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.
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?
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.
My work as a designer and home builder requires me to spend a great deal of time in my head, translating lines on a blue print into visions of colour and space. I am always working months into the future, which means I hover over the “date” section when filling any given form because I must pause to consider which month it is presently – I live that far into the future.
Designers don’t just walk into a shop and order tile, cabinets, finishes and fixtures on the basis of simply coordinating colours; we have project all the selections into a mental image that moves from room to room conceptualizing corners, ceilings, logistics, building code and finally, visual appeal.
My hyperactive imagination serves me well in my work; to me a floorplan is just as interesting as a novel. It is a thrilling experience to walk through a home we have built, seeing my thoughts come to life. I did that, I made that happen. I dreamed it and made it real.
Yet the same gifts that allow me to be creative have also caused me a lot of grief, since for much of my life I just observed my thoughts without applying any discipline to them. I was along for the ride to wherever my imagination took me, believing it was beyond my control. I so enjoyed the good things that my thoughts produced – music, stories, homes, crafts, thoughtfulness and insight – that I was willing to to tolerate the inherent negatives: dread, anxiety, fear, worry.
I can imagine criticism, shame, disaster, pain and harm with the same ease and clarity as a sunroom with shiplap walls and oversized lanterns. I believe that a big part of alcohol’s appeal to me was the quieting of my mind, the numbing of unwanted images and noise.
Once I stopped drinking, a new self-awareness began to emerge that invited me to take a more empowered approach with my thoughts. I could control them, pull apart the jumble to assess for validity or benefit. Imagination and anxiety both require a willingness to plunge into the unknown and look for shapes in the darkness. Recovery, for me, has largely involved identifying when I’m spinning out in anxious thoughts and experiencing emotions based on what *could* happen rather than what is *actually* happening.
Maybe for you the line that gives you trouble is something different. Maybe you struggle with the line between friendly vs flirtatious, or entertaining vs attention-seeking, or introverted vs isolated. The idea is to examine our tendencies and keep what serves us well, knowing that left unchecked our gifts can naturally slip into variations of harmful forms.
It’s easy to justify our character flaws when they masquerade as positive traits, and it takes courage to call ourselves on crossing the line. I used to think my thoughts weren’t hurting anyone, yet they have a funny way of creeping into tone and action, which over time becomes habit and character. If my thoughts made me anxious, and being anxious made me snappy, and being snappy made me defensive, and being defensive made me withdraw, well…I guess I was hurting those around me on a regular basis – so regular it maybe seemed normal. No wonder normal hurt.
I love that I am now free to challenge my own thinking in ways I never considered before. I love the simplicity of asking myself, “Is that true?” when a negative idea takes hold.
I’m so stressed out right now. (Is that true?)
These people are judging me. (Is that true?)
Everything needs to be perfect. (Is that true?)
I work harder than others. (Is that true?)
Hey! I have to work harder than others (not true), to make things perfect (not necessary), so that when others judge me (if they do, but they probably don’t) they won’t find things to criticize (not necessarily true), so I am stressed out (by choice).
I wouldn’t trade my creativity for the world, so I have to learn to manage the anxiety it can produce. This is recovery, folks. This is what’s it’s all about. These changes of thought are just as important to staying sober and not drinking.
What are your gifts and what are their flipsides? What has sobriety and recovery taught you about being present and aware? What answers do you find when you ask, “Is that true?”
I was pleased to be interviewed by Liv’s Recovery Kitchen last week, a cool site where blogger Liv writes about recovery, shares kitchen-tested recipes, and posts interviews with sober people from all walks of life.
Liv asks great questions, and as a result she had me covering everything from early recovery to my thoughts on (not doing) the 12 Steps to what the heck “Recovery is Leadership” means.
“I can’t believe this is my life. How did I get here?”
I asked myself this a thousand times when I was trapped in the cycle of daily drinking. I hear the same words often from readers with whom I correspond. How did this happen? How did I get here? I can’t believe this is my life.
I heard it last night from a strong, beautiful mom who is wrestling with her decision and wrote a heartfelt message about her inner battles.
I am saying it myself this morning, only now it has a happy meaning for me, and is said with a spirit of gratitude: I am drinking coffee all alone in a strange city on a balcony overlooking the hippest neighbourhood I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe this is my life. I am about to spend 4 days with a group of sober women I’ve met through blogs, through recovery retreats, and online support groups. We’ve rented a huge vacation property and filled all nine bedrooms. I can’t believe this is my life.
How did I get here? I arrived a day ahead of the others and had to wander around the area alone for hours before I could check into the rental house. I explored local shops, got a manicure, bought the groceries we’ll need (lots of coffee and ice cream, plus oodles of healthy ingredients for two big suppers we’ll cook together). I hunted through a used bookstore and scored a 1945 edition of Ogden Nash poetry for my son, and seriously considered a vintage hand-tool leather purse from the 70s that might lose its cool style-value the moment I leave this trendy neighbourhood. I ate borscht alone in a cafe.
I can’t believe this is my life. It was when I finally checked into this house that I came to appreciate how far I’ve come.Stillness used to be my enemy. Staying busy was my drug of choice, drinking was a way to numb myself when the busy-ness of each day ended. So spending a night alone in a strange, huge house could be a big trigger. I watched tv, read, fed myself, drank tea, went to bed, read some more, and finally just went to sleep. I tossed and turned. In truth, it was a horrible sleep. I checked my clock every 30 minutes from 4 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. and then finally just got up and made a pot of coffee. So what if I am tired when the others arrive? So what if I maybe talk too much or fall asleep before everyone else or act spacey because I am tired. So what, that’s okay. I am safe with these friends. Perfection is not expected or required.
How did I get here? One hallmark of codependency, I’ve learned, is only valuing oneself through the eye of others. One place I catch myself doing this is in the grocery store: what do others think of me when they see what’s in my cart? It might sound stupid to non-dependent types, but I am sure some of you do the exact same thing. So when I was getting groceries for this meetup, I laughed at the giant bag of spinach, three buckets of gelatto, and tea selection I was placing onto the conveyor belt, thinking the average person would say, “A girls weekend? Where’s the wine?!” And then I noticed the lady ahead of me who was bagging her own groceries, which appeared to be dinner for one but with two bottles of wine. Was I imagining that she looked puffy, tired, and maybe a little sad? Was it fair to assume she was trapped as I had been? Maybe she was on her way to book club. Oh wait, that was one of the things I used to say to the store clerk when I was embarrassed to be buying more wine myself. “Book club! Those ladies love their wine!” I caught myself short of judging this stranger, and instead sent up a little wish for her wellness, whatever that may be.
I can’t believe this is my life. I can’t believe all the cool things I have done since I quit drinking. A year ago today I went skiing in Switzerland in the shadow of the Matterhorn with my husband. I went to an AA meeting in Manhattan – which is surreal for a small town hick like me (who doesn’t do AA). I have travelled alone to yoga retreats and sober meetups in Mexico, Boston, Salt Spring Island, Kelowna, and around my home province of Alberta. I can’t believe the amazing people who have been kind enough to meet up with me when my travels bring me to their region, and I love it when you guys let me know you’re coming through my area so I can meet you.
I can’t believe this is my life. I can’t believe that it feels so natural to live without alcohol when I spent so many years believing it was the only thing that held my life together. I can’t believe it is so easy to share my weaknesses in this blog when I kept them hidden for so long. I can’t believe five years has already passed since I looked at my drinking and asked, “How did I get here?”
Oh wait, I CAN believe it. I DO believe it. It’s real. I acknowledge it all, humbly and gratefully. I am living life fully and fearlessly (albeit still a little anxiously at times).
I don’t drink, and my life is better than ever. It gets better. Believe it.