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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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Emergency Surgery

I cheerfully signed off my last post with a mention of my New Year’s plans for hosting family at the ski hill. A raclette dinner was in the works, lots of extended family arrived, and the snow was deep and powdery. All of the right conditions for a perfect New Year, except for one small problem: I was sick.

I’ve written about my ulcer before, and since Christmas Dinner it was back with a vengeance. I was enjoying the cabin – skiing daily, cooking for a steady stream of family and guests, being the hostess-with-the-mostest – but feeling bloody awful. The day before New Year’s Eve, it got so bad that I decided to leave my husband in charge of the guests so I could return home to rest in quiet.

My doctor squeezed me in for a quick appointment before closing for the long weekend, promising bloodwork results on Monday. I went home to spend New Year’s Eve alone under a blanket on the couch, terribly uncomfortable and suspicious that this was no ulcer. By Saturday night I was planning my own funeral.

Fast forward a few days and I was in the local emergency room, getting lots of attention for what turned out to be acute gallbladder problems. The surgeon was called in and I was admitted. First thing the next morning I had a procedure to clear out the gallstones that were lodged in my main bile duct, followed by surgery to remover the gallbladder itself.

I’d gone from a wonderful, fun family vacation to a lonely, uncomfortable sick bed for days and then finally three nights in hospital. Things can turn on a dime!

The hospital was noisy and chaotic. I was in pain and alone. It could have been terrible, but I was too grateful to wallow. As I lay there, I realized that many things I’ve learned in recovery were getting me through this ordeal:

  1. Ask for Help:  When I was sick at home and certain I was dying, I should have called an ambulance or a neighbour for a ride to the hospital, but I didn’t. I wanted to be helped but I didn’t want to ask for help. I was afraid they would say I wasn’t sick enough to be in hospital and send me back home. This was reminiscent of when I knew I needed to quit drinking but was scared to go to a meeting for fear they’d say I wasn’t addicted enough. Don’t be silly – help is there and the people who provide it are caring.
  2. Be Grateful: If you’re new to sobriety, you might not yet be aware how important a role gratitude can play in your journey. Sober or not, everyone can benefit from taking time every day to list three or four things for which to give thanks. Stop right now and look around you – what are you thankful for? This simple act is a life-changing habit. As I laid awake through the night in my hospital bed, wishing for sleep but surrounded by noises and activity, I reflected on all the positive things deserving thanks: the iv that was replenishing my hydration, the kindness of the nurses and doctors, the ultrasound tech who quickly confirmed the problem, the warm blankets an orderly brought when I shivered on a gurney. I was sick, uncomfortable and a little scared of the surgeries ahead, but reflecting on the situation with gratitude kept me smiling.
  3. Give Service: Service is another concept that helps sober people stay the course. Helping others get and/or stay sober strengthens our own recovery efforts, and having a helping attitude spills over into the rest of our lives as well. How could I help anyone while I was sick in bed? I spoke kind words to each nurse, attendant, and worker who came through my room, thanking them for their work (see also: gratitude). I sent kind thoughts and prayers for the well-being of the doctors and nurses who were working all around me. I looked over at the sweet 92-year-old in the next bed, and sent prayers for her comfort and healing, for her family and caregivers. Thinking about others took my mind off of my own pain and fear, and allowed me to reciprocate some of the kindness I was receiving so thankfully.
  4. Be Present: Hours passed by slowly in the hospital, and at times my mind would bounce between two unhappy places: the pain of the previous days and fear that the next day’s surgery would have complications. Bouncing between past pain and future fear is a rollercoaster ride of depression and anxiety; I’ve learned this lesson well in recovery. So if I caught myself slipping in either direction, I coaxed myself back into the present by deep breathing exercises. Staying in the present is enormously helpful in sobriety when we are likely to ask ourselves, “Is this forever?” “Can I make it through the weekend?” “Am I a horrible person for all the bad things in my past?” Stop. Breathe. Stay in the moment, just do the next right thing. Moment by moment, we can get through anything.

So although I was sidelined for a few days, I am feeling much better already and should be back to normal in no time. Having an alcohol-free lifestyle (as well as smoke-free and drug-free) lends itself to a strong, healthy body that bounces back quickly from these things.

The new year always brings lots of new readers who are looking for help and insights as they consider sobriety as a resolution. I am sorry that I was not able to respond quickly to those of you who have written this past week – please know you are very much on my mind and I am cheering for you.

If you are in the early days of recovery or experiencing a post-holiday wobble, I hope this post shows you how the principles of recovery can serve you well in all areas of your life. Stay well. Seriously.

 

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

I had a lot of concerns when I quit drinking, and one that loomed largest was falling asleep.

My pattern was to go a hundred miles an hour all day, then skid into home and pour a (fishbowl-sized) glass of wine to relax, a second glass to unwind, one more to ensure a good rest.  Maybe another after that (plus the top-ups in between) because I really really needed to make sure I slept. After all, I had a million things to do the next day! How could I even consider removing that cog from the machine?

I told myself the wine played a key role in my successful routine: wake up, drink coffee, work hard, drink wine, fall asleep, repeat. Honestly, it worked for a while – back when it was only one glass before bed. As years went by it took more and more wine to be effective, until it clearly was no longer a winning cycle.

I clearly needed to make a change but kept asking myself: if I don’t drink, what will happen when I go to bed? I knew instinctively that sleeping pills – or any pills – would not be an option for me. My addictive personality had revealed itself enough to make that obvious. What else was there? How could a warm cup of chamomile tea do the work of several large glasses of wine? It seemed preposterous.

To my enormous surprise and relief, I sleep much better once I quit drinking. There have been occasional sleepless nights caused by stress, by age-related hot flashes and night sweats, and by my monthly migraines – problems that wine would have made worse, not better. In the morning, I was tired but thankfully not hung over.

I have come to realize what was at the core of that old urgency for sleep. I understand now what it was I feared as bedtime drew nearer and I’d reach for another glass and then another. It wasn’t just the dread of “not sleeping”; I feared the quiet moments alone with my thoughts.

As a child I was taught to saw prayers at bedtime. I loved the ritual, the tuck-in and kisses from my mom, the warm feeling that God was happy I’d prayed, the safety and comfort of it all. As I grew older, I learned The Lord’s Prayer and concentrated on each line, reflecting on how it related to events of the day.

I continued this practice into adulthood and the pause after “forgive us our trespasses…” grew longer and longer as it seemed I had a growing list of confessions to make. My feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame grew, and the ritual of bedtime prayers became less comforting. I began to distract myself with busy-ness all day but when it finally fell dark and quiet, I came before God feeling utterly unworthy. I overcompensated with hard work and accomplishments, but it didn’t ease the pain I felt at my core. Bedtime prayers withered into long moments of self-loathing, sometimes hours of silent tears as I revisited failures and weakness from the days, weeks, and years before.

No wonder I dreaded bedtime. No wonder I drank to numb myself.  Wine didn’t help me face God; it let me avoid myself. I learned to drink just enough to shut off my brain seconds before my head hit the pillow. Often it worked. When it didn’t, I had more to feel badly about.

I braced myself for restless nights when stopped drinking, but the relief I felt crawling into bed sober gave me enough peace to fall right asleep. Honestly, recovery can be exhausting at first as the inner dialogue feels like arguing with a toddler for hours on end. (I want a drink! No. I want to drink! No. I waaaaannnnnnaaaaaa. No, no, no!) I was dead tired.

I see that my addiction had hijacked my prayer time as a way to perpetuate my need and reasons to drink. I once again pray at night; sometime it’s as simple as “Thank you.” If I feel myself slipping into a spiral of negative thoughts, I remind myself that it isn’t really prayer. I imagine God face-palming and saying, “This again? I forgave you the first time you asked. Move on!” And I do. I move on. I move on to gratitude, to praying for my kids, to remembering all the small ways I saw God’s goodness that day.

I save my forgiveness requests until daylight, and I trust that once is enough.

Of all the freedoms that recovery has brought into my life, this is one of the greatest. The physical benefits of sleep are tangible and fuel my zest for life. I am no longer afraid of quiet moments with myself. In fact, I now treasure them.

If you need help to redesign your times of reflection, check out “Help Thanks Wow” by Anne Lamott (a wonderful writer whose reflections on life in recovery are powerful and funny).

Hurrah for coffee!

My new sober adventure!

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