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The Secret is to Know When to Stop

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. 

Stop sign
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. 

UnPickled running

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. 

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No Matter What

We returned from our vacation to a difficult reality: my husband’s father has entered into the final stages of a terminal illness. He won’t be with us much longer, and it hasn’t seemed right to post all the happy photos from our trip while our family is so heavy with sadness. 

We drove through a hailstorm to visit him on Sunday. My new car took a beating – cracked windshield and hail damage to the body – but it was worth it to see him, to be where we needed to be and where we were needed.  A car is nothing. Family is everything. 

I returned home last night and tried to go through the motions of normal life today. 

I was shampooing carpets at one of our rentals when the machine made a strange noise and began to spew smoke. With the receipt for this new machine in my wallet, I decided to load it all into my car and return it to the store. Backing up, something didn’t seem right. I stopped and ran around the car. Apparently, I’d  only set the box of parts behind my car, not IN it, and backed over the damn thing. The good news, however, is that I was able to return it anyway. 

A phone call came in on my cell. My mom’s condo building was on fire. She made it out safely and was staying with a friend a few blocks away.  I drove by, so much destruction. Her unit was untouched by there is no doubt smoke damage to her belongings. No one was hurt, that’s all that matters. 

On the way home I picked up a stir fry for supper. It flipped over inside the bag and the contents came out of  the container. Teriyaki chicken and rice smoosh. 

My car is damaged but I am safe. 

My mom is displaced from her home but it’s only temporary. 

My carpet shampooer blew up and then I drove over it but the store still gave me a refund. 

My dinner dumped all over the bag but I poured it on a plate and ate it anyway. 

Is this fucking day over yet?

No, it’s not. It’s messy and it sucks but it’s life and I’m living it. 

My heart feels like it’s going to drop into my feet with dread and grief. I don’t want my sweet, funny father-in-law to go. I don’t want to think about the world without him in it. And at the same time I wish him a gentle end. 

We can do hard things. It would sure be nice if we didn’t have to do it all at once, though. 

Killin’ It 

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. 

Little lambPoppy among wheat stalksCotswold farm

Carry On

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. 


My recently-broken leg is holding up well. I was limping for the last half mile and needed to rest once we arrived but within an hour I was back out exploring the town. 

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!

The Adventure Begins

This morning we start our 7 day walking tour through the Cotswolds in England. We’ve been planning this for a year as a celebration of my 50th birthday. After a long day of travel from Canada, we slept for 13 hours under a cloud-like comforter. Here is the view from our first hotel room, which was once a stable:


I was a little worried it would be nothing but pubs for pit stops, but I didn’t realize there’s a tea shop on every corner, too!


Off we go!

When One Spouse Quits Drinking

This morning my guest appearance on the “Your Kickass Life” podcast with Andrea Owen was released and one of the topics discussed was managing life with a “normie” (aka a normal drinker).

I get asked about this a lot. In fact, just this morning in the comments section as a matter of fact. Tracy wrote:

I have contemplated my drinking over the past 16 months and have tried to cut back. My issue is not drinking ever when your spouse drinks! It is a truly huge trigger for me and I feel like a kill joy when everyone wants to go to happy hour and I am looking for alternative drinks and I get soooo bored sitting there after a bit. How do you handle spouse drinking when I want to quit?

Let me start by saying that there are a lot of variables in every relationship, and my experience is limited to my own marriage to someone who drinks “normally” (society views “normal drinking” as that which is asymptomatic of addiction – ironic when you consider alcohol is an addictive substance). Additionally, our relationship is stable and relatively uncomplicated. So when we had to face my decision to quit drinking, there weren’t a lot of compounding issues. My husband was supportive of my decision.

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Here are some of the ways that I manage those times when we are out socially in situations that involve alcohol:

  • First things first: I ask myself if I really want to go. Do I need to be there? Want to be there? Will it be a safe environment for me? Am I likely to enjoy myself or will I just be tolerating it? It is totally okay to pass on things you really don’t want to attend. I promise.
  • Then I make a plan: Is there a way to make it work better for me? Should I take my own car so I can leave if I feel uncomfortable (I did this A LOT in early recovery. I made sure to discuss options before we left with my husband: “Are you willing to take a cab home alone if I decide to leave early and you want to stay? Could you walk home or get a ride with a friend?” Because we had discussed it ahead of time, it was easier for me to slip away knowing he had my back and that there would be no conflict about it later.)
  • Go prepared: if it is a house party, I bring my own drinks as well as a hostess gift. I make sure my glass is always topped up with my alcohol-free drinks, which limits the amount of attention other people pay to what I am drinking. When people are offering you drinks, they’re usually just trying to be good hosts. Your empty glass is their cue to pour, so make it easier on everyone by keeping your own glass topped up. Even if you don’t want more to drink – especially if you don’t want more – set a full glass in front of yourself. If anyone offers point to it and say, “I’m good here, thanks!”
  • I allow my husband to be my knight in shining armour, protecting me and my sobriety. At events with a bar, he will go and speak directly to the bartender to ask for a non-alcoholic drink for me and then watch the preparation to ensure there are no mix-ups. It is so sweet when he hands me a drink and whispers, “It’s tonic and lemon, I watched them pour to be sure.” Be still my beating heart!
  • One thing that really helps me is to build some “treats” into the evening, even if that means driving through DQ for a sundae on the way home as a reward for staying sober. It is hard to watch other people have treat after treat in the form of a drink while you are sitting there stirring your Shirley Temple. Order some damn chicken wings, you deserve them! Get up and dance, go work the room, take your phone to the bathroom and read sober blogs. Try not to feel like you are missing out, instead give yourself a different experience than others are having.

As I understand it, existing problems in a relationship can be highlighted when one partner seeks sobriety. Sometimes a spouse will undermine their partner’s recovery because they feel threatened by it – perhaps because they have gotten comfortable with the role of victim, villain, or hero that they’ve cast themselves into in relation to the other person’s drinking. Perhaps because it makes them feel uneasy about their own drinking. Perhaps because one or both were drinking to cope with unhappiness in the relationship. Counselling can be very helpful, at least for yourself if your partner won’t participate.

Please share your experiences. Was your spouse helpful? What made you feel supported and what didn’t? What are your best tips for socialising?

My interview on Your Kick Ass Life is here.

 

A Hard Month, A Good Month

Oh my goodness, July was a whirlwind of boxes, garbage bags, take out meals, and car rides!

We went to our niece’s wedding in Vegas, moved into a rental after selling our house with a lightening-quick possession, continued building our new home, and welcomed a new grandson into the world. On top of that, my parents just moved into assisted living so my sisters and I are tasked with helping to empty their old home of everything from sewing patterns to office files to endless doilies to memories.

I am not going to lie, there were many moments that I felt overwhelmed and weary. There were some quiet tears in my car and the bathroom stall at WalMart. Not sad tears, just exhausted ones. As if the thoughts I was too busy to think found a way out of my brain through my tear-ducts. I cried sorting the shoes and purses in my mom’s closet, oh dear Lord I am suddenly crying AGAIN NOW remembering it.

Sidebar: I have just had the realization that my mother’s closet holds such emotion for me because I used to hide there as a little girl and fantasize about the woman I might grow up to be as I touched each scarf, bead and fringe. I felt so close to the childhood version of myself this month as I returned to that place – a different closet with decades-different shoes but the same smell of roses and soap. We women define ourselves through our mothers, whether by contrast or copy. My tears that day were because I saw how I drove myself in so many ways to be the woman I wished my mother was – one that’s more assertive and domineering – and to be the mother I wish I’d had (more protective and informed). I became overwhelmingly aware that by forever trying to better her I have failed to fully appreciate her for who she is, and this will need to be a new focus of direction in the years ahead.

Emotions and self-reflection continue to be one of the harder parts of life after alcohol for me – no numbing or checking out. I didn’t exactly feel triggered, but I had that heightened awareness: “It would be nice to not feel this right now.” I did yoga, ate things I shouldn’t, cleaned things that didn’t need cleaning, and walked the dog. Best of all, I’d visit our kids and grandkids and just soak their sweet presence into my soul. (I have grandkids! Plural! What else could even matter in this world?)

The first time I heard the acronym ‘H.A.L.T.” I cringed – I hate to see complex things reduced to mere acronyms – but there is so much truth to the notion that Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired are four of the biggest triggers. I have spent most of the past month perpetually feeling all four simultaneously. Ironically, when I feel uncomfortable I’d rather work harder than take the break that I actually need. My go-to numbing is frenzy. Whirling dervish. I feel safe when I’m in constant motion, no one can hit me with a dart of criticism – even now that I *know better* I still subconsciously hustle to avoid some imagined critic.

Here are the good things that happened this month:

1 – Recording Bubble Hour interviews has been a balm to my soul. An hour once a week to get lost in someone else’s story and connect and share.

2 – Visitors – This is crazy! One of the kind strangers who encouraged me via Twitter when I first got sober emailed (5 years later) to say his family would be vacationing in this area and that we should meet up. Oklahoma and Alberta are 1600 miles apart – I never imagined we would ever meet in person. I had the pleasure of thanking this kind man and meeting his family and sharing lunch and looking into the eyes of someone who literally cheered me through those first few scary days. What a gift.

3 – Enjoying new spaces. Here is my new (temporary) home office, where I am writing this right now:

new office

4 – My new neighbourhood, where I walk my dog 3x a day:

water walk

Gratitude is getting me through and helping to turn a rough month into a good month, and keeping me on the sober path along the way.

Surviving Las Vegas

Last weekend we went to a wedding in Las Vegas and I’ll admit I wondered how it would feel to be sober in THE party town.

Sparks were flying before we even left the airport, as one rowdy passenger was pulled aside at the gate and told he wouldn’t be served alcohol on the plane. Seated nearby once on board, we listened to him pleade and argue with the crew throughout the three-hour flight. Delightful! When we landed, he muttered “See you next Tuesday” to the flight attendant, which my husband informed me is code for the nasty C-word.

I had a small epiphany as we walked the strip after arriving: Vegas might be easier for me sober than it was before. I’d been there twice for conventions many years ago, before drinking became entirely problematic for me. I was there for business conventions and wasn’t interested in the other distractions. If I had visited the city during the time of my active addiction, I would have been very bothered by the public displays of drunkenness because I so cherished my hidden secret. I drank on my own terms, as a reward after working hard all day. Vegas offers no chance to maintain that front! There is no work to be rewarded, no pretence of anything but indulgence. I rejected that image, resented that idea. I drank in a private, regimented way that Vegas would have totally disrupted. I don’t think I could have enjoyed myself there in those days.

It was good to see our family at the wedding, the bride was stunning and the Elvis minister was charming. We had a lot of laughs, ate some very good food, spent a few hours shopping, and were soon on our way home again without ever even sitting at a slot machine.

Earlier in my sobriety, I was very dependent on a certain routine of morning coffee and bedtime tea that would have been difficult to replicate in Las Vegas because there wasn’t even a coffee maker in our hotel room (clearly the hospitality industry is hell bent on keeping visitors out where they can spend money!). I think the noise, crowds, stimulation, and general ick-factor would have spiked my anxiety and I would have been a mess. I doubt I would have drank but I might have taken Gravol to knock myself out, which in some ways is a relapse (pills to escape, even just Gravol!).

One of the great lessons of recovery for me has been withstanding discomfort. I did feel overwhelmed at times, and instead of letting the feelings rule me I breathed and waited. I did see people who were rowdy and loud, and I released the urge to judge. I saw people who made me sad – homeless people, young women who seemed exploited, and foreign workers handing out smut cards – and my heart went out to them.

The most lasting impression – aside from the gorgeous bride, our reason for being there – was a couple we sat behind on the flight home. There was tension between them, clearly. The wife was quite obviously hung over, a shroud of shame and pain clung to her shoulders.  Her eyes looked dead in that way many of us in recovery know all too well – a mix of defeat and defiance. Her husband was silent before, during, and after the flight.  He sheparded her through the crowds but walked a step ahead. He acknowledged when she spoke to him but his eyes were quiet steel. Jesus,what happened with these two? Whatever it was, the fallout was evident. My heart ached for them both, and I couldn’t help feel that their story was a long way from over.

Just as I wished a life of happiness or the bride and groom, I went home hoping happiness might find the cast of real-life characters whose faces wouldn’t leave my mind: the young man who was drunk at the airport, the homeless man who ran for his life throug the hotel lobby with a stolen sandwich in his hand, the young woman in a  leather miniskirt and platform shoes with glazed eyes leaning heavily on an older man, that angry couple on the flight home.

I’d had just as much fun on Freemont Street with my Lime Perrier as everyone else with their booze, but my heart was glad to go home and get back to normal.

This is What Recovery Looks Like

jean and anne

Recovery looks like two friends having coffee in the sunshine.

Here I am with Anne (ainsobriety.wordpress.com) as we hung out on my front steps after recording an episode of The Bubble Hour for y’all to enjoy.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bubblehour/2016/06/23/sobriety-through-a-crisis-guest-anne-s

 

It’s Not Your Fault

I was about to post the following quote on the UnPickled Facebook  page but stopped short for fear of backlash:

 

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I love this saying and I use it all the time when I am talking to people who are struggling, but it can sound like a cop-out to someone who doesn’t understand addiction.

Addiction comes from using, so how can it not be the addict’s fault? If someone chooses to use, shouldn’t they accept the blame for what comes next?

Well that’s the thing, you see, it’s not necessarily a choice to keep using.

Casual drinkers experience alcohol in a way that is social and fun, but they have the ability to stop drinking. They can take it or leave it. It’s a treat, and they know not to over-do on treats. From a casual drinkers perspective it can appear that people who drink too much are choosing the pleasant treat too frequently and need to use more self-control.

If you scroll through the 6000+ comments on the pages of this blog (holy shit!), you will find virtually no one who says, “I should quit drinking but I am just having so much fun.”

Addiction is not fun. Addiction is not a life anyone wants.

Addiction means drinking (or using) to feel normal. Addiction means that without the substance, withdrawals start in the form of  pain, anxiety or obsessive thoughts or more obvious symptoms like shaking or sweating.

The thing to blame for addiction is the fact that alcohol is addictive and yet people are expected to use it without consequence. We know not to start smoking if we don’t want to get addicted. We know that drinking coffee every morning will get us hooked on caffeine. Addiction is the normal course of action for using addictive substances. To drink or use drugs WITHOUT becoming addicted is abnormal.

Why why why why do we expect alcohol to be anything other than it is?

The other tricky thing about addiction is that it creeps in slowly and alters self-perception, so it can take a long time to become aware it has developed. Even then, so much shame and stigma exists around addiction that the first reaction can be denial out of self-preservation.

To be fair, it should also be said that people in the throes of addiction can be mighty assholes who defend indefensible behaviour by blaming others. How painful and frustrating it can be for those living with an addict who appears to be having a great time at their expense while taking zero responsibility. How infuriating it must be to see a quote saying “addiction is not your fault…” when you see the same pattern repeating again and again. Fair enough, that is hard, but please understand: addiction isn’t anyone’s fault. 

Forget fault. Forget blame, shame, and guilt.

Addiction is a reality, and realities must be dealt with. Trade blame for acceptance and responsibility. Yes, this falls squarely on the shoulders of the addict, who can only assume responsibility by accepting the reality of their own addiction.

Blame lives in the past, hope lies in the future, but recovery happens in each present moment where acceptance and responsibility are found.

 

 

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