I’ve been on tv and radio for my work hundreds of times, and recorded oodles of Bubble Hour episodes these past years. Even so, today was still nerve wracking.
If you feel like spending ten minutes watching a sober sister talking, or if you’re struggling and you just want to see another human who is in this recovery thing along with you, or if you’re wondering what my living room looks like, please watch:
What have you done lately that was out of your comfort zone? Were you happy with the results? Will you do it again?
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.
Yesterday we walked 8 miles in the rain through fields of cows, past gorgeous old homes, moss covered graveyards, and finally into Stow on the Wold where we spend the night in a 400-year-old inn.
A walking tour is a great choice for a sober holiday. We are too tired for much besides supper and a good rest at the end of the day.
This morning we set out for a second day of walking and promptly got lost, so we turned back and returned to the town square where we bought fresh cheese and bread for a picnic along the path (once we locate it!). Then I suggested we stop at the local coffee shop for the wifi, bathroom and a Flat White before heading out again. Cheers!
It’s always fun to look back over the analytics for my site and see what posts have been popular and which ones slide by unnoticed.
A post I wrote three years ago continues to be the most-read, and a cool graphic I made last year gets pinned and repinned on Pinterest constantly, making it a common visit as well. Meanwhile, some of my personal favourites – ones that were so raw and honest my hand shook as I hit “post” – are far from viral. I am sure every writer has those darling pieces that seemed certain to change the world but received little response.
#1 Top Post: How I Knew It Was Time to Quit Drinking This post is read and shared on my site more than any other, perhaps because it answers a desperate question that Google is constantly being asked: how do I know when to quit? Even more interesting than the post itself are the 1000+ (!) comments and interactions that follow.
#2 Top Post: Up and Down the Empathy Spectrum I wrote this to work out my
understanding of emotional intelligence, sometimes called EQ to show it as a balancing factor to IQ. In doing so, I made a graphic to show the difference between apathy, co-dependence, narcissism, and empathy which turned out quite nicely if I do say so myself. Someone kindly shared it to Pinterest and it has made the rounds there, which was a happy surprise when I was searching for hairstyles and new recipes one day and saw my own graphic float by!
#3 Top Post: Is Non-Alcoholic Beer a Safe Option for Alcoholics? This is a contentious question and I have taken some major slams for my opinion but hey, I get it: Some people protect their sobriety ferociously because it is life or death. I wrote this over two years ago and got several “you’re gonna relapse!” messages as a result, but as you can see I am still going strong despite the occasional non-alcoholic beer. Check it out and consider where you stand on this issue.
If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t post it. But….looking back I sometimes cringe at my obvious denial or shortsightedness in some posts. It is tempting to go back and edit out those parts, or at least provide a sidebar to explain my evolution of perspective, but I’ve decided to let them stand as written to document my overall of growth and change.
The ones I’ve highlighted below were especially insightful as I wrote them and sparked some great exchanges in the comments sections.
Are You A Recovery Hero? My English degree comes in handy occasionally, like trying to sort out my life according to narrative tools like the hero’s journey.
Don’t Give Up I felt sick to my stomach after posting this utterly vulnerable truth bomb but willing to lay it all out there in hopes of helping someone. It did help others, it still does. And it still scares me a little.
The Drama Triangle I love this tool, love it. Understanding the Karpman Drama Triangle changed my life. Check it out and see how you can apply this powerful insight to address patterns of behaviour you fall into yourself.
Yesterday I was in a flat panic trying to get *all the things* done before Christmas. I rushed from place to place picking up files, mail and groceries and dropping off bank deposits and Christmas gifts. I had a list and I checked it every five minutes. If I got through *all the things* by 2 pm I would have the remaining hours of the day to finish the pile on my desk before taking off for a glorious week in the mountains. And then…at the bank…it happened….
Me (to the impossibly young bank teller): Oops I forgot to fill out the deposit book….(pen hovering over the date box) It’s the 23rd right?
Bank teller: It’s the 22nd.
Me: WHAT??? Are you kidding??? I have a whole other DAY before Christmas? Christmas is on Sunday, not Saturday??? (wildly looking around bank for the old-timey giant date cards that used to be on the walls) This is great news!!! (giving up finding the giant calendar and pulling out my phone) OH MY GOD!!! It really IS the 22nd!!!!
Bank teller: (clearly pitying a grown, sober woman who doesn’t know what day it is) Will that be all for you today….?
I GAINED A DAY!!! I wouldn’t be skidding into Christmas vacation after all, I could saunter!
And then within the hour…something else happened….I got a migraine. GAH.
My husband and I decided he would head to the ski hill to get the cabin ready (lots of shovelling and maintenance tasks for the week ahead), while I stayed behind to nurse my head, work my bonus day and drive myself out tomorrow. Thank God for that extra day!
So last night and this morning were slow and unproductive, I couldn’t even look at my paperwork. It’s now 8 pm and I am mucking through in a way that is reminiscent of cramming for finals in university. The afternoon turned to evening, and now pretty snowflakes are falling outside the window and the neighbouring homes are twinkling with festive lights. The view from my desk makes me smile.
To recap: I am alone, I feel *meh*, I have to finish several hours of work, it’s pretty outside, and tomorrow I leave for a week away.
It is moments like this when I realize just how much I have really changed since I quit drinking, because I just had the most lovely idea. I decided to put the paperwork on hold, write a post (hello!) to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and New Year, walk my dog in the snowy lights, go to bed early and finish all this work with a pot of coffee at 6 am before I leave.
Okay, now that I read that back it just sounds like I am procrastinating, so to be specific: I am excited to get up early and work. I love love love mornings. Old me would have quit work now to drink, and then would have HAD to get up early to finish and done a crappy job because I would be hungover. Sober Jean is all “ooooh, mornings, yay!”.
I am sending lots of love and encouragement to all of you. The holidays can be hard on sobriety, hard on the emotions, and hard on the body. Be good to yourselves. Don’t drink, no matter what. Break with traditions, if traditions are not feeding your soul or your recovery. Be as generous with yourself as you are with everyone else right now. You’ve got this, we’ve got this.
Thanks for being part of my tribe for another beautiful year. I couldn’t do this without you, and even if I could I wouldn’t want to because recovery is better together!
My last post may have left you with the impression that I had a good cry one afternoon and then everything felt better. That was not the case.
I did feel better for an hour or two, but then the tears would return unexpectedly and with intensity. A familiar tightening of my chest and throat emerged and remained for days; something I used to call “stress” because I was ashamed to say “anxiety”. These symptoms persisted but I knew what to do…
…I knew what to do because of this community’s raw, honest comments about their own experiences, such as the following from an anonymous reader to whom I express sincere gratitude:
Jean….please make sure you call your therapist and please make time for therapy to cope with this difficult time.
My dad passed away in February of this year after a long and courageous battle from Parkinson’s…
How I wish I had asked for help. I hit the bottle HARD to cope and it did not work. I drank because trying to remain present in the moment caring for a parent with Parkinson’s was just too damn hard for me at times and while I couldn’t change the situation I wanted an escape. Alcohol numbed the feelings because I felt emotionally trapped with nowhere to go.
You’re going to have a real challenge on your hands because this next journey is painful and all about having to respond constantly to the unexpected and being in crisis mode – you will not be in control. This alone is a major threat to sobriety and will be a cause for relapse. (Anonymous)
…I knew what to do because other bloggers like Anne of “A in Sobriety”, who has written so openly about her approach to mental health, work to shrivel the stigma and shame around asking for help.
…I knew what to do because nearly 50 years of “pressing on” and “being strong” when I’ve felt this way in the past caused me to embrace coping strategies that were ultimately harmful and self-defeating. I won’t make those mistakes again.
…I knew what to do, so I saw my therapist and my doctor and I told the truth: I am struggling. I have chest pain and throat cramps and I cry constantly. They helped me to see that my body was telling a truth that I could not mentally register: I am grieving a parent who is not yet gone. I am ashamed of my sadness because it feels like I am wishing him dead, and yet I am dreading the indignities of witnessing my father further succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease.
He is literally half the size he once was. He needs help to stand or walk, and gentle coaching to find his way down the hall or perform simple tasks. He speaks in a jumbled whisper as his face and throat muscles have atrophied. This is my father and yet it is not, so the time I spend with him each week keeps the heartache fresh even as I grieve the loss of the man I knew.
In the past I would have drank to quiet these feeling and numb the pain. Now I understand that drinking would have made things worse, creating an illusion of comfort that would silently accelerate anxiety and stall true healing.
I have made slow progress these past weeks, patiently tending my routine responsibilities while waiting for the effects of my medical care and talk therapy to loosen the knots. Also I embraced the self-care I so frequently suggest to others and went for a massage, got a fresh cut and colour, went to yoga classes, switched my coffee to half-caff, and spoke honestly to my family and friends about my situation. On my doctor’s advice, I booked a week on the beach (choosing, of course, my favourite getaway: a She Recovers retreat in Mexico that miraculously had a last-minute cancellation).
My emotions are better regulated and my chest pain is dialed down by half.
Last night came a true test of my progress, serving as emcee at my niece’s wedding. Weddings are notorious triggers for people in recovery, and as the official host for the evening I could not rely on old standbys like slipping out the back door when things got uncomfortable.
Hosting hundreds of Bubble Hour interviews prepared me well for staying comfortably professional in front of a microphone while feeling deeply vulnerable and human and flawed. I focussed on my affection for my niece, the happiness of the day, and the script I prepared in an extra-large font for easy reading. I was in my element, in my body, and in the moment. I gave service by way of warmly hosting the proceedings, and felt grateful for the ability to do so.
My father was seated right before me as I spoke. He is no longer able to smile his big grin or laugh from his belly, but he seemed to quietly enjoy the festivities from behind his hazy gaze.
Now as I reflect on that scene – me at the mic and him in the audience – I realize that I did not look to him for approval: he has none left to offer or withhold.
Maybe that is part of my grief too, knowing that something I spent my life striving for is officially off the table. The notion brings me sadness and relief. I allow myself to feel them both fully and move on.
If only someone could find a way to translate all the blog posts I write in my head while I’m driving or cooking or doing books at the office. If only I could collect a ticker tape of my brain activity (dreams excluded, those are wacky) and cut and paste the best bits for this blog.
I had so many good ones in “the hopper” (which is what I call the mental centrifuge that filters obsessive thoughts into actual truth nuggets).
A few things I planned to write about this week:
– The way my throat clamps shut when I visit a church, and I cannot sing along with the hymns. Even in my son’s hipster congregation on where instead of a choir there’s a “worship team” with a drum kit and bass guitar and the songs are all catchy and upbeat. As a former singer/songwriter I feel strange standing in silence while those around me sing, but some old anxiety clamps on my throat and seals my lips. Instead I close my eyes and sing in my mind, and trust that God understands this little mystery even if I don’t. But then I feel guilty, because if everyone did the same the sanctuary would be silent…and then I wonder, “Wouldn’t God still hear choir, I mean worship team, of our hearts?”….
– That I realized only yesterday at I had confused Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” with 80s actress Terri Garr, who I’d assumed reinvented herself as a radio personality after retiring from acting. I was so impressed how her ditzy, perky blonde stereotype had been shed for the deep-voiced intellect on the radio. “She was a better actor than I thought!” To be fair, I am Canadian and our national NPR equivalent is CBC (tv and radio) and I only recently picked up NPR on satellite radio. The Garr/Gross mix up was the result of catching occasional promos, but minutes into listen an actual episode I was searching “Terry Gross photo” followed by “Phoebe’s mom on Friends” and laughing at my mistake.
– That I spent 4 days at the lake without a packing along a carefully planned array of non-alcoholic beverages for myself. This used to be a big deal – How many days? How many dinners, cocktail hours, card games and evening fires did I need to soothe myself through? This time around, all I worried about was morning coffee and bedtime tea. Seriously. What a shift.
– That we stayed in a theme room at West Edmonton Mall, and like the note above, booze did not even cross my mind. Wine and hotel rooms used to go hand in hand, and I made a point of packing bottles, corkscrew, and glasses in my drinky days because God forbid I might be stuck in a hotel room without my much needed wine. When I quit drinking, I needed to replace all that and you will see in some earlier posts how I kitted out my bag with all kinds of replacements.
– How sometimes it can be hard to be of service to people who are active addiction. I want to help everyone and not everyone wants to be helped, even when they have reached out to ask for help. It is a delicate dance. I am learning and doing my best.
– How I tired AVE (audio visual entrainment) and what a little trip that has been.
But damn, all of those posts wrote themselves in my head and I failed to capture them. Instead I am writing this recap in between appointments and hoping you can hop from dot to dot to build some kind of picture. What did it form? What do you see? A happy, sober lady living a full life? Or a scattered flibbertygibbet who needs to focus and schedule more writing time?