Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review Fridays: The Happiness Project & How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed

It's been a week! And I missed last week's book review, but it's time to get back into the saddle.

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin hardly needs an introduction. Her interviews are on broadcast television, she was featured in O Magazine, and it looks like she's also been picked up for a television show on NBC. Normally this amount of success and popular adoption would lead me to skip the book, either because I'm a snob, not easily led by popular culture, or because....oh, I guess that's it. However, time in AA spent working on finding reasons to be grateful about the big and small things going on in my life made this book a must-read. The basic motive she had for embarking on the project was the sense that she had so much to be grateful for, but felt like her life was passing her by. She believes that everyone's Happiness Project is unique (I guess not everyone would feel happier if their clutter was reduced and closets organized...though I have trouble believing that), and suggests a foundation for creating your own project.

Essentially, she divides the year into overall themes and spends one month on each. Specific and tangible goals are determined and she tracks her progress for each. While the specifics of her experiences are not "rocket science" I really loved the idea of thinking specifically about what makes  me happy in the abstract and then creating specific goals/actions increase my happiness. So far I haven't done this, but I can say that reading her book gave me many ideas. Now I just need to block out some time to consider my own personal goals.

I also recently read How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, by Theo Pauline Nestor. I initially got the book because I had read that she left her husband because he had a gambling addiction and memoirs written by people who lived with an alcoholic are somewhat hard to find. I also thought it would fit into a plan "B" sort of preparation if the worst happened with my marriage (I know...the optimism is heart warming). What I found instead, outside of the specifics of undergoing a divorce, was a much more general tale of how she dealt with change, grief, and recovery from loss. She not only speaks about her own divorce, but the pain of her parents' divorce and the way it shaped her childhood and later expectations. I could identify with many of her feelings as I read this book, and was reminded of how important it is to ask for help, to look for support, and to allow yourself time to truly recover. In some ways, I've spent too much time during the last four months attempting "normality", rather than giving myself any room to breathe.

On a related note, I'm struggling a bit with the format for these reviews - what do you want to see in a book review? What types of books would you like me to review? If you have ideas, please leave them in the comments! I would deeply appreciate any suggestions.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

I hope all of you have a wonderful Christmas. I wish all of you another 24 -

Regularly scheduled blogging will return next week after a few days of relaxing with my family.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Keywords, SEO, LinkBacks, and Twitter

You probably don't know this, but I work in technology and have long-considered myself knowledgeable about computer software and development. However, in this space I've discovered that I'm not only a novice, but also as dangerous as my dad when he opens the hood of the car to "take a look". I know just enough to understand what needs to be done, but not enough to make changes without breaking something else and ultimately driving up the repair bill.

The realization came to me when I decided to buy this domain. Simple, right? Except for the fact that my blogroll was obliterated. Then, in what can only be called an insane flashback, I thought I should do all the things you're supposed to do to support your blog - add an RSS feed, subscribe to email, think about increasing readership, adopt multiple platforms, et al. Reading a webpage from your computer is so 1998 after all...think mobile! A normal and organized person would probably plot out a strategy for each of these things, but like a woman possessed, I threw myself into touching each of them, all the while realizing that I didn't know precisely what I was doing. Or even, truth be told, how to do what I thought I was supposed to be doing.

So, if your blog has disappeared from my list, it wasn't a conscious choice...I am adding each of them back in as I remember they're missing. If you can't sign up for RSS or email, let me know and I'll try to piece it together. If you're on Twitter my username is returntonormal, and I do promise I will figure out how the whole "twitter-thing" works. I'm also experimenting with the template and content layout, so I warn you, things might be dicey for the next few weeks. But I do promise I'll keep writing and my fingers are crossed that I won't accidentally delete the entire thing...which brings to mind the notion of "back ups". And eventually, I may even begin to consider myself knowledgeable about technology again...but moving forward, I will actually read the f-ing instructions before running off on some sort of half-considered rampage.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Not Sure Where This is Going...

There are many things I used to do regularly before I fully committed myself to drinking. These past-times slowly fell away, some unnoticed and others more palpable. They are: knitting, reading, yoga, and writing.

Although I'd knit since college, it was after I had children that my knitting really took off. I started to design and create custom sweaters. I loved the escape and calm that knitting brought. There was even a time when I would put down the drink for the night because my knitting was suffering and I didn't want to stop the simple action of knitting and purling.

I never really stopped reading, but as my drinking increased I started choosing mindless books with minimal plots, because each day as I picked up a book, I found I couldn't remember what I'd read the night before. There were also the nights when my vision was too blurry to see the words on the page. As with the many movies we rented, I think I could go back and read/watch them as though for the very first time now.

Yoga is another activity that has held a primary place in my life at different times. Since I was a teenager, I would turn to yoga for the calm and peace it brought. I have a friend who avoided yoga for years, and then called me when she finally tried it and said, "You never told me it makes you stoned! I would have gone with you before if you'd only said." Finding solace in a bottle not only prevented me from "needing" yoga, the denial made the honesty and self-reflection something to be completely avoided. And so I did.

As for writing...I really stopped writing when I was working on my dissertation. I hit a massive writer's block and for some reason put down my pen for ten years. Since then, I've tried periodically to find the desire to put words to paper, but never really stuck to it. For some reason, I determined that writing was something I used to do.

Now that I approach four months of sobriety, the fog is starting to clear. I no longer look at these things and say: "You really should do these things." I'm now at a point where I really and truly want to do these things. I'm not sure how each of them will fit into my overall life at this point, but I'm feeling passionately attached to them and excited about the possbilities. It's difficult to describe, but for the first time in a long time, I can't wait to see what's around the corner.

The blog has been integral to this. I don't have specific plans for it, but I believe that when I listened to that voice in my head that urged me to start it, some process began. My creative self is re-emerging, even though on most days it feels like I'm just writing a journal, rather than crafting a post.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Like a Frog in a Pot

Until recently, I thought the fate of the frog in the pot was known to everyone, but discovered a friend who had no idea what I was talking about. The fact (or is it simply a theorization???) is that if you dump a frog into a boiling pot of water, it will jump right out. However, if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly boil it, the frog will simply sit there until it is cooked through. I'm told that this is because frogs are without self-awareness.

I am this frog. The more time goes by in sobriety, the more I am aware that the slow boil prevented me from an awareness of how bad things were. While I was aware that I'd given up some things, like knitting, or going out in the evening, or friends who didn't drink, the sheer emptiness in my life went largely unnoticed. I shared a house with my husband and children, but I wasn't really there. Simple peace and contentment was completely absent and I didn't even know it was gone.

The sad truth of alcholism is that I really didn't think I was hurting anyone but myself. I didn't worry about my children's safety when I was drinking. This simple fact truly alarms me now - anything could have happened to them or us while I was passed out. At the time I theorized that because I largely drank after they went to bed everyone was safe. My lack of engagement with friends and acquaintences who might have become friends meant that I wasn't ever there for anyone. It troubles me to think about the fact that they may have gone through terrible times without any support from me. But the biggest thing I've been facing lately, is that I really had no idea how stressful my life was, how I'd pretzled myself into an existence that was always stressful and always untenable. I don't know if I created the stress to justify my drinking, or if the drinking and avoidance created the stress, but I feel so much more sensitive to it now.

What was "acceptable" to me six months ago, is simply just patently unacceptable now. Partly, I think I'm developing some healthy boundaries. But the bigger picture is that now that I'm present (or at least using strategies of avoidance that don't cut off the cerebral cortex) I know when things aren't right. I feel that stress in the moment and I know that it means I have to deal with something.

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I feel like I have post-tramatic stress disorder. One the other hand, I feel like this is how normal people feel about stressors in their lives. It's probably a combination of both. My life had gotten so out of control (at least beneath the surface) that it makes sense to struggle with the after-effects of a lifetime of avoidance. Also, a lack of mind-altering chemicals means that life is right there in your face.

One question remains - if you put a drunk frog in a pot of boiling water, does it just lay there at that bottom, heat unnoticed? Don't worry, I'm pretty squeamish, so won't try out the experiment.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Blessings...

I was at a family gathering on Wednesday. These are my in-laws. I really love them. Their family has an easy grace and familiarity that is so unlike my own family. They are loud and funny. They fight and then they hug. They welcome new members as they are, with open arms.

This is the first time I've seen them since I quit drinking. Because of the way that fate works, they'd really never seen me drink, so I'm sure none of them are aware that I had a problem. For most of them alcohol flows freely anyway, so I'm not certain it would have mattered one way or another. We only see each other a few times a year and almost never saw them when we were living in California. There is one exception: my mother-in-law. I met her when I was twenty for the first time, and instantly fell in love. At a time when I was having so many difficulties with my own family, her intellect, charm, and warmth drew me to her. I always was that kid looking for a surrogate family, and she welcomed me. I adopted her as my own surrogate family.

As my drinking began to take over and I grasped at keeping the outsides looking good, that relationship changed too. She became more distant and I could tell that she didn't like me anymore. Denial prevented me from even beginning to understand why this could be the case. Endless hours were spent analyzing possible causes. I buried the hurt in the bottle and justified my behavior. When I hit 30 days the ice around my heart began to melt, just a little, and the fog began to lift. Rather than view everything from the standpoint of a "she done me wrong song", I began to hear, finally, what she'd been saying. More than that, I could see that she was right about so many things.

This event was the first time I'd seen her since the summer. I really wanted to see her, to tell her that I'd changed. When I told her I'd just reached my 90 day marker, tears came to her eyes and her hug was genuine. Suddenly, I realized how painful the past few years have been for her. How she'd hoped and then given up that hope. It's difficult to describe how it felt to be able to tell her that I'd changed and to see just how much harm I'd caused her with my drinking. It felt like a blessing, because I've missed her desperately, but it was also like holding a light to the sheer depth of the destruction alcohol had wreaked on my life. Because, even though I know what it did to me and my sense of self, the ripple effect on others doesn't always show itself to us.

I believe this is just the beginning for me - I know I have hurt others by my drinking and over time, they may open up to me about it. This honesty will help keep me sober. It will prevent me from beginning to believe that I wasn't so bad, that no one really noticed how much I drank. It also forces me to see that by hiding away hurt feelings, we are simply protecting others from the consequences of their actions. Effectively, this prevents change. In the act of trying to forestall our own vulnerability, we actually ensure the pain continues because we say nothing. For this reason, part of me wishes that she'd said, just once, that I drank too much. Even though it likely would not have made a dent in my own denial, like a drop of water on a rockface, it may have begun to wear away sooner. Each time we speak the truth out of love we open the door to willingness and change becomes possible. Silence simply allows the unacceptable to continue unchecked.

In addition to staying sober, one of my New Year's resolutions is to find the willingness to be vulunerable and speak the truth.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Little Help Please...

For alot of us, asking for help is a very challenging proposition. It's one thing to ask someone to help fold the laundry...after all, their clothes are in the pile, it's a crappy job, and no one lives or dies by the number of wrinkles in their shirts. The worst that happens is no one agrees to help and the pile sits for another day. Best case, the job is done for another four days or so until the pile re-emerges.

However, there are a million things we need help with that require a certain level of vulnerability...the honest admission that we just can't do it alone, and I avoid this at great cost. My one big example over the last few months relates to work. For months I've been overwhelmed, struggling each day to get the urgent items done, leaving the rest until tomorrow. Rather than raise my hand, I "next weeked" myself into months of stress, exhaustion, worry, and frustration. Despite all rational evidence to the contrary, each week I told myself the next week would be better. Fast forward to the present, and everything is a complete mess. What really gets me about this situation is that if I'd asked for help in the beginning, most of the angst would have been avoided, or at least diminished.

But something just stopped me in my tracks. It wasn't necessarily an arrogant belief that I would handle it, although that was part of it. It was also motivated by the fear of not being good enough, not believing that anyone would help me, and definitely the fear of "being found out." I can look to a million justifications for these fears to show how rational they are, but the basic fact is that when I do ask for help, I use the very quietest voice and minimize my needs. Then, I'm surprised when help does not arrive and re-justify my belief that I'm not good enough and people don't care about me.

This must change. I must ask for what I need.

But this time it is also different. This time, the chariots arrived to rescue the damsel in distress (that's me btw) and I cannot express how grateful I am for this. Words are simply not enough to fully articulate how relieved I am to be rescued from myself and my fears in this case. Once again, I'm brought to my knees at the relief brought by grace.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lucky

My ongoing struggle to stay sober (not so bad) and to stop acting like an addict (touch and go), I've written of my dispair at still living a life affected by other people's drinking. It occurs to me that one of the reasons I've managed to string together nearly 100 days of continuous sobriety is due to that drinking. Sometimes recovering alcoholics mention that they were the life of the party, at least for the first few drinks. That people loved to have them around because they were witty or engaging, or whatever. I can understand this point of view, because I can remember feeling the same way - although I was always carefully measuring how drunk I was and how I thought others were responding, so it wasn't exactly a carefree thing in my case.

Now, from this vantage point, I'm not so sure. When other people drink around me, I can pinpoint the moment when the chemical reaction in the brain produces that "all is well with the world" feeling. What seems, to the drinker, the expression of joyful bonhomie, seems to me like too much noise. Exaggerated. Grating. I look around at the other non-drinkers to see whether I'm simply too sensitive, too over-reactive, because of my history, and their eyes reflect my feelings back. Something is ever so slightly off. Perhaps it's at the edge of perception for those who don't abuse alcohol, but it keeps me from temptation. Not only is one drink never going to be enough, but I can't even justify a drink because others enjoy me more.

One of my daughters has been asking me alot lately if I'm okay. For a while this made me feel a bit paranoid, because on the one hand, I'm really just not okay. Yet, on the other hand, I'm certainly more okay than I've been in years. Finally, she admitted that I'm quieter now and this worries her, as she sees it as a sign that all is not right. Setting aside the likelihood that she senses my tension and anxiety, as I'm sure she does, but it doesn't fit in with my broader point, I see that for her, my joclularity seemed normal, because each night she expected me to sigh with relief after that first drink.

So, I am lucky, because I'm not sure I wouldn't have justified that special drink at some point if I didn't see evidence all around me that it's just not worth it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review Fridays: Two Books

I'm pressed for time today, so the review will not be much of an actual review. As you may know, I've been exploring the role of alcohol in my life from the standpoint of an observer lately. This focus on my family relationships is necessary, to a point, because I've felt so many blocks in my recovery that I haven't been able to get past. I'm still mired in them, but can say that I'm learning. So let's get into the books!

I read Marriage on the Rocks: Learning to Live with Yourself and an Alcoholic, by Janet Woititz, a few months ago. Although the book uses a very traditional family model to discuss the impact that living with an alcoholic has on every family member, the author is well aware that the model is limiting. She claims, however, that the model is used to illustrate dynamics that play out regardless of family structure and whether it is the man or the woman (or both) who are alcoholics. I have deep feminist leanings, so would typically reject such an assessment, but in this case I chose to accept the model and be open to the information she provided.

In addition to providing detailed information about the personality of the "alcoholic" and the dynamics of control and guilt, she really gets to the heart of the way the rest of the family shapes themselves around the drinking and the drinker. I think most of what she says is well-aligned to Alanon, but it was my first exposure to the notion that I could pull myself out of the dynamic, even if the drinking patterns remained the same. There is one line in the book that resonated (can't find it now, so will paraphrase): "Does it really need to hurt as much the 587th time you've been called a bitch?" Amazing. I would really recommend reading this if you live, or have lived with an alcoholic.

The second book is also by Woititz, and is called Adult Children of Alcoholics. Wow - I totally saw myself in this. She presents the "common" traits of children and adults who grow up in an alcoholic home and also provides strategies for overcoming the obstacles. She notes that anyone in their first year of sobriety should focus on their own recovery before really delving into these issues, but also notes: you "may need to drain some of the pus out." to maintain recovery. Which is sort of how I interpret what I'm doing.

Woititz was writing in the 1980s so some of the material feels a bit dated; however, I think the essential truths and advice are timeless. She is sympathetic, but also writes in such a way that forces the reader to take responsibility and get of their asses to work through issues. I appreciate the style - it's empowering.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

90 Days and My Futile Attempts at a Humorous Post

So I hit 90 days on Saturday. It felt really good to get my chip at my meeting last night. I'm kind of sad that I'll have to wait until the six month mark to get another one. It's funny how important they've become to me. In other good news, I've finally found a sponsor! Yippee!

In celebration of the 90-day mark, I thought I'd capture some of the weird logic I used to operate my life with in the past:

Recommended: Ride a bike a few times a week.
Not Recommended: Riding your bike to the store to buy liquor and cigarettes.

Recommended: One 4-ounce glass of red wine is good for your heart.
Not Recommended: Quadrupling the dosage reduces the overall health benefit.

Recommended: Take a few moments each day to relax after work.
Not Recommended: Using alcohol to bring upon a short-lived sense of well-being.

Recommended: Get 8 hours of sleep each night.
Not Recommended: Passing out each night does not promote adequate rest.

Recommended: Take steps to build self-confidence.
Not Recommended: Grandiosity brought on by denial can be confused with self-confidence.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Blessed are the Peacemakers?

Or, Who Do You Think You're Protecting...You May be Surprised

I've had a bad habit for as long as I can remember... When Conflict rears it's head, or even when it appears imminent, I marshall forces to mitigate what feels like complete annihilation. I smooth over, I speak for others, I defend the underdog. In short, I'll do anything I can to ensure that a disagreement is averted. I know this is a common response for alcoholics and the children of alcoholics, so it's not new ground.

What is news for me, is that the subject of my protective efforts is not as obvious as it seems. A few weeks ago I tried to smooth over a disagreement and was called on it. The person thought I'd been protecting the other person, and while this was partially true, I realized the main protective target was the one who called me on it. (God...that sentence would flow so much better if I could use specifics...damn privacy protection.) I could see their point - at the surface my actions did indicate what they suggested. But when I thought about it, I realized I was trying to protect the instigator of the disagreement from the effects of their actions. I wanted to prevent them from saying something they'd regret later. To prevent them from responsibility for their own actions.

Of course, there's another part in this as well. Even when conflicts have nothing to do with me, I insert myself. I'm trying to protect myself from the pain too. I am so used to absorbing other people's emotions, even when I'm already so drained and tired from my own. It's like if I can prevent a disagreement, then I won't have to deal with the fallout of words said, feelings expressed. The catch-22 of this is that by taking on emotions that aren't mine, I suffer the fallout even if a disagreement is averted. And the kicker is that everyone's frustration becomes directed at me, because I'm trying to be so controlling that they are unable to express themselves. In a nutshell, I'm asking them to swallow their feelings so that it doesn't upset me.

I don't have any solution to recommend, outside of the belief that awareness is the precursor to change.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

When Things Go Badly

Before and after I quit drinking, I always thought that a true catastrophe would bring me to relapse. Now, to be fair, I haven't had anything happen that could be considered catastrophic recently. However, between work and home, it seems like nothing is going very well at the moment. This last week has been one of the most challenging in recent memory. Things that used to lead me directly to a bottle, now leave me thinking, "thank god I don't drink anymore...if I did I would never have been able to handle this."

It surprises me to be in this space. As bad as things have been, not only would drinking have made them worse - but I wouldn't have been able to actually deal with anything.

In the midst of turmoil, I feel such gratitude that I have newfound strength and courage, especially in comparison to where I was six months ago. It's difficult to explain. It doesn't feel like strength exactly, but the evidence suggests that it is there.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review Fridays: Nice Recovery

In my first days and weeks of sobriety I read memoirs endlessly. Even the boring and uninteresting ones were helpful. I combed through them looking for insight and advice on how to be successful at quitting. Not recovery per se, at that point, I was just looking for some "how tos" on getting through a day without a drink. As a result of the many wonderful people willing to share their experiences, I felt more comfortable in my own skin and knew I wasn't alone in my struggles. This week's book review will be about Susan Juby's Nice Recovery.

I loved this book from the very beginning when she sets up the degree of accuracy that should be expected from a memoir about drinking:

Timelines and specifics may be innaccurate in my stories...This is because I'm writing about a period during which I and my subjects spent considerable time in a blackout.
Despite the warning, she does an amazing job of recreating her childhood and early teen years. In reading her story, I was reminded of the painful feelings of nerdiness and just not fitting in. She describes the shift that occurred when she went to middle school and realized she would need to re-make herself in order to fit in. Like many of us, she worked from the outside in, watching others to assess the best way to look and act. She writes:

          Swearing was the foundation stone of my attempt to gain middle school street cred.

Once she discovered drinking, she realized she had the courage she was missing. Her drinking career began and continued through geographical moves in high school and into college. She describes the shift from drinking with minimal consequences to the utter destruction alcohol brought, both in terms of school, personal safety, and in terms of her own sense of self. Near the end of her drinking she writes:

I proved totally incompetent at suiciding myself, but when I sobered up I started to worry that by some unlucky fluke I might actually succeed.
Unlike some memoirs, which end with the last drink, or entry to rehab, Juby writes alot about her recovery. The one element that I grabbed onto was that life didn't instantaneously improve when she stopped drinking.

It turned out that drinking had been the only thing that stood between me and a stark awareness of how crappy everything was.
I really appreciated this book - she has a fabulous sense of humor. Reading about her path from hopelessness to contentment gave me hope. There were many ups and downs for her in her recovery, but it really was apparent that each one contributed to where and who she is today.

Because she joined AA twenty years ago, she presents more current stories of young people in recovery in the last third of the book. She notes the huge increase in younger men and women in recovery now and wants to provide their stories for people entering recovery now.

Despite the fact that my drinking career was deferred until my twenties, there was so much in her story that I could relate to and her journey to recovery continues to give me hope.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Boundaries

I did something the day before yesterday that I thought I would never ever have the courage to do. In fact, I almost did not have it. But in the split second it takes to change your mind, be too afraid, to second guess, the deed was done. The path was committed to and there was no going back.

I can't say what it was because it would violate someone else's privacy. What I can say is this: there's a fine line between acceptance and denial. Accepting that other people make their own choices and are responsible for the consequences of their decisions is a very difficult thing for me. I'm too used to feeling like I need to protect everyone - that the measure of love is the ability to prevent pain. Even if it means that I'm the one in pain. Even if it means that the pain I feel isn't even mine.

I've really been trying so hard to let go, even if it means turning it over to my higher power every day, or every hour. It's...hard...work... On the other hand, I've come to realize that I've also been using denial (it's not that bad...it is better than it was...if I avert my gaze it's not happening) to distance myself from the reality in front of me. And for a while, that has felt like acceptance. From the outside it does sort of look like acceptance anyway. But denial takes quite a lot of effort, advance planning, manipulation, and it requires that valid emotions are swallowed.

What I did was set a boundary. Put my line in the sand. I stopped acting like a victim without choices. I stopped pretending that I could do it all on my own without help. I stopped pretending everything is fine. I honestly expressed my feelings and laid out my requirements. I did not minimize or exaggerate or justify. I simply said I could not continue as things were.

It was hard. But for the first time in my life I did not apologize for taking the harder, more honest path. I feel gratitude for the strength to do so.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Acceptance

I've heard it said that "you hear what you need to hear" in AA meetings. This was so true last night.

I had the day of all days at work and nearly burst into tears...how tough of me! I was completely filled with frustration, anger and resentment and wasn't sure how I was going to get enough done to stop work for the night. Additionally, I felt guilty about missing time with my family, but was in too bad a mood to even begin to spend any time with them.

I went to a meeting and the passage under discussion related to acceptance and how essential it is to serenity. I felt like I was hit between the eyes as the speaker read the passage. I felt better, because I could see how my resentments were eating away at any semblance of serenity. I'd allowed work to be a mass indicator of my personal worth and well-being, rather than stay in the moment and be kind in my evaluations of my own performance.

People also shared about the difficulty they faced in assessing the difference between what we can control, versus what we cannot control. I struggle with that all of the time, because it can be tempting to avoid action when the situation is frightening or upsetting. Easy to stick all of that in a box on a high shelf under the pretence of giving it over to God.

I'm so glad that I went to the meeting instead of staying home and fuming about everything.
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