Friday, September 15, 2017

Early June. Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

A thick fog was hovering in almost perfect stillness over the water. I could see nothing through the grey, yet I could hear waves crashing onto the unseen rocks. The air was cold and I shivered in my sweatshirt clutching my "regular" Dunkin Donuts coffee in one hand while carrying a net and a bucket in the other. In between odd jobs painting houses and picking up shifts at the local ER as a medical assistant, I had scraped together enough tuition money to enroll in a Summer Marine Institute program at my college. I was working on a pre-med degree and had chosen a field course since I had always learned better outside of a traditional classroom.  It was taught by Dr. A, a tiny slip of a woman with wild curly grey hair and the balance of a mountain goat. I'm not exactly sure how old she was since she had the tan, weathered skin of someone who has spent their entire life outdoors and in my 19 year old foolishness, I of course thought that anyone over 30 was ancient.  I think she was in her late 70s, yet none of us could keep up with her as she leapt with ease up huge rocks and around slippery tide pools, never falling or slipping in masses of seaweed and unflagging in her enthusiasm for finding the perfect specimen.  She was an expert on all types of North Atlantic sea life, both animal and vegetable, and she was hell bent on sharing her passion with her students.  It was our second day out collecting specimens and breathing that particular loamy, salty fishy smell that is unique to the North Shore.  Later that morning I sat sketching periwinkles and fucus vesiculosis (aka bladderwrack) in my somewhat damp notebook, looking at rocks covered in layers of barnacles, admiring how the waves had cut smooth channels as it had flowed off in foamy rivers, wave after wave, year after year.  She noticed me looking at them and said quietly, almost to both of us, "water is the strongest force on earth and it's the universal solvent. All it needs is time."

When she said that,  I was thinking in terms of literality, thinking how that couldn't be true- that it could never dissolve oil simply because of the properties of covalent and non-covalent bonds. And it's only now, twenty five years later that I think I understand what she meant about time and solvents. I knew she had been widowed at a young age, and was always out on the water, or in the water.  In that phase of life in my own self-centered way I didn't really understand anything yet.  She would often wax poetic about the therapeutic properties of sea water and tears; words I remember now.  She was talking about coping with pain and the unexpected. She was living her passion and healing herself at the same time, but I was blind to that.


She spoke about how water moves through the air, the ground, even inside our own cells and bodies and takes along chemicals, minerals and nutrients. It is part of us, around us, in us, flows through us.  It's a wondrous and mysterious force. Like time.


The summer I spent lugging buckets of fish and urchins and learning the scientific names of snails, fish, plants and birds was one where I was deeply lost.  I was incredibly lonely, yet the desolate beaches of Cape Ann and Plum Island appealed to my desire to be invisible, to be lost in a landscape that was bigger than the girl I had become. The hefty athlete's appetite that had been no problem in high school was suddenly a bad fit for my new sedentary life as I started college and worked and focused on studying.   I ballooned.  By that summer, I felt like I took up too much space. I had an anorexic roommate who was shrinking and dying while I exercised and ate compulsively. I was alarmed at her decline, but unable to stop my own descent into an eating disorder.  The voices that told me I wasn't good enough, too soft, too weak, ugly, unworthy were too loud. I would tell myself I was a failure because I lacked the discipline to starve myself like she could.  I wasn't the tiny fragile ethereal blonds that were the style of the times. I was a chubby girl with a round face and unflattering hair cut hiding in baggy clothes, hating myself so much. I longed for attention from the boys around me, but none of them noticed me.  I thought it was crazy that I could be so big and unseen at the same time.

I would starve myself, then crack and binge eat and then throw up and exercise compulsively for hours and hours, always in the dark, where no one could see me restlessly circling my campus for mile after mile driven by a desire to transform and to return to my old athletic self but unable to curb the insatiable hunger that had grown unmanageable .  Food numbed me and the rush and the exhaustion of the binge and the purge left me outside of myself for just a few moments. It was an act of violence against myself and when it was over, when I felt empty and light and spent, I would swear  that it would be the last time. I would be normal. I would get it together and stop.  I was stuck in an endless cycle that seemed to have no exit. I was spinning and going nowhere. But sitting on those beaches, with my feet in ice cold tidal pools, looking for elusive specimens to catch or draw in my notebook, I felt almost ok. The ocean made me feel safe as I gazed out at its vast wild. There was a big change coming.

Never in my fantasies was I ever me. I was always another person. Someone totally different. My outsides never matched how I felt on the inside. So I reinvented.  I became chameleon-like to see if I could be acceptable. I took on whatever form I thought would make me feel less "other". I didn't change for myself. I had no idea who that was. I just knew I was weak and fat and too sensitive. I  knew that my dreams were never going to come true unless I changed into someone else completely.  And with that first burning sip of alcohol, I found the key.  I finally lost the weight because now I had a new self destructive cycle.  I got edgier, harder, stronger, leaner, faster.  And with each drink, I imagined that I was finally the self I wanted to be. I had the courage to behave the way I felt on the inside. Brave, brash, not caring what others thought. Fearless, sexy, like I could have all the things I had watched everyone else getting for years while I stood on the sidelines waiting like a good girl.  I still had some struggles with food and  body image but I had my new thing. The thing that made me feel ok. It was all ok once I had those first sips and felt it rush through my blood like a warmth that made me forget.  And it went that way for years. Until the absolute pain of not having the insides match the outside returned in a different way.  Until my life was consumed by shame and the cognitive dissonance that can only result when you live in a way that is actually daily flirting with death.


When I was first struggling to get sober or stay sober for more than a few patched-together hours or days in a row, I had one central idea:  if I could just get sober, it would solve everything. Just stop drinking. It would be like water... dissolve all the messiness and the problems I drank over like some kind of magic. The ultimate cleanse.

Only it wasn't. It was more like a magnifying lens on my life. Too bright, too loud, too messy, too much was the theme during those initial raw months.  I simply couldn't imagine being at peace in my own head, inside a body that felt like it's skin was on inside out. Nerve endings screaming, brain scattered to the winds. I could not sit still. It was nothing like I had imagined.

I read somewhere that growing up means putting aside consoling fantasies.  For me, that meant setting aside the notion that I could ever drink normally. And for a while, at the start of sobriety the unknown "solution" of getting sober was another sort fantasy. I thought if I could just get that one thing right then everything that was wrong, or broken or unrecognizable about myself after so many years of cumulative damage would be all better. The universal solvent. Like Dr A's water. A force that would sweep away and wear down and smooth out the rough edges. That has been both true and not true.


These last eighteen months of sobriety  I've been doing the work of sifting through all the history and the wreckage. I unearthed about twenty old journals from a musty box in my basement.  I sat down and read my own voice writing about the paths I chose. I read the pain and the aimless reach for meaning.  I read the words of the girl I was, see how my voice changed once alcohol became part of me. How that voice changed even more when I deviated from the path everyone expected and instead became a soldier and then an ER nurse.  It's all there in green ink in my tiny neat hand writing... like a road map to self-destruction. I can read how I pushed harder and went farther and faster, yet underneath there was still that same desperation of the chubby girl just wanting to fit in, except now I "knew" that weakness was unacceptable and hid all of my fear behind mirrored aviators with a BDU cap pulled low or under my calm exterior as I handled another horrific injury at work where only I knew that my hands were shaking.  I wrote about it all: how I learned to carefully separate my own ambitions from the attention of men as I used them the way I had felt used. Underneath my layers of armor I hid how I never felt good enough or like I deserved any kindness. I set out to be tougher than anyone, would work harder, go faster and faster trying to outrun those old voices. With each trauma, I told myself not to be weak and added to my layers of armor. The scars thickened and alcohol came along for the ride, clouding my judgement and telling me the lie that I wasn't terrified and small on the inside.   Its not a great story.  I see so many places where I could have gone a different way.  I could have leaned into kindness or taken a softer, easier path than I did. But I'm making peace with it.

I realize that once again I am reinventing myself, because there is no going back to who I was "before."  Because in looking at my story, I don't think I had any idea who that was to begin with. I'm just now finding out who I am.  Without labels or mood altering substances. Just myself.  Seems a little late to be getting to know her, particularly when I've been so unkind to her all these years. But that's what I'm doing, every day, slowly. It feels like a gift. And I'm no longer afraid.

I'm learning to replace self-destruction with self care. Accepting soft. Allowing vulnerability and being small.  I'm not just giving kindness to others until the well is dry in some desperate bid for worth, or doing senseless things just to feel "ok".   I don't have to prove anything.  I practice letting my emotions and thoughts ebb and flow and swirl like water, cleaning out things and bringing in new ones like tides.

I am deliberately writing a new life. And I bring all the cumulative lessons and scars and false starts and healing that is happening slowly in layers and circles. I don't know the ending yet.

But I know that I like this story.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Rip off the plastic

Have you ever gone to visit an elderly relative, been ushered into their somewhat musty-smelling living room full of old yellowed photographs in garish frames, knickknacks, military memorabilia and scratchy crocheted pillows?  They motion for you to sit down and as you do you have a sudden realization that the couch is shiny and CRUNCHES and instead of sinking in like a regular couch you just sort of perch atop the thick clear plastic cover. You try to make polite small talk as you realize that you are beginning to sweat and you are totally uncomfortable in a way you have never experienced before.

Later, when you've eaten cookies and had strangely strong unsweetened iced tea and it's time to leave, you try to get up and if you are wearing shorts, make an obscene sucking sound as you separate yourself from the plastic. Your legs are stinging and you are scared to look to see if you left any skin behind as you stoop to receive heavy on the aftershave kisses from your very tiny elderly uncle who seems to be held up by his massive belt buckle alone.  Anyone else had this delightful experience? Or maybe it was just me.

I'm not sure if it's a generational thing: folks who lived through the Depression and WW2 and saved things "for special occasions" decided that covering their couches in thick clear plastic covers meant that they would endure indefinitely.  I guess what they lived through meant they were willing to give up comfort and the very essence of "couches" for an illusion of everlasting newness?  I mean, everything about a couch that is couch: comfortable, shabby, womb-like on bad days, with the perfect lumpish pillows, where you can curl up with a book and your favorite blanket and maybe spill a little coffee or tea but it's a practical brown or greige color and so it's ok. It just gets more worn and more comfortable and to others it may be a little questionable, but to you it's just your couch.

I've been thinking about this lately when I consider what life was like when I was drinking and also as it applies to my relatively new sobriety. In those years when my drinking went off the rails and crossed over from being a coping mechanism that worked for the most part, to something that absolutely was going to kill me, alcohol was like that plastic couch cover. When I was drinking nothing touched me, nothing stained me, there was no wear and tear.  I was perfectly preserved and uncomfortable as hell in a prison of my own making.  I had armor. I felt nothing, or if I started to, I was quick to smother it in a sea of wine or whiskey.

And now that I'm sober, I feel like my sobriety is something I'm protecting in a similar fashion. It was so hard won that I think part of me thinks it needs to be preserved at all costs.  Forget comfort, I'm covering it in thick plastic because I'm scared it's going to be ruined.

RELAPSE: the boogie man, the scary clown, the monster in the closet of those of us who are in active recovery.  I fear it.  And so I wake up every day and decide, today is not the day.



I've been reading a lot and listening to podcasts on relapse: the signs, the ways you slip and slide and honestly, it scares the shit out of me to hear people tell their stories. People who had lowish bottoms like mine, who had years of sobriety and then relapsed in huge, painful, public ways. They went down HARD.  And the common denominator seems to be that they stopped making sobriety their number one priority.  It's tempting, even at almost 15 months which is just a drop in the bucket to think that I can take a day off, slack on the self care, maybe indulge in some old patterns of thinking. But where does that lead?

The other deadly error for many seems to be overextending, even in recovery advocacy work.  Once things got out of whack, the drinking came roaring back and as we have heard ad infinitum, the drinking picks up right where it left off.  Everyone who relapsed says that getting sober again is harder than staying sober.  I read all of this and so I stay in my little sober cocoon.  I keep my sobriety under wraps where it's safe.

But then I get to the big themes of Service. Breaking stigmas.  So much work that needs to be done.  Yet I look around at others I feel are better qualified to do it than me.  I sit and wait for them to do it, and wonder why nothing is changing in public opinion.  How are these stigmas and fears ever going to change unless WE, the sober, the alive and thriving ones show people what it looks like?  And what does that mean for me personally? At what point do I decide that I'm "legit" enough, that my sobriety it strong enough for me to put myself out there?

That's what I'm pondering these days.  I'm trying these thoughts on for size, and saying them out loud. Admitting my fears and cowardice makes it seem less powerful in a way.  Of course I'm scared.  Who wouldn't be after all I've been through the last few years and as my fried synapses are healing it almost shocks me at random times when I take an inventory to realize I feel freaking awesome.  Even when I'm tired, it's a good tired.  An honest tired from being engaged with my three kids all day, or working in the garden or a shift in the ER, or running a few miles at the end of the day. I never want to go back to that soul-dead crushing exhaustion that haunted my every day, my every waking moment that I wasn't drinking. I don't want to lose what I've found.

And yet I wonder if my fear is just a safe little excuse not to be brave...

One of my favorite books as a child was the Velveteen Rabbit; the story of how this little rabbit was played with and had adventures and to the critical eye, he got shabbier and shabbier as time passed, yet he became more beautiful and magical to the boy who loved him because of the experiences and time they spent together.  Like my shabby couch where I float off to far off Netflix lands and my lazy dogs curl up when they think no one is looking, and my kids watch tv and eat cereal in their jammies in the morning and it's all just comfortable and not something we save "for a special occasion."  I wonder if in keeping it so close, if in being so afraid to mess it up or get some dings and scratches on it if my sobriety doesn't have a chance to be fully Real?

Am I ready to rip off the plastic?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

We Recover


Contrary to what I've learned in the past about the stages of grief, in this life of loss and moving on, I'm finding that grief doesn't unfold in some easily identifiable, progressive pattern like I'm playing a board game. Like "Ok, I rolled a 2, now I jump ahead two squares from denial to bargaining.. Ooh I rolled a 10, onto anger for me.." No, it's not that neat. It's a crazy hopscotch of two steps to the left, a hard right into acceptance and then back to anger again with a little detour back to denial and a two week cruise on the river of bargaining.  I'm aware that I don't always just grieve the "right" things. Even letting go of things not meant for us leaves a hole that has to heal. I've found that even though by the end I was desperate to be free from my addiction to alcohol, a loss is a loss and the natural pattern of healing has to play itself out.

I've moved through all the phases multiple times this past year.

So now I'm into year two and kind of looking around like "what now?" That first raw year of newborn sobriety where I just laser focused on survival and maintaining my tender, non-drinking life has now morphed into an unexpected phase where this disease is fighting back with a toddler ferocity at being squelched.  I wasn't expecting to suddenly have days of self-pity and moments where I wonder if I'm all better now. I have irrational moments of sadness that this is the new normal which is crazy because sometimes normal is amazing and good and why would I ever want to go back to that life?  The half life of "before". Yet the thoughts cross my mind about moderating or trying to drink like regular people do.  Even when I know that ship sailed a long time ago.  Now that the first "make it to a year sober" milestone is met and I'm getting into the long haul I find myself contemplating grief and the idea of DNF.


I think its safe to say that a commonality among recovering alcoholics/addicts is a tendency toward perfection, workaholism, hiding weakness, not accepting help, not wanting to appear, well, like recovering alcoholics or addicts.  Which means that even sobriety we want to do perfectly. We want to ace it.  We want to knock it out of the park, get the medal, be a hero.  Yet the very nature of what we are trying to do: get real, show vulnerability, feel all the feelings means that this is a totally messy process.

I had the amazing opportunity to attend #SheRecovers in NYC this past weekend.  Basically, it was like the hall of fame for people in recovery: speakers like Glennon Doyle Melton, Elizabeth Vargas, Nikki Myers, Gabby Bernstein and Marianne Williamson.  They are sober women who are revered, and looked up to; women who have learned and lived and written books, all looking fabulous while doing it and kicking down doors for recovery advocacy while wearing super high heels.  There were famous sober bloggers and yoga gurus and poets and it was all incredibly inspiring in a way that kind of defies describing.

In attendance were 500 women all in various stages of recovery from a variety of things, from all over the US and several other countries, all converging on a beautiful hotel in Manhattan just steps from the Freedom Tower. Early Saturday morning a group of 25 or so of us ran along the Hudson. It was hazy and cool and there was talking and laughter as we ran through beautiful Battery park, looking out across the water to Lady Liberty and ahead towards the looming Brooklyn bridge, the city strangely hushed at that hour.  It was incredible to run in the company of other women who "get it". And all weekend long there was hugging and laughter and deep discussions and that "me too" recognition and groups soaking up each other's company.  It was remarkable hearing women with 10+ years of sobriety asking questions with raw emotions in their voices, still deeply engaged in the struggle.  And while I truly admired their eloquence and years of sobriety, part of me recoiled a little: like, wow I hope I'm not still that raw at 12 or 13 years.  And I realize how bad that sounds in a way.  And then of course all the woo woo it's your journey, lean into the pain, one day at a time pearls of wisdom that I've been trying to incorporate into my head and heart reminded me that everyone is different and no two recoveries are the same.  But there's still a part of me that hopes to be leaping buildings by year 12. Is that crazy?

I also was finally able to meet in person the Super Six: the group of women who have saved my life in this first year of sobriety.  What started as a text accountability group became something none of us could have imagined.  At the beginning of last summer, I knew I was going to struggle.  I knew with my three spirited kids home and all bumping into each other, my busy job and our reputation as the "pool party central house" that it was going to be a rough road. So I did something utterly unlike me. I asked for help.  I reached out on my support group board where I had been posting almost daily and suddenly we had a group.  And it's been nothing short of remarkable.  In the past year, we've talked each other through both incredibly hard and mundane things. And all of us have maintained our sobriety. Meeting them was beyond words.  Six sisters.  And we just picked up where our rambling, long text and video conversations left off; just in person.   It was a weekend full of laughter and deep talking and just solidified for me that connection is the opposite of addiction.  It was a balm at the end of a year that left me with not one single surviving "in real life" friendship.  I got sober and everyone scattered. So, to meet these sisters who have helped me as I move through that grief was a gift.

On Sunday morning the six of us decided to run across the Brooklyn Bridge.  Halfway over, with five lanes of traffic below me and the wind blasting in my face, I looked all around me at the incredibly surreal, breathtaking view and it struck me that just a little over a year ago, I couldn't even walk to my mailbox without getting winded.  Yet there I was, with five of the most amazing women I have ever met, on our second early morning run in as many days, running five miles like it was nothing.  Later that morning we stood together at the 9/11 memorial in the eerie quiet and it was overwhelming to consider that I was there in that sacred place.  But I didn't need to escape from the emotions it brought up in me.  I could look down into the endless falling cascading water and feel profound sadness and awe.  I wasn't numb.  I could stand there in that moment and realize just how remarkably far we have all come.  In one year, I have gone from soul-sick and near death, and being the kind of person who found memes like "If you see me running you better run because I'm being chased by something" utterly relatable and have become a woman who gets up early and moves and breathes and runs and  LIVES.  I'm not wasting my life anymore. And I don't have to stand there ashamed at the site where so many had their lives violently taken away.  I am profoundly lucky that I am still alive; that I can make connections and form relationships.  I can drive through the Holland tunnel and not have my heart rate go over 60 when I would have been a hyperventilating ball of anxiety with sweating palms and shaky hands 426 days ago.  That's remarkable.  It blows me away completely.  And it gives me a sense of purpose. And fear.

So now I'm home and the inevitable "what now" hits again.  It was a mountain top. Yet as we are reminded, we live in the valleys.  That's where the daily grind, the opportunities for pain are. And if this past year has taught me anything it's that the pain is what makes us grow.  Part of me wants to blast ahead, to the next mountain.  To become a recovery advocate who kicks down doors in her bad ass high heels or maybe in my old combat boots.  Yet, I'm reminded that this journey I'm on is just one day at a time.  One step at a time.  I get too far ahead of myself or spend too much time dwelling on what's past, then I risk becoming a DNF.  Did not finish.  I want to finish my race, without regrets, in whatever messy way that is entirely mine. And after this weekend, I know even more deeply that I do not journey alone.

Monday, May 1, 2017

run to the ocean, run to the sea



I ran my first ever 10k a few weeks ago. It was held in an idyllic Delaware beach town the day before Easter.  The day dawned very cold with an intense wind blowing off the ocean.  The kind of wind that stops you dead in your tracks and makes your eyes water.  I arrived early, and ventured up onto the boardwalk to stretch and listen to the waves.  Crowds of incredibly fit looking people were murmuring and stretching and running back and forth getting ready to run and the light was breaking through the clouds like a perfect post card picture. I stood at the starting line, moving around a little with my legs feeling numb and listened to the pre-race announcements.  The national anthem was belted out by a local girl with a ton of embelishment; the notes bouncing off the house-fronts and I wondered if the sleepy inhabitants appreciated so much patriotism so early in the morning.

The starting horn blew and within the first three minutes I watched as everyone took off up the street, until the huge clump of people looked like a tiny clump of ants far, far ahead of me.  I nervously looked behind me to notice that I was still in a small group of older runners and some other novice-types so I tried to settle into the steady run I had planned, but my brain was darting all over like a squirrel.  It was so unlike my normal runs where I find my groove and it's almost an out of body experience. I don't race anyone, there's no one to pass or be passed by, there's no pressure to finish in any particular time. I tell myself its all very zen.  And I went into this race fully intending to be as "in the moment" as possible.  Until the first turnaround point on this double loop course which it turns out can really screw with your head. I was cruising into mile 2 when an entire army of freakishly fast cyborg type runners came blasting past me already well into mile three.  I glanced at my watch and realized they were running six minute miles and that's exactly when my little zen plans went out the window and I started to have serious concerns about being dead last in my very first 10k.

I picked up the pace a little, got a sudden case of I gotta pee nerves and had to detour to the portajohn.  While in semi darkness, as I listened to my own ragged breathing of chemical fumes, I had a moment to consider how giving birth to three children has robbed me of control, not just of my bladder but of many other things in my life. I also realized that the majestic rising like a phoenix story I was going to share with my friends as proof of the power of sobriety was going to take a beating when I mentioned that I peed myself a little right in the middle of the majestic rise.  So I was rushing and banging my elbows on the side of the portajohn trying to get myself all re-combobulated and back out onto the road, all the while picturing myself crossing the finish dead last.  I envisioned the race organizers having already dismantled the clock, packing up their gear and no one left but my poor family huddled and waiting in the freezing cold.  Talk about a visual.  Clearly, if you are trying to go "all in" on cognitive restructuring along with all of it's wholesome emphasis on asking "is this true?" then none of this sort of thinking was the way to go.  But there it was: That voice, the one that's been in my head for as long as I can remember. The one that tells me I'm not strong, not enough, not able, not worthy.  It stuck with me through about mile 5. And then the course led me off the beach road up a steep ramp to the boardwalk for the final mile.  The wind hit me full blast, knocking me backward and I looked to my left and saw that amazing postcard vista again and then I had a new set of thoughts. "I can't believe I'm actually looking at the ocean right now.  Or that I'm doing this.  Four hundred days ago I was almost dead from drinking.  I just ran five freaking miles. Wow, this wind is seriously intense. But I'm still going and I'm going to finish this race.."

That new voice is just a small voice sometimes, and in things like races where I'm slow and just getting back into running I feel like it's silly to be giving myself pep talks.  When people are conquering far bigger races and mounting huge comebacks, it's easy to feel like my own little raggedy runs aren't important.   The woman who placed first in my race finished her 10k so quickly she had time to stroll around a little and probably have a snack before running the 5k that began an hour after our race. She ended up being the overall winner in that one.  I don't care who you are, that's impressive. And even more so when you find out that she's 48 years old.  I can't help but wonder what her motivation is and where you get that kind of drive and I try imagine all of her Whys. But her story is hers.  Just like mine is mine.  And when I think about how far I've come from my last day one to this day, I feel pride.  I wouldn't have lasted much longer living the way I was.  I had given up on every dream I had and spent more hours recovering from the severe abuse I was putting my body through than hours spent doing any actual living.  If I was sore it wasn't because I had just run six miles after running five the day before and maybe three the day before that. It was because I had blacked out and fallen again and had mystery bruises and because actual breathing, the in and out and the moving and the talking and actual functioning had become sheer agony.  I would try to drink to numb it out and then hope to never wake up.

So when I crossed the finish line it may have just been an 11 minute per mile 10k done by a novice middle aged mom of three and utterly non-impressive to what I consider "real runners"  but to me it was more than that.  It's living, moving, breathing proof that I'm alive again.  I'm moving forward and taking on challenges that scare me.  I'm staring down a road and yes, people may be much further ahead than I am.  But I'm moving. One day at a time. One mile at time.  I'm going to do this. And keep doing it. And if some days the wind knocks me back and the challenge makes me literally pee my pants, then so be it.  That's why they make black leggings.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Be still

I am a very restless person. I loathe sitting for more than five minutes at time.  I pace when I think.  I'm a toe-tapper, knee jiggler, and had the mama "rock and sway" stance down perfectly when my kids were fussy babies fighting their own stillness.  I tend to be most comfortable when in motion.  Even as a small child, my mother would take one look at me standing on the stoop with my wild energy and say "twenty laps around the house before you come in." And I'd come back all out of breath and sweaty with my grubby little face and she'd look carefully into my eyes, measuring and sometimes she'd pull back the squeaky screen door to let me in and other times she'd say "ten more laps?" and off I'd go with my wild strawberry hair flying behind me and my bare feet pounding the dirt.  I vividly remember thinking that my energy was some foreign thing to her.  My mother is an artist.  Which means she sits for hours, painstakingly creating; drawing and painting.  She escapes and manages her lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression through creative expression.  As children we would watch her in deep concentration, watch the rhythmic motion of her pencils, hear the sounds they made scratching on fine drawing paper, smell the tang of linseed and oil paints, note the tilt of her head as she considered a blank canvas and we knew to let her be. She would spend hours in her studio and then emerge blinking like she was disoriented to the fact that it was daylight and she was a mom when we asked for snacks or help with homework.  She was always a little other-worldly and I felt she never quite knew what to do with my too much, too loud, too high wild child ways.

Even when I am still, my mind is going a thousand miles per hour.  Some would call this a manic defense. Not ever slowing down enough to consider the reason for the constant motion. I have been a blur for most of my adult life.  I walk fast, talk fast, think fast, drive fast.  So the concept of stillness, of sitting IN something is incredibly foreign.  And its' been like lowering yourself into a too-hot bath this past year. First one toe, then one foot, one knee, then the other side, then your bum, then your waist until all of you is submerged and you can't tell if you are burning or freezing, just that you are uncomfortable and then you... aren't. I guess that's the best metaphor I can come up with for early sobriety. At first it's unthinkable but then you get used to it and then it even starts to feel comfy.

I am good with not drinking.  I am lucky enough that the cravings have passed. I am comfortable stating that I am a non-drinker, and for the most part am honest when people ask me why. I kind of laugh and say "well, it tried to kill me" and when pressed am able to articulate why drinking became such a problem with me and why now I don't drink anymore.  And I'm clear about the fact that I'm BETTER not drinking.

But this stillness thing.. the idea of REST.  I still struggle mightily with it.

A few weeks ago I had some unexpected down time when my oldest came down with a whopping case of the flu. All of my productive plans for the week, all my workouts that keep my crazy at bay were cancelled as I cared for my very sick girl. I was physically tired but feeling wired. The enforced rest, and confinement in the house really hit me hard.  I got low.  Low low low like apple bottom jeans boots with the furrrr low.  I started having suicidal thoughts, dark hopeless thoughts like I hadn't had since before I quit drinking.  And I kind of stood on the edge of a deep, dark chasm and thought, "oh."  That's what I've been avoiding all this time.  Deep thoughts of worthlessness, failures, fear, regrets, bad memories. All the things I drank over and under and through and kept at bay by always moving, moving, moving.  I got a sudden sense that THIS is what the next year of sobriety is going to  be about.. moving forward from all of the things that lie behind. Making peace with them. Acceptance.

Running has been like a spiritual practice this past year. I've come to find that I do my best thinking when I'm in motion, and in the process I've worn out three pairs of sneakers.  While running and walking, I've thought through a lot of the past five years; trying to understand how my drinking got to the very dark place it took me.  I've dissected a lot of the whys, the patterns, the things that I need to work on.  At the urging of several sober friends, I've been attempting here and there to meditate. It's probably something I need to do more, since being so still in body or mind is a challenge.  I've been doing a lot napping, aka"horizontal life pauses" and giving myself permission to slow down and even stop. Which is kind of huge. And I need to do it more.

One big question I've been pondering is whether I necessarily need to go back and try to do the post-mortem.  Do I really need to re-live every crushing rejection, re-visit every time I added a layer of armor to my considerable wall, explore every bad choice? Every trauma, every loss? Every pebble that paved the road to my struggles with addiction. Is that necessary? It's an honest question. And I'm open to opinions and thoughts from people further along than me.

Is it ok to close the chapter on it, forgive myself, and stop this endless attempt to "get back to who I was before the alcohol changed me"?  I hear that a lot in the recovery community-- phrases like "the person I was meant to be," "the innocent me", "the un-jaded version of me". I don't think there's any going backwards.  I am who I am because of the things that I have been through, including the considerable damage I inflicted on myself and those around me from my drinking.  But go back? Impossible. I am irrevocably changed, for better or for worse by that self-violence.  I can only move forward. Challenge the lies.  Find new coping. Share the darkness with others when it rolls in like a fog over the mountain. Allow my scars to teach others who may be struggling with a similar battle.

It occurs to me that what I am longing for, and what I possibly fear I won't find in all my restlessness is Peace. When I look at nature and the created world, I have a deep sense that we as humans were also created for rhythms in life-- delight and joy and not just suffering and pain.  Yet so much of our culture, our accepted rhythms mean that we do things just for the sake of doing them.  Because we "should", or just because we "can". And we feel the weight that comes when we don't rest and re-charge because we were created for that as well.

So, my goal for the next few months is to learn to slow down. To embrace the idea of Sabbath or holy rest. The Hebrew word Sabat means " to stop, to cease, or to keep."  And it doesn't have to be the traditional Saturday or Sunday sabbath. It can be a short pause, with intention. Whenever it's needed or even better, before it's needed. With cognitive restructuring we are taught to ask "is this true?" when confronted with a feeling. I still have the relentless drill sergeant in my head, pushing me to do more, be more, tackle more, more more more... it doesn't stop to ask why. The same lack of moderation that led me to drink lakes of booze is still underlying and it needs to go.

I've said no to a lot of things and made some big changes to support my new sober life and so in year two I want to focus on adding things. Adding the PAUSE button to my manic life. Adding more rest.

I want to learn to Be Still.



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Never judge a run by the first mile

My 10 and 11 month marks have come and gone. The days came and went and I didn't even realize it was a "soberversary" until friends texted me with congratulations.  And it hit me that I am getting comfortable. And then of course I immediately became uncomfortable. Because I don't want to take it for granted.

Next week I will be sober a year.

It's been a ride. The last few months have seen the election, my first sober holidays, the collective grief and hysteria of the nation, some health scares and the disintegration and attempted resurrection of my marriage, job struggles and through all of it I've been 100% present. Life is gradually less and less about just not drinking and more about building a life I don't need to escape from.  And handling things that would have dropped me to my knees and made me chug huge quantities of alcohol now roll off me like raindrops. That's the miracle of it all.

So the trickiest thing about being a blogger chronicling the early days of sobriety is that you actually need a functioning computer. Something I didn't have for 5 months. Which means that I have little scraps of paper that accumulate. When I open my purse, or grab my journal, little papers fall out and fall to the ground like flurries. Snippets of thoughts, quotes, ideas, mostly in my favorite green felt tip pen in my little scratchy handwriting. I lose them.  None of it was coherently gathered as I had imagined in the beginning when I set out to write about getting sober.  Nothing has gone to plan. And that has also been a blessing.

In hindsight, not trying to "unpack" or analyze those moments and instead just live them was the best thing for me as I learned to be present.  Even writing creates distance from what you are writing about. You become an observer, a reporter of your own experience. In striving to find the perfect phrase, choosing the right words to bring an idea to life in a way that someone else can possibly understand or experience it, the writer becomes a creator. In putting it into words, the idea or story becomes something separate from you. So in holding tight to my experiences and just soaking in them instead of trying to record them, I have for the first time become my own storykeeper.  I have had to trust my own heart and mind to remember.  Which is frightening for someone like me who has huge gaps in memory and the memories that do jump out from the past few years are often painful and full of shame.

But, in not trying to capture or label them, these months that have passed are truly mine. Authentically, not blurred around the edges, not fading into gray. Sometimes they still feel too sharp, too clear. There is part of me that still wants to change my state; to escape or hide. And yet, my life is no longer about "taking the edge off", but finding my edge, coming back to myself.  To do that I have to be in it. All in. Otherwise I am all fuzzy middles and I spent too many years doing that.

So, I'm back. Thanks to the generosity of a beautiful sober friend, my computer has been resurrected and I'm able to write again.  I'm mulling over how to possibly share all the things I've learned over almost a year of continuous days of sobriety strung together, like a necklace with beads and trinkets. Some days are a shiny pearl and other days are a battered old button but they are all there, in a row. And the changes that have been wrought in those continuous days are astonishing.

Many times in the past year as I have been healing, and coming back into my "right mind", I've equated this journey to running.  And the classic phrase that all runners know is to never judge a run by the first mile.  And I think about that as it applies to sobriety, as I see people struggling to get and stay sober.  The back-sweaty fear we have when we are on day one, week one, month one.  Wondering if this is all there is.. just this constant state of having your nerve endings screaming, of feeling so uncomfortable and having your brain be a loud, messy tangle of jangled nerves and cravings. When you go to bed at 7pm and feel like a freak and wonder if you will ever be comfortable in your skin again and what about all the feelings and where the heck do those go and on and on... And to that I say... KEEP GOING.  With running, the good stuff; those moments where you hit your stride and your breathing is almost imperceptible and you feel the air flowing over you and in and out of your lungs and you feel like you can run forever.. only happen after you have gone through the first mile or even the second when you feel herky-jerky and your muscles aren't warm yet and each step feels like a slog and all you want to do is stop and sit down.  But if you stop, you miss the miracle. And believe me, the miracle of sobriety isn't one you want to miss. But its going to hurt. Often.  But I promise it will be worth it.  Because the alternative is constantly being stuck on mile one. And that hurts beyond words.

There is no way around, no shortcuts, no "magic pill" you can take.  There is only through.  Each day, one foot in front of the other. Until you look back and you see how far you have come and you only want to dig deeper and find the strength to go higher up and on and on...


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Embrace the suck

Last week I celebrated 200 days without alcohol. It was at the end of a few stressful weeks of bounced checks and crazy shifts at work and hard family issues and I happened to glance at the calendar and noticed a shaky "200" written in the margin of my day planner. I had written it on my last day one when my hands were shaking and I felt physically wrecked. I look back at it now as a sign that I really was done with the toxic merry go round of drinking. Though I had just the smallest flicker of hope, it made me count and look ahead.

Gradually, as I'm settling into this new sober life, it has become less about not drinking and more about building something: a total overhaul of my neural wiring and developing new habits.  It means that I have been systematically (well, more erratically, this is after all me we are talking about) examining and removing things and also trying to no longer avoid or deny painful things.  It all started getting crystal clear that in order to get to "the other side" and the transformation I long for that I need to dive into the pain.  Which sounds so lovely and poetic but is actually terrifying and sucky.

Our modern world gives us a million ways to distract ourselves from what IS.  We numb, deny, lie to ourselves, avoid, procrastinate, and bury our heads in our I-Gods (to quote a friend). Anything to avoid taking a cold, hard, clinical look at our patterns and motivations.  But I'm discovering in sobriety that I have to do that in order to move forward. It's scary. There's years of crap buried under my carefully crafted persona of Teflon warrior, the tough woman who everyone thinks can handle anything that is thrown at me.  I've bought into this narrative as much as others have propagated it, like the fact that they call me the Ginja (ginger ninja) at work and the fact that I've been voted most likely to survive the Zombie apocalypse two years running in our ER competition. (Little did everyone know that I would have had to drag 5000 boxes of wine along for my survival stint).

So, this got me thinking about what it means to be a true warrior.  There's lots of sobriety lingo tossed around and a lot of it reminds me of warrior slang from my Army days. War is risky, and all-consuming in every facet. The warrior slang is a language of shared suffering and phrases of discipline become second nature and rituals make the difficult things more bearable. Sound familiar? As I was talking to sober friends about the last few weeks of life just totally slamming me, with one ludicrous challenge after another, I actually said, "You know what? I'm just going to embrace the suck."

It's actually a kind of zen concept when you think about it. When we try to run away from our reality, or what is truly occurring (with drugs, alcohol or other escapes), we create suffering.  It's that yoga concept of that which we resist grows stronger.  When we say "embrace the suck" while deployed, it's a recognition that "yes, this situation is terrible, but we are going to deal with it." The only way to get through a crap day in the Army is to embrace the challenging, sucky experiences because ignoring them or denying them is literally impossible.  You can't check out mid-battle or you die. Or your buddy does. The same is true in early sobriety.

We have to do the dirty work with a good attitude.  Or maybe a bad attitude some days is all we can muster but the idea is forward progress. Not allowing our situations to control our attitude. Because pain is inevitable.  Recovery means facing the demons I've been running from so long that they've become fearsome (the longer I try to rationalize away the problem, the bigger it grows.) Doing nothing prolongs the pain and the fear of the unknown crippled me for years. Even if I'm creeping forward, I'm still moving forward and that is just a daily decision. To get up and do the work.

One of the amazing, wise friends I've met in sobriety challenged me a few months back to think of myself as an athlete in training, both in my life and in how I approach my sobriety.  And that had me thinking about how I endure physical pain and the mechanisms that I've learned over time to deal with it.  With running, or yoga or any other sport, there is a part of us that embraces the pain, knowing that as we push up that hill, or hold that plank that we are advancing towards a goal.  We beat the pain with self talk and checklists.  " Am I controlling my breathing, how is my posture, am I over striding, can I relax my tight shoulders?" etc.  Some things are beyond our control, and others are not.

I'm trying to apply the same principles to facing my fears and the uncomfortable aspects of early sobriety.  Or at least I was.

So, I started this blog post last week. Was fleshing out these ideas, feeling pretty darn good.  I envisioned my sobriety like a fortress I was building on a hill, brick by brick. I was finding my groove, in spite of stresses and work and life stuff.  Most days passed without a single thought of drinking. I've been immersed in self-improvement, self-care, healthy habits and mindfulness. I even started meditating. Yep. You read that right. So when I uttered the words " I'm just going to embrace the suck", I'm not sure what I summoned other than an opportunity to do just that.

Perhaps I was just getting too comfortable with my routines, and maybe focusing too much on one or two particular sober tools but, within 24 hours of saying those words out loud, I lost my two biggest ones.  My phone basically had a seizure and died after updating to a new operating system. I was phoneless for three days, which meant I was cut off from my small group of sober friends who are more like sisters. I lost all my contact information and all my photos from my first ever sober summer with my kids. For me, sobriety is all about connection, and I depend on hearing hard truths and giving/getting encouragement daily from other alcoholics kind of like I depend on air. With one fell swoop, it was like I was back in 1992 from a technology standpoint.  But, I still had my other "pillar" of sobriety. I could still get out and burn off my crazy with exercise, right?

Well, the day after my phone went belly-up, I fell rock climbing and broke my foot. (Trust me, that's not nearly as sexy or adventurous as it sounds). I'm out of commission for six to eight weeks.

Any cockiness I had, any swagger about being ready to "dive into pain" or whatever, has been sucked away by the SUCK.

What seemed like a great idea a few days before became almost laughable as I was crutching around with a throbbing foot with a constant internal dialogue of "embrace it? Who am I kidding? I'm an alcoholic. We run from pain. We numb it. We kill ourselves slowly in order to not feel it. Regular life? Kids, bills, crazy hours at work etc. I can embrace that, I think, maybe after 6 1/2 months of practice. But this? Cut off from my support? How am I going to work and pay bills with a broken foot? And NO outlet for my crazy? This is going to get ugly. I want a drink."

As another lovely friend pointed out to me yesterday after I finally had a working phone, it's time to expand my tool belt. She said, "Maybe this is the universe's way of saying 'Wen, you've mastered sobriety with two main tools.  Now go out and find others that work too.'" And she's totally correct. As much as I want to stomp my non-broken foot and whine "but I like what I was doing. It was working for me. I don't want to get all YODA-y anymore and say crazy things out loud like when the student is ready the master appears. I want to just keep running and doing what feels cozy. I want my La Croix water and my podcasts and to stay in my bubble where it's safe."

That's just not an option. So, the only choice I have is to do what I set out to do: embrace the suck.

Which means that I have a chance to do a CTRL+ALT+Del in the middle of my first sober year.

Clean slates are good, right? Lost contacts means new contacts, lost pictures means I have to trust my memory again. Putting myself out there in the middle of this, not from a perspective of having moved through it feels like trying to shine a light while my lighthouse is still only half-built. But maybe that's what needs to happen.

My fears about being found out as a fraud, as a weak person really are unfounded.  I'm doing this every day. I'm in the company of others who are doing it too.  Even if we stumble some days or fall completely off the rock face and have to get up, bruised and bleeding.

I will take the pain of having to be stretched and learn new things over the soul-pain of active drinking any day. I don't have answers. But if you are considering being done, of trying things that scare you, of giving up the "comfort" of alcohol, wondering how in the world you will ever feel your feelings without being blown away, take heart.  While I am gimpy and bruised and a little bewildered, I can still continue to hope and look ahead.  Because I have found others who tell me it's possible.  It's possible to change your entire life.  I'm doing that. It's possible to grow, even if you break your foot and bounce checks and have to deal with things that would have driven you to numb and obliviate yourself with booze just a few months ago. You will find yourself continuing to get up every day and living in just that day. Because I'm doing it. And if I can, then so can you.

For today, that means enforced rest:  icing and elevating my foot and watching the rain outside while I try to find words and make sense of things.

So stay tuned, friends.  I'm just getting started. Again.