Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Learning to Dig Deep

One of the biggest issues I've always had is to keep going until the tank far past empty. When I feel overwhelmed I tend to keep pushing forward. I do ask for help... sometimes. When I do, my underlying beliefs are usually reinforced - no one comes to the rescue. So, instead of stopping for a moment to consider the best way forward, I forge onward, somehow believing I'll find the strength to keep going. That rest will come in time.

Now, I don't want to imply that no one ever helps me. It isn't true. However, it does seem that when I really do need help, I find myself in a situation where the people who could help me, won't. Or can't. I've been told that it's the way I ask for help: quietly, too late. I don't think this is true. In fact, I think the issue is that I find myself accepting situations that are unsupportive and then when I do need help it isn't there. This happens far less in my personal life than it does in my professional life. Organizations can be just as dysfunctional as families are.

So I keep pushing. For the past month, I've been so busy that nearly everything else has fallen by the wayside. I'm not writing, not knitting, not journaling. I am still running, but that is simply because I can't think of any other way to scrape away layers of self-doubt and fear. Running reminds me that I can dig deep and keep going. The simple fact is that no one is going to be able to take some of the load I'm carrying. This is largely because they're casting their eyes about for someone to assist them. I don't think deep problems are solved during crisis. The groundwork must be laid during a peaceful time.

This isn't making sense, but what I think I need to do (once I get through this particular period of urgency and over-work) is lay the groundwork for next time. I also need to remember that things are much better than they could be: I could be drinking, for example. I was thinking that just this morning - thank god I don't have a hangover. How on earth did I ever get to work? This was prompted by a small headache... So, yes: things really are much better than they could be. The end is in sight. Only three weeks until Christmas break.

I hope I make it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Limits of Our Potential

At some point over the last few weeks I read that the limits of our potential are always just past our view. This phrase has really stuck with me. Each day we undergo near continuous evaluation about how we're doing - how successful we are, how successful we're likely to be in the future, and how well we seem to be handling all that life throws at us. Or at least that's how I seem to pass my days.

The endless judgment I used to subject myself to has quietened down. I no longer spend hours beating myself up. However, I do still evaluate and weigh and balance and continue to think about these things. For me it is a great comfort to know that I am not in a position to evaluate the limits of my own potential. I may be able to poke a measuring stick into "now," or to look back and evaluate my progress, but even I am not able to say what I'll be capable of in the future.

The last time I ran with any consistency I was sixteen years old. At that time I ran five days a week, every week, regardless of weather or other circumstances. Each time I ran the same four km course, although sometimes I ran the hills in the field at the school. I can remember loving the freedom of the run - the exhilarating moment when you feel you can run forever. More than that, though, I remember these runs as a form of self-punishment - I was so filled with negativity and so pulled down into my eating disorder that any pleasure I gained from running was secondary to the on-going psychological evisceration. Running became so tied to punishment that when I "gave up" my eating disorder, I gave up my running.

This time, I work on my patience. I don't have to do anything perfectly in this life. I don't have to prove anything. I simply need to relax and appreciate where I am now. It's sometimes difficult - guilt seems to go away when I am self-critical enough. But it doesn't. In taking that approach I'm simply replacing one bad feeling with another. Running with an open spirit really seems to help clear away the clutter.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Subzero Temperatures

Yesterday the temperature was -18C (-4F). There were many times over the course of the day that I considered skipping the race. Even though I've been training outside, the winter has so far been mild, so my resilience has not been tested.

It was really inspiring to run with others. I improved on my usual pace without going too fast to sustain it. For the first time I ran more than 30 minutes without walking (and that's only happened once so far). It was a good run. Every muscle in my legs hurts. This was unexpected in some ways because I've run five miles before. Though maybe continuous running is harder than the intervals? Who knows. I feel relieved to have done it. Exhausted, and happy it's Sunday so that I can rest. I'm also sort of surprised to find myself here - able to run, able to go to a race, able to keep a commitment to myself. It's such a blessing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Without Words

Lately I find myself without words. Each day I open up this blogger window and stare at the empty screen trying to come up with a topic to write about. Thoughts rise to the surface, but dissipate quickly. I have been so busy with work and family that I haven't had time to sit still. I wonder if that has an impact on my sobriety, but then check myself and realize I feel quite fine. Things are now ever so much better than I thought they would be. My home life is quiet again, my husband still sober. With each week that goes by, I see new growth in him. My heart bursts with each small joy.

I've been reading books about women and running lately. Each book makes a similar point about our potential. They say that our potential is always just outside of our perception. This reminds me of sobriety, which was a very large lesson in my own capabilities and limits. In getting sober, I began to see the ways I'd short-changed myself over the years. Small, limiting comments. Yesterday, one book used the phrase "girl box" to describe the way we, as women, are often constrained by our culture's expectations of femininity. The author talked about how running made her feel strong, powerful, and free, and that for a long time she would climb back into the "girl box" after a run. There was a shift at some point when she began to apply what she'd learned about herself by running to the rest of her life. I can see this.

Sobriety is like that too. When I first put down my last drink, I was wrung out. With each small milestone, I was able to see myself a little more clearly. I was able to see those around me with more clarity as well. Nothing dramatic happened. But simple, small, subtle changes have completely altered my life.

I'm running my first race on Saturday. It's really really cold here. I'm excited, scared, worried, exuberant, nervous....the list could go on. It's an 8K race. 5 miles. Three months ago, this would not have been a possibility. One month ago this would have been a l-a-r-g-e stretch. Now, it's hard, but doable. One day at a time, one kilometer at a time, one step at a time. The limits of our potential are always just outside of our perception.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How Far Can You Go?

Running is taking over my life. My conversations are filled with running times and distances. I think about better shoes and warm tights. Instead of eating junk food, I'm calculating nutritional needs and choosing fruit over candy. Instead of lying on the couch with a good book, I'm plotting the best time of day to get a run in. I've started reading training books, fearful of an injury that would take me off the streets. I daydream about getting out there, feet on road, open miles stretching ahead of me.

When I first started running in September, I was targeting 5K. It sounded suitably long. Challenging, but doable. Over the past eight years I've tried to "get into" running several times. I used to run as a teenager and could remember the feeling of effortlessness that would take over after a few miles. I was searching for that feeling of invincibility. I never found it. I've come to realize that it was because I always hit it too hard. If you pick up any beginners running book, the first words of advice are to take it slowly. The reason most people hate running is because they go too fast, to far, too soon. They push too hard and don't give their bodies time to adjust or get stronger. I did this. In the past, each time I tried to get back into running, I laced up (old) sneakers and went full out for as long as I could stand it. After a few weeks of this torture, I would find excuses to "run tomorrow," until the shoes found their way back into the recesses of the closet for another six months. The other interesting information I've come across is that it takes longer for your bones and muscles to adjust to running than your respiratory system (this is particularly shocking to me, because I always spent so much time out of breath). It means you can't use ease of breathing as the only guide to how far you should be running.

Now that I can run 10K (not well, not fast, and not without difficulty), I'm starting to harbor secret dreams of a half-marathon. If I'm honest, part of me is also considering a marathon. Part of me wants to know just how far this tired, abused body can go. Running makes me feel strong. This strength is only partly physical. In running, I'm learning to listen to my body. Some days it needs speed (speed is relative), others a long slow run. Some days are better for walking. When the going gets tough, I know I'm pushing too hard. I've read that increases in mileage or speed should feel "effortless". It should, and will, come naturally. One can push, but if pushed too hard, to fast, the body will rebel. So I'm learning to strive, but also to be patient and wait for progress.

Running also requires faith. I have my most successful runs when I believe I'm capable of doing it. On days when my mind is filled with judgment, with the sense that I don't deserve to be here, my legs are like lead. When I don't have faith that the oxygen is there, that I am capable, suddenly, I'm just not. I struggle for breath and lose whatever form I have. In these moments, I am forced to slow down, to remind myself that we all deserve to be here. Then, the running is easier.

I will blather on about this for a while. I keep seeing larger life lessons - metaphors for life - the more I keep running.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Bit of a Ramble

My days are packed from beginning to end these days. Much of it is work-related, but between kids' activities, AA, and running, I'm on my feet from the moment I wake up until eight thirty at night. There are two sides to this feeling. On the one hand, I feel invigorated, positive, and excited about what comes next (whatever that is). On the other hand, I sometimes start to feel like I'm almost out of gas - over-tired and weary. I used to feel the latter a whole lot more when I was drinking. The only difference was that I felt hopeless and powerless at the same time. Now, I know that I simply need to stop for a few minutes and find some downtime so that I can re-charge. When I was drinking, I would simply have another drink to feel better and the cycle of exhaustion would endlessly continue.

Ellie wrote a very powerful post earlier this week about how her awareness of audience has changed her voice, about how she became tied to the impact of her words of recovery and pulled back from that deep-hearted sharing. It's an important message - I have felt that way too, with less time blogging and a much smaller audience. And while there are times when something feels too private to write about and it's good to be silent about those times, there have definitely been times when I did not share because I was fearful about how it would be received. I was afraid to speak of my dismay because it might appear I didn't have a serious program of recovery. I was afraid to be here talking honestly regardless how it might look from the outside.

I've been in quite a few meetings lately where I hear people say things that undermine their own experiences and discount their ability to make good choices in sobriety. For example, multiple people have said, "I was trying to follow my own program, which obviously would be a failure," or "For a while I had the worst sponsor. It was me." I understand that they're talking about the need for a spiritual relationship and I also understand they're talking about becoming less self-centered. I can also look back upon my early sobriety and see truth in a sense of danger that comes from running your own program. I can remember being so distorted in my thinking that I had no good ideas about where to go next. What troubles me is the notion that I might be expected to internalize the idea that I can't make good decisions now, or ever. That I will never know what is good for me. That I can never trust myself.

I am filled with the deepest respect for Ellie's decision to take a break from writing about recovery on her blog. Her post reminds me that there are no "leaders" in recovery. We are all no better and no less. We must all do what we can to be authentic and honest with ourselves. I am so grateful for her blog, words cannot describe. Even before I got sober I poured over her posts, going back to the beginning to read her journey. By sharing her experience I was able to see that I was not unique - neither too awful to get sober, nor too lightweight to be an alcoholic. Reading about her recovery gave me hope that I too could quit. During the early days of detox I picked up her blog instead of a drink, always finding a reason to stay sober for another hour. I couldn't have done it without her. Thank you Ellie.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Holy Cow - I Ran 10K

I was thinking about all of the things I was never capable of doing when I was drinking (or the things I believed I was not capable of doing) and how much has changed in my sobriety. There are many things I can do now that were an impossibility in the past. Some of them are really simple and straightforward - I can listen to my kids and sense when they're upset, I can get up early without fighting queasy exhaustion, and I can handle difficult conversations.

Running hits a totally different part of my being. Over the years I've started and stopping more times than I can count. I've also tried other forms of physical exercise, only to drop off after a few weeks. With this walk/run program, running is actually enjoyable. I keep heading out each week and can see a lot of progress.

Last week I felt sluggish, like I was pushing through concrete, but then on Monday, I was able to run six miles for the first time in my life. Honestly, there was a part of me that thought it would be too far - out of reach for someone like me. But there it was. I was amazed and astonished. I felt proud. I felt strong. I haven't felt that way in a long time.

It is interesting that despite all the little signs of progress along the way, there is still a part of me that feels I don't deserve to do well at this. I'm really going to prove that part wrong. I'm going to keep doing the work.

Friday, November 4, 2011


I grew up with a drunk dad. You probably already know that. I've been reading a book about the way our past memories shape our current perspectives and reactions. Most of these memories are un-remembered and many of our reactions are unconscious. Reading this book has prompted me to start pulling at some of the loose strands at the edge of my consciousness. So far, I'm tentative and pull back easily, afraid of what I might find out...sort of like when you notice a strange smell in your child's backpack and tentatively reach into the dark folds, afraid of the grossness that might be there. Say an orange packed in a lunch three months earlier...not that this has happened to me, of course. I'm a very careful housekeeper.

Anyway. It is fascinating to finally be in a fairly safe, calm position and begin to look at some deeply buried things from my past. I've spent so much time running from them, from myself, that this is really the first time in my life that I feel ready (sort of) to begin. I will keep you posted.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bait and Switch

Melissa left a wonderful comment yesterday - she said, "we all want to feel special." It is a simple statement, but I think it lies at the heart of so much that motivates us: we want to feel valued and when we don't there is a sense of deep loss. There are promises of good feelings to be had at the bottom of a bottle, with a new outfit, or a lower number on the scale. What is so shattering about these promises is that they are false. Sure, we might feel better after a nice glass of wine, or with a pound or two lost, but because those things don't address the deep longing we're trying to fill, our disappointment is ultimately guaranteed.

And when I feel that disappointment, I am so much more likely to blame myself, than to look deeply at the expectations I've built into that thing I'm chasing. Self-blame of course intensifies the sense of disappointment and the cycle repeats itself. Maybe the object of desire shifts, as it did with drinking, but the underlying behavior is still a primary motivator.

Part of what got under my skin about The Power of Habits was the sense of betrayal brought on by the fact that the bait and switch is culturally acceptable. We all know that if someone offers us free cocaine that it doesn't mean they like and accept us (I mean, we know that now...) but somehow the advertising, the diets, and the new perfume run right past us. And the tricky thing is that good things work the same way as far as our crocodile brains are concerned.

Anyway, I wanted to write this post to say that you are all special - right this minute, with no changes. You are already everything you need to be. You are special now.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review Fridays*: The Power of Habit

I realized this morning that I have been procrastinating this post simply because there was an underlying visceral reaction to some of the contents of the book that I had to digest. Now that I understand my emotional response better, I think I can actually write this review. Here goes:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It, by Charles Duhigg, is many things. Let's start with what it is not: this is not a self-help book designed to show you how to quickly let go of bad habits so that you can be happy and healthy. It is not a self-help book at all, actually. Instead, it is a carefully researched and incredibly well-documented discussion of the behavioral and neurological research on habit formation, with detailed case studies of individuals and groups (including study participants, a gambling addict, Starbucks, Target, Proctor & Gamble, Saddleback Church, and the Montgomery bus boycott). Each chapter reviews relevant scientific thinking on some element of habit formation and then utilizes real-world examples to explore the implications of the research.

Charles Duhigg looks at the power of habit from three vantage points: personal, corporate, and social. All habits have the same basic qualities: "trigger, routine, reward," but by focusing on three distinct contexts for habit formation, the underlying mechanisms are easier to see and understand.  Duhigg points out that while scientists have a pretty good understanding of how habits are formed, there are so many different approaches to changing habits with so many different outcomes that it's really difficult to make any recommendation that would be applicable to all habits. He also understands that there are fundamental differences between a nail-biting habit and an oxycontin addiction, even if the underlying routine is the same.

However, he points out that there is one agreed upon foundation for habit change: use the same cue and provide the same reward, but shift the routine. Attempting to ignore the cue leads to increased craving. Scientific studies have demonstrated that the craving is neurological, rather than a simple matter 'will power'. By ignoring or deferring the craving we intensify the need. He also makes a few great points made about successful habit change: 
  • The only way that altered habits become permanent is if one believes that the change is for the better. 
  • If one can introduce a keystone habit, the impact will be wide-reaching and change many unrelated behaviors.  
  • For a habit change to be successful, small wins are essential - they carry enormous power.
The thing that really got under my skin when I read this book was how deeply ingrained habits and cravings are to our everyday experience. It's tempting to feel like "I'm out of the woods," because I quit drinking. In reading this book, I started to get the queasy feeling that every single part of my life is touched by habit. While these habits are necessary (so I don't have to learn to drive a car each time I sit behind the wheel), it was shocking to realize that the same habit mechanism that helps me successfully get through the day also underpins the unsavory behaviors I engage in all the time.

There was one real-life example he used in the book that really affected me. It's the story of a woman who develops a gambling addiction. It all starts out innocently enough: she is a stay-at-home mom and her kids are in school, so she decides to go to the casino one afternoon just to evade the boredom. (I could totally relate to that boredom...the feeling that the days are endless and a depression is but a breath away.) Over time, she's going more often, spending more money, and borrowing money from her parents to pay off her debts. At one point she loses so much money that she finds the strength to quit. They move to a state where there aren't any casinos and she goes several years without gambling. Then, while on a trip back to their home town, she suggests they go to the casino. "It's been such a long time. We should go this once." (Sound familiar?) What happens is that the casino begins offering her freebies – based on their data and the amount of money she’d already spent, they knew it was financially worth it to “invest” in her. So they call her. They ask her to go. She does. She gambles until she's lost everything, including the million dollars her parents left her.

The story does not have a happy ending. She does not find Gambler's Anonymous, or another support group. In the end, she only stopped gambling because the casino refused to extend her line of credit. What really gets to me about this story is the combined power of habit and denial that drive us to complete destruction. And then, even as we lay at the bottom of that elevator shaft, we will still justify our behavior and blame others for manipulating us there. We may cling to our old beliefs until death parts us from them. I am not immune because I am not drinking now. I could drink tomorrow. Or, I could pick up a new addiction. I may not be so lucky next time.

The other thing that got to me was that her underlying desire was to feel successful, important, and special. The only time she felt special was when she was winning at Blackjack. The casino (or the bar, or our friends, or whomever) played off of this need. By offering her free rooms, flights, and money, they reinforced her beliefs and kept bringing her back to the table. There are so many messages in our culture that suggest contentment, success, and love come from things. We all madly chase after them, hoping for a bit of relief from the endless sense we aren't good enough. But they're lies. None of that shit makes us better. It's a betrayal that lies at the core of our culture. And worse, we may not get saved from it.

When this book comes out, buy it. It’s one of the best cultural analyses of habit I’ve read and although not specifically about addiction, really expanded my understanding of it.

* I know it isn't Friday.

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