My leg freaks me out.
My heart was pounding when the fibreglass cast was lifted off a few days ago because I wasn’t sure what I’d see below that clinical white shell. If not for the maroon gel polish matching the other foot, I wouldn’t have recognised the foot and leg at all. It was tender and fragile and bruised.
The left foot I know is in perpetual motion – walking, running, bobbing nervously when I sit. It is a partner in crime to the right. The limp, mottled limb I saw emerge from that cast is a burden, a stranger. I felt like I was looking at a kidney or other internal organ inadvertently exposed; seeing something I shouldn’t see, a fragile thing in need of protection. My leg was then transferred into a large, removable aircast and strapped in place beneath layers of foam and plastic. I was relieved it was safely out of view.
It bothered me all day, that encounter with my leg. Never mind the pain that ensued from the new cast, I couldn’t stop thinking about the disconnect I had experienced from this poor hurting part of me that had spent two weeks in exile. I was such a bad leg owner!
But there is one thing I can work to repair right now, and that is my relationship with this estranged part. You see, after I quit drinking and started to unravel the all the emotional junk I have been cramming down inside I had a startling realization: I have a cat-perch in my chest. I was ignoring that parts of my body I didn’t like: my big feet, my coltish legs, my bony wrists and the hand with the amputated finger. The wobbly bits on my belly and thighs. The curves that draw male attention and the lumps that draw self-loathing. I would climb up up up inside myself until I was safely located in my chest, shoulders and head. It felt safe up there. No wonder I have chest pains and headaches! A whole body worth of energy was confined to an area that could barely hold it.
I stumbled into yoga a few years ago. I’d previously dismissed it as too slow and woowoo, but once I tried it I was stuck by the way it relieved the head and chest pain I had constantly felt for years. It got me off my cat perch. At the start of every yoga class, the instructor will often say, “Take a moment to set your intention for this class today.” I have no idea what others’ intentions involve (if you do this please share, I am so curious!) but mine is always the same: to accept and appreciate every part of my body, to be here now in my entirety.
I did the same thing with my life. Anything I didn’t like I would ignore and pretend wasn’t real, wasn’t me. That didn’t happen, I didn’t say that, I don’r remember. I raced to the future in my mind, always anxious to get to the next moment. Always planning, thinking, worrying. Too busy for the now. Definitely not looking back, it is scary back there.
Healing my life involved making peace with the past, trusting in the future, and living in the now. Healing my relationship with my body meant learning to inhabit all of me. This is why I do so much yoga, because I can unhook for thinking and just follow the instructor’s voice: breath in and do this….breath out and do that. I need every part of me to balance and twist and move through the poses. I fill up my body, and it is safe…I am whole.
So I know I can’t allow myself to see this poor broken leg as “other”. I can remove the cast to shower and get dressed, which frankly scares the shit out of me because IT IS BROKEN and one little bump will hurt like hell and possibly screw up the healing, but I force myself to free my foot for a few minutes to give it some loving care. I clean it, roll on essential oils said to speed healing and keep the skin soft, and gingerly run my fingers from toes to knee.
This morning I whispered, “Thank you for breaking so that my knee didn’t blow. You took it for the team. Get well soon, leg.” Then I realized I was talking to it like it wasn’t mine, so I stared at it a little longer until it felt more familiar, and tried not to notice that it needs a shave.
Before returning my leg into its robo-shell, I allowed my feet to just rest side by side on the floor. For the first time in weeks, both feet felt the same thing at the same time and I felt connected. It was a sweet, peaceful moment; just sitting and feeling my feet touch the floor.
If you have exiled parts of yourself, whether physical or emotional, it is worth while to sit quietly and experience wholeness. It can feel odd or uncomfortable (okay, you don’t have to talk to it, unless you’re quirky like me!), but just allow it for a little while every day until it starts to feel natural. It has been a powerful experience for me, and this week I was reminded that it will be an ongoing process, something I will have to keep working at to overcome a lifetime of sitting on my perch.
When the idea to quit drinking started sprouting in my pickled brain, I kept thinking What else IS there? What did I even DO every night before I became a daily drinker? What will I ever look forward to if I can’t drink? How will I relax, celebrate, or pass the time?
I understood that one purpose of recovery meetings is to fill the time previously spent drinking with other activity so, borrowing that concept, when I took the plunge into sobriety I knew I had to shake up my routine. Considering the extent of obsession with alcohol in addiction, it is not surprising that new behaviours took on an addictive-like pattern as well. That’s okay though, because they were easing me out of old ways and replacing them with better alternatives.
Here are some of the most helpful ones that seem to have stuck throughout this journey and continue to have positive effects:
- Blogging – On that precious first day, I decided I’d chronicle my experience in a blog (even though I had never read a blog before and wasn’t entirely sure how it worked). Setting it up was time consuming (good distraction), choosing the layout was creative and fun (hurray for creative fun!), and then finally hitting “post” was a leap of faith. Getting that first comment notification might as well have been fireworks, because my joy was that big. I told the truth and someone responded “me, too!” I started searching other sober bloggers – how exciting that lots of people out there are telling their truth! – and our comments became exchanges of encouragement, knowledge, and hope. Here we are more than years years later and this process continues to be a great tool for recovery. Consider giving it a whirl!
- Sugar – There are two benefits of using sugar as a tool in early recovery. One is that sugar can negate alcohol cravings by triggering the same pleasure/reward circuitry of the brain, so having a few sweets can help get you through the witching hour. (I kept a bucket of “Dibs” in the freezer, and popped one in my mouth whenever the cravings felt overwhelming.) The other thing sugar can help with is to shift your taste buds away from thoughts of alcohol. Since most alcoholic beverages pair better with savouries, it is more likely that eating cheese or nuts will make you long for a companion beverage than if you eat something sugary (even fruit – I sucked on orange slices constantly for the first few weeks). I now try to limit sugar, but in early recovery it was an enormous help. It is still helpful in some situations, for example if we go out to dinner and I feel surrounded by temptation to drink, I will allow myself cappuccino and dessert at the end of the meal as both a reward and an exercise in delayed gratification.
- Walking and Podcasts – When I think of the first year of recovery, my strongest memory is of walking while listening to recovery podcasts. I walked before work. I walked after work. I walked after dinner. And I listened constantly to the voices of other people in recovery who were just like me, or not at all like me but still somehow telling my story. It soothes my soul and opened my heart and mind to new ways of thinking. It cleared my head and then filled it back up with better thoughts and new ideas. It made me challenge the things I considered “normal” and gave me pause. When I get this cast off my leg, going for a walk in the sunshine is the first order of business!
- Coffee and Tea – One thing I missed about drinking was all of the ritual – the choosing, opening, pouring, holding, yadayadayada. So I channelled some of that energy into coffee and tea. For me, it was evenings at home where I did my problematic drinking, so after dinner I would choose a lovely mug and a fragrant herbal tea (preferable one that promised to promote sleep) and suck back three or four mugs of the stuff through gritted teeth. Eventually I came to like it and now I can’t imagine an evening without my Sleepy Time tea. As a final “nightcap” I would set up the coffeemaker for morning, synchronising the timer with my morning alarm so that I would awake to the smell of a freshly brewed pot – the reward for making it to one more day alcohol free.
- Online Recovery Groups – (see my Resources page) – My online groups were my lifeline for a long time and continue to play an important role in my recovery. It gave me a place to share small victories with people who understood, ask questions, vent, help others (one of the best things you can do to stay sober is help someone else do it, too!), and post pictures of the my kooky habits like matching my travel mug to my outfit.
- Cleaning – With too much time on my (wineglass-free) hands in the evenings, I busied myself with housework. I had a cleaning company come to our house weekly until then, but with all that energy to burn I found that I no longer needed to have extra help with my chores. It felt good to look after things myself and putting my home in order was therapeutic. I listened to podcasts while I buzzed around the house, feeling productive and positive. (Sadly, this broken foot means I will be hiring a cleaner again for a few months. I am sure I will love the luxury of it once I have it back in my life again.)
- Beads – Some women from my online support group were getting together for meetup and I decided to bring a big bucket of beads so we could all make bracelets while we visited through the weekend. It was a hit and we all took home treasures that will forever remind us of a special gathering. I was left with the remaining supplies and an obsession with using them up. I couldn’t stop – it was so fun! I had forgotten the simple pleasure of making something to give away. If this is too girlie for you, stop by the craft store to see if something sparks your interest – paints, metals, or those intricate colouring books that cause you to accidentally meditate.
- Sudoku – Speaking of accidental meditation, that’s what seems to happen when I do Sudoku puzzles. I started doing these at bedtime (with my tea) to shush the voices in my head and force me to focus on something meaningless. It quiets my mind and shifts me into sleepiness quicker than any alcohol ever could. I have advanced to a pretty fierce puzzler (if there can be such a thing), so much so that my husband bought me a thick book of strategies as a Christmas gift and I didn’t hit him with it.
- Essential Oil – Er ma gerd! Oils are crazily addictive in a good way. I think there is a part of me that will always look for that “fix” to change how I feel, and oils are full of promises. I diffuse orange and grapefruit in my office while I work and clarey sage by my bed (while I drink tea and do puzzles before konking out), make custom rollerball blends for everything from skin irritations to immune boosters to headaches. Just fussing with them relaxes me and look at the fun rainbow of little bottles. Who could resist?
- Yoga – For a long time I rather prided myself on my disdain for yoga because it reflected my busy-ness, which reflected my importance, which validated my worth. Nothing sounded more agonising to me than slowing down and being alone with my thoughts. I worked hard to avoid that very situation and when I couldn’t avoid it I drank it away. I stumbled into yoga by attending a retreat for women in recovery and was surprised by how soothing and enjoyable it was to be led through every breath and movement by someone else’s voice. It was the opposite of agony – it was deeply calming and safe. It was also surprising challenging and I do so like a challenge. Now I go to yoga several times a week (and will return as soon as my broken foot is healed!) and I can’t imagine my life without this regular treat. I used to run to help burn my energy and keep me in shape, but yoga has improved my body in ways that running never could (more arm definition, a stronger core and more flexibility). The studio I go to has people of all ages, sizes, and abilities – there is no push to perfection – just progress. Sound familiar?
Have you tried any of these things and were they effective for you? What helpful habits helped you break up with booze? Can you feel your tendencies for addictive behaviour spark with these things, and do you find that to be a good thing? I look forward to your insights!
It is pouring rain at the ski hill. Yesterday it was snowing and the conditions were glorious but today is just a few degrees warmer, which has made the difference between snow and rain. Snow builds the base and extends the season; rain exposes rocks that chew up skis. Snow is good, rain is bad, and the only difference between the two is one tiny line on the thermometer.
I am not prepared for ski season to end; it’s only been a few weeks since I got the green light to resume usual activity since gallbladder surgery. After all that down time, getting back on skis has been exhilarating. Spring can wait a little longer – I am not ready for this change. I don’t want it, don’t welcome it, and can’t stop it.
So I am snuggled here in this quiet cabin, considering the rain as a metaphor. Some things are inevitable and the only thing we can control is our own response in the midst of it all.
You know how sometimes it seems like bad things happen in clumps? I find myself in one of those mucky, yucky periods. It started at Christmas, and to my continued amazement one crappy thing after another just keeps unfolding. Have you ever experienced that? When every phone call or email seems to bring bad news from someone you care about? Those times when we tell ourselves that “bad things happen in threes”, but then hear of the fourth, fifth, eighth and eleventh bad thing? More than a few nights, the sum total of my bedtime prayers has been Seriously, God? Seriously? followed by a long quiet pause while I wait for answers and settle instead for acceptance.
Three years ago we went through one of these spells, and it was a hard time. Just one shitty thing after another for months on end. Worry, sleepless nights, drudgery of dealing with unwanted (undeserved) problems.We kept going, we got through it. I was glad to be sober, because the temptation to numb out and escape was strong. A lot of readers in early recovery worry about living without alcohol forever, but in my experience it is so much easier to just know that drinking isn’t an option. Numbing with alcohol never really did help, even though it felt like it worked at the time, and only slowed down the process of getting through the tough stuff.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was feeling really overwhelmed and dragged down by sadness because of several readers I’d been trying to help who all seemed to relapse at once. I felt like a failure, and – to be honest – a little resentful. (You can read that post here but then come back and read the rest of this post about what I have learned since!)
I confessed in that post that helping someone who ends up relapsing can feel like a sucker punch, and my subsequent resentments posed a palpable threat to my sobriety. It was a real wake up call to me that I had to examine my thinking. I felt people had taken advantage of me and wasted my time by pretending to want help while living a double life. I felt I had set them up for success and been duped. After a lot of reflection, I came to see otherwise.
Here is a lesson in codependency, people pleasing, and perfectionism: there’s a fine line between helping others and controlling their actions, and that line can separate outcomes as powerful as the one degree of difference between snow and rain.
When we offer help to others, the best we can do is hold space and provide the framework for their success regardless of whether or not they choose to do the next right thing. If someone is offered help and doesn’t make good use of it, that is their choice. It might feel like we have been taken advantage of, but it can also be viewed in the opposite way: that they chose to NOT take advantage of the opportunity provided, or maybe they wanted to but couldn’t.
Thousands of comments on this blog say sweet, kind things like, “UnPickled got me sober!” Those words always touch me deeply and affirm my effectiveness and purpose. I cherish the knowledge that my story has been helpful to others and made a pivotal difference in their lives. However, I came to see that by allowing myself to take credit for some people’s sobriety, I was also setting myself up to feel responsible for others’ setbacks. I had to reframe it to see that each person is responsible for their own outcome and the role of this blog is as a resource for insight and encouragement.
The term “holding space” is often heard in recovery circles. It means creating that safe, non-judgemental place of opportunity for another person to express themselves and heal. It also means allowing that person to proceed as they will, which is not necessarily as we might wish. “Holding space” does not come naturally to me; it is a skill I am learning. My instinct is to decide what a person “should” do and then try to coax them to my conclusion like a lawyer leading a witness. I thought this was the way to help others, and never understood it as manipulating or controlling. I surely could never sit quietly while someone spun an edited version of events or exaggerated their situation. I was the queen of correcting, arguing, setting the record straight. Okay, I still am that but I try not to be – it isn’t usually helpful. Things tend to unfold as they will regardless, so the difference is how agitated and annoying I want to make myself in the process.
I am taking that lesson I learned from the recovery world and applying it to the stuff of everyday life. This mucky murky cluster of unrelated unfortunate events that seems to hover lately will pass, and I am making it through by letting go and allowing others do as they will. I am not trying to control things that don’t belong to me, and focussing on how I respond (with kindness, patience, indifference, silence, compassion). I am trying to remember the drama triangle and assessing which corner I’m casting myself into, so that I can dismantle the tension (really helpful – go read that post if you need help with difficult people!). I am getting to yoga several times a week as a means of healthy escape, one that is good for my body. Things seem easier than they have in the past, I think these tools are helping enormously.
Rain at the ski hill sucks, but in my garden back home tomorrow I may have a whole new perspective. I’ll go hunting for spring shoots and worms. Maybe I’ll do a little spring cleaning and put my winter sweaters into storage. There’s some skirts and boots in the back of the closet I haven’t seen for a while.
I can’t stop the rain, but I can wear something cute and get ready for what comes next.
Yesterday I spoke to a reader who has been struggling to hang onto her sobriety. She is able to go alcohol-free for weeks at a time but then drinks for reasons she doesn’t understand. Each time it happens she can feel herself make the decision to drink again, but doesn’t know why she does it.
“I am a strong person,” she said. “I have always been strong and can handle anything. Why can’t I get this?”
Here is what I have learned about being a strong person: it’s easy to fool ourselves. We mistakenly think we are being strong when we don’t get upset, don’t let things bother us, and then press on despite discomfort. “Suck it up” we tell ourselves, and then somehow we find a way to keep going.That looks like strength on the outside, but in truth it is denial. True strength is dealing with these things, not stuffing them down and refusing to acknowledge how we really feel.
When we deny reality for the sake of appearing strong, we are destroying ourselves from within. We live with some niggling discomfort we can’t name (refusing to address the real cause), and so look for relief in some acceptable form. This is how it started for me – a glass of wine before bed worked so well at first. It relaxed me, comforted, and brought on sleep. I kicked ass in the world all day, then came home and kicked off my heels and enjoyed a lovely glass of wine – a perfectly reasonable strategy. A glass of wine a day is even said to be healthy so no need for concern.
But over the years….
One glass a night became two or three or more and the wine glasses got larger and the bottles became boxes. I couldn’t quit, or even cut back. Each morning I vowed to quit, but by mid day I’d found a reason why it was important to still drink that day: if something good happened I needed to celebrate, if something bad happened I needed comforting, and if nothing at all happened I drank out of boredom.
I felt the same bewilderment as my friend: I am so strong. Why can’t I stop drinking?
Two reasons: because the illusion of strength I’d cultivated depended on a release valve, and because the addictive nature of alcohol caused it to become the one and only release I wanted. I was caught in a vicious cycle that was camouflaged (and perpetuated) by the outward appearance of achievement and strength.
It is easy to think that life is perfect except for the black mark of the addictive element, and if we can just get rid of the wine (or drugs or roulette or shopping or Chigaco-style popcorn – whatever is being stuffed into the void) then everything will be finally, fully perfect. That’s it, that’s all.
So we quit drinking, or try to quit drinking, but then things go sideways because we no longer have any release valve – the wine goggles destroyed the ability to recognize other pleasures. “What was I thinking? Things aren’t better without alcohol! They’re WORSE! I might as well drink because this sobriety nonsense is screwing up everything.”
First, it helps to recognize that our old ways of doing things were probably not as effective as we thought, or else they wouldn’t have led us to seek ongoing relief. The idea of what strength really is must be revisited and revised. Strength is grounded in honesty, in saying “no” to the things that aren’t serving us well and dealing with painful issues instead of sweeping them under a rug. This is the work of recovery (changing for the better), which takes us past mere sobriety (abstinence from the addictive substance or behaviour). It is possible to get through life without constant discomfort.
The crucial role of self-care then, is to not only nurture ourselves through these changes but most importantly to teach ourselves how to enjoy all of the pleasures that our addiction overshadowed. A walk in the sunshine, a massage or pedicure, a cup of coffee. It is important to plan activities or pleasant actions throughout the day and especially during the “witching hour”, so when cravings for alcohol come we can recognize them as a longing for comfort and offer an alternative. The most difficult part is that in early recovery, we don’t necessarily feel like doing much and little else is appealing. Do it anyway. Try lots of different things and little by little those discoveries will come. The herbal tea I once sneered at has become an indispensable part of my evening routine. The yoga I assumed was stupid is now my favourite way to unwind. Connecting with friends is about conversation, tears or laughter, and not just an excuse to drink. I can even sit still and do nothing, which I avoided before because that’s when all the hurts I had buried in the name of strength would surface and pester.
Be open to approaching things differently and you’ll learn to avoid unnecessary discomfort. Practice self-care and you’ll find new ways to console yourself when needed (and to celebrate the good things, too).
Undo, redo. Unlearn, retrain. Understand, rethink.
Un Un Un. Re Re Re.
This is what recovery is all about.
What are your favourite means of comfort and self-care? How has that changed throughout the course of your recovery?