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Memory Modification: A Tool for Recovery

 

memory modificationLike 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.

 

 

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What’s So Funny About Recovery?

Have you listened to my guest appearance on Your Kick AA Life podcast? (click here) Host Andrea Owen and I trade stories of shame and denial, and we laugh throughout the whole thing. Not that cackling, mean-girl laugh. Not the nervous titters of shame, or shallow giggles of avoidance. It’s a different kind of laughter, an honest expression of joy in celebration of freedom from the burdens of the past.

It isn’t funny when Andrea describes chugging wine from the bottle at the door of the fridge while her husband pulls into the drive way, and it might make you uneasy to think we are making light of that. It was a serious moment, dead serious, but the irony of thinking “I don’t have a problem” in those low moments is crystal clear from the vantage point of recovery and the laughter comes from relief, gratitude, and happiness.

I thought I would never laugh again when I quit drinking.  I thought I would have nothing to say, nothing to celebrate or contribute. I thought life without alcohol would be a death-sentence of boredom and melancholy.

If you need more laughter and truth-telling in your life, check out Andrea’s entire Recovery Series on Your KickAss Life. And don’t forget about The Bubble Hour – a podcast I have been involved in for the past few years. There are 200 episodes in the archives and soon I will be adding more later this month.  (Also if you would like to be a guest I would love to hear from you! Please email thebubblehour @gmail.com and we can set up a time to talk.)

More tomorrow 🙂

Behind the Scenes of “The Bubble Hour”

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.

I recorded an episode this summer from a camping spot in the quiet of my brother-in-law's posh motorhome

I recorded an episode this summer from a camping spot in the quiet of my brother-in-law’s posh motorhome

Interviewing Greg Williams of "The Anonymous People" from my home office

Interviewing Greg Williams of “The Anonymous People” from my home office

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!

Hurrah for coffee!

My new sober adventure!

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