Friday, October 28, 2011

Emotional Sponges

I postponing my book review, because it isn't done. Life has been quite a shitshow lately between work and home. I do love the book. My brain loved it so much it began writing pattern analysis routines while I slept.

What I'm struggling with today is the increasing awareness that although I do have my own moods, they are so often thrown off kilter by other people. So, let's say I feel happy and confident and hopeful, perhaps even bordering on cheerful (what the hell..). Then, let's say I have an encounter with someone who is frustrated and angry and resentful. One would hope that I would have the skill set to see that their mood is theirs alone and that it has nothing to do with me. One would think I would be able to shuffle it off and continue with my happy and hopeful mood. One would think that true empathy would allow for compassion without threatening to overthrow my own apple cart.

Alas, no. Although intellectually I can see this, emotionally, I am thrown off balance. I want to learn how to change this one simple thing. It is enough, I think, to deal with my own often crappy emotions. I do not have energy to spare feeling the emotions of others.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Running on Fumes

I was thinking that I should start a running blog. Then I remembered that I don't really have time to write as much as I would like with my current commitments. I also discovered that when I tried to consider precisely what those posts would look like, day in, day out, after a few months, I discovered that I don't have that much to say. Instead, I will do a post today.

I recently read a book about habits (to be reviewed tomorrow) and it indicated that there are keystone habits that, once adopted, impact our lives far beyond the things the specific habit touches. I can see this with my drinking - by quitting, there were far-reaching changes to all areas of my life and self-concept, some of which had little to do with my drinking specifically. Jogging (or other forms of committed exercise) have been found to possess similar effects. People who commit to, and follow through on, consistent exercise are more likely to be successful at work, be on time for things, etc. This applies to something as simple as going for a one-hour walk each week.

I started running so that it would be easier to quit smoking. I figured that it would provide additional incentive - by quitting smoking, I would find it easier to run. It also would provide a distraction - another way to deal with stress and anxiety that was healthier. These things have both proven to be true (although item one is a work in progress), but I've learned a few things by running that I didn't expect. They are:
  1. Running can be meditative - by focusing intently on my breath, I find my mind empties of other things.
  2. Running is best when you live in the moment -If I focus on the current interval, I complete it. If I think ahead to how much time and distance is left, I lose focus and want to quit.
  3. Running is difficult - I had assumed that there was a point where running became effortless and that the point was to get there. I now realize that the point is the journey itself - with each new milestone there are three more I want to target.
  4. Habits can change - when I first started running six weeks ago (after multiple attempts over the years) I thought I would follow the same habit as always: run for a few weeks and then stop dead for several months. This time, I've committed to a 13-week walk/run program and have consistently run three times a week since I started. I now really enjoy it. I miss it if something comes up to prevent me from going.
  5. Perception of success/failure is iffy - in the past, I've always measured my performance by how I feel about it. Now that I'm tracking time & distance I can really see that my own perceptions are often not even close to accurate. Independent and accurate verification is essential where possible.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Review Fridays: Right Here With You

This will be a biased review, simply because I am totally and completely in love with the book Right Here with You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships, edited by Andrea Miller. Contributors to the collection include: Tara Brach, Thich Nhat Hanh,, David Richo, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jane Hamilton, and the Dalai Lama. Each article addresses mindfulness and relationships, with an eye to understanding intimacy and our blocks, loss, disappointment, and the way our primary relationships act as mirrors. It is not a "how to" guide (or even a book specifically about marriage), but rather a series of insightful articles that discuss what happens to relationships when one brings openness, honesty, and lovingkindness to the table. There is a mix of philosophical and practical advise, including some very funny personal anecdotes.

In "Marriage on a Plate," Karen Maezen discusses her marriage, and its "petty disappointments," using the dishwasher as metaphor for the differences and conflicts that arise with her husband, and ultimately within herself. She writes:
A marriage is a lot like a silent meditation retreat anyway. In both cases, you come face-to-face with the most unlovable aspects of yourself, your messy unpleasantness, your selfishness, and the panicked impulse to duck and run. Neither experience is anything like the honeymoon you signed up for. The point is to pitch all that out and stay put. With my meditation practice, I can see that I'm still a cranky person, but I try to be a kinder cranky person. One who says less but always says 'I'm sorry.'
She discusses the importance of seeing her relationship from a place of honesty, not expectations, wishes and hoped for perfectionist dreams. Marriage is a relationship redone on a daily basis, not a fantasy or a fairytale, or even an accepted version of what that relationship should be (at one point she says, "ours is not a marriage of friends making nice. Ours is a marriage of adversaries making peace.").

Another article, "Becoming Intimate with Fear," Ezra Bayda discusses the importance of becoming intimate with ourselves so that we can be intimate with others. She denotes two forms of love, personal love (our relationships) and a natural state of being. She states that we are blocked from this condition because of our personal agendas and narratives:
The task itself is very straightforward, yet it is nonetheless very difficult to do: we need to refrain from replaying our story line of drama and blame and instead say yes to the present moment of our experience - to actually feel it, to rest in the bodily sensations no matter how uncomfortable they may be. We might think we can't stand it, but of course we can. We just don't want to.
Again and again, this is something I personally struggle with - the notion that feelings can be felt and observed from a neutral position. All too often when I'm feeling bad, I instantly look for some means of escape. Bayda argues that is it through the difficulties we experience in relationships that we are pushed to deal with parts of ourselves that we would otherwise ignore or overlook.

Finally, Susan Piver discusses the nature of commitment in her article, "My Vows." In the article she compares taking her vow as a bodhisattva with marrying her husband. She speaks of the sensation of her skin dissolving, of losing her self-protective layers as a result of both:
Being loved is uncomfortable and the more I love, the more uncomfortable it is. In the end, I'm still not quite sure what I've vowed to do either as a wife or as a bodhisattva, except to break my own heart, over and over, and see what happens next.
There is so much more I could say about this book; each article offers gems of wisdom that changed the way I think about my personal relationships and my own compassion. I highly recommend reading it; it's one of the best books I've read this year.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Afternoons...Then and Now

Since yesterday's post felt cathartic for me, I thought I may as well continue with the timeline for the afternoon. What follows illustrates events that only happened in the last year of my drinking when things really began to fall apart.

10:45: I check my watch to see if it's nearly lunchtime. Multiple diet cokes have not, it appears, settled my stomach. I fight to concentrate on work, but simply cannot complete even the simplest of tasks. I feel light-headed and queasy. Despite my early morning promise to not drink today, I begin to consider having a hangover drink at lunch. I can still skip the evening wine, I think, but I must get something done today.

11:30: Unable to sit at my desk any longer, I go to this dive restaurant and order a glass of white wine. It is very cheap wine, but this is okay. I gulp it down while I wait for my food. Some days I try to make it last through the meal, most days I order a second glass. Because it's a dive, the wine glass is filled to the very top like soda.

12:15: back at my desk, the nausea is gone and I feel better. I'm still exhausted and can feel my eyelids scraping against my eye every time I blink, but I feel confident I can accomplish a few things. I try not to seem impaired.

1:45: the wine is wearing off and sleepiness is powerful. I wish fervently for a nap.

4:45: I sneak out of the office even though the policy is strict that we do not leave before 5pm.

5:15: on the bus home, I feel fat, tired, ashamed, and hopeless. Once more, I got almost nothing done. I feel too tired to care and am not sure I'll even find the energy to make it through dinner. I wish there was more to my life than an endless cycle of work and sleep. I wonder why I never get to do anything else.

By the time I get home I'll grab another glass of wine, knowing it will pick up my energy enough to get through dinner. Instead of just one, who knows how many I'll have.

It's crazy to think back on this time, especially as I'm less than happy with my current role. That said, I have never in my life been a less productive employee than I was at that point of my drinking career. I was so incredibly lonely and work/sleep really was the only thing going on in my life. I never had the energy for anything else. Now, instead of drinking when I get home I do errands or chores (yawn...I know!), take the kids to their activities, knit, go for a run, make dinner, read a book, whatever. My life no longer feels like the only thing I ever do is work. Even on days where I feel I haven't gotten anything done, it is not even close to the days when I was drinking.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mornings...Then and Now

This morning I took the train with my neighbor and she told tales of last night and described her hangover. It tossed me back to my life eighteen months ago. Most mornings went like this:

6:10: Alarm goes off. I keep my eyes closed and move as little as possible while I try to remember what time I went to bed the night before. My brain feels like it's packed in cotton balls, my mouth is dry, and I feel like I had no sleep the night before.

6:30: Give up on the notion that trying to fall back asleep will mean I wake up feeling anywhere near rested. Recognize for the 6,878,777th time that an extra twenty minutes will do nothing for me.

6:35: Drag my sorry ass into the shower. Stand under the hot water, telling myself that I will definitely feel better once I've washed my hair.

6:50: Get out of the shower. Look in the mirror. See a puffy face with black circles under the eyes. I feel dizzy and queasy and wish I could call in sick. I push myself to get dressed, knowing that if I called in sick today, I would have to call in sick every day.

7:10: Dressed, I kiss my kids goodbye. I've said precisely three words to them the entire morning. They eat breakfast quietly and seem to know not to bother me in the morning.

7:20: While on the bus, my eyes threaten to close. The only thing keeping me awake is the roiling in my stomach. I feel so dizzy that I wonder why I didn't call in sick. I begin to think I may be coming down with something.

7:50: Go to the cafeteria at work, order eggs with bacon, in the hope that the fat will settle my stomach.

8:10: Sit at my desk, wondering how I'll make it through an entire day. The food and coffee do nothing to improve the sick feeling I have. I decide I definitely won't drink that night.

Now things are just so different. There are days when I sleep through the alarm, but I'm always out of bed by 6:30. I get up easily, knowing that I'll feel perfectly awake once I've had a cup of coffee. On days when I'm really tired, I usually "forget" that I'm tired by mid-morning. Now, I wake up my own children by tickling their feet. The day starts with hugs and sometimes stories of strange dreams. They aren't afraid to ask me questions in the morning, nor to remind me about school forms, or to nag me about laundry. They lie on my bed while I'm getting ready, happy to be close by. When I look in the mirror, I don't see a decrepit old person staring back. I feel and look younger than I have in years. Now, if my stomach is roiling, I just know I'm sick. It almost never happens. I still get the urge to call in sick, but it's because I can think of 101 things I really want to do more than go to work. It's not because I want to stay under the covers waiting for the day to be over.

While not perfect, I really can honestly say that sobriety is ever so much better than the shame I lived before.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fail, Fail, Fail, Succeed

There is a poster at the entrance to my daughter's after school care program; the text on the poster is:
Whenever I see the poster, I am reminded that if we don't try we have zero chance of success. It isn't failure to succeed that is shameful, it's failure to even try. I forgot that, as I spent the past three days avoiding my blog. I had so wanted to come out on top with stories of inspirational victory. I wanted to succeed for myself, of course, visions of running a half-marathon floating through my brain. But there was another part of me that wanted to remember and win the battle against addiction. I wanted to come up with successful tips and measures. 

I don't think I failed because of my dreams of mastery, per se. But I do think it's valuable to remember the simple truth that any inspiration I may provide is accidental. It comes out of raw honesty, not out of some mastered attempt at brevity.

Anyway - just a thought. 

Quitting: Back to the Drawing Board

After two days of not smoking, I threw in the towel. It was a combination of stress and crying that led to the collapse of my resolve. All along I've been seeing the similarities between alcoholism and nicotine addiction. I still see them. Perhaps it's the feeling that I'm not hurting anyone else through my smoking. Perhaps it's because smoking doesn't alter my perceptions. I'm not sure. Anything I could say sounds like a justification. A rationalization much like those used by people who go back out, or who cannot begin to try sobriety. I don't want to write anything down that discourages those attempts. I know how difficult it is. Whether it's more difficult to quit smoking than drinking is irrelevant. Whether smoking is better than drinking is highly questionable.

For the moment, I need to regroup. I need to think about the costs of this addiction, talk to my doctor, and put together a plan that makes it a bit easier. In the meantime, I'm going to keep running. It's a daily reminder of the costs of smoking.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Quitting: Just Do It!

Yesterday I hit a cross-road. I was unable to extend the time between cigarettes to more than two hours. The schedule for the day required three hours between each cigarette. After cheating my way through the day's allotted cigarettes by noon, I realized I really had a choice to make. There were two options:
  1. Go back to smoking my usual amount. Cutting down was making the thought of each upcoming cigarette take over my entire consciousness. I felt dizzy and light-headed. Sick. At least when I was smoking regularly, I could think about other things.
  2. Quit altogether. Do it. I want to quit, cutting down is hard, so why not just bite the bullet?
In the end, I decided to go for it. As with drinking, it's become exceedingly clear that moderation is 100 times more difficult than total abstinence. However, I'm glad I started with the cut-down plan because it really underlined the fact that I am addicted to nicotine, that I don't choose to smoke and I cannot control it. There's a fundamental difference between intellectually knowing you're an addict, and fucking feeling it from the tip of every nerve ending in your body. I needed that reminder - I needed to feel the pain smoking was causing me in order to find the strength to toss them out.

I'm now twenty hours in. Counting the minutes. Counting the hours. Looking forward to the moment that I'm beyond the physical withdrawal. Already, I can breath easier.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Quitting: It's All in Your Head

There are symptoms of physical dependency on nicotine and alcohol. Signs of withdrawal from nicotine include headache, light headedness, warm hands, tingles in the extremities. Signs of alcohol withdrawal include sweating, tremors, headache, and nausea. Other symptoms are listed for both: irritability, difficulty with concentration, depression, and fatigue.

I've been thinking lately about the power of the mind in shaping our experiences. I know for a fact that I can feel anxious, light-headed, and filled with panic about the need for a cigarette less than 30 minutes after smoking. This is not a symptom of withdrawal. This is my addict-mind playing tricks on me. This is me, convincing myself that there's no point in trying to quit because I'll never be able to do so. This is me giving up before I get started.

I can remember hearing a story about a woman addicted to heroin. She'd run out and it had been several hours since she'd had a hit. She was going through acute withdrawal. She was broke and desperate to get high. Her dealer relented and finally agreed to give her something. She felt better before she got high.  Although she was physically dependent on the drug, her thoughts enhanced the pain she was in. Knowing that a hit was coming allowed her to feel better.

I keep thinking about this story in conjunction with the amount of time I've spent over the past week thinking about smoking. When I can do it. How many I can have. How much longer I need to wait. I feel spacey and tired. Incapable of action. I feel more addicted right now than I do when I smoke constantly. It's strange.

I am starting to look forward to simply giving it up altogether. Going to nil seems so much easier than tapering off. At least you can get past the physiological dependence through abstinence.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Quitting: Cutting Down Doesn't Work

Cutting down doesn't work.
Cold turkey doesn't work.

Nicotine replacement doesn't work.

Alan Carr doesn't work.

I've been thinking about quitting strategies quite a lot. I've quit smoking three times in the past ten years. The first time I used Wellbutrin. I can remember the intense nausea that overtook me each time I smoked a cigarette. After a few weeks of negative reinforcement, I threw my cigarettes away and went three months without smoking. I felt fantastic - organized, capable, and invincible. Then, one day, I started smoking again. Within a few weeks I was smoking like I normally did. The second time I quit, I read Alan Carr's The Easy Way to Quit Smoking. The program works by cutting through all of the justifications we use to keep smoking. It indicates that any reason to smoke is illogical and stupid. That time, I was able to quit for about a month. The next, and last time I quit was in my final month of drinking. I quit smoking, deciding I'd drink as much as I wanted to get through the smoking cravings. Ummm. It worked for a few weeks, but I nearly went insane from drinking. I started smoking again because I truly felt incapable of dealing with my own life - I was partially convinced that I was drinking so much because I still needed the cigarettes to cope. It was nearly like I thought I wasn't good enough to quit smoking. I didn't deserve to quit.

This time, I really didn't want to go cold turkey. Withdrawal symptoms are short-lived, but intense. I didn't want to jump straight off. Instead, I thought that quickly cutting down would provide me with a bit of time to reduce my dependence on nicotine, find some coping strategies, and make it a bit simpler to quit. The first time I tried this, in August, I was jumping around a bit. Some days I stuck to my allotment, while other days were "stressful" so I went over. Each time, I figured I'd start again tomorrow. After a few weeks, I gave up. It just didn't seem to be working. I had planned to wait until I was ready for the cold turkey approach.

Instead, I downloaded an app that tells you when you're allowed to smoke. It splits the entire day evenly according to the number of cigarettes you're allowed that day. In August, I typically smoked more in the morning, convinced I could go longer between them in the afternoon (pure, unadulterated denial). Now, that isn't an option. There is one simple reason that I've been able to cut down so far: I follow the app's instructions and I don't cheat. It's working simply because I follow the instructions and I don't cheat. Occasionally, the addicted side of my mind has tried to convince me that there was a mistake in the counting and I was allowed to smoke, but each time I've said "no" the voice has gotten quieter.

This led me to thinking about quit strategies in general. I know many people feel strongly about what works and what does not when it comes to not drinking. I'm sure there are the same strong opinions with respect to not smoking. However, I think it comes down to individual preference and a willingness to work it. Cutting down doesn't work if I cheat, lie, and steal my next cigarette. The same goes for any program I choose. That's ultimately how I was able to quit drinking. I stayed committed to stopping. I followed my program. It was not graceful or pretty at times. There were days I wavered. But each time I stood firm about not drinking, the rationalizations I used to drink became softer. Each day I got through without drinking made the next one easier, simply because I began to see that I could actually do it. I'm seeing the same thing with quitting this smoking habit. As long as I don't think ahead, stay focused on today (or now...or the next 5 minutes) and keep working, I'm seeing that a smoke-free life is possible. The key is not the strategy - there is no magic, pain-free solution - the key is willingness and commitment, regardless of the strategy you use to quit.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Quitting: Is Frightening

I can't touch the fears I had about quitting drinking. I can remember them. (I was afraid of failing at it and drinking myself to death at some point in the future. I was afraid of what would happen to my marriage. I didn't believe I could cope with life's emotional ups an downs without my wine. I was afraid no one would like the real me, she'd been gone so long.) I can remember them, but my memories don't have the immediacy they once had. Looking at them on paper makes them seem inconsequential and unlikely.

Knowing that I only have a week left of smoking brings new immediacy to the fears. They aren't the same. While my family worries that I'll get sick if I keep smoking, their day-to-day lives aren't filled with the same pain they had when I was drinking, so I don't carry the same shame I did then. What does stick with me is the fear that I won't have an exit strategy for painful emotions, irritation, anger, boredom, and frustration. Cigarettes have been my buddy for a lot longer than alcohol was. It's a deadly habit, but its effects are somewhat silent in comparison to alcohol. And I am scared. I'm also scared of failing. I've quit a few times in the past, lasting as much as three months. In the end, I picked up a cigarette. Like the stories in the Big Book, there was no real reason for doing so. Each time that one cigarette led me back to drinking. One time, I even bought a pack, smoked one, and gave away the rest. A few days later I still bought another pack.

I'm trying to remind myself of two simple truths:
  1.  After a few months the fear I feel now will become inconsequential and airy, just like the fears I had about sobriety.
  2. I can only focus on one day at a time, not three or ten or twenty-seven.
  3. When I do quit and the nicotine is finally out of my body, there is no such thing as one cigarette.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Quitting: Celebrate Small Victories

Last year I wrote two posts about the similarity between smoking and drinking. Then, I was in the middle of trying to figure out how to live sober, to admit that I could never drink again, and to fully accept that I was an alcoholic. Based on my drinking history, it may come as a surprise that there was ever any question about this simple fact. There was. I spent quite a lot of time trying to convince myself that I wasn't an alcoholic. When not drinking was difficult I wondered about whether there would be a time, at some point in the distant future, when I'd be able to drink normally. At the time, I wasn't concerned about the stigma of being an alcoholic, as much as I was convinced that I'd never be able to stop drinking. Forever was a long time, and my past had shown me that I wasn't ever able to keep my promises to myself.

Now that I'm on a path to quit smoking, I'm reminded of some simple things I did when I quit drinking. Here's one: celebrate the small victories. Seriously. Getting through a difficult situation without a drink - celebrate. Getting past the "witching hour" without a drink - celebrate. Every minute spent finding alternate ways to cope is worth a pat on the back. I realized this yesterday when I was trying to wait until I could have another cigarette. In the back of my mind I was thinking that I'd never be able to do it. Never be able to get through the next twenty minutes without smoking. These thoughts are irrational, because I can go hours without smoking as long as I'm doing something, somewhere I can't smoke. (Of course, afterwards I always smoke two or three in quick succession.) It occurred to me then that I needed to celebrate the fact that I'm following this quit program without cheating. That I'm honoring my commitment to myself. Following the rules. The app has become my higher power.

Today is 9. That means I must wait 97 minutes between each cigarette. When I told my daughter this, she said, "holy cow, mom, that's alot of smokes." For me, it seems like not enough. Each day the number of cigarettes goes down by 1 and the amount of time between them is extended. This means that in 9 days, I'll smoke my last cigarette. I'm scared I won't be able to do it. As a result, I remember my fears of failure when I quit drinking.For the next nine days, I'm going to have a "quit smoking" blog takeover. I'll try to write about memories that surface as I quit this long-standing habit. If you have suggestions for quitting, or memories of your own, feel free to share them.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fever Induced Thoughts

I am sick. It's nothing completely horrible; I'm just sick enough that the only thing I'm able to do is lie on the couch and watch TV. So, in some ways, it's a bit of a dream come true.

Anyway, I had this wonderful realization yesterday as I waited for enough time to pass to have my allotted cigarette (more on that later): If I didn't smoke, I would feel fine right now. I wouldn't be craving escape from my current circumstance. If I didn't smoke, I wouldn't feel the craving to smoke. With the craving gone, I could just enjoy my present circumstances.

Not sure if that makes any sense, but yesterday it brought me such a sense of peace.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Running on Fumes

I'm exploring several different methods for quitting smoking. One method involves following a Run/Walk program. There are several different varieties out there and I have tried this before, only to quit after a few weeks. This time it's diffferent because I've committed to following the simple rules, instead of pretending I know more about running than the experts who put the course together.

The rules are simple: run/walk three days per week, take one day off between running, and follow the intervals they outline. Simple. And for the most part, even the intervals are not too hard. I'm even tracking my distance for encouragement. It's my hope that running longer distances will highlight for me how stupid my smoking is. So far, I think I can say that I've made a positive change for my health, that I like running, but that I'm still smoking.

I have, however, realize a few things about running and about encouragement. The first is that I used to measure my success in running by how I felt about the run. If it was really difficult or I didn't feel good about it, I marked it down as a bad run. Over time, these negative evaluations would add up until I gave up running. Now that I have some objective measures (time and distance) I am better able to see that over the past few weeks I've made significant improvement in both. I can see that there is little relationship between how hard something feels and how well I'm doing. I can see improvement. I feel good about the improvement, and I will try to remember that my own ability to intuitively evaluate my performance is questionable and also unhelpful for my motivation.

The other difference this time is that I'm following the rules. I run three days a week whether I want to, or not. I sometimes try to do more than asked, but always do the minimum, no matter how heavy my legs feel. I don't look too far into the future and stay focused on today, or this week. I remember to look at my accomplishments and pat myself on the back. This is important, because all too often I tend to make endless lists of what was not done, rather than what was done.

So far, still smoking, but I have not given up. Many small lifestyle changes will add up.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

My One Year Coin

I went to the monthly birthday party meeting my group holds this week. I was astonished at the excitement in the room. There are people I've known since I first walked in the doors last year, as well as new faces. All were joyfully excited. I felt like I'd completed a marathon. I can't think of the last time so many people were excited for me.

I owe each and every one of them my sobriety. I could not have done it without their encouragement and acceptance. Without them, it might have been just another month on the calendar. With them, I feel like I have a family (populated my stand-in dads, uncles and brothers...need more sisters and aunts). They have my back in ways I've never experienced before.

If you don't have a home group, I really encourage you to find one. Mine is far from perfect, but the excitement they felt at my success was priceless to me. Despite our differences, we lift each other up, provide inspiration and encouragement, and help each other stay sober.
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