On Monday I celebrated six years of life without alcohol. How is it that the days became years?
The past few months went from trying to taxing to gruelling. I kept my chin up after breaking my leg and spent January indoors. Meanwhile we were preparing to move to a new house, and I paced myself for the challenges of this transition. Being non-weight-bearing on crutches meant giving up a significant amount of my cherished control. Then, just before the move my dad was hospitalized and began a final month-long decline. He passed away earlier this month.
I got through it all, as we do. It so happens that a dear friend of mine went through an eerily parallel experience just a few weeks ahead of me – a cast and crutches, the death of a parent – and she seemed so strong and capable. I resist comparing my insides to her outsides, instead following her lead for getting things done and moving forward.
My leg is slowly healing, my heart is mending, but my mind is dull. I feel kicked and drained. I have nothing left to give at this moment, I need time to fill up again.
I will be back with more podcasts and posts, but I need some time. I read your comments and messages, and they make me smile. I feel behind on responding, but I try not to pressure myself too much. Expectations and resentments, and all that you know.
Six years sober, but these past few weeks were not so easy. It occurred to me on the night my dad died that I had good reason to drink, though I chose not to drink. Drinking dreams have returned, vivid and unsettling – a sign that something needs attention.
Six years of learning, lessons, tribe building, clarity and growth have come to this, prepared me for this. I will gather it all around me like a soft blanket and wrap up in the safety of my recovery to get me through and fill me up, until I have enough reserves to begin sharing and giving again.
No time to write a post tonight as I was busy interviewing ELLIE as my guest on The Bubble Hour! The Hour flew by. Have a listen. I hope you enjoy it:
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:
4 – My new neighbourhood, where I walk my dog 3x a day:
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.
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.
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.
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!
For one sweet week in 2008, my indie folk album charted one spot ahead of Blue Rodeo on a Canadian campus radio station’s “Top Ten” listing. A small Canadian campus, but nevertheless ‘TOP TEN” and “ONE SPOT AHEAD OF BLUE RODEO” are the key phrases here.
Around that same time, I had been awarded “Woman of Distinction” by my local YWCA for creating a clothing bank of career-wear for unemployed and underemployed women, was on the cover of “Profit” magazine as one of the “Top100 Canadian Women Entrepreneurs”, became President of my local industry association, organized a weekly farmer’s market in the parking lot of my office, and was busy writing and recording a second album of original music. All this plus a husband, three kids, a family business, and a dog.
Oh, and on top of it all I was struggling with a growing dependence on alcohol.
I got a lot of positive attention during those years. I was heralded as a role model, a renaissance woman, and a high achiever.
It was a remarkable, frantic, bittersweet time of life. I look back on it now from a different perspective. I am grateful I did not self-destruct entirely. I can reflect and feel more pride than I was able to at the time. Back then, I was numb. I couldn’t stop to breathe in the beauty of a moment; I was too busy scrambling after the next project in hopes that staying busy enough could protect me from criticism, self-doubt and worthlessness.
On a recent episode of The Bubble Hour (“Sober on Stage”) I explained I was driven by an insatiable hunger for accomplishment and approval. I couldn’t do anything for the purpose of simple pleasure. It might start out that way, but very quickly I’d be going all out and leaving others behind. It was a way to isolate, to stay safely ahead of criticism, and to feel worthy.
You can imagine that my friendships were limited to those who could keep pace and refrain from either being intimidated or critical of my chosen state of perfectionist overdrive. Fortunately the handful of strong women that I allowed into my “inner circle” are more balanced than I seemed to be and when I quit drinking in 2011, one by one they were the first to know and the strongest of my supporters. I thank God for these friendships – they are treasured gifts.
Initially, I considered all that I had accomplished despite ending each day with a heavy dose of alcohol (“the brick on my head to slow me down” as I’ve often referred to it) and thought, “Wow, if I did all that while drinking, imagine how much more I will accomplish in recovery!”
Life in recovery IS very different than before. I have learned that my prized perfectionist tendencies are self-destructive. In healing the part of me that only valued myself as others see me, I am now motivated differently.
I’ve stopped performing music, because the anxiety and stage fright was overtaking the enjoyment I experienced once on stage. I have less time for high-profile community volunteering, because I devote my spare time to recovery advocacy – blogging and podcasting anonymously. No magazine covers, no awards, and yet I am greatly fulfilled by these efforts.
As luck would have it, the market changed and so did our business. In order to respond, my husband and I were faced with the decision to either go bigger or smaller. With an eye on retirement in the next few years, we opted for smaller. We revamped our business model, laid off most of our staff, and wrapped our heads around the positives of this change. It is a classic “back to the floor” situation, where my suit and heels have become blue jeasn and work boots. We’ve traded the boardroom for job sites, and essentially returned to everything we initially loved about the business.
This transition has been much easier for my husband, who never worries what others think. He always says, “The truth will come out in time” and he is right. It bothers me though, because even though this has been a good change for us – more profitable and more enjoyable – it LOOKS like defeat from the outside.
Our competitors have had a field day, telling customers we went broke or shut down. Often well-meaning people who assume I should want to confront rumors and set them straight report these words back to me. They are partly right – the old me would have done exactly that.
If recovery had been what I expected – that I’d keep everything else in my “perfect life” the same and only change the drinking – I would have been utterly devastated by downsizing the business, hanging up my (gorgeous) suits, and getting no press coverage for my daily activities, and fending off gossip and untruths.
Thank God I went beyond merely changing my alcohol intake and started addressing the “why” behind the need to drink. Many of the things I thought were strengths were weaknesses, and many things I felt ashamed of were, in fact, the keys to my strengths.
If someone told me back then that recovery would allow me to feel satisfied with less success, I might have continued drinking for fear that I’d lose my treasured drive to succeed! Yet there has always been a little light in my soul that quietly yearned for peace and contentment. Maybe that yearning would have surfaced, and reached for recovery.
I am not sure that I believe “everything happens for a reason” but I do accept that “everything happens with potential.” Recovery has allowed me to lean into this enormous change of identity and to embrace a more authentic, realistic version of myself.
I used to work so so hard and never felt satisfied. I used to get so much attention and never felt truly worthy. I pushed myself to be extraordinary, because it compensated for some imagined deficiency.
The message is this – leaving alcohol behind has allowed me to explore and heal myself in ways that I never thought possible. I look forward to living out my days as this refined version of myself. I loved my life before, but only tolerated myself in it. Now that I am learning to love myself, I can tolerate just about anything.
Everything is different now, and I am grateful.
Recommended reading: If you are struggling with overachieving and perfectionism, you may benefit from working through “Feeling Good” by David D Burns. It is essentially a cognitive behaviour therapy manual for depression, but the section dysfunctional attitudes and the worksheet to determine your areas of emotional vulnerabilities are extremely insightful and helpful.
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.
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?
This morning the Today show aired an interview with Stefanie Wilder-Taylor about moms who use alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety. I had a lump in my throat as I watched the piece, knowing the impact it would have had on me back when I was starting to notice a terrifying momentum in my nightly wine ritual. It was becoming clear to me that I was losing control as one red flag after another waved – rotating stores because I felt ashamed of how much alcohol I bought; uneasiness about the recycling bin; stashing bottles out of view; cancelling plans so I could spend more time alone (sipping); vowing I’d cut back or quit and failing time after time.
If you are seeking today, I welcome you to this blog and to the online recovery community. My story is one of quitting while I was ahead, before anyone even knew that I had developed an addiction to alcohol. I saw I was losing control and realized that if I continued, things would get worse, then embarrassing, then downright bad. Soon there would be no hiding it. Soon it would not be my choice any more. I had heard that alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before they can get sober, and I did not want to find out what rock bottom might look like for me. Suddenly that whole concept seems utterly ridiculous, like saying “You can’t go on a diet unless you have become morbidly obese.” Screw rock bottom – I just quit, very quietly and very much on my own.
Now, three years later I am still gratefully sober and recovery is still a surprising amount of work. I thought that by now I would be “fixed” and possibly could even start to moderate (that is, drink a little now and then – I don’t, by the way). I originally thought that 12 step programs that say “alcoholism is forever” were playing it a little heavyhandedly but I was way wrong about that. I also thought it would suck and be awfully boring to never drink again but really I feel great and pleased with my life now. Alcohol addiction alters the brain permanently – the neurological changes can’t be reversed so we live with the condition by avoiding alcohol for life. Recovery consists of more than just “not drinking” – it involves a lot of introspection to uncover and change the reasons WHY we drank in the first place. And now THAT is a big job, and a worthwhile change to pursue.
If you read through my blog entries, you will learn my story. But that is just the beginning. Please, please read the comments – they are an amazing resource and so insightful (except for the weird guy that recently comment “Bullshit” on a few posts – not sure what his deal was).
I don’t have all the answers, and don’t pretend to have them. I am a little further on the road, waving you forward and (hopefully!) welcoming you to the start of your journey.
There are many pathways to recovery – many people “self-manage” recovery as I have done, without joining a program or attending meetings. Many go traditional routes with great success, and more an more alternative programs are available. Pick a path, any path, and start walking. If you realize it’s not for you, try a different way. Many of us become accustomed to isolating and hiding while we are drinking, and fear reaching out for help to get sober. I urge you to reach out – start with a comment here or on a discussion board like the BFB (above). Go to a meeting and just observe. Call someone you know is sober and ask if they are glad they quit drinking, if they might share about their journey.
The relief you feel will blow you away and you will never meet a kinder, less judgmental group than your fellow recoverees.