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.












Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Legend of the Lost Ironing Board

There is a strange contraption that lives in my basement.  It has only been unearthed from the storage room/laundry room/ the "don't try to shift any boxes or you may be crushed in an avalanche" room/ the "oh please, let there not be any wolf spiders lurking in the dark space behind the washer" room a handful of times this year.

It's called an ironing board. It's a symbol of my former life.  A relic from a time when I used to actually iron clothes before appearing in public.  Back when I used to iron the scrubs I wear to work, rather than grabbing them out of the clean clothes pile and looking at the wrinkles and telling myself maybe no one will notice.

It creaks and squeaks and protests when I unfold it, probably because it rarely gets unfolded anymore. I dragged it out the other day to touch up the kid's back to school outfits and they all ran screaming from the hideous screech it made. They came back to investigate, only to back away in wide-eyed horror at the clouds of steam rising from the snout of the iron as it sat there puffing like an ancient dragon.  "WHAT IS THAT THING??" they cried. 

I took a moment to pause since that sound triggered a whole big swirling whirlpool of memory and shame. I hadn't ironed since I got sober.  That board and I have had a complicated history. When my drinking got really bad the last few years, I would wildly overcompensate to prove to myself how "high functioning" I was.  I would often set up the ironing board after the kids were in bed and drink while I tackled a huge amount of ironing. It was one of those misguided, wine-fueled attempts at proving that I was still a good mother. And it was something that I stopped doing at all when my drinking started taking me down to my rock bottom day.

During this summer of learning to say no to some things and a lot of new "yeses"/safeguarding my sobriety as my first priority, there was zero ironing. It was one of those things I decided really didn't matter.  I'd rather give kids my time and thoughtful words instead perfectly coordinated outfits and fake "put-togetherness".

There was something I used to notice whenever I saw pictures my husband has taken of them when I was working.. He sent snapshots of them eating a yummy dinner or at the park and yes, they may not have worn wearing perfectly matched outfits and that was some left-over ketchup on someone's face, but I would look at those cheeks, the sparkling eyes. The big scrunchy-faced smiles. They were so darn happy to be with their Dad, at the park or wherever.  They were completely un-self conscious about how they looked.  The were in the moment.  And they were gorgeous to me.  But I couldn't let go of overcompensating when I was with them, as though my kids' appearances were somehow a reflection of me. I could never relax completely, always feeling waves of guilt about being a drinking Mom washing over me. I perfected a fake cheerfulness, an over the top gritting my teeth creating perfect memories all while my brain was screaming for that next drink.

I'm still flawed and get it wrong a lot, but I don't have that desperation to prove anything anymore.  That voice telling me I'm not good enough, not a good mother, a selfish person, a weak person still tries to creep in from time to time. But my brain is no longer pickled and so it can identify when my thoughts head that way and put a stop to it.  Its an amazing thing when your voice of reason is no longer gurgling at the bottom of a bottle of wine.

The lost ironing board is perhaps a symbol of me finally coming in to my own .  Because most of the time I still have no idea what I'm doing.  I still wait for somebody to show up and say "ok, we know you are just faking this whole Responsible Mom of Three thing.  Please stand here against the wall with your hands behind your back until a real grown up shows up to take over." I think that struggle; that feeling like a fraud was one of the things that really fueled my drinking. But as in so many other areas of life in new sobriety, I'm just trying to float in it gently, and stop reacting so much. Give myself the grace I would give a friend who is struggling with motherhood.

I will never do this perfectly.  Every day brings its' challenges, triumphs and crushing moments.   Things that worked yesterday suddenly don't work today. I mull, stew, think and plot.  Some days I feel like I'm on some long, long, long version of Survivor where all I need to do is just  OUTWIT, OUTLAST, OUTPLAY.  And the stakes are high, but I'm tired of being driven by fear, worries about appearances and expectations. So I'm letting go of them.

Because ultimately, no matter what is going on, whatever mind-numbing repetitious "wash your hands, stop hitting, use your words, where are your shoes, say sorry, forgotten lunch, playground drama, phantom stomach ache three calls from the school nurse" kind of day I am faced with, sobriety is forcing me to prioritize.  I must choose what will and won't matter.  And I'm growing in confidence about those decisions as a sober, fully present mother. I honestly have no idea how I managed any of it all the years I was drinking.  And I'm so grateful to be done with it. Because life has plenty of challenges in and of itself.  The massive amounts of energy I used obsessing over drinking, recovering from drinking and feeling awful about drinking is mine again to use for living.  And life is less frantic when you aren't constantly overcompensating and hiding a huge secret.

So going forward, there may days when we look like we climbed out of the laundry basket. And that's fine by me. There may be other things that will fall by the wayside as we continue on this journey.. but maybe don't hold your breath for the Legend of the Lost Steam Mop.

Because with two big dogs who sneak slobbery tennis balls into the house, a husband who sometimes forgets he's wearing muddy boots and kids with questionable snack-wrangling skills, I really need that thing.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Dispatch from the laundry room

Summer has been busy, finding me home with my three kids and trying to balance life while working nights in the ER. I've had this blog post bobbing around in my mind the last few weeks, like an iceberg gradually adding mass underneath the calm surface. And so today is the day I'm giving it life. Or trying to.

I remember waking up, not all that long ago, sitting on the side of my bed and wondering if I was actively dying.  Chest tight, hard to catch my breath, waves of nausea. Dry mouth and bloodshot eyes. My soul hurt. All I could think about was when it was going to be time to drink again. My future only went that far. It hurt too much to think farther than that and if I could just get that first sip, the rest would fade away. Or I hoped it would.

Now, I wake up and sit on the side of my bed in the early hours and take an inventory. Weird twinge in my back from sleeping like a rock for eight consecutive hours, slightly sore muscles from yesterday's run.  Notice my hungry belly; anticipate the first sip of dark, rich coffee. I think ahead to the next few weeks of being able to wake up lazy this way instead of to the clamoring alarm that shouts at me to get up and get going, move move move, in school-year mode.

With the end of summer looming, I have a million things I could be doing to be getting ready for back to school. Errands to run, projects around the house, weeds to pull.  Actual school supply shopping. New sneakers for feet that have undoubtedly grown but are still enjoying being barefoot and filthy. But I'm not doing any of those things.  Mostly, I'm just being a mom.  And doing a ton of laundry.

Which brings me to the haiku I composed last night at 1 am while folding another giant load as I stayed up ridiculously late watching the Olympics:

The pile grows higher
Forget, restart endlessly
Wash, fold forever.

I'm not sure if it is the fact that my kids spend a lot of time outdoors or if they are just extra grubby or can't eat a meal without half of it landing in their laps, but I have been doing a ton of laundry this summer.  And while I sit there watching it spinning in the last few minutes before I transfer it to the dryer, I appreciate the fact that I'm actually getting time to myself in the cool basement (with some kind of uncool wolf spiders but lets forget that for now) and I can take a moment to reflect on sobriety. Today marks 161 days of continuous non-drinking. Consecutive days where I have been retraining my brain to realize that just because an emotion surfaces, that's not a cue to drink.  I've done this thousands of times in the last five months.  And you know what? My slobbery brain is learning that an emotion is just that: not a ringing bell telling me to go pour a drink and numb out.  Honestly, when confronted with tough things lately, I actually think how to handle it, which is probably what people have been doing for thousands of years without having to blog about it but oh well, I'm a slow learner.  These days a drink is about 29th on my list of things that will "fix" or get me through the next few minutes, hours, days... And that is the miracle of sobriety in a nutshell. I couldn't have imagined even five seconds at the beginning where I wasn't constantly thinking about drinking.  And now some whole entire days pass where I haven't thought once about drinking. I'm busy living. And folding laundry.

But, all this laundry has me thinking about how early sobriety is a lot like a heavy duty wash cycle. You dive in, not knowing what to expect, and the water starts rising and you think "ok. I can do this. I'm a little damp but I'm floating." Then the agitating part starts; you spin and churn and can't tell what side is up and start getting water up your nose and you are being blinded by soapsuds that sting and burn and it just all feels like too much and all you can think about is just climbing the hell out of the washer and getting back to your regular dirty, smelly and worn state. It doesn't seem worth it when you keep spinning and getting pushed down over and over and you aren't sure when it will end.

Well, I can tell you that eventually it stops. The spinning dies down, the motor cools and you are lying there, wet and wrung out... but clean.  It's quiet. You made it. For me that phase was right at about 80 days without alcohol.  At that point, I thought, hmm... maybe I'm ready to try the dryer now,  (the real work of sobriety) and you begin to feel warm on the inside. You start glowing literally and metaphorically.  Your healing brain starts to smooth out the rumpled and wrinkly parts. And then, almost without realizing it, you start thinking about what it might be like to really go the distance and withstand the heat of the iron and get your soul and body in tip top shape.  And some days this seems like a lot of work and other days it comes easily. Depends on the day.

Still with me on this metaphor? Well, if you drink during the early period where you are sloshing around... It's like you open the lid on the washer mid-cycle and dump a gallon of mud in.  Add a few greasy wrenches, some musty sneakers and a bag of rocks and then close the lid and let the cycle finish.  Not only are you not clean at the end, but you are beat up and filthy and think you never want to go through that again because you feel worse than when you started. There is nothing appealing about even thinking about climbing back in for a do-over.  That was me for years.

Consecutive days.  That's the key to allowing your brain time to reset and heal.  Not three days here, eleven days there, drink and then start over.  That's just some kind of awful torture where you leave your brain more confused than when it started.  It takes full commitment to putting as much distance between the drinking and the new you. And that can be done even when you have kids climbing all over you, a job, a nutty husband and a busy life. It just means taking each decision as it comes. Being all in. Declaring deep down with complete conviction that booze just isn't an option anymore. Eventually your brain gets the message. And when it does, it's pretty great.

I had a moment at work the other week when a patient came in with a dislocated jaw.  We were kind enough to put it back and I was giving her discharge instructions and noticing how uncomfortable she was and she sadly told me she was disappointed because the next day was her birthday.  And I said "well, looks like a smoothie with a candle in it for you."  And she snorted and said through her giant ice pack: " More like a bucket of margaritas with a straw."  And BLAM. That was it, the moment I realized that I would have said the same thing five months ago and it hadn't even crossed my mind that drinking was an option in that scenario.  And I got kind of ridiculously giddy and had to share it with some sober friends.  Perhaps that's how normies feel. I will never know because I'm not one. But still, it goes to show that the brain CAN be re-wired. We can move from our obsession with booze to being at peace. And that was something I could not have even imagined when I first quit.

My early attempts at re-training my brain made me feel about as competent as the Filipino Olympic diving team.  (If you are early to sobriety and suffering from insomnia like I did, I highly recommend you google this. Just because. You're welcome)  The beginning days of sobriety where you are being forced to feel your actual feelings, sit with your unfiltered, raw thoughts is excruciating.  It's like being stuck in permanent fight or flight, jangly nerves and overload when you are forced to plug in for the first time, possibly ever.  I read a research study where subjects chose to be subjected to ten minutes of electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts for ten minutes.  That's our numb-out, tune-out, check out world for you.  And for alcoholics, it's probably worse since we were the masters at not feeling anything.  But adding day after day, moment after moment, where drinking isn't an option, my synapses are stretching and re-wiring. I can sit in a feeling and then it passes.  I can examine an unpleasant memory and not fall to pieces.  And that is so encouraging.  I am finally becoming one of those people I used to look up to... the ones further up the mountains who kept shouting down through the clouds: "It gets better! Keep going! The view up here is incredible." Because it really is.

So, we have two weeks left before my minions return to school.  Everywhere I go, I get "the look" (which is half bemusement and half relief it's not them) as people survey my three spirited kids and say "I bet you are really ready for them to go back."  And I kind of smile wistfully and say "not really."  Because part of me is.  It's been a long summer of sobriety and motherhood.  Ups and downs and false starts.  But I've also been fully engaged for the first time in years and so I'm not quite ready to let go of them, and go back to only seeing them in the afternoons when they've given their best to their teacher and friends and have only dregs of crankiness and homework resistance left for me. Which is ok. I am working to accept that I wasted so many years either giving them my dregs, or wildly overcompensating.  I still have a lot of guilt about that. But, I want to squeeze out every last ounce of summer time we have... Which doesn't mean that they don't drive me absolutely nuts some days with the squabbling and messes and filthy sneakers and tween drama and ludicrous battles over Minecraft and groans of "I'm borrred."  I have had plenty of moments where all the noise is just overwhelming and I want to yell " Stop being ungrateful little jerks, I'm trying to cherish you for crying out loud!!"

Last week we got a tough diagnosis for my five year old daughter.  Life as we know it is probably going to change in ways we can't even imagine.  And it's scary and unknown and I kiss my daughter's head and thank God that I'm sober and can be there for her as we navigate this new world of tests and needles and procedures. My first thought when we got the call wasn't that I needed a drink. I cried and felt honest, real sadness. Which I let flow over me, and then I got on with formulating a plan for how we would support and hold her up and walk into this new chapter.  This would have been impossible five months ago.


So, for you newbies who are in the first days of trying sobriety on for size.  You know your time drinking needs to be done. And maybe you are having some false starts. I think we all did. But  let me be yet another voice in the invisible army that is doing this with you: Be encouraged. It does in fact get better.  So much better that I won't even spoil it for you.  Because you will get to that place and you will notice one day that your heart isn't in a crumpled ball of pain, your breath comes easy, you actually feel GOOD.  And quite possibly, nothing "tangible" will have changed.  You will still have an asshole boss, money troubles, a painful marriage, maybe health problems or a lack of support.  But everything will feel different. Because you will be different.

And so, that's all for now. I'm going to keep on plugging.

Yours with love, signing out from the top of Mount Laundry.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ugly-Beautiful

I read a post the other day about "sobriety bloggers" and how a lot of them seem to run out of gas at the 3-4 month mark, and try to return to the nightmare of moderating or just disappear altogether from the blogosphere because they have fallen back into active drinking.

Well, I haven't done any of those things. Yesterday was four months sober.  But as I suspected it would with all of my kids being home for summer, it's been rough trying to continue my laser-like focus on sobriety. Navel gazing and quiet contemplation of my co-dependent ways have taken a back seat to the urgent needs of three small children. Which is understandable. After our vacation, my two oldest kids plunged right into a week of day camps and I spent the week driving to and from opposite sides of the county and hanging out with my five year old in between picking up and dropping off the other two and dodging severe thunderstorms. I didn't realize how much energy my first sober vacation had taken from me. Or how dependent I had become on the hour or two of quiet when they were all in school when I could write or read or go for a run.  Most nights have found me running after nine pm, when it's just me and the fireflies glinting in the trees, punctuated by me suddenly flailing to wipe a spider web from my face and praying that the spider isn't crawling somewhere on me.  The other night I almost hit a deer. I came around the corner and there he was, standing gazing at the pond. I freaked him out and he ran away, with me envious of his wild speed as I continued to trudge under moonlight. I guess I'm burning off the crazy. I'm not sure it's working. I read my support group emails in the wee hours and use my smart phone as a light to read books about recovery while my husband snores and my kids have gone to bed and I steal time from sleep to do the work. It's not ideal but it's something.

Two weekends ago was our big neighborhood party that in years past has always marked the beginning of summer. Slip and slide and pool for the kids and volleyball and yard games for the adults and booze everywhere.  I woke up the day of the party feeling low energy, and having zero desire to be around a lot of people.  I expressed this to my husband and I told him that I was going to go but that I might need to leave early.  I got the kids dressed, sunblocked and pool ready and then decided to take my time getting showered and dressed and walk to the party, which is about a mile away on roads within our neighborhood. I thought having time to think and unwind might put me in a better frame of mind.  I got there and everyone was drinking. No one was really watching the kids in the pool so my paranoid ER nurse self plunked down with my bottled water and watched about 20 kids as they were swimming. It was blazingly hot, and try as might, I just didn't want to be there. My son hit his head on the slip and slide and needed to lie quietly with his head on my lap in a shady spot with some ice and recover his dignity. He finally rallied and when we rejoined the party, all the other moms were doing shots and drinking margaritas while floating in the pool in their bikinis and I just felt like the sweaty, grumpy odd girl out.  Reaching into the cooler for water and brushing past glowing ice-cold wine bottles every time just got to be tortuous. I ended up leaving early and came home and immediately started thinking that I need to just re-vamp my entire social circle or it's going to be a lifetime of miserable parties where I feel like an awkward stick in the mud who ends up watching everyone's kids. Not helpfully, my husband who had been drinking and playing volleyball and oblivious to the fact that we had three kids at the party had the balls to tell me that I am miserable now I'm sober. Gee, thanks. Because going someplace I felt uncomfortable going in the first place and trying to have a good attitude and be in the moment as much as possible wasn't hard at all.

I sat on my bed and stared at the wall for a while and had my first fleeting thought along the lines of  "might as well drink if everyone thinks I'm boring and miserable now."  And I had an actual, physical response to that thought where I felt nauseous and said out loud. "oh, there you are, just waiting for your way back in, huh?"  And there it was, the moment when SH#T JUST GOT REAL.  The first few months were all about not drinking and triumphs like I was at the high jump and they kept raising the bar and I kept surprising myself when soaring over what seemed like impossible heights.  And then I jumped and smacked right into the bar, landing on my back and knocking the wind out of myself.  Because not drinking is just the start of it. 

I know I'm not the only alcoholic in the world who struggles with excess, boundaries, extremes, always pushing, pushing, pushing.  So it's really not a surprise that I overdid it in taking on boozy scenarios in early sobriety. Like a test. Like I could breezily say "oh, it doesn't bother me if you drink. I'm fine." Except I'm not. I hate that everyone is drinking.  I hate that there was a pool full of kids with no supervision. I hate that I was left out because I wasn't doing poolside shots. I hate that I have not one single sober friend in real life. I hate that all of my good intentions and hard work are boiled down to me just being no fun and miserable now.  I hate that my disease takes all of these feelings and tries to convince me that I should just start drinking again.


Two days after the party, my parents arrived for a week-long visit.  Because they only see us once or twice a year, there is usually immense pressure to be the perfect hostess, make lasting grandparent memories, go fun places, etc.  This year, I cleaned up within reason, planned very simple non-gourmet meals and didn't go overboard and neurotic in trying to appear perfect.  Which is a huge (HUGE) step for me.  My parents have always had standards that I could never meet and in somehow not trying to meet them, and in just being myself it ended up being a relaxed, natural and meaningful visit.  The kids enjoyed just playing games and doing puzzles and swimming in the pool and going for walks.  We didn't do any giant day trips. We ate crabs on the deck. I ended up having an opportunity to tell them that I'm an alcoholic and was met with understanding and compassion. And pride.  Which shocked me.  But if we had done our normal overscheduled, cram as many happy memories into five days routine, there wouldn't have been the quiet moment when my dad asked me "are you training to be on American Ninja or something? You look great and something has changed" which segued into a long talk about the last few years and sobriety and what I'm learning.  My parents both shared times of deep loss and depression and teared up as I told them how low I had gotten. They hugged me and told me they were proud.

So, in choosing different things, in learning to go with my gut instincts, I am navigating the real hard parts of this journey.  Because it really is no joke. The pink cloud has blown away and the voice is like a jackhammer in the background of my thoughts.  For a while it was quiet. It was peaceful. And now I am heading steeply uphill with no idea what lies at the top. But I know deep down that it's still better than the nightmare that drinking had become.  I told a friend it's like the first 100 days or so it was like being at basecamp on Everest.  I'm acclimating to low oxygen, getting my body used to a new reality which in this case isn't altitude but being alcohol free.  But now I've left the safe place behind and I'm climbing uphill, uphill, uphill and my lungs are burning and my muscles are protesting and every step I hear a voice just saying "give up.  This isn't worth it. Even your kids say you aren't fun now. You don't need to go so deep into this. You can drink again now that you know why you did. You can just change those things and manage your stress better."  And with the next trudging step forward  I say "No. I want this. I'm not going back."

Step. "Just quit". Step. "No."

So that's where I am right now. I am trying to make huge changes. In the midst of the demands of motherhood and life and having all my kids home and feeling like I'm on permanent overload. My ADHD has my brain feeling like a Labrador and someone just threw two thousand tennis balls.

But I know what I want.  I want the vista at the top of this mountain. And I'm not stopping until I get there.

What is making this possible is the new friends that I've found in this journey.  They may live hundreds of miles away, but they are in pocket, just an email or a text away.  They get it.  We can talk about all the FEEELINGS. And how we struggle with how to handle the feelings that are hard to face. The anger, the pissiness, the lack of "me" time as a mom of small kids, the straight up blah parts of this.  Giving ourselves permission to not just be shiny happy sober people all the time.  Some days totally suck.  We see things in ourselves and our children and our partners that we feel responsible for. Things we want to run from. Unweaving all of this is exhausting.  And some days we are just mad and it's not pretty and we have to reach out or drown.  But while I float up to my eyeballs in sadness and regret some days, I have other voices that are louder than the one in the background.  They tell me it's ok.  It's ok not to love every part of this.  It's ok to be mad, disappointed, petty, selfish, overwhelmed.  And it's ok to be stupidly happy over a sunset or something cute that my kids did. It's ok to be annoyed when my kids steal my La Croix water and then leave it sitting around unfinished. It's ok in that moment to be a little like Gollum hissing "my pressshusss." 

So many of us are black and white thinkers. Things are either good or bad. Sober life; life unbuffered by the numbing effects of alcohol feels wrong at first.  The rawness of opposing emotions can be overwhelming when we have spent our whole lives labeling them as "acceptable" or "not acceptable". We spend so much time trying to wrap it up in perfection that we miss the beauty in the ugliness. In not running from the ugly parts of ourselves, in just acknowledging them as just a part and not the whole, those things lose power. Yes, I have moments where I am not patient, I am monstrously selfish, I am hot-tempered and short-sighted.  But I also have moments where I am wise, loving, self-sacrificing, long-viewed.  The trick is to stop running from the moments when I'm the former.  Just allow myself to be angry or whatever.

So, that's where I am. My house is a mess. My kids are either adorable or squabbling. I run every night in the company of bats.  My marriage is still teetering on the edge of something.  My 11 year old was invited to a sleepover by her 5 year old sister with all of their American Girl dolls and I have no idea how many more years are left of that sweet connection. My son has made his first real friend and he's seven. I'm terrified that he's going to get crushed or his quirkiness will be too much.  I have a snake living in my garden that I've named Winifred.  My minivan needs new brakes and I think I need a new job. My coffee intake has risen to an alarming level.

There are seismic shifts going on under my surface that no one can see. 

And in all of it, I'm trying to embrace the German idea of " hasslich schon". Ugly beautiful.  Because that sums up life perfectly right now.





Friday, June 24, 2016

Shucking a million oysters ain't gonna do it

Things are a little tangled in my head today.  I'm tired after a long shift in the ER last night, and I'm recognizing that being sleep deprived really is a trigger for bad thinking on my part. So, I see this funk as a sign that it's time to write some of it out.  To be honest, there are some days when I wish I didn't have to fight so hard or make myself do the work.  I want to relax and just take the day off.  But, there are no days off.  Which seems unfair, but actually, with the right perspective it is really awesome.  I don't skip days where I make my health, my life a priority. It sounds better when I reframe it that way. It becomes a privilege and not a burden.

There will always be that voice in my head that wants to think "you're better now. You can stop struggling so hard. You could probably moderate now"  The same voice that wants me to revert to isolating, being headstrong and obstinate. Doing things the old way instead of the new.

So, with that in mind, allow me to introduce the frog that I met the other morning in my pool:




He looks innocent enough.

But, this, ladies and gentleman is the most "I do what I want" amphibian I have ever come across.  He was gleefully swimming all over, diving down and skirting away from attempts to catch him in my net and I swear if he could have given me the finger, he would have (actually, in the picture above I think he may be). He simply had no idea that if he kept on swimming in the chlorinated water that eventually, he would drown.  There was no way to climb out without help.  He couldn't see it.

After about ten minutes, I finally got him out. Exhausted from his attempts to elude me, he sat for a minute on the warm concrete where I had gently deposited him.  And then, he HOPPED RIGHT BACK IN to the pool.  Where we then had another game of chase and he did everything he could to avoid my attempts to catch him and save him from himself.  I finally got him and carried him out to my garden, far from the pool and gave him a stern lecture about not even thinking about hopping his obstinate butt back into danger.

Folks, this is what we do when we are in denial.  We have this idea that somehow we will be the exception. Sure, other people who drink as much as I was end up dying way too early. But I'm special. I'll be that exception. I'll be like that 100 year old person who smokes unfiltered cigarettes and eats bacon and drinks Jack Daniels all day every day and somehow defies the odds. We stay cocky and stubborn, even when we start to suspect that we are totally screwed if we don't stop. 

When the truth is, I'll end up a dead frog floating if I don't stop swimming in a pool of alcohol and disordered thinking.  So many people are stuck in endless day ones, afraid to accept the help of others who are holding out the net, and instead keep diving down deep away from what looks scary but is actually salvation.  Humility. Admitting the need for help. It's tough. But it's necessary.

So I have to remind myself daily: Don't be this frog.

Which in a round about way brings me to oysters.

Stay with me.

So, this past week I watched a movie called "Burnt."  It probably got lambasted by the critics for being a little one-note. But the addict in me really resonated with the main character, played by Bradley Cooper (a real life alkie in recovery). He's a dry drunk, a chef who fell from grace and lost his restaurant due to his addictions to drugs and alcohol.  It is written as a redemption story; how he attempts to rebuild his reputation and his life (without actually truly making reparations for the things he did when drinking or embracing specific principles). At the beginning of the movie, he's in New Orleans "doing penance" by completing his goal of shucking a million oysters.  He's not working a program, is still woefully shortsighted and unaware of how his actions have hurt others. He's a human wrecking ball, and while he announces that he's been sober for two years, 2 weeks and six days at the beginning of his quest to return to greatness as a chef, he's an untreated alcoholic through and through. He's a self absorbed loner, a bully, volatile, and short-sighted. He just doesn't drink or do drugs.

Ultimately, through loss and failure, and from relapsing (which comes as no surprise) he gradually learns to accept community, help and belonging as key to healing and moving on. Which made it satisfying to me as a newbie in recovery (and lots of beautiful food which just makes me happy). But I think the thing that sticks with me is how this movie made me ponder what it means to not just stop drinking but create a meaningful life. Or as my friend in my online sobriety group put it:"Staying meaningfully sober is different than just quitting drinking.. Just shucking a million oysters ain't gonna do it."  Outward actions without inward changes ultimately are meaningless. We can not drink and white knuckle and be miserable.  Or we can not drink, grow, reach out for help and give it in return.

Some days we are the frog, and other days we are the net. But we don't go it alone.