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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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Chairing the Committee of Voices in Our Heads

While I am not a mental health professional, it feels like I’ve spent as much on therapy as a psychologist spends on education. To stretch the value for dollar, I like to tell others about some of the great strategies and lessons I’ve learned from my therapist – kind of like buying an album and making cassette copies for your friends. And truthfully, I am often so excited by how helpful the process is that I want to share it with others.

Sobriety is about not drinking, but recovery is about changing ourselves from within so that we can enjoy life without constantly feeling the need to numb out. I got sober on my own, but I am recovering with a lot of help.

Recently my therapist did some work with me around “Internal Family Systems”, which is a process developed in the 1990s by Richard Schwartz. It is an evidence-based practice that considers all the ways an individual can fragment into different parts of the self (think about how are you in different situations, how distinct aspects of yourself are more to the forefront at work, with family, in tense situations, at play, and so on).

First, my counsellor assigned me some homework: to list out all of the distinct part of myself. I filled an entire page! Even though I had never given much thought to them, I could quickly give names to distinct roles: The Critic, The Child, The Bad Me, The Entertainer, The Teacher, The Boss, The Mother and several more. The page filled so quickly that I re-wrote it in a new format, with my own notes of whether the parts were “good” or “bad”.

When we went through the list in session, the first thing I learned is that none of these aspects should be seen as bad. All of these parts emerge for a reason, to do a job. Maybe “The Bad Me” had done bad things, but her purpose was to protect and comfort me using any means necessary. When I feel scared, I might act in some immature ways, because The Child is the only part of me who is allowed to cry.  The thing to understand is that it can be helpful to have all these aspects of ourselves, but they should be managed by what Schwartz calls the Self (I like to think of it as my Highest Self).

The Entertainer in me can charm a crowd and work the room because I created that part to overcome some natural shyness that wanted to hide in a corner. When I made the list, I identified this part as half bad because it feels fake when I am in The Entertainer role. Now I understand that it is not bad or fake, it is a useful tool. The key is to choose when to use a part and not be led by them, especially in extreme ways. It is good to have a little cry and allow myself to feel like The Child, as long as I don’t throw a tantrum in the grocery store. It’s fine to be The Entertainer in some settings, as long as it is by choice and appropriate.

We can think of that addictive voice in our head the same way, as a part that emerged out of a situation and is trying to be useful. It truly believes that alcohol is necessary for our survival and works hard to convince us that drinking would be the correct response to a situation. I have learned that the goal is to spend the majority of our time the High Self role, to call on our parts if necessary and to relieve them of their duties if they emerge unexpectedly and want to run wild.

A good example of this would be the old patterns we can fall into with our family of origin. Funny how we can find ourselves behaving in ways around our parents and siblings that are so different from how we conduct ourselves as adults in the world. We slip into those darn old parts without even realising it, until we hear ourselves whinging or arguing or feeling wounded and wonder “What the hell just happened here? How do these people push my buttons so easily?” It isn’t them pushing our buttons, it is us following some well-worn neurological pathways, like emotional muscle-memory. The part can be trance-like.

My therapist suggested when I feel myself being a part, I should pause to consider if that role is necessary under the circumstance or if I am just following an old habit. When I am in the closet changing my clothes for the 8th time because nothing seems like the right thing, I can pause and say, “Hey Critic, thanks for showing up. I know you are worried about me going to that event today so you are trying to trying to be helpful by telling me everything I put on looks terrible. I have this under control so I need you to be quiet now. I promise I will take good care of myself so you don’t have to worry.”

Other internal conversations for me sound like this: “Hi Martyr, you are getting very upset about how other people are treating me. I appreciate you are feeling threatened but I am going to be protecting my boundaries so you don’t have to. Thanks, I am taking over now.”

“I am talking so much right now and sitting up straighter than normal, I am in my Entertainer part. That feels okay for now, seems like the right thing to be.”

“I can’t stop thinking about drinking today, my Addicted part is on high alert looking for ways to comfort me today. What is really bothering me? Hey Addict, I know you want me to feel better right now so I am going to take over and book myself a massage. How does that sound?”

The goal is to spend the majority of our lives in our Highest Self, and take charge of the parts as manageable tools.

I hope this explanation does justice to the theory. It is my layman’s perspective of a process that has been very insights and helpful to my recovery.

Mull it over and give some thought to your parts. How would it feel to be in charge of them all instead of a step behind? Does the prospect comfort or frighten you?

The Luxury of Tears

My husband is away on a golf trip and I am very good at alone-ing. I clean, bake, read, write, walk the dog, watch documentaries, work, and use complicated beauty products (moisture mask, micro planer, green self-tanner…). I listen to podcasts on speaker and eat supper at 8 pm.

The only thing I don’t do well in the Mr’s absence is go to bed. Correction: go to SLEEP. I actually go to bed earlier than usual but then procrastinate the actual “lights off” part. I’ve written many times about dreading sleeplessness. I know better, I do. I have strategies and thought processes and tea with valerian, and truth be told I don’t often need any of that. Sleep comes easily once I remember to give it a try.

Nevertheless, maybe I am a little short on sleep, okay? Just a few hours behind, but enough to weaken my defences. And also I am reading this great book on attachment theory (“How We Love” by Milan and Kay Yerkovich) – I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for months because it has just been to raw to consider various aspects of my childhood now as I help to care for a parent with Parkinson’s. The then and the now crash together like thunderheads and I have to stop and draw slow breaths and blink blink blink. But with all this alone time I’ve been trying to finish the book by reading chunks and then walking the dog while processing the information.

This afternoon I felt an emotional *clunk* halfway through my walk around the lake. Scattered memories sorted themselves into a pattern and I was simultaneously enlightened and despondent. The combination was overwhelming so I hurried home with a quivering chin (and an oblivious Schnoodle). Safely home, I was about to busy myself with some distraction – the laundry and a Bubble Hour outline for next week’s show – when it suddenly occurred to me there was no reason not to feel the feelings I was pushing away.

With the same sense of wonder as I feel when turning off the lights to sleep (“Oh right, this isn’t hard at all”) I sat on the stairs and held space for myself. (“Go ahead now and allow the response that occurs as a result of those memories.”) I wanted to see what might happen next and I bet you can guess: a cleansing cry of the private sort, the kind that doesn’t worry about how it looks or what anyone thinks but just releases and renews. It went on longer than expected and I marvelled at my own capacity to weep. It felt good to give up this burden I didn’t know I’d been carrying.

Several tissues later, I realized my little dog was watching me with concern. Whoosh! The reflective self returned. I never trouble my loved ones with my uncomfortable emotions and I can’t even tolerate worrying the damn dog. Deep breath…it was finished anyway…I felt better….

I will call my therapist tomorrow. It’s been months since my last appointment and I could use some help making sense of things. Just because it felt good to cry alone does not mean I need to process everything that way.

If I have learned anything in these years of recovery, it is the power of asking for help.

Quieting the Nighttime Voices

The night before last an unwanted visitor crept into our house. As my husband and I drifted to sleep she was already inside, stealthily moving to her target. If the automatic ice-maker on the freezer hadn’t dumped its load just then – its familiar rumble jolting me from the verge of dreams – I would have dozed on, never the wiser. But my eyes opened and there she was, watching me. She went into action the moment I discovered her presence, slipping under the covers and whispering in my ear.

sleepless

Her method is always the same. She starts out friendly enough, chattering about the events of the day as if from my perspective, but then quietly points out the things that escaped my notice: a worry, a slight, a misstep, a failure. Soon she is connecting decades’ worth of dots, reminding me that I should always worry, always guard myself, that I always get it wrong, that I am unworthy. Then she flicks the switch on her projector, playing scenes I don’t want to see.

She first appeared when I was three or four. I cried and sobbed so loudly my sisters awoke and ran for my mother, who sat on the edge of my bed and asked “What’s wrong, Jeannie?”

“I’m scared of the magic pictures!” I wailed.

“What are magic pictures?”

“Mean faces that float in the dark. They won’t go away.”

“Oh Jeannie, that’s just your imagination!” mom laughed with relief. “It isn’t real. It’s just in your mind.” My mother was well acquainted with my active imagination – I had numerous invisible friends and hippity-hopped around the yard constantly making up songs and stories to amuse my pretend entourage. Mom rubbed my back and told me the magic pictures were all in my head.

Her words were meant to comfort, but this new knowledge frightened me. If the magic pictures were coming from inside my head, then no one else could help make them go away. It was only up to me, and I had no idea how to stop them. So I learned to wait them out, to cry more quietly so my sisters couldn’t hear. As the years went on, the magic pictures became scenes from real-life, full of biting criticism; the past replayed through a lens of self-loathing.

In sobriety, recovery begins as we go back and understand where our thinking got off-track. Minor misalignments from childhood carry us far off-course by the time we become adults. We heal by identifying these points in our lives and resetting (this is the concept of “UN RE” that was so powerful for me I put it onto coffee mugs and t-shirts).

The other night, as I endured archived mental footage of shortcomings, failures, and bad behaviour from years gone by, I sobbed in the silent way I’ve learned (only now it’s not my sisters I’m afraid of waking, it’s my gentle husband next to me). An hour went by. My visitor was relentless.

I tried to think my way out of it by remembering my mom comforting me all those years ago, telling me it was just my imagination, but the visitor would have none of it. She immediately twisted that thought into guilt: I misinterpreted mom’s explanation back then. How many times have I thought I was comforting my own children but instead I was screwing them up? Soon a fresh wave of tears came as I reflected on possible parental failures.

Then another voice emerged, perhaps this very voice I’m using to write with now.

“This is why I drank,” it said frankly. “Drinking helped me fall asleep before the whispering. Why am I allowing this? This is nothing but lake diving.”

“Lake diving” goes back to a lesson from Sunday School. When we ask for forgiveness, the thing we did wrong is forgiven and tossed into the bottom of a deep lake. Once we take responsibility for something and acknowledge regret, we have to accept the forgiveness for which we’ve asked. Going through memories is like scuba diving for old garbage from the bottom of a lake, emerging triumphantly with a shout. “I found it!”

My tears stopped suddenly as I realized the ridiculousness of waving decaying old dug-up relics over my head, reliving the pain, and calling, “God can you ever forgive me?!”

I pictured God in Billy Crystal form, waving his hands and shaking his head.

I’m busy over here, what do you need? I’ve already thrown that in the lake, why do you keep diving after it? Why do you ask me to do the same thing again and again? I’ve got the refugees to worry about, d’ya mind? You’ve been forgiven already, what you don’t believe me? I’m God! I should know. Cut it out. Leave it alone. Enough already.

Huddled under the blanket, I started to smile. As my mind became more alert, the dark visitor and all her power faded away. She doesn’t come often anymore, but clearly I need a plan to deal with her.

I thought about a powerful book I’d recently read called “The Buddha and the Borderline” by Kiera Van Gelder, and some of the techniques used to help those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) regulate emotions and process triggers.

When Kiera relates an upsetting encounter to her therapist, he asks her which of her “parts” was engaged in the event. The concept is that all of us have different personality parts that we draw on in various circumstances: at work we engage one part, socially another part, in confrontation a different part – we draw on familiar past experiences and bring out that part of us. It’s why we might be competent leaders at work but fall into childish patterns at family events. Traumatic events from the past can lock in some “parts” that are not so helpful – a crisis might bring out a “deer in the headlights” response that comes from being powerless as a child, for example.

Kiera’s therapy involves envisioning all of her various parts together in a room, familiarizing herself with all of the ways she has learned to engage with the world: the tough girl, the frightened child, the academic, the victim, the dominatrix. Once engaged with awareness, she can call forward the most appropriate part of herself. Most people do this instinctively and have lots of healthy parts to work with. Trauma and/or mental illness can create parts that are injured and disruptive, however, and these need to be nurtured and understood.

In recovery, it is common to hear people talk about their addictive voice as a separate part of themselves. Some give this part names like Wolfie, Trixie, or The Itty Bitty Shitty Committee. I’ve never named mine; she’s too slippery and enmeshed to single out. But as I laid there in the dark, I was pretty sure she’d just left the room, chased out by Billy-Crystal-as-God’s sweeping gestures.

“What part of me was that?” I asked myself, emulating the therapist from Van Gelder’s memoire. “Who sneaks in here and whispers and plays old movies and makes me cry? Why does she do it?”

I found the answers in my mind, and fell asleep soon after.

Last night I crawled into bed with lingering dread, fearing the whispers as I have since childhood. Then I remembered that I could call forward a different part, so I asked the wise, kindly woman who’s been developing these past few years to comfort me to sleep. Her voice was raspy and warm as she murmured, “You are safe…everything is fine.”

With a twinkle in her eye she added, “No lake diving for you any more. God is busy taking care of the world. Time to get the rest you need.”

 

 

 

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