Monday, January 31, 2011

Hating PD Days and Partially Sick Kids

In this moment, I can't think of anything worse than being trapped in the house with two kids who were sick, but now are only partially sick. Sick enough to stay home because they're coughing. Well enough to endlessly bicker, complain, whine, pick on each other, shout, moan, and... well I think you probably know what I mean.

It would seem that anytime I make a commitment to be more patient, I find myself in a situation where I'm more likely to be impatient and grouchy. In these moments it's easy to slide right into a why me mentality and put the music on for a good old pity party. Surely, other people are better mothers because their kids aren't so bloody irritating, right? So I try to remember just how lucky I am to have two healthy children, because I am so very grateful for that. But there are days, like today when I'm looking around for the escape hatch. You know - the wormhole that leads directly into a tastefully decorated loft in Paris where I live alone, complete with trustfund to support my artistic pursuits.

Anyway - I need to breathe. And recite the Serenity Prayer 10,000 times, because I'm not quite sure how I'm going to get through today without completely losing my mind.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

You're Stupid and...

You know that moment when you're trapped in a conversation with someone who is droning on, monologue style? They're irritating and boring and just can't seem to stop talking? And then, for whatever reason, they start telling you who you are? Analyzing your ticks for the purposes of helping you to "improve" yourself? They pretend to be well-meaning, but actually just want to make sure you feel like crap?

You want to escape, but you can't.

Well I had a conversation like that this  morning. In the space between sleep and wakefulness, I was talking trash about myself to myself. I shook myself awake, shocked. Now, coffee in hand, I wonder if that happens every morning?

Whatever the frequency, I am shocked to discover that I'm still, at an unconsious level, sending so many negative messages.

Message to my subconscious: I have my eye on you! (I was going to add bitch at the end there for punch, but fear it may sound to disassociative...what do you think?)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Don't Get Drunk Fridays

I submitted my story to Baby on Bored for the weekly Don't Get Drunk Fridays series. Please check it out!

Book Review Fridays: Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore

When I first encountered Rachel Brownell in the summer of 2010 I shrunk from reading her book or her blog, because it just sounded too sad. I recoiled from reading about how she "failed" as a mother and wife because of her drinking. Basically, I was afraid I would find too many points of commonality and feel worse about myself if forced to take an honest look at my life. I guess, at base, I just wasn't committed to my sobriety at that point...at least not if opening my eyes to the problem would make me feel worse.

When I finally found the courage to read Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore: Getting Through the First Year of Sobriety, the opposite happened. Instead of feeling completely useless, I was relieved to read about someone who felt the way I did about marriage and motherhood. Instead of making me feel worse, her feelings of loneliness and isolation when her children were born, her lack of trust in her marriage, her inability to stop drinking when she finally attempted it, and the peace she began to find when she was able to string days together all resonated with me. Even more than that, I was relieved getting sober wouldn't force me to be perfect.

Each chapter deals with her journey at different points during the first year of her sobriety, so while the book is largely memoir, it also act like a "what to expect" at various points during the first year, starting with the impossible first days:

In the early days of my sobriety, when I see people collect coins for six months of sobriety, I look at them like they are the Buddha or Jesus or a Person with Knowledge of the Great Mysterious Happiness. I perceive a beautific smile and inner glowing knowledge that will be mine if I stay sober that long. For someone unable to stop drinking for even a week, six months seems like years. Surely, anyone with that much time must be completely enlightened.
Yes. Thought it. Now, as she did, I can see that true enlightenment may take slightly more time.

I was captivated by her feelings about her marriage. She writes of her struggles with intimacy, trust, and admits that she sometimes dreamed of escape. She writes:

My husband Jack comes to see me collect my six month coin. This does not fill me with joy. It feels like my sacred chamber has been sullied with the outside world. Or, more accurately, someone who knows what a total asshole I can be is coming into a place where I usually manage to be patient and kind. I hope he'll keep this knowledge to himself.
I am still struggling with trust. Alcohol provided a numbing layer that meant I didn't have to be honest or open or trusting. I never put myself out there with anyone. So while I felt lonely, I could drink to forget that too. Reading about the slow changes that happened in her marriage gave me some hope that by taking things day by day, I might be able to get to a point where I had a real relationship with my husband. And it is true: small changes and a focus on the day to day have immeasurably improved my marriage.

Much of the book is centered on motherhood. Since I had kids, it seems more and more women are speaking honestly and openly about the challenging transition. But, like so many of us, at the time, I just didn't know any of them. It seemed (and sometimes still seems) like other mothers just get it. And even when we joke about our failure to be June Cleaver, there is a guilt about this that goes unsaid. Despite her quirky and humourous published writing, Brownell shares her true feelings:

How can I, who am so obviously flawed, have these beautiful and blameless small people in my charge? Motherhood gets too big to manage, and I want to be perfect. I want to be everything good and loving and patient and kind...I only realize much later that the drinking makes everything worse. Much worse.
I truly believed I was the only mother who was shattered by motherhood. It's not so much that my children were triggers for drinking, anymore than stress or work were, but that my own perceptions about motherhood created an uncrossable gap between who I was and who I thought I should be. I drank because I couldn't be the mother I thought I was supposed to be. And then I drank because I believed it helped me to be that person. Prior to reading this book, I thought I was the only one who drank in order to play with my toddlers- so that I could be attentive and silly and fun. So that I could read board books endlessly. So I could give them what they needed...or at least what I thought they needed. Like Brownell, I only realized that alcohol made things worse once I stopped drinking.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Fear and Writing...in Las Vegas?

Ok, yes. Cheesy title. But it brings to the foreground my fears about writing. I'm afraid I sound trite, or melodramatic, or whiny, or (ick!) boooorrrriiing. I wonder what to write about, how to structure my thoughts and feelings into interesting prose without losing the kernel of the idea that drove me to write in the first place. I wonder what do people want to read? Or, what do they think of me when they read my posts? Do they, as I confess I sometimes do when people share in meetings, think, oh God, not again with this story? It's difficult to write the truth and when I'm plagued by what I think you might want to read. It's even harder to quiet the internal voices - why are all of them either negative or filled with unrealistic grandiosity?

I've been been more conscious about this lately, because I've been working through the book The Artist's Way. Her focus on the many ways we consistently block our own creativity, brings a deep awareness to the problem of trust and openness. She isn't focused on writing specifically, rather on self-limiting behavior in general. As a recovering alcoholic, many of the themes will be familiar to anyone with experience in recovery. However, her perspective on creativity is unique and empowering.

I can clearly see the many ways I hold myself back, closing the door on opportunity before it appears.

I will continue to write, because I have to get words down on paper. But I would really appreciate it if "the committee" would go for an extended coffee break at the Starbucks down the street.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Forgetting How it Was

It's sometimes easy from this vantage point to forget just how bad things were when I was drinking. Paradoxically, although I knew things were horrible back then, I now know that things were so much worse than I thought they were. I've been pawing through my memory for an example...the sad truth is that every day was much like the next, making it easier to speak in generalities. Although in writing that, I'm reminded of the many promises I made to myself, not promises to quit drinking forever (who would do that???) but to moderate. In July of 2009 I left a job I hated to go to a new one brimming with opportunity for advancement. Their client base was huge and I fully believed I'd sky rocket to the top if only I could stop the cycle of nearly continuous hangovers. Instead, on the night before the very first day of work, I drank too much. As a result, I woke up with a crashing hangover. For the entire day I sat through orientation wishing for death. This set the stage and any potential opportunity to be had withered away over the next several months of my drinking.

I glanced through my journal (erratically kept during that period) because I remember writing about the first day. I couldn't find that entry, but I did find an entry from September 2009, when I quit smoking. I'd forgotten, but I also quit drinking at the same time. I can't remember the rationale, but I think it was the sense that if I drank I'd never be able to avoid a cigarette; they were too tied together. The first days were hell; I went to bed as soon as I got home from work because I thought I couldn't face the day without my nicotine. Here's what I wrote:

Not drinking is way easier [than not smoking] - funny because that's in part helped by just two days of nicotine withdrawal. The ease with which I go without alcohol does confirm my assumption that I'm not an alcoholic, but does nothing to persuade me to drink. I just don't believe I can consistently drink responsibly, so would rather go without than tempt fate. I just feel too good without it.
I don't remember when I started drinking again, or even whether it coincided with when I started smoking. What scares the crap out of me now, is that I did start drinking again and it took another year of sinking to new depths of despair before I would quit again. It scares me because I already knew at that point that I drank too much and a few weeks of abstinence clearly showed me that the cause of my anxiety and depression was my drinking. Sure, it's cute that I thought I wasn't really an alcholic because I could take a few weeks off... but I still went back. And when I went back out I nearly didn't make it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Into the Fire...

It's funny how much easier it is to find and feel peace when your typical stressors are removed. I'm one day back at work and am already feeling the tension in my neck and back. Already worried that I won't be able to handle these demands. Already losing a bit of that hard won peace.

On the positive side, as a result of my leave I am hyper-aware of the habits that ensure I'll be completely stressed out by the end of the week. Now, it feels like there is a spotlight on bad habits. Without the time off, I don't think I would have noticed them. The list is quite long, but there are two I'd like to write about: procrastination and negativity.

I've discovered that whenever I'm given a task that requires conflict be addressed, I will procrastinate it. Instead of stepping back and assessing what I need to complete the task, I'll become entirely focused on the outcome or deliverable and not deal with "first things first." Then, because I'm missing key information I won't be able to complete the task. As a result, I'm late and stressed out.

Second, I block myself with negative thoughts about my abilities. The "committee" has been pretty quiet lately, but revved into high gear first thing yesterday morning with: "you can't do this," "you just aren't very good at it," "are you sure that's the right thing to do," and on and on. God damn! I forgot how difficult it is to get them to shut up.

No solutions yet, but it does really underline the value of taking a break. I've come back with a fresh perspective that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Change 101

I have a confession: today is my first day back at work since December 23rd. I was given a leave of absence (read: my employers suggested I take some time off, because they could see I was falling to pieces...I, on the other hand, just kept hoping things would magically get better). My inability to do my job effectively (or to admit that I couldn't) was due both to internal and external circumstances, but I am honestly relieved and grateful someone gave me permission to take the time off. It is something I never would have thought to ask for. It is the longest I've gone without "working" since my maternity leave, and the only time I've been off without a side of huge and massive stress.

While I was off I did quite a lot of nothing. I only went on the computer to post or read blogs. I shut down my IM client, never checked my work email, and pretty much avoided my cell phone. The first few weeks were panicky, as I remembered all of the items I was supposed to have done before I left, and I imagined new emergencies I should have been able to prevent. Letting go of what others might be thinking about my performance during the final months prior to my leave ate up energy I didn't have to spare.

Finally, I was able to let it go. At first, only through the well-worn grooves of avoidance. Later, because I knew if I didn't rest, I'd never be able to go back.

One thing I did do almost every day was yoga. It's made a huge difference in my state of mind. I feel stronger and more grounded, better able to relax. But, during the last week I had off, my thoughts began to swirl because I couldn't figure out how I'd be able to continue my yoga practice if I had to spend eight hours a day doing this other thing...the thing that helps to pay the bills. Potential unrealistic schedules appeared, but I was trying to accomplish the impossible - how to fit in 90 minutes of yoga on top of a full day of work.

Of course, I'm aware that we all feel like we don't have enough time. And I'm also aware that if I turn off the TV sudden hours appear as if from nowhere. But that isn't the point of my post today. It is this: I have two tendencies that block me from changing:
  1. It's all-or-nothing: if I can't do it the "right" way, I tend to ditch it altogether.
  2. Over promise and under deliver: see that logically I don't have time to do something, and then hope that it will magically work out without any planning on my part.
It is true that an hour or more of yoga makes me feel amazing and shuts up my inner critic. However, even shorter sessions have cumulative benefits. As I should already know, small changes add up to large shifts over time. However, in this case, I must have spent hours trying to solve the puzzle before it finally occurred to me that I could actually do this if I altered my expectations. When it happened, I felt like a genius. I could actually envision 15 minutes a day of yoga, without any sort of magical thinking to buttress my own delusional thinking. I could have what I wanted while at the same time be realistic about what's possible at this point in my life.

All too often I set myself up for failure because I unconsciously put together a set of conditions to measure success. Most of the time my expectations are unrealistic, so it's not a failure of will as much as it is a failure to plan. I will work to alter my expectations of this practice so that I am able to see progress. Which brings to mind that slogan - "Progress, not perfection."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Weirded Out and Mystified

There is one situation in my life that drives me nuts. It happens every single day, and I've only recently noticed how stressed out and anxious it makes me...it is dinner. Or supper, if you're classy. I simply dread it. If I were writing in my diary at 16, I would have underlined the last sentence about ten times.

It's hard to explain why this is. There's something in my subconscious that I'm not quite ready to admit to myself, but I'm starting to understand that there was a reason I always drank before dinner. It was to mentally prepare myself. For what, I don't know.

What I do know is that I wish we could skip dinner altogether for about two weeks while I think about it some more.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sobriety Toolkit #4 and #5: Blog and Journal Writing

Before I start, I wanted to send out a big apology to everyone who subscribed to my RSS feed. As blogger doesn't alter the publish date when you edit a post, I thought it would be a great idea to add tags to posts where I'd forgotten...only yesterday I realized that the edits are picked up as a new feed and you were all spammed! It won't happen again - I'll leave uncategorized posts as they are in future.

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Initially, I thought it would make sense to separate the writing I do for my blog from my journal writing, but I've realized that my journal writing is slim and I almost never make time to write in it - at this point, it's more of an aspirational element of my writing, than an actual recovery task. That said, I am in the process of building on the habit of writing more often.

It makes sense to discuss them together because they serve a similar purpose - a way to get my thoughts and emotions onto paper, so that I can break free of my habit of suppressing any that don't hold up to the light of cold, hard rationality. I have always had difficulty sharing my deepest thoughts and feelings with anyone, until I first mentally review all of the possible responses to them and pre-determine that I can handle them. If not, I sink my feelings into an abyss. Journal writing is important for my recovery, because no one reads what is written there (not even me). I'm in the process of working to let go and free-associate more within those pages. There are many things I simply cannot write about here - work, marriage, details of my other "real" life and I need the privacy of a journal to accomplish the on-going mental and emotional processing.

Blog writing serves a slightly different function to my recovery. In the beginning, I felt so absolutely and completely alone in my alcoholism (referred to as terminal uniqueness) that I threw the words and feelings out there in the hope of finding someone who felt the same way I did. Other blogs had also helped me so much, both to finally identify as an alcoholic, and to find hope, and I wanted to give back what I could. The purpose of this blog is still fundamentally the same - if one person finds one thing I write helpful, then all of it is worth it. Blog writing forces me to think actively about my recovery and my relationship with alcohol, and forces me to seek growth. The fear of finding myself in the same place a year from now, writing the same damn thing over and over, gives me motivation to take another step forward.

The active habit of writing my thoughts here has also provided me with many gifts - first and foremost I'm actually writing instead of dreaming about writing. Second, so many of you have left comments that keep me inspired to keep on keeping on with this thing. Third, I feel accountable to all of you and I just love that.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Review Fridays: Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down

I read Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down: 50 Things Every Alcoholic and Addict In Early Recovery Should Know purely because of its title...I guess I still have a childish, gleeful response to seeing "bad" words in print. Superficially, I also adored the cover - a cartoon guy with a scared looking monkey on his back. As a chronic relapser, Georgia W. sought out books and memoirs written by other alcoholics, hoping that by arming herself with information, she would be able to finally stay sober and escape the vicious cycle she'd been living:

Sure, I could stop drinking, but I couldn't stay stopped. I had spent the last few years in a vicious cycle: two or three months sober, followed by a bout of drinkig, then intense guilt, remorse, and hopelessness before the whole thing would start over again. My life was a nightmare. The way I saw it, I had two options: get sober for good, or kill myself...the absense of alcohol [in after-life] was the only reason I could come up with to not kill myself.

The problem she found was that, newly sober, her concentration was too shattered to follow anything complicated, so she wrote a simple book amenable so someone "with the attention span of a gnat." She starts with the first 30 days, noting that this is the most difficult part:

It's not so much that we are "in recovery" as hanging on for dear life. During this first stretch, the obsession to use can feel like it will never leave us. In fact, I felt as though nothing short of a miracle could make it go away.
Reading this before I'd hit the thirty day mark was a relief, because she was telling me that the my sense that I'd entered the longest bloody 30 days of my life was normal. I clung to her promise that it would get better - that I'd feel better once I got past the first month. It kept me going. She was right - the thirty-day milestone is a big one - the changes are subtle and simple, but powerful. Things that normal people take for granted (I assume) like waking up without a hangover, the lack of dry mouth, shakes and heaves, felt amazing. The wonder of it truly astonished me.

As part of her goal to write simply and effectively about early recovery, the book is divided into fifty chapters, each only 2-3 pages, covering topics like: the dry drunk, triggers, feelings, reactions to others, substitute addictions, spouses, children, depression, sponsors, thirteen stepping, atheism, resentment, ego, fear, amends, and recovery ruts. The power of the book is that it's easy to dip into topics you want to learn about. It's informative, without being overwhelming. Obviously, with such short chapters, the information isn't comprehensive, but her writing style (funny), her personal stories, and the short "slogans" got into my head and gave me courage to keep going.

I really loved the chapter on staying stopped because I could deeply relate to what she wrote; when she finally came to the conclusion that she needed to stop, she was in a similar place that I was:

I realized I was on very shaky ground because every time I got drunk I wanted to kill myself. I didn't want to die when I was sober; it was only when I was under the influence. That's when I had the failed suicide attempt. As low as that moment was, at least it made me aware of the true scope of my problem - I knew if I didn't stop drinking for good, it would only be a matter of time before I succeeded in ending my life.
I'd felt such shame about my depression, even though I knew it was a symptom of my alcoholism. My first indication that this was "normal" came from this book. Since then, I've met so many people who have shared this experience.

She also helped me to see the importance of going to AA meetings if I truly wanted to stay stopped:

I was out of options, and out of money, so I decided to try the one thing that I'd been avoiding for so long - a Twelve-Step program. Sure, I'd been to a few recovery meetings in the past, but I never actually listened to what those crazy people said, and I certainly never did anything they suggested. But sometimes sitting at the bottom can finally make you willing to try anything...
It was my fear of relapse that drove me to my first meeting - I wanted some insurance for my sobriety. That Georgia avoided it, but then found support in AA was enough for me to fight my fears and insecurity and get myself to a meeting.

She closes with the following "promise" of sobriety:

While each day doesn't start out like a Disney movie, it doesn't end like a horror movie either (which was usually the case when I was using)...The best part is, I've learned we don't have to be perfect. We don't have to become Twelve-Step gurus, holding all the answers and quoting verbatim from recovery books.
Amen to that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sobriety Toolkit #3: Recovery Blogs

The other night at my AA meeting there was someone brand new, with less than 24 hours of sobriety. It's the first time I've been at a meeting where that had happened. It reminded me so much of those first few painful days and weeks, and I find myself praying for him, hoping he can put a few days of sobriety together. Hoping he comes to another meeting and finds his way long enough to begin to glimpse the change that's possible.

When I initially put together a plan for these posts I thought I would group the book and blog reading together into one post, but then I realized they served different purposes in the beginning and continue to do so now.

For me, reading blog posts is the virtual equivalent of listening to someone share at an AA meeting. In the beginning, whenever I thought I was going to just..give...up, I would read a blog post. Some days I read an entire blog from the beginning, looking for immediate identification - as sort of "see, she got through it and she drank as much as I did," or "she drank during the day too even though she has kids" - that would keep me from "just one to take the edge off." Other days, I read just one post, to see what it was like now. It was a way of building hope that change would happen, if I could just hold on for another minute. In the beginning I spent hours and hours finding and reading blogs and they really did save me from my addiction.

I found the first posts when I was wondering if I truly had a problem...if it was serious enough for the big old Alcoholic label. (Who was I kidding???) In my search for answers, I found the famous (though I didn't know it at the time) post by Stefanie Wilder Taylor. She was quitting, and as far as I could tell, I drank waaay more than she did. I identified with her because I too began to drink more to escape the stress of parenthood (though looking back on my twenties now, I can see that parenthood was definitely not the first time I drank like an alcoholic). I scanned her blog and began to live for her Don't Get Drunk Fridays posts. She knew how difficult the weekends were. She knew what I was feeling and thinking. And suddenly, I wasn't alone in my addiction.

Next I discovered Crying Out Now. I LOVE that this site exists. There is deep significance to this space - like a room of one's own, where women can honestly share their experiences with alchol, whether still drinking or not, or because their spouse, mother, father, child drinks. I read every single post from the beginning and felt like I'd found a broader community of women. A place where all of the awful things I did when I was drunk would not be held against me. A place where despite all of our differences, our common problems unite us. Anyone can post, anonymously if preferred, and find solace in the supportive comments. The first time I posted there, I cried for two hours, because it was such a relief to finally open up.

After those initial searches, I found other blogs - Sober Artist Girl, One Crafty Mother, Minty Fresh Mommy, Seeking Clarav, Life...On It's Own Terms, Self-Reliance Run Rampant, Emilyism, No More Merlot, and many others. I continue to read everything on my blogroll religiously and often find so much insight because all of these women are willing to openly share their experiences in sobriety. When I despair because so few women are at AA meetings in my community, I find peace, because they are here, online, openly sharing their life stories, forging new ground, finding growth and greater openness without drinking.

Each one inspires me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to stay sober, and to open myself to the possibilities that come as a result. Thank you for sharing your journeys - without you, I wouldn't have been able to get, or stay, sober.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

FYI - New Addition to the Site

I wanted to take a moment to let you all know that I've created an Amazon store to make the book list I've been compiling more visually compelling and easier to navigate. This seemed the easiest way. I sincerly hope no one is offended by the use of the Amazon store - my goal is to provide information about recovery, largely by sharing my journey with you. This will not change - I will not profile any book I haven't read and thought useful - my integrity would cost more than the 4% return on any purchases you make from here. Promise.

If you have suggestions to make the page better, just let me know.

Sobriety Toolkit #2: Alcohol Recovery Books

I read my first recovery book almost by accident. Soon after I "forgot" the horror of cutting myself and began a program of "controlled" drinking (certainly I would never again drink myself into oblivion, right?) I came across Mary Karr's book, Lit. I can't remember what drew me to it, but as soon as I got home I poured a large glass of white wine and began to read. I drank through the rest of the afternoon, through her tale of drinking and trying unsuccessfully to quit. In some ways it was a very difficult book to read, because much of what she wrote about the pull of alcohol and her troubled childhood reminded me of my own life. But I kept reading because there was some promise of sobriety. And as I drank, I hoped her experience would show me the way. I simply could not conceptualize life without drinking. So I was stuck between wanting to die, giving myself over to the pull of the bottle, and hoping there was some other way to live.

After that book I was hooked. I still hadn't quit drinking, but I knew that somehow it must be possible if others had done it. In the beginning I was drawn to memoirs heavy on the drunkalogue. I wanted to read about people's deep pain and embarrassment and shame from drinking. I was less interested in the steps to their recovery than I was in finding evidence that there were others who hated themselves and hated what alcohol was doing to them. The more graphic the better. I couldn't put them down, reading Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp, Dry, by Augusten Burroughs, and Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore, by Rachel Brownell, in quick succession. Others came later, but these provided all the evidence I needed that I was an alcoholic and I needed help. If they could quit and find peace, maybe I could too.

Later, I began to move away from the memoir to seek tangible tools to quit. Somewhere in the midst of all of this reading, I did quit, but I still needed books that would show me how to live without a drink. In the beginning, it was simply getting through another day without drinking. I read everything I could get my hands on, starting with The 12 Step Buddhist (way too challenging for me back then) and Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down. There are so many books out there that talked me through the process of detoxing, withdrawal symptoms, and the change that could and would happen as long as I could get through another day without a drink. I did also read the Big Book and parts of The Twelve Steps, but in the early days it was almost too much for me - also, I struggled (and continue to struggle) with some of the dated notions, specifically the sexism and the assumption that women alcoholics aren't part of the story. Basically, I still feel like I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with both books, though whenever I read them I find wisdom.

Now with a bit (only a bit, but more time than I ever thought possible) of time in recovery, I still make time to read books specifically about recovery from alcohol, because I need to be continually reminded about how it was before, and how it would be if I relapsed. I still need to learn how to live, really live. But I've also recently started reading about self-improvement and spiritual growth. I try to stay away from the "infomercials," and any books that promise a magic bullet for transformation. Although most of these books don't deal with addiction, there is a striking synchronicity in their recommendations. It would seem that everyone who seeks a deeper connection and fights emptiness can find answers by finding a deeper spiritual connection; some of us come to the realization through addiction, but there are many ways we can come to this realization.

Reading has been as essential to my recovery, and on-going growth, as AA meetings. Because I'd isolated so completely I needed a way to understand my condition from within that isolation. Reading again and again about the problem and the solution really gave me the tools to keep moving forward without a drink. It changed my thinking patterns and offered hope. When I struggle with my addiction, I'm as likely to remember a phrase I read in a book as I am to remember something someone said in a meeting. Even with the demands of family and my continuing tendency to isolate, it's easy to find the time to read a chapter, so reading will continue to be an essential part of my on-going recovery.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sobriety Toolkit #1: Alcoholics Anonymous

I was in the second week of my third real attempt at sobriety when I finally dragged myself to my first AA meeting. I'd printed out the meeting list for my area weeks earlier and scanned for times and days that might work on multiple occasions. I knew I needed to go because I was hanging on to my sobriety by a thread and could already feel it wearing. I knew if I didn't do something differently I'd never go the distance. Sure, I might hit a month or two, but I somehow knew I'd be right back where I started with everything. I would drink.

So finally after weeks of fear and avoidance, I went to a meeting. It's funny because one of the main blocks I had was telling my husband that I wanted to go to AA. I thought he would laugh at me or think I was crazy. It took several days to build up the courage to tell him I wanted to go - part of my fear was about the drinking, but it was the same fear I felt anytime I considered doing something on my own. Our lives had become so rigid and predictable - neither one of us ever did anything outside the house with any regularity. When I finally found the courage to tell him, he didn't seem to think I was crazy so I finally had to actually go.

The meeting I went to was very small...about ten people sitting around a table. If I had known it wasn't one of the huge meeting rooms you see in movies about addiction, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to get myself there. Luckily, my assumptions about the anonymity of a large crowd made it possible to talk myself into going. I think many of us experience what I did when I first went. People were friendly and actually talked to me as soon as I arrived. It could be because of where I've lived, but my general experience has been that people never speak to "strangers." No matter how many classes or events I've attended, it seems very difficult to meet people and strike up a conversation. Anyway, I felt welcomed. I knew instantly that I was among my own kind.

Since then, I realize how lucky I was with the meeting I chose - I've been to several meetings where I didn't feel a connection for whatever reason. This meeting was the perfect induction for me, because there were enough superficial similarities to get me through the addict's temptation to see myself as unique.

Alcoholics Anonymous is essential to my recovery because it is so powerful to hear others share and relate to their stories. From the newly sober to the old timer, I continually find advice and lessons. Sometimes people share things that are instantly amazing and give me alot to think about - it's what people talk about when they say "you hear what you need to hear" - and it seems like the content of the meeting touches on something precise that I've been struggling with over the past week. Other times, when I feel like I'm not getting very much out of the meeting, there is a simple cumulative effect that I only realize later, when I need the words. Hearing the same words and phrases over and over again mean they become part of your conscious dialogue.

 The accountability that comes from going to the same group regularly is another powerful tool. While I do feel accountable to my family, who worried so much about me before and celebrates my sobriety now, it isn't quite the same thing. Being in a room surrounded by other people who have as much (if not more) reason to drink as I do keeps me focused on staying sober for another day. Knowing that I'd have to tell the group about a slip keeps me honest with myself about the true nature of my addiction.

Superficially, I also wanted those chips. It's funny that a round piece of aluminium is so valuable, but I hold each one dear. Wanting the next one still keeps me going. It's a tangible and symbolic representation of my desire to keep moving forward. Counting days that add up to milestones keep me from thoughts of drinking.

The other side-effect of AA has been that it forces me to put my sobriet first, over and over again. Each week I take time for myself and just go, regardless what else is going on in my life. I know it is recommended that we do 90 meetings in our first 90 days, and I also know that many people go far more frequently than my measly once a week, but I've been so isolated that to even commit to once a week was a huge deal for me. So when it was freezing cold, when the roads were bad, when I was tired, and even when my husband was drinking and I didn't know what would greet me on my return home...I went. It meant that for an hour a week I put myself first (at minimum). It provided needed space and motivation to stay sober. I can see the day when I might go more frequently, but it takes time to rebuild after so many years of codependency and putting myself at the bottom of any list of priorities.

Of course, it's not all perfect. After four months of going to meetings, I am still yet to make any friends I talk to outside of the meetings. I almost found a sponsor, but it fell through, so I'm still looking. And I don't feel the deep zeal some members of AA feel about the organization. I struggle with the lack of women in many meetings - and I know we're out there in large numbers...drunk and wishing for a different life, or clinging to sobriety on our own. I can only assume that it's the cultural side-effect of sexism and the notion that the needs of others come before our own.

While I do think it's possible to glean all of the benefits I listed above from other groups or sources, but at base, for me, it's essential that I do go. I really don't think I'd be sober today without AA.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Elements of Sobriety

A few weeks ago I posted about the things I did to get sober in the initial first days. Once I got past the agony of counting hours...getting through the long afternoons without a drink, I remember the hardest part was the weekends. Both times I slipped were on weekends. When I was actively drinking, I spent most weekends from noon on drunk. Getting through was a real challenge. For the first month or so, I would get through one weekend, only to drink the next. After two slips and a painful hangover, I somehow managed to break the pattern.

Now as I approach five months of continuous sobriety, I'm beginning to actively think about the things I do for my recovery. I thought I would share them over the course of several posts...

  1. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
  2. Recovery-related reading
  3. Blog reading
  4. Blog posting
  5. Journal writing
  6. Yoga
  7. Healthful eating

At the end of this series, I'll see what's next.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Am I An Alcoholic?

At my last AA meeting there was a woman who has several years of sobriety and she said lately she's been wondering if she was actually an alcoholic, because she quit drinking so young. All around her, she sees young people acting just like she did without the label. She wasn't trying to justify drinking, or even looking for an escape hatch, but it led me to thinking about these labels.

I'm sure some people might look at the way I was living and think that I'm not an alcoholic...most would likely agree that I drank too much and for the wrong reasons, but they may stumble over the word alcoholic. As though being a simple problem drinker is a simpler, easier thing to fix. A bit of will power, some therapy and presto, you're done.

However, I was thinking tonight that before I spent so much energy hoping nothing bad would happen. Hoping that I wouldn't drink too much that night, hoping I wouldn't have a hangover the next day, hoping that I could cut down, hoping that I'd skip a day or two. Occasionally, like magic, these hopes were sometimes fulfulled, but the base fact was that I never knew what I would do if I drank. After the first drink it was anyone's guess. Not even I had an advantage should a pool have been started. I just never knew what I would do.

So now, though I still occasionally do stupid things, struggle with change and acceptance, I will never again pick up a drink (whatever the label) because I like knowing that I no longer have to hope that I'll be my better self. Now I have some degree of choice, perhaps close to 100%, about how I behave. I'm so grateful for this.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review Fridays: Breathing Space

This book almost acts as a part two to yesterday's stream of consiousness post. A few weeks ago I wandered through the yoga section of the bookstore looking for books that dicussed yoga and life...I didn't want anything too intellectual or philosophical though, as I'm in the very beginnings of investigating my own spirituality. I found Breathing Space: Twelve Lessons for the Modern Woman, by Katrina Repka and Alan Finger. I was drawn to the memoir format (I just cannot get enough of people's personal stories these days) and thought it might help me resume my long-forgotten yoga practice. Lately, I've been feeling like I need to put more time into my spiritual life to build on my recovery; at the beginning, not drinking was enough. Now, I want to grow and open myself up to the possibilities of a sober life. For me, yoga is a natural place to turn for this because of its meditative focus.

I've been doing yoga on and off since I was fifteen (when I discovered Rachel Welch, Raquel: The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program...incidentally, a book that finally gave me permission to cut my own hair) and have always found it either very helpful or completely frustrating. When I am able to accept myself and my limitations with love, yoga is a very powerful and restorative practice. It teaches patience and underlines the fact that change happens gradually. When I am filled with self-hate and frustration, yoga becomes an instrument of self-torture and builds on that frustration. It is usually in this mood (when, arguably, I need to be doing more yoga) that I leave it, sometimes for many months. Obviously when I was drinking I was very far from yoga, outside of a vague yearning for that feeling of peace.

There is great symmetry between the principles of yoga and recovery. Both emphasize acceptance and powerlessness as a path to truth. Both encourage spiritual connection and the notion of looking inward, rather than to externals for answers or relief. Through the format of this book the connections are made simply and effectively. In her book, Repka tells the story of moving from Calgary, Alberta, to New York City. At that point in her life she felt lost and uncertain about her future. She knew she didn't want to continue in her marketing career, but had no idea what she did want to do. In many ways, I think her story is fairly universal - that sense of "hating" the present, dreaming of some far of future happiness, and struggling with the past is something that happens to each of us to some degree or another. She is honest and open about her fears and vulnerabilities, which takes real courage, particularly as the events took place about seven years prior. I'm not sure I would be able to honestly and realistically capture myself after seven years of progress and growth - the simplicity of old issues would stand in stark relief to where I am now.

Each chapter covers a different element of her personal struggle and then provides suggested breathing exercises to release the feelings and build trust in yourself. Over the past few months I've been reminded of the power of conscious breathing learned in yoga. At base, all we have is the breath, the moment we're in. None of us knows what is next - good or bad. Breathing has gotten me through so many difficult moments and has taught me to seek peace and calmness in the moment despite what is going on around me.

There are three main elements of the book that stick with me. First, it is okay to feel lost and empty. When we stop looking to externals to fix ourselves, it takes time to understand ourselves. In my case, drinking was the cure-all for every emotion and challenge. Without it, I sometimes feel lost - not sure how or what I should be doing next. Repka and Finger promise that this will change and answers will come. Second, by connecting with ourselves (our HPs if you like) we can find our own truth, but this must come from a place of love and acceptance. Third, the premise of the book is about letting go - of our preconceptions, expectations, and the urge to control the outcomes.

There is certainly more to gain from this book - I have yet to set aside time to work on the breathing exercises, but I do know that several times I read something that made me pause and think about my recovery and how to live a life based on those principles. Some reviewers criticized the book, calling it chicklit and saying that she sounded whiny...to them I would say, "take what works and leave the rest." I think every one of us can be prone to whining and complaining, it's what we do with it that counts.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Self-Sabotage

Do you ever find yourself doing impulsive things guarenteed to make you feel bad? Lately, I seem to be doing it all the time, whether it's buying something I don't need or eating candy for lunch. I can't seem to break free of the habit. Or even determine the motivation. It's definitely something I've carried forward from my addiction.

I was reading a book last night and one of the points the author made about the fourth step is this: our character defects provide both negative and positive feedback. He uses the example of grandiosity - it makes us feel important on the positive side, but on the negative side, others don't like it and may respond by avoiding us. In order to remove our defects he proposes that we figure out how to use the positive side of these traits.

I think this makes sense, but I'm really struggling with the thoughtless impulsivity. Like the depression I had when I drank, this turns inward. In fact, I think the impulsive behaviour is prompted by feeling bad - rather than deal with the emotions themselves, I try to feel better by externalizing, and then end up feeling worse. At the moment, I'm not sure, but wanted to get it out there.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Great Big Case of the "Shoulds"

Well, to be honest, it's not so much a case as it is an overall perspective. For the past few days I've been trying to say "I want" instead of "I should". This should (har har) be simple, right?

Why do this? Should implies obligation, and vaguely sniffs of failure and retribution. In watching my self-talk I also sense negative judgment. For example, you should do yoga really means your body is really flabby and you should do yoga to fix that. Funny - even in my own head, the I becomes You. Whereas, I want to do yoga does not imply previous failure to do yoga, nor does it imply I'm not good enough unless I do it. It simply expresses desire for something. Maybe change, or possibly even self-care. One superficial example that comes to mind is flossing. Every time I go to the dentist they tell me to floss. At least once a week I think, you really should floss. Do I floss? Nope. Well, sometimes. But mostly never. And it takes, what? Two minutes? 

Changing the self talk is proving to be extremely difficult, however. Once I started noticing the habit, I realized how many times a day I think "I should..." It applies to nearly every single action I do over the course of the day, from eating lunch to folding laundry, or scheduling a meeting. Or procrastinating it. Like with the floss.

Then last night I was reading a book about recovery and there's a section about decision-making. Would you believe I had to write down the steps? Not because good decision-making is a new concept, but because in reading the steps I realized I do less than half of them. Here's the breakdown:
  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Clarify the problem.
  3. Identify possible solutions (at least 3)
  4. Examine the solutions by determining the best, worst, and most likely outcome for each.
  5. Make a decision.
  6. Act on the decision.
  7. Evaluate the outcome.
I typically do number 1, pick two courses of action (usually do something, or do nothing), and then do number 5.

I'm beginning to think the shoulds are connected to a lack of reflective decision-making. By not evaluating why or what I want to change, I grab onto solutions and execute without understanding what I want to accomplish. The motivation for these tasks, while superficially internal, are actually mock external (this is where the should comes from). In order to really effect a change in perspective or action, I think I need to spend more time understanding the problem and thinking about the solutions so that I can really evaluate any outcome. Even if the problem (in the case of yoga) is that I feel really flabby. Merely throwing yoga at the flab willy nilly isn't likely to establish a practice that continues for more than a few days or weeks.

On a positive note, I've flossed two days in a row.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Photographic Evidence

It is tempting to forget how bad things were when I drank. It is easy to overlook the changes that have happened over the course of only four months of sobriety. But over the holidays we received a family calendar with various photos of...well...family. One of the photos for the month of January is a picture of me, drink in hand, of course. My eyes are glazed, half-smile affixed, face red. I was also twenty pounds heavier in the picture, but even with the weight, the signs of continuous heavy drinking are there in the puffiness of my cheeks and neck.

When I first saw the picture I quickly flipped past it, avoiding my own gaze, as I did so frequently back then. Over the past few days I've forced myself to look at that picture. Really look at her. And I've been thinking about how things were last year. By December of 2009 I was drinking heavily every day and was hungover 90% of the time. I was exhausted, stressed out and disgusted with myself. I was having frequent blackouts, although I didn't know this - forgetting when or how I got to bed wasn't something I understood to be a blackout then. I can't count how many times I woke in the morning, hoping against hope that it was still the middle of the night (Canadian winter darkness...), rather than 6am, so that I could sleep off the effects of the night before. Then, dragging myself to the bus, wishing I could stay home, trying not to throw up or pass out. To deal with the dislocation and queasiness caused by my hangovers, I came up with the brilliant notion of drinking wine at lunch. It made me too sleepy to concentrate, but it did provide a buffer against the shakes.

We all have grand moments left from our drinking, but those don't get to me quite as much as the mundane, daily way I used to live does. While it is true that slashing my wrist became a siren wake up call to get sober, it's also true that after two weeks of sobriety following the incident I sunk back into a month of drinking the way I'd been doing all along. It is also true that the daily wear from drinking was not enough to really and truly convince me to stop. I just didn't know how to get through the day without it. Now though, on the other side, I look back on those everyday moments with shame and more than a little bit of horror. It is the tenor of that existence that produces the sheer gratitude for the gifts of sobriety.

Because it's the mundane daily life that I love, rather than the big events. I no longer spend my days looking for relief - that lottery win, promotion, or whatever. Instead, it's the simplicity of a somewhat boring day, mind clear, heart open that I'm so grateful for.

Whoo hoo for four months and a few days!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Book Review Fridays: How to Quit Without Feeling S**t

Because I'm fairly new to sobriety, it's not often that I go to a meeting and hear newer people share. At my last meeting there was someone with a month or so of sobriety. Listening to her share reminded me of those early days when I clung to each day for dear life, knowing that I needed to stay sober, but also dealing with the urgency that comes from learning to cope with life without an "off" switch. It was a powerful reminder of how far I've come (how far we all come) in just a few short months. Looking back now, I'm shocked at how out of control my life was before I quit. It's strikingly funny in a way - even though at that time I admitted my life was unmanageable, in many ways, it's only now that I can see just how out of control it was. I just cannot believe I lived that way...that we all did. The sheer insanity only really reveals itself once it begins to recede.

This led me to thinking about how it was when I quit drinking. In the beginning, I grabbed onto anything that might make it a bit easier. I wanted to truly understand how I went from enjoying an occasional drink to needing one (or ten) to get through each day. I understood the slippery slope and the rationalization intiutively, but wanted to do anything I could to stay on track. After two slips over the summer, I was truly freaked out at the idea of relapsing...and never again finding the courage to quit. One of the books I read, How to Quit without feeling S**t, by Patrick Holford, provides insight into the physiology of addiction (another wonderful book on this topic is Beyond the Influence, of course) and offers suggestions to reduce the physical withdrawal effects to increase the likilihood of staying abstinent. The book covers many different addictions, from sugar and caffeine to alcohol and heroin. Some of the chapters relate generally to all of them, while others dive into the specific substances themselves. It's easy to find the chapters that relate to your addiction and the physiological effects that occur as a result of use.
Withdrawal symptoms include hypersensitivity to stress, noise or pain, feelings of emptiness, anxiety, problems with memory or sleep, fatigue, mood swings, and restlessness. Some of these are fairly obvious and expected. One that really got me was the sensitivity to noise. Whenever one of the kids dropped their fork at the dinner table, I honestly thought I was going to jump right out of my skin. Before I read this book, I didn't have words to describe the jittery feelings I was having; once I had a framework with which to understand the withdrawal effects, I was much better equipped to note the feeling and then let it go. Although Holford does indicate that some withdrawal symptoms (or abstinence symptoms, as he calls them) will last for months after stopping, knowing the cause has helped me to deal with them and stay on track.

Holford proposes that the root of all addictions is in the brain, because the brain's chemistry becomes unbalanced and programmed for addiction when we use and addictive substances mimic our brain's natural "feel good" chemicals. The solution is to "re-wire" your brain by replacing nutrients and amino acids, that are depleted through use. It's interesting because Susan Powter (in Sober...and Staying that Way) also makes this claim in her chronicle of her own alcoholism and recovery. In both cases, improve diet and supplementation are not presented as replacements for recovery, rather, they are intended to help with the first rocky steps we take in giving up our addictions.

He devotes several chapters to different vitamin supplements, dietary recommendations, and lifestyle changes. I partially applied these in the first month of sobriety in the hopes of reducing the mental fog and exhaustion I felt. I took GABA (alcoholics have very low levels) because it promotes calmness and a sense of well-being. I took B-complex for cell and nerve repair. I took Milkthistle because it repairs your liver. Additionally, I followed a gentle detox cleanse for the first two weeks. (NOTE: I'm not a medical doctor, and am not recommending anyone do what I did...) Personally, I think it helped. Partly, the action of taking the vitamins was one of self-care...it had been years since I took any time to care for myself. The decision to heal was an active state of mind underlined by taking vitamins and minerals. But I also believe that years of drinking physically affects us - replacing key nutrients is essential whether they reduce cravings or not.

Most importantly, he does not advocate that nutritional supplementation replaces other programs, such as AA. In the spirit of take what works and leave the rest, I might have read the book anyway, but because he sees the significance of a multi-pronged approach, the book has balance. He writes:

It is important to remember that there is no '1 key' solution to addiction. If you've been using addictive substances for many years, possibly in large quantities, your brain will not simply be 'reset' by eating a so-called well-balanced diet...If you've seriously scrambled your brain, just sitting in a room and talking about your past isn't going to unscramble it.
He emphasizes the importance of sleep, diet, exercise, discusses Eastern traditions, testing for allergies, letting go of the past, and support groups to assist with quitting and recovery. The final chapters of the book target the most tricky part of sobriety (for me) - the fact that all of those defects are still there once you quit. Getting sober is really only the first step we take in our recovery - while abstinence is essential to clearing the fog and becoming more honest with ourselves, simply abstaining is not the same thing as actively recovering. I really appreciated that the significance of spirituality and community were discussed along-side the physiological roots of addiction.

Now I just need to start making plans to read the chapter on nicotine...

What strategies did you use in the first days to stay sober?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Whew...Holidays Over

I've been struggling to write this post for three days. The words just aren't flowing. Ideas feel stagnant and difficult to capture. As I (try to) write this post I keep thinking back to a post Ellie wrote - They Aren't All Gems - and I can completely relate. Lately when I sit down to write, I feel uninspired. Unable to string words and ideas together. While I wasn't unreflective over the holidays, I did seem to wander through the days in a bit of a fog. Today also feels this way. The post is falling flat and although I need to write to process my thoughts and feelings, themes escape me. I'll keep writing, because I need to do so, but I hope this sense of bleck ends soon. The weird thing is that I do feel better, more able to cope, freer from the pull to escape. When I'm frustrated or sad, I remember that it's temporary and will naturally pass, instead of railing against it. I'm more patient and less likely to tie myself up in knots. Here goes nothing...

Despite my projections for a stressful holiday, it was actually very relaxing..ish. I'm beginning to realize how much our own outlook and expectations shape our experiences. Sometimes I am so anxious that not only do I ensure I don't have a good time, my energy increases the anxiety of everyone around me too. This is not an earth-shattering realization - I think we can all recognize when someone else "ruins" our fun because they're grouchy or whatever. And I think I always recognized that when I was tense, it affected those around me. But...there was a feedback loop blocking me from altering my mood and my reactions to change the outcome. Anxiety over the unknown built up and frustration over my reaction doubled the effect.

Something has shifted. I'm not quite at the point where I even understand what the shift is, but for some reason I'm better able to deal with it. Part of it is definitely understanding that I'm not directly responsible for the feelings or expectations of others. (This often involves a repetitive mantra of "You are separate from them. They are not you." whenever it seems things may go off the rails.) Part of it is recognizing that I don't have to create some perfect experience by projecting what needs to be done at any given moment. Those attempts to smooth over the rough edges that happen naturally (especially when dealing with two children who have their own ideas about fun) ultimately result on some fake construction of what a happy time might look like. My desire to be "normal" really hasn't been about trying to be real and open, or reflective, it's been like a re-enactment of a movie I once saw when no one else has read the script.

Now, I've known for a long time that I'm controlling. This habit of trying to anticipate the needs of others before they're expressed served me well as a child trying to stay out of trouble. Reading the subtle (and sometimes not subtle) emotional currents in our house was a necessity. I wanted so much to have a normal family that I ingratiated myself into my friends' families, ever watching and recording what a normal family looked like. I thought I'd "gotten over" these self-protective habits when I was in my twenties, but now I think they were so ingrained that I unconsciously engaged in them. Having children and staying home for four years without my own income solidified the traits and I lost my voice. I still have much to learn and I still fight the panic I feel whenever conflict arises - even normal, garden-variety conflict makes my heart race. I am beginning to believe that these patterns were one of the primary reasons I drank, so I need to work on them.

These new glimpses of peace that come from letting go are powerful reminders of the gifts that come in sobriety.
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