Nirvana

At the end of yoga class yesterday the teacher told us to picture ourselves at a place that makes us happy and it suddenly dawned on: I don’t have a happy place anymore since I stopped drinking.

At first I thought about Disney because, yes, I am one of those people whose family goes every other year and we’ve had some real happy times there. But the last time we went I vividly remember being drunk and waiting too long for a bus with one of my kids, but the part I remember most vividly is that it was mid-afternoon and I had been drinking by myself up in the hotel room and the longer I waited for that bus, the drunker I felt.

In almost every picture from that trip, I’m half-soused though you really can’t tell. I have one picture where it’s more clear I’m half-soused, but I can’t post that picture because my bathing suit is visible underneath my sheer coverup and it would just be a weird picture to post on an anonymous blog, so here’s a picture of a kitten doing yoga instead.

I’ve been to the beach twice since I stopped drinking, and both trips were lovely. The weather was lovely and the water was lovely and I had a much lovelier attitude not being half-soused all the time. But I can’t deny that I was walking on eggshells both trips. The first trip I was acutely aware every time someone around me cracked a beer on the beach, which was often. The sound rattled me like gunfire. The second trip, I was more relaxed but early enough in recovery that every other minute I was still thinking “I’m not drinking anymore.”

I’ll also admit that I have a hard time relaxing these days. That’s one reason why I love yoga class so much. And this is family yoga, which means I bring my oldest daughter and at any given class there are a half dozen other little kids doing downward facing dog and either falling over and being silly or making it look as effortless as child’s pose. Still, I leave feeling loose and mellow and frankly it’s awesome.

Normally I am not relaxed and so it’s no great surprise I couldn’t come up with that “happy place” the instructor asked us to go to while laying face down on a mat I sincerely hope the person before me remembered to wipe down. I thought of poolside in San Diego because my husband and I went there a couple summers ago and it was such a lovely spot by the harbor. But that trip was one sad bender and mostly what I remember is the one day I made the mistake of taking a land-sea tour when I was so hungover I could barely breathe. I saw sea lions that day, but I also saw a lot of my eyelids as I prayed to god I wouldn’t throw up or die. Fuck that. That’s no way to live.

I need a new happy place and I’m actually a little excited about finding one. It’s like a new goal for me now that I’m out of the very-early stage of early sobriety. It will be different making a memory where I’m at peace and happy without a drink in hand, but I look forward to doing the hard work .

Bunnies

Last night at my home group meeting, a woman who appeared nothing short of terrified shared her story as a newcomer in recovery. It terrified me to see someone with a year-and-a-half sobriety still feeling that raw pain and fear. Or maybe she was just terrified of public speaking, something else I can relate to.

A man sitting directly behind me shared that when meetings start to feel repetitious and tedious, newcomers keep him coming back. He said he remembered when that woman first melted in and out of rooms, looking like a scared bunny. I imagine everyone in the room related to feeling like a scared bunny in the beginning. No matter how cool I tried to play it, my shifty eyes and tendency to melt in and out of meetings without talking to anyone betrayed me. I still feel that way, come to think of it.

The man who was sitting behind me – who I never turned around to see what he looked like – said he loves seeing newcomers blossom, though that wasn’t quite the word he wanted and he never came up with one better. It sounds nice to blossom. A little feminine, perhaps, but I’ve noticed that one guy who came in several months after me, scared and desperate, keeps showing up looking more whole as each week passes. He’s grown a beard and smiles more and sits further in the room now, not so close to the door. I look forward to seeing him and other newcomers return each week. I still identify as one, but these people are special somehow.

The man sitting behind me – who I pictured as short and stout with reddish, uncombed hair – went on to share how he struggled with his purpose at meetings for awhile. The cliches rubbed his nerves and he felt stagnant and useless. Then he realized his purpose was to give comfort to the newcomer so that they might blossom and give hope and comfort to someone else who will blossom and give hope and comfort, and so on and so on.

I’ve heard this before, but something about the way this man behind me said it made me tear up. I imagined a continuous, strong chain of strangers with often very little in common choosing to sit in metal folding chairs and mostly listen for an hour. By doing this very simple act, they find a better way of life not only for themselves but anyone willing to do the same. I don’t think I’m explaining it well, but I felt it powerfully and thought in a calm, non-rabbity way “yes, I can do this.

The cure

I’m not going to post the name of the miracle cure for alcoholism someone told me about yesterday. I don’t believe it works, but more importantly, I don’t want to encourage that hungry part of my soul always looking for a quick, easy fix.

I googled it yesterday after getting an email from a family member I love dearly but am sadly not close to. Even though our personalities couldn’t be more different, our struggles with alcoholism are eerily similar, proving how genetic and inevitable this disease can be.

His path is different in that he tried recovery meetings “a few years back a couple times” and it did not work for him “for a variety of reasons.” This makes me sad because meetings gave me hope almost instantly. I recognize this as an incredible gift I will not squander.

I want to sit down and talk about this with my family member some time – sharing my experiences in recovery so far (7 months today!) – but I’m afraid to do this right now. He’s very smart and has a way of making me feel like what I see is only part of the picture. He is not someone I can easily appeal to and persuade.

Yesterday he told me about a miracle cure that involves taking a pill before drinking. The pill, which is FDA approved to help curb cravings in an abstinence based program (though still controversial), claims to block alcohol-fueled endorphins, which removes the desire to drink beyond moderate levels, even in heavy drinkers. You can see why this approach would be popular.

As a friend pointed out, though, this method does not bother to define moderate drinking levels. While browsing their forum, I saw one moderator asking a frustrated newcomer if she was blacking out less. Was she having fewer “embarrassing/pathetic incidents”? I know in 12-step programs we’re into progress and not perfection, but isn’t this called denial?

I don’t believe there is a pill that allows alcoholics to drink safely. Maybe one day we’ll have a pill that removes cravings, but then again I found meetings and right now, thank god, that works for me.

Meetings did not work for my family member, so he tried this miracle cure over a year ago and swears the monkey was lifted from his back. Yet when I saw him in November, he drank almost an entire 750ml bottle of vodka in one day. This sounds a lot like alcoholism.

That hollow, hungry part of me still worries I’m missing out on a magical cure which would allow me to have my cake and eat it too. I tell myself I’m just entertaining rational, scientific thoughts, but in my heart I know it’s too good to be true. I wish my family member felt that way too.

Baffling

I’ve had the phrase “cunning, baffling, powerful” stuck in my head for awhile now. This, of course, is drilled into us like a reverse war cry. We hear it every time we go to a meeting unless we slip in late and after all the boilerplate is read.

Something about calling alcoholism cunning, baffling, powerful used to embarrass me. Maybe because it sounded melodramatic or attributed human qualities to an inanimate object, though that is something I’m normally fine with.

Now that a little time has passed, I see the description is too accurate to be melodrama.

Lately I’ve taken to pinpointing the exact moment my drinking got off rail. I can name the exact date I took a beer out of the fridge midday because something happened that I didn’t have a clue how to deal with. I also started smoking again, thinking “fuck it, I need this right now”. I can remember the first occasion, about a year and half later, that I poured an orange juice and vodka midday to calm my anxiety much like someone suffering a panic attack pops a Xanax.

These memories, though accurate, are cunning in that they imply my drinking was on track to begin with. It was not. I’d already been drinking for roughly twenty years and had progressed to a daily drinker with impressive tolerance. Why I would even want to pinpoint the moment my problem drinking got out of control is baffling. The fact that I still entertain these thoughts is even more baffling.

I accept these thoughts, though, and know this is the alcoholic in me talking. I know this from reading the big book, listening at meetings, and talking to other alcoholics for the last six months. This desire to self-destruct is powerful, if not unique. I’m certain that if I hadn’t found my way to recovery meetings in the beginning, I’d be drinking again today. I need constant reminders that I’m not unique and alcoholics who go back out get worse, never better.

I know I can’t drink safely anymore, but that’s only because I tried moderation several times towards the end and failed miserably each time. It happened gradually and quite naturally because when I drank normal amounts, it was about as fun as drinking non-alcoholic beer, which I also tried. Why drink if not to get drunk? This absence of denial is a gift I am extremely grateful to have.

Now that I’ve gotten over the six month hump I struggled with a couple weeks ago, I feel refreshed and ready to clean house. I’m excited to strip down and name my flaws (pride, procrastination, perfectionism — to start) because I believe I can change and that things will get better. At the very beginning, all those steps looked so overwhelming. How do I do them? What do they even mean?  I don’t feel that anymore because time and the program gave me the courage to push through an emotionally hard time and my reward was a sense of peace and hope.  Every feeling is transient. This is another phrase I get stuck in my head, but it’s much more comforting when I’m struggling.

I feel very lucky that I breezed through the first 6 months of sobriety. That was yet another gift, though I’ve always been slow to question things and experience the dissatisfaction that others seem to recognize right away. I’d call this a flaw too, but being clueless offsets impatience and impulsiveness and so turns into one of my best assets.

Secrets

The other day I was talking with a friend about middle school or contraband or possibly both and I remembered a tin I used to keep in my desk drawer at home. Once in seventh grade, I came home to find the tin sitting on the kitchen table, lid removed. The pina colada Jelly Bellys, dried pineapple, and No-Doz I’d hidden inside were exposed.

The most embarrassing of those is the dried pineapple — what kind of kid hoards dried fruit?? — but the reason I’d kept it and the jelly beans hidden is because I had braces and chewy things could ostensibly rip the brackets from my teeth.

The most telling thing I hid were the NoDoz, which were a big thing in 7th grade, probably because huffing hadn’t hit mainstream yet, thank god. Why on earth I’d wanted to turn myself into a nervous, jittery wreck when I was already halfway there is another mystery, but that probably speaks to being so uncomfortable in my own skin that I looked to escape any way I could.

So I got busted that time, but there were plenty of other secrets over the years. One of the first entries in my first diary was “I like ice cream cones and secret good things.” I loved secrets as much as ice cream! Even as a kid!

In high school this manifested as James Bond stuff, like the hole I cut in my jacket lining so I could stow a pack of cigarettes, plus chewing gum and perfume. Or all those times I snuck out of the house to meet my very first lover, although calling him lover is as much a stretch as comparing myself to James Bond. Most of my secrets were more sad than cool, the first sign that I was doing it all wrong.

Secrets aren’t particularly good for me, and it’s taken 38 years to realize this. The burden is one thing, but I’m not talking about that. It’s more that I tend to make incredibly poor choices when I am accountable only to myself.

In talking with other alcoholics, I’ve learned secretive behavior is pretty common. I’ve heard men speak of stretching out their best pair of socks to smuggle in a pint to the ballet. Almost every morning drinker has had more than just coffee in their travel mug. I’ve met basement drinkers and garage drinkers and even trunk drinkers. I love hearing their stories not because I’m perverse or because some of their ideas are ingenuous – I love hearing them because it makes me feel less alone.

Now that I don’t drink, my love of secrets has come full circle to the ice cream cone. I sneak candy in sticky handfuls and, for awhile, got up in the middle of the night to eat ice cream straight from the tub. The shame I felt was all too familiar, though less. It is legal to suck down Sour Patch Kids while driving, even if it is absolutely pathetic.

I’m doing step 3 work with my sponsor now, and one of the things she had me write about is my higher power and what I need it to look like. I love this about the program — I get to build my own spiritual center like a kid with an endless pile of Legos and all the windows and doors and wheels and good parts you normally run out of first. How exciting!

When it comes to secrets, I need my higher power to be patient and non-judgmental with a strong moral compass because my natural inclination is always to go with the thing that tastes good and feels even better, but only initially. My husband and I were talking about rice cakes the other day and he said “why don’t people get addicted to things like rice cakes?” and I said “because they suck.” No one sneaks a bowl of rice cakes in the middle of the night.

Right now about the only thing I have left that makes me feel good and is good for me is exercise. There are far worse things to be addicted to, plus coming home out of breath and sweaty is hard to hide. It’s always going to be something with us alcoholics. For me, if I don’t have to keep it a secret, it’s probably okay.

Mourning

Yesterday I was on the elliptical at the Y, scrolling through music to find a song to fit a black mood and energize, when I saw my husband and daughter walk past outside. My daughter had basketball practice so my husband was dropping her off and then walking to a local brewery for drinks and to pick up dinner.

I got really sad seeing them walk by. Not because they didn’t see me – they did and they waved and I waved back. I wasn’t sad because of how cold they looked hunched over and walking into the wind so quickly I almost missed them, though that was a sad sight.

I got sad because I felt like we were all doing our separate things. I’m not very good at basketball, but I like bars. In that moment, I wanted to jump off the elliptical – not even wiping it down first in my recklessness – and join my husband for a drink.

We used to do that on a lot of Fridays. Happy hour was pretty happy. Depending on how happy happy hour was, the hour five hours after happy hour was pretty slappy. The next morning was undeniably crappy.

In my self-pity, I wasn’t thinking of why I stopped drinking. I only thought of the nice buzz I got from beer #2 and how my husband and I might spend a good half hour trying to figure out if the couple across from us – he much older than her, with elbow patches on his blazer – were married or having an affair based on body language. Our body language was such that you would guess we were married, but far from that contentedly silent state some marrieds get to.

I’m mourning the happier times these days. That’s what I felt that day before Christmas when I burst into tears while wrapping presents. I just wanted to be normal and be able to have a drink. I did it all the time, and now I miss it. I did it all the time. I know. I get it. Believe me.

This morning I went to a 7am meeting and was genuinely happy to be there. The speaker was great and he read something from Daily Reflections and lo and behold I realized there is one passage for every day of the year because I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer or even the sharpest spoon. And there I was, showered and dressed and even bright-eyed, which I never could have pulled off the day after happy hour.

These are the trade offs. I don’t get to do happy hour anymore, no. I do get to work out and disappear into my own world for awhile and feel good afterwards. I get to drive home without looking in my rearview mirror the whole time. I get to wake up the next morning not feeling like I am probably going to die, the sooner the better.

I used to hate that dip on Friday nights when I crossed over from buzzed to drunk. It was a sign that the fun was over. Mourning is a tricky thing, but I hope to never forget that my fun with drinking is over and it’s never coming back.

G.O.D.

When I was 8, I had my parents drive me to Sunday school. For awhile, we’d all gone to church together, but my parents dropped out because the minister was too smarmy or it cut into time for yard work or otherwise became irrelevant to their needs. For me, it struck a chord and I liked hearing fantastical stories about people with powerful names. My brother was older and thought I was nuts, but still I went on my own for awhile.

Sunday school was held next door from the main church in an old white farmhouse. We sat around a table in a dining room that had been loosely converted into a classroom, so little wonder that it felt more like sitting around the kitchen table with family. The teacher was not like anyone in my family, though. The first word that comes to mind is mousy. She had thin, frizzy dark hair cut above her shoulders and front teeth that stuck out. Her voice was high and soft, with a trace of southern accent. She was someone you would be hard pressed to imagine yelling.

I have a distinct memory of her in round, thick glasses and a high collared, light pink shirt with ruffles down the front telling us: Open up your heart and ask God to come in. I remember concentrating to quiet the noise in my 8 year-old brain to hear only those words. I remember feeling disappointed that I felt no different afterwards.

Years later, this strikes me as a pretty spiritual experience for a kid with agnostic (at best) parents, but at the time I felt the teacher was a bit of a holy roller, a crackpot. She may have even said Jesus instead of God. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure she did.

Now take the copy of Daily Reflections I just bought. Well, don’t take it. You may borrow it, but I only just got it on a whim while talking with a friend before home group. I glanced down at the literature table and something about its substantial, boxy size called out like a heart-shaped chocolate you’re sure has caramel inside. I thought “hey, I actually have extra cash with me” and then I found exact change in the coffer – no more, no less.

And take yesterday when I opened Daily Reflections for the first time and randomly landed at page 79 and G.O.D.: Good Orderly Direction. I’m certain I heard this before, but the day before yesterday I heard a speaker explain God’s will as “doing the next right thing.”

This strikes me more as serendipity than coincidence, but that’s where I am right now.

I’m a little disappointed my god is not a man wearing a robe (and beard – I know, so unoriginal). My god, as it turns out, is staying on top of tedious things like bills and work instead of the self-indulgent rabbit holes I’m always falling into. It’s putting my phone down and engaging with my kids and husband or it’s picking the phone up to give my poor, lonely grandmother a call. Eventually it will be helping others in need for no other reason than it’s the next right thing to do.

I love the feeling I get after I clean the house and bleach fumes still burn in my nose and the kitchen floor is so clean and slippery as to be a dangerous. It doesn’t last, mind you, so I have to clean house regularly. I am quietly having a eureka moment here. It’s pretty sweet.

Egg

This morning I went to all the trouble to put my phone into my purse instead of my shallow coat pocket. Only I didn’t zip my purse closed, so when I stood up to get out of my car, the phone fell right out and landed with a sickening splat on the pavement. The good news is it did not break. The bad news is my phone’s pristine case is now scuffed black on all corners and will not wipe clean. The very bad news is these scuffs will fill me with disproportionate self-loathing each time I look at my phone, which is often.

This stage of intense self-loathing is new for me, and it is not my best work, though I am very good at it.

Yesterday I went to a 10 a.m meeting I had looked foward to all weekend. Except I got there at 10:10 and there were literally no seats free. I have never had this happen before, as there are easily 100 seats in the room and four meetings to choose from on Sundays. I had to turn around and walk out.

As I was driving there, a yellow mini-cooper had zipped past me on the road. I saw the driver inside and he hadn’t been able to find a seat either. As we both walked out in defeat, I said “Well that stinks,” and quickly added “It doesn’t stink that the meeting is full…that’s great. It’s just, well, you know what I mean.”

He nodded in agreement and I noticed his kind blue eyes and his cane, which surprised me because he drove like a madman.

I walked the block to where I had parked and he zipped up in his mini-cooper and yelled something out his window I couldn’t hear. I walked over to his car in a way I never would with a regular stranger and he smiled and said “May your higher power be with you today” and then zipped off.

It made me think of his higher power sitting erect in the passenger’s seat, wearing driving goggles, a stylish scarf, and white knuckles. I didn’t know what my higher power looked like, other than he was probably wearing a long white robe like Jesus because I am not creative when it comes to defining my own God. Anyway, I was pretty sure my higher power was not with me at all.

In the safety of my own car, I burst into tears because I had really wanted to go to that meeting and fucked it all up. I had taken a walk that morning and stopped to take pictures I didn’t have time to take. I had gone to the store beforehand when I could have gone afterwards. It wasn’t anyone else’s fault why I was so late as to not even get one of the less-desirable overflow seats.

I called my husband and he talked me down from the ledge. He has been a real doll lately. He takes in my black moods with perplexed compassion, no doubt relieved they at least are not directed towards him anymore.

And that is where I am in this process. I explained to him last night that one of the reasons I feel so sad right now is that I feel like a filter has been removed and I am now able to see every one of my faults in stunning HD. And it sucks. But it’s real. And that sucks even more.

I catch myself getting snippy with my kids when I’m stressed and I recognize I’m stressed because I’m running late. And the reason I’m running late is because I took too long getting ready. And I think ‘well, that’s my problem’ and instead of taking it out on them or kicking the dog, I kick myself because it somehow feels right to kick myself and hard.

A couple of weeks ago I stocked up on lotions from The Body Shop. I only needed face moisturizer, but they had an after-Christmas sale on gift sets, so I bought one with face cream and body cream and hand cream and other things that feel good and turn me on. A day later I picked up a nice, rich foot cream because I love when the bottoms of my feet feel smooth and soft. It struck me how these purchases were not like makeup or perfume in that anyone would notice I had them on. These were things I could use to pamper myself. Maybe deep down I knew I would need it in the rough days ahead.

My sponsor warned me early on there’d be anger and I said “oh I’ve already been angry” and for months I felt nothing at all but relief that I didn’t have to drink anymore. I never imagined the anger would come so late and with such intensity and be directed at myself.

By the way, I got to the noon meeting at my husband’s urging. I’m very glad I went, though I felt like a fragile little egg sitting in that chair surrounded by plenty of empty chairs at that particular meeting. I felt a little better by the time I left and I got in my car and I guess my higher power climbed in too, though I think he closed his robe in the door and swore a little at himself for being such a klutz. He’s not a klutz though, I think he’s just new to all this crap and I think he needs to slow down and take it easy and maybe also change into something other than that ridiculous robe.

I got the message the day after Christmas: Hey friends, how about atlantic city weekend of January 7th?

It came from my best friend in college, the girl I met through my best friend in elementary school. We had both needed roommates as I’d already played russian roulette with my first roommate (and lost) and she was just transferring from community college. We shared a slice of lava cake at Fridays and decided that, yes, we would move in together and share a hot plate and not turn out to be creepy psychopaths.

In truth, it turned out even better than that. She became my very best friend for years and has more dirt on me than anyone else. I’ve told her things I haven’t even told my therapist. We live hours apart, so don’t see each other often, but it doesn’t matter. When we do meet, we pick up right where we left off.

The last weekend we spent together, we climbed into a big empty hot tub at the quaint bed and breakfast where we were staying and smoked a joint she had brought along. I don’t remember why we smoked in the hot tub. Maybe because we were high? But I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of her. She had never gotten high before she met me. Once I remember smoking with a group of friends in college and she got paranoid and stuffed wet towels at the base of the door and ranted about sirens no one else heard. She had been such a novice then, a real innocent.

But now? I’m not drinking and I’m not smoking and she still can. So can the other two college friends who were included on the invite. One is married and one is divorced and dating. All are bringing significant others and none are bringing kids.There’s talk of massages and dinner at the Borgata and someone used the phrase “adult beverages”. My excitement soured pretty quickly. I decided not to go.

My husband and I don’t have easy access to a babysitter. I probably could have found one, but we’re not the type to drop $200 a night on a hotel room at short notice anyway. Plus there’d be dinner. One of my friends has exquisite taste, so we wouldn’t have been dining in a diner, unfortunately. Plus there’s gambling! What if I turned out to be like Julie Hagerty in Lost in America and was never allowed to utter the words “nest” and “egg” in the same sentence again? The only other time I gambled was playing $5 in slots on a riverboat in New Orleans, and I didn’t win anything. What if I won and the pleasure part of my brain lit up like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree? It could turn into my most dangerous addiction yet.

Part of me still wanted to go, just on my own and only for the day. I could have left my husband at home with the kids. He would have gone along with this, though wasn’t happy when I mentioned it. I decided it wasn’t worth the strain, plus who wants to be a seventh wheel?

Still I pictured myself sitting alone on the beach, which I assume you can do without getting knifed or stuck by a needle. I picture strolling along the boardwalk and ducking into a tacky shop to buy a tacky “My mom went to Atlantic City and all I lost was my college fund” shirt for my youngest. I pictured the trip as a getaway, a change of scenery, a chance to get out of myself and watch old people squeeze every last drop out of bus trip tokens and buffets.

Probably the number one reason I didn’t go, though, was because I don’t drink anymore. My friends still drink because they can. They know I don’t drink, so I don’t worry about that, but I did think of what my sponsor shared at a meeting the other night. At six months sober, she had met old friends at a bar and nursed cups of coffee all night long and proudly told her sponsor about it afterwards. Her sponsor said “You’re proud of yourself, huh? For standing in the gasoline all night?”

Lately I’ve felt a bit shaky in my sobriety. The other night I kind of lost it when I realized how badly I wanted beer and how angry I was at not being able to have one. I didn’t drink, but the memory feels so strange and even felt that way while it was happening. It shook me up. I don’t think this is a good time for me to sit around a table with friends I love dearly and laugh while they enjoy drinks the way I once did, never knowing it would end. Who wants to stand in gasoline?

I would like to take my family to Atlantic City though. Maybe in spring we’ll go and all four of us can walk along the beach and eat lunch in a diner with a shady, unshaven character slumped in a corner booth. We can take turns discreetly making up stories about him while we wait for sandwiches to arrive and, with my husband close by, our nest egg will remain safe and sound.

This feels like a new kind of adventure. I like that sobriety has surprises like that.

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