously worse? I exhaled.  The solution was worsening the problem? Three-plus years of sobriety had prepared me well for this moment.

“I surrender,” I said and pulled my bangs forward.

Two weeks later I was back in Katie’s chair. A flurry of activity was being carried out above me but I rested quietly and felt the dobbing of tint, then a warm swipe of wax and the sharp tug of removal. It was all out of my hands. I was utterly powerless. I had to trust and wait, and stop doing everything that I’d thought was working so well.

I confess I catch myself in the mirror now and look a moment longer. It will take some time to get used to the change, but I truly see improvement. This is a much better way. I am trusting the process.

My name is Jean and I am a person in successful long-term recovery from alcohol addiction and eyebrow plucking.

New Level, New Devil

If you are a regular listener to The Bubble Hour podcast, you will have heard me speak many times about the beautiful rituals and routines that support my sobriety: grinding good coffee beans, steaming milk to the perfect froth, using beautiful mugs. You’ll have heard how “Dibbs” ice cream nuggets became my pacifier in early sobriety. You’ll know I order O’Douls in a wineglass at restaurants, and sip tonic water with a dash of grapefruit juice at parties.

If you’ve ever ridden in my car or peeked into my (enormous, iphone-swallowing, key-vaporizing) purse, you’ll recognize the smattering of gold-foil balls as the remains of Ferraro Roche chocolates.  I buy them in sleeves of three, saving the last one for The Mr. as an act of self-control. The cleaners at our office could tweet scandalous photos of the empty 100-calorie packs of chocolate covered pretzels they remove from my garbage can each week (they don’t, I hope). Occassionally, when I think maybe the chocolate thing has gone too far, I’ll buy a bag of oranges and convince myself that they are yummy treats, too.

Yes friends, I owe my sobriety to coffee, tea with one milk and two sugars, ice cream, chocolate, fizzie drinks, and citrus fruit. For 3 years and 3 months this perfect magic formula has kept me strong and sober.

hotel essentials

My “essentials” for business travel – sweet snacks and evening drinks, coffee with proper milk for morning. (The can opener is for the milk, but I know you noticed the corkscrew! Wino radar!)

I have everything figured out, thank you very much. Don’t drink and work on the shit. No problem. Tickety boo. I even called a counselor to help me start working on the super-tricky shit that I can’t seem to get past on my own. Yep. I am goooood at recovery.

Until….what is this new agonizing pain?

Excuse me? An ulcer? Ohhh-kay. There’s a pill for that, right?

A what? A special diet? A special diet that requires no coffee, caffeinated tea, dairy, chocolate, carbonated beverages, or citrus? You’re kidding, right? RIGHT? You’re KIDDING, RIGHT??!

Oh My Lanta. Kill me now.

As the Evangelical preachers say “New level, new devil”.  Sometimes when we get strong and become better people, the “devil” will come at us with a vengeance to tempt us back to failure and despair.

That’s how this feels, but I know it isn’t the case.  I am not happy, mind you.  I feel right rotten and all of my favourite things make me feel even worse. But you know what? I can handle it.

I think this is a little nudge from above, telling me it is time to drop the crutches. An opportunity to become (even) stronger, not an evil curse.

Compared to the heroics involved in setting down the wine glass bottle box, this should be a cinch. I bought a bamboo whisk for my green tea and two peacock mugs from Pier 1. You just friggin watch me drink my tea by the campfire this summer.

We can do hard things. Right?

teacups and whisk

It’s all about tools and pretty things. I will survive!

Surprise in Abundance

My recovery journey has been peppered with unexpected discoveries these past two and a half years.

Surprise! People in recovery make a practice of serving others and many reached out with support and encouragement when I made my first squeak for help online.

Surprise! I was not the last woman on earth who would quit drinking. I began my blog as a tool for my own recovery – to document the journey and find accountability. It never occurred to me that others would come behind me on this path and find inspiration. I realized that millions had walked the path before me but was blinded to the millions who will fall in place behind. It’s a continuum and the energy propels us all forward.

Surprise! Recovery is only partly about ‘not drinking’. It has a whole lot more to do with self-examination and ruthlessly honest introspection. In order to truly change, we have to figure out where all the discomfort originates and deal with it.

Surprise! Life is not compartmentalized – addiction and recovery relate to everything. I sincerely believed my wine problem only existed between the hours of 4 p.m. to midnight and had no connection to my daytime activities or identity. When the links between various aspects of my life became clear, I ran around like Helen Keller learning her first signs from Anne Sullivan. House cleaning! Body Image! Imposter syndrome! Over-achieving! Shopping! Decorating! My parents! Fear of water! Anxiety! Work ethic! Yes, yes, yes – all connected.

All of this leads to the most recent surprise – the sheer volume of others who share my experience.

I confess that some part of me, (the part that ready Diary of Ann Frank when I was 9), thought I had a pretty interesting story to tell. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by the sheer dichotomy of my life – a business owner, community leader, wife, mom, performing songwriter and mentor to young women who accomplishes impressive achievements by day while hiding an escalating problem with alcohol at night?

Yet of the thousands of emails and responses to UnPickled, not one has said, “Wow, you sound too amazing to be an alcoholic.” Instead they said, “I am just like you.”

It is because of reader feedback that I came to understand my situation is not at all unusual (a classic recovery lesson).  I worked so hard to separate the good and bad parts of my life, ensuring that the positive far outweighed the negative. I built my life around the idea of leaving this world a bit better than I found it and I am truly proud of my achievements.  The mistake I made was thinking the two categories (good and bad) existed in spite of each other and were unrelated.

In other words, “How could someone so remarkable fuck up so spectacularly?”

When I realized that anxiety and fear (disguised as an unrelenting hunger for approval) fueled a lot of my achievements, I saw that they were also behind my failures.  At one time, this revelation would have struck a blow to my confidence and made me feel like I was fighting a losing battle.

Now, with a new compassion for myself and others who are making our way together to our better selves, I know it is more important to work on the anxiety and fear than to keep score of the good and bad they produce.

Surprise surprise.

I am still amazing, perhaps more so now than ever before. And best of all, I’ve learned it’s not a rarity. It’s pretty common here on the pages of UnPickled , where the fabulous gather and find a common thread.

The Trouble With Shame

My husband and I were high school sweethearts.

I know. Barf.

A funny story from our early dating years comes back to me now as one worth sharing. At the time, it was just an embarrassing incident but now I see it as having greater significance as a true “life lesson”.

At the time, we both lived with our parents in cities some 5 hours apart. I would often drive up for a weekend and sleep on the lumpy hide-a-bed in his parents’ basement. It takes some getting used to life in other households, especially when you want desperately to fit in and win everyone’s approval so they will endorse your candidacy for future spouse.

Now you must understand that my (then future) husband’s family were and are warm and gracious hosts who welcomed me in every way. His mother is an amazing cook who serves beautiful dinners every night and always had home made desert afterward. There was just one teeny problem: their stoic devotion to not eating after supper. Like, ever.

It is pretty common for teenage girls to be self-conscious about eating in front of a boyfriend and it’s likely I was shy about taking that second or third helping I would have  certainly eaten back at home. And moreover my family is famous for the enjoyment of a bedtime snack – a bowl of cereal or a slice of pie left from dinner is as much a part of preparing for bed as brushing the teeth and saying good night.

So not only was I eating less than I’d have liked at supper, but also I was dearly missing that bedtime snack and sorely in need of it. It was more than just shyness that kept me from saying I was hungry, though. It was shame.

Shame that I lacked their discipline. Shame that I was weak. Shame that I had failed to be honest at supper and eat what I needed. I was hungry and I was ashamed.

One restless night, I laid on that sofa bed in the basement and waited for the house to fall quiet (all but for the gurgling of my stomach). When I was sure everyone was asleep, I tiptoed up to that kitchen as quiet as a mouse and stood in the dark kitchen in my white flannel nightgown. I couldn’t open the fridge – they might hear it or notice the flash of light. But I remembered that the bread was always tucked out of sight behind a recipe stand and I reached behind it. Slowly, quietly, I took a piece of bread from a bag and stood nibbling it in the dark.

It was rye bread, a little dry and in need of some butter but I ate it anyway and felt better. I crept back down to the basement and was finally able to sleep.

The next morning, I came upstairs and joined the family in the kitchen where Sunday brunch preparations were already underway. Juice, fruit, bacon, eggs, pancakes with whipped cream – these people know how to eat a good breakfast! I quickly volunteered to make the toast, worried that if anyone else reached for the bread they might notice that the bag had been moved or a slice was missing (As if! Who on earth knows how many slices of bread are left in the loaf? But a guilty conscious make such things seem possible).

I moved the recipe stand to get the bread and gasped. There were two loaves of bread there. One fresh white load of bread…and one not-so-fresh, very green and moldy loaf of rye bread.

“Eeeek!” I shrieked. “It’s moldy!”

My stomach started flopping and tears began welling in my eyes. I realized to my horror that I stood in that kitchen hours before and eaten a slice of that rotten, disgusting bread.

Of course, my future mother-in-law had no way of knowing this – all she saw was a silly girl over-reacting to seeing a little mold. “Well, throw it out and toast the fresh bread,” she said in her practical, no-nonsense way.

I started to laugh. I ‘fessed up through tears and giggles: “I ate that. I snuck upstairs and ate a piece of bread in the dark and it was the moldy loaf.”

29 years later, I can still feel the anguish and relief of that moment. I had to get real with these people, and thank God I did. Because as much as they value discipline and self-control, they value honesty and a good laugh even more.

The moral of the story here is that shame causes us to hide and in doing so, we fool even ourselves into thinking we have found satisfaction in things that would utterly disgust us by the light of day.

We filled the glass before it was empty so we could say it was still “just one”.  We bought wine by the box so even we couldn’t see how much was gone each night. We pulled the damn bag out of that box and squeezed each last drop into the glass, hoping no one would see our desperation. Shame made us hide. Shame made us lie. Shame burdened us and caused us to keep drinking because the truth was just too embarrassing to face.

And now, those of us lucky enough to be standing in the light of truth – having pushed past shame as some life-preserving instinct told us we must “STOP!” – we can see those moments with all the disgust and amazement as my young self holding that bag of rotten bread.

The truth is hard to accept, but it’s a darn sight better than fumbling shamefully through the darkness.

Anna Bananas

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