In meetings, we’re careful not to take credit for our sobriety. Newcomers thank their higher power for however many days they’ve cobbled together and old-timers stress a one-day-at-a-time reprieve from alcohol, nevermind if those days number in the tens of thousands. Our sobriety is always a gift.

If anyone is thinking “I resisted the urge to drink for the last six months because I am a strong person,” a meeting is not the place to share that. It’s not particularly helpful because it hoists responsibility back on me and I didn’t do so good with alcohol before. If both my arms are broken, isn’t it wise to let someone else do the driving?

So why do some people “get” sobriety right off the bat while it takes others years to string together a year of sobriety? Why do some people never call themselves alcoholics despite DUIs and health problems? Why do some people acknowledge a problem but continue to struggle until they die?

I find myself thinking about this a lot lately. Recently someone who attended meetings in my area died from alcohol-related complications. From what I’ve pieced together, he used to belong to my home group and he was a chronic relapser, but his name doesn’t ring a bell. It bothers me that my home group is suddenly packed with people paying respects to a man who hadn’t been to meetings in some time and never found what he needed there anyway. One mourner was missing teeth and kept having distracting side-conversations with another oddball and I kept thinking I don’t want what he has and If I start drinking again, maybe I will lose teeth and my mind.

Meetings are like that, a mix of people I look up to and cautionary tales. What difference is there between a chronic relapser and someone whose grandchildren (or children!) have never seen them take a drink?

Is it intelligence or education? Absolutely not. I have a close family member I’m sure has at least a 15 IQ points on me, and he can’t seem to stay sober.

Is it self-awareness, then? Is it self-discipline, which is another word for willpower, which makes me think of the dreaded self-will (see second paragraph)?

Does recovery depend on your threshold for pain? I wanted to stop for my children and long-term health, but wicked hangovers with nausea and emotional blackness pushed me to stop before I suffered any real consequences. Were my hangovers the real gift?

What if your sober support network is weak? What if you attend meetings but are more withdrawn than involved? What if your friends and family drink but you swear it doesn’t really bother you?  Asking for a friend, of course.

What else affects sobriety? Oh yeah. Spirituality. This is the only factor that feels weightier than the rest. If my heart is anchored in something bigger and better than me, that feels more useful than how much I know about addiction or how sober my spouse or parents are. But how do affirmed atheists stay sober and happy? Because I know they do.

I don’t think there’s any pat answer here, by the way. The formula that works for me might not work for the 20-something black guy I sat next to at a meeting last night. When we held hands at the end and recited the lord’s prayer, he knew the words and I did not (except for the part about trespassing…always dug that part). Hopefully recovery is not dependent on the ability to memorize prayers.

I choose to view my sobriety as a gift because one day I decided it was easier not to drink anymore and I hadn’t woken up in jail or a hospital and the sun was shining exactly as it had the day before. It was a gift I hadn’t asked for and I don’t know where it came from, but it’s up to me what I do with it. I wonder why other people don’t get this gift or why they get it and throw it away, but right now I try not to think about how fragile I know it to be and just hold tight.

What’ll you have

I survived a slumber party with six girls still using their outdoor voices at 3:30am and only threatened “don’t make me come down there again or it won’t be pretty” one time.  I was once an 11 year-old girl, so I know they were just doing their jobs.  Being a parent is filled with moments of indescribable joy, but I’m also reminded time and again that Karma is indeed very real.

The birthday party wasn’t something I was looking forward to. I was excited for my daughter, but stressed in the way I always get  over seemingly little things like coordinating plans and interacting outside my normal social circle, which is so tiny it’s really more a dot. This is my comfort zone and I am happy there.

We started the party at a bowling alley and I worried over things like ordering enough pizza and carrying two pitchers of soda and cups and straws in one trip because it is in my nature to make things more difficult in an effort to make them easier. As I made the precarious trip from the snack bar to our lane, a dude with the most impressive mullet-mustache combo I’ve seen in some time came down the stairs from the bar carrying a pitcher of beer and stepped out in front of me. He was either drunk or oblivious, and I side-stepped him and we did that awkward thing where we walked in step for a bit. He finally stopped and struck a gleeful pose for a friend with a camera and I wished for some time afterwards that I was him, mullet and mustache and all.

The girls in our party had a lot of fun bowling. There was another party of 12 year-old boys two lanes down and I observed a lot of furtive glances and that boys interact at half the decibel level of girls. The bowling alley was hopping that night, so it was no surprise when a couple came to bowl at the lane in between. My first thought was uh-oh because they looked so sweet and childless that I thought for sure we would ruin their evening out.

But you know what? They were just the nicest people. The woman –  a relaxed, smiling blond in a black hoodie and jeans – and her quiet husband took turns bowling and drinking from their pitcher of beer. The woman confided that they were enjoying the novelty of being around such a boisterous bunch since they had no children of their own. I’m sure the beer didn’t hurt, but they really were terrific sports about the whole thing.

The night went without a hitch, not including my 3:30 am hollow threat because 1) it was inevitable, really, and 2) that was the next morning anyway. I had quite a few moments at the bowling alley where I thought about beer and daydreamed how it might feel to be curled up in its welcoming arms, but I know that’s like saying I miss an abusive ex because he made the best cheesecake.

The whole night took me back to the last time we had a big slumber party at our house, which was one year ago. I was on the wagon at the time, taking a 30-day break so I could “reset” my tolerance and start drinking again like a normal person. It didn’t work (it never did), but that night I had the twofold comfort of knowing I didn’t have to worry about drinking but that I would get to resume drinking soon enough.

Before I went on the wagon that time, I had my last drink at a hole-in-the-wall place that had really good french onion soup and Guinness on tap. We had stopped there after a long morning of car shopping, so that first beer was like coming home after a long day and taking off tight shoes. I took this picture of my coaster because, well, I’m the kind of person who takes pictures of old coasters.

When I was talking to my husband last night about the party this weekend, he had no idea I was stressed out at all. I kept it so hidden I carried it alone. I never thought about picking up a drink other than a surprisingly refreshing cup of Pepsi (what is it about Pepsi from a pitcher that tastes so good? ), but I fought a war with myself just the same.

It strikes me more and more that struggling on my own is not much better than using booze to take the edge off. I have tools and I am learning how to use them and the hope that keeps me going is that this time next year it will be a little bit easier.


Dry dates

This weekend my husband and I went out to dinner and the first menu they shoved in our faces was for cocktails centered around chocolate and coconut and other things drunks don’t waste calories on. They weren’t quite girly drinks, but when I looked around and saw a middle-aged woman sipping one, I wasn’t surprised. She had a glass of red wine with dinner and my immediate thought was that her husband was probably getting lucky that night, but I’m stereotyping that his wife was a lightweight and frigid and now I’m a more than a little ashamed of myself.

I tell you what, though, I pay a heluva lot of attention to who’s drinking what these days. I can tell you exactly what my husband drank that night, right down to the brands. I can tell you that most everyone in the restaurant had at least a glass of wine, though some were sticking to water or club soda, like me. It’s not that I feel conspicuous in skipping booze, it’s just that I’m at the phase in my sobriety where it’s dawning on me that I’m never going to drink again. I feel special, but not in a good way.

I just finished reading Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety by Sacha Scoblic, so some of this self-pity comes from reading her wistful relapse fantasies about drinking with Hunter S. Thompson or just enjoying a glass of wine with dinner. While I found many parts of her memoir honest and funny, I hated the relapse fantasies. They felt contrived and not particularly helpful to someone in early recovery. It’s not Sacha’s fault I’m uber-impressionable, though. I swear all I’ve been thinking about lately is how I miss being able to order a girly drink at dinner or maybe sipping a cold beer in the backyard on a hot day.

Except, ha, when is the last time I sipped a beer?? Never? And if I had a girly drink at dinner, it would be more like a swarm of girly drinks…and frankly my glucose levels are already pushed to the limits by an ice cream addiction.

I don’t mean this post to be self-pitying. I don’t feel deprived so much as a little lost right now. For years, my husband and I went out to celebrate our escape from the drudgery of parenthood and a return to our old free selves. We bellied up to bars that were so low-rent they hadn’t banished smoking. We felt edgy and cool and maybe rekindled some excitement and passion we’d let slip in the months since our last date.

Now my husband still drinks but I don’t. Fortunately I still love to eat, but I’ll be honest in that I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of our night out. I couldn’t wait to pick our kids up from babysitting and put them to bed. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time out with just my husband, it’s just that some part of me wishes the whole world was on the wagon with me.

What would that look like, I wonder? Would restaurants be as filled with laughter and romance or even people? Bars wouldn’t exist, obviously, so would libraries and malls swell with displaced crowds of the lonely? I’m generalizing, obviously, but one of the reasons I used to drink was to relax and have fun and feel part of life. Now I feel a little like life’s third wheel. I don’t feel as fun as I once did, even in early sobriety when I was trying extra hard to prove I was still fun, dammit.

And since I’m being honest, I guess my real issue is that my husband still gets to drink like he always has. I’m the one who changed, but somehow I feel left behind. He drinks a lot, but he doesn’t drink like me. He can cut himself off at any point in the evening, something I was never able to do.

I find myself wondering how other couples work it out. It’s something I don’t hear much about at meetings. When spouses do come up, it’s usually to describe a teetotaler who nagged the drunk into sobriety. Heh, like you can make a drunk do anything they don’t want to do.

I’m sure I’m at a very specific point in the recovery process. I’m hardly the first wife to get sober. Maybe it’s been studied and outlined in a textbook somewhere and has a fancy name like Sobriety-Induced Marital Identity Displacement.  The next phase depends on whether you and your spouse have anything in common beyond a shared address and love of booze. I like to think my husband and I would still be BFFs even if we hadn’t gotten drunk together on our very first date eight million years ago. We fit together that way.

It boils down to me being scared. The unknown is scary enough through a comforting haze of booze. Now I need to call on faith and hope, but I’m not quite there yet either. Oh dear, do you know I just realized I have 8 months sober today? There’s a little hope right there and it came from me being a self-pitying idiot, but also a sober self-pitying idiot.

Big books

Long before I discovered the Big Book, I was infatuated with another big book: the DSM-III-R. I know, it sounds riveting, doesn’t it? DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and I had to buy it for an undergraduate class in clinical psychology. Anyone can buy the DSM, but having it made me feel more competent as a 19 year-old student and intern. Its no-nonsense format seemed to compensate for my lack of life experience and maturity.

I chose psychology as a major because I didn’t want to be a teacher and I once saw a riveting documentary on HBO about schizophrenics. I envy those who always knew what they wanted to be when they grew up because I’m still deciding. Yet we’re forced at a young age to choose something…anything, and I chose psychology because it was interesting and math and public speaking were terrifying.

I hadn’t accounted for all the public speaking in psychology internships, though. My first experience in the field was as a co-leader for a group of “at risk” teens at a private Lutheran school. They were all white kids of privilege, but still I felt eaten alive. I had no idea what I was doing there or at my next placement, which was at an outpatient substance abuse treatment center, even though I requested the place where people went to get over their fear of elevators or snakes or snakes in elevators.

How ironic is it that I was sent to educate adolescents about the dangers of substance abuse while I was drinking and smoking pot and enjoying the hell out of both? I felt like such a hypocrite, a real fraud.

I still have my old DSM in a box in the basement, although it’s been updated twice since then. What we know about the mind seems to be ever-evolving and fluid, and the American Psychiatric Association is now accepting feedback on proposed changes for the DSM-V. In this latest version, due out next year, substance abuse and substance dependence  – once two separate categories – will be lumped together as substance use disorder.

To see the proposed criteria for alcohol use disorder, click here.  

You’re never going to make everybody happy with change, and the DSM is no exception. By combining substance abuse and dependence into one category, some fear those with intermittent, almost accidental histories will be stigmatized unnecessarily. The removal of one criteria, “problems with law enforcement” (ie DUIs), would suggest otherwise, though, especially since it’s being taken out because it was so rare, even among those already in treatment. From what I’ve read, the APA lumped both categories together because the distinctions between alcohol abuse and dependence were murky, yet the treatment was often the same anyway.

As an alcoholic, the changes won’t effect me unless I seek professional treatment, and then the only change will be to the code my doctor uses to bill my insurance company. Just like I never see this paperwork, I’ll never see the new DSM because it’s just a book of diagnoses and I got out of the field soon after college.

I like to think the changes are a step in the right direction – a better understanding of alcoholism as a physical disease – but alcoholism feels more like a spiritual affliction. I don’t mean that it’s not also physical, because it is. My body and mind responded in physical, predictable ways after years of abuse. But the way I abused alcohol was unusual from the start. I never drank like a normal person, and there is something there that I don’t know if the medical profession is anywhere near understanding. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because “the cure” is older than the first edition DSM in 1952. I have a big book now with answers old and obvious, and the only difference is I’m in a place to hear them.

On Anonymity

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re in recovery. Or you might be among the very small handful of friends who read my personal blog and follow this one as well. I decided to keep them separate because the longer I’ve been in recovery, the more I keep hearing the word anonymity and feeling vaguely troubled by it.

Last week I attended a meeting focused on Tradition 12.

Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

A newcomer said he hadn’t known what the word anonymity meant until he’d heard enough to put it into context. We all passed around The Twelve Steps and Traditions and read a paragraph or two out loud on Tradition 12 . I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time paying attention to anything read out loud from a book. When combined with the mounting anxiety of seeing that book inch closer and closer to my turn to read out loud, I pretty much tuned it all out. Still, I’m certain the book didn’t mention the subject I was interested since Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the Internet in 1952.

Am I allowed to say any of these things here? Should I mention I was at a meeting? Can I paraphrase what others say at meetings as long as I don’t mention names or locations? Should I still be making bad Al Gore jokes?

I honestly don’t know! I listened keenly at the meeting and didn’t share at all for fear of what might come out of my mouth. I don’t talk about blogging at meetings for fear of how it could be misinterpreted. I certainly don’t do this for fame or fortune. I write here because it feels good to share my experiences and connect with others. I read recovery blogs because I learn things that help me or make me think Wow, I know exactly what that feels like. 

Isn’t that why we attend meetings, to feel less alone? Just like The Grapevine is like a meeting in your pocket, recovery blogs feel like  virtual meetings. Because of my responsibilities at home and work, I typically get to two meetings a week. This is not a complaint because it works for me, but I get a lot out of the support I find here. I’m not a phone call kind of person. I’m shy and introverted at meetings. Simply put, blogging is easier. But is it also wrong on some level?

At the meeting last week, no one touched on online anonymity. The meeting chair shared that he doesn’t advertise his membership, like, ever. He said remote family and friends come to him instead, which shows that someone out there knows he’s sober. His point was that he lives by the principle of attraction, not promotion, which Bill and the founders long ago decided would be best. Does blogging somehow betray that?

What are your thoughts on anonymity? If you blog about recovery, do you struggle with what or how much to share? Do other 12-step members know you blog? If so, have you ever been challenged about what you write? Are we somehow posing a threat to a simple organization that continues to save countless lives or am I simply being neurotic, yet again?

I’m sincerely curious how those with more experience handle what feels like a landmine, no matter how good my intentions are.

Getting fixed

I went on my first antidepressant at 37. I’d always considered myself to be a sunny, stable person, if a bit high strung and anxious. My family tree is filled with worriers, though I would not go so far as to call them nuts. We can function well enough, we just tend to suffer quietly in the way that emotionally repressed sensitive types do.

Just like I never thought I would be an alcoholic, I never thought I’d need an antidepressant. I’d seen friends go on them and slowly turn up happier but also bloated. No thanks. The law of averages suggests that each of us will suffer the death of a loved one or unprecedented heartbreak or job loss or woes of the legal or financial variety or perhaps a crippling combination. We all know this, but we can’t possibly know how we will react until it happens.

My depression was situational in origin, but at some point it went from leaving a toothbrush in the medicine cabinet to moving its favorite leather chair with matching ottoman into the family room. It had no intention of leaving. Maybe my brain had developed new pathways in response to the horrible feelings I was feeling for what amounted to years. The drinking to help cope sure didn’t help. It shames me to admit how long I struggled, not because I waited that long to ask for help but because I still wasn’t able to get over it on my own.

Once I asked for help, the relief was almost immediate. I picked a therapist from a web site based on a one-paragraph profile and accompanying photo. Mainly I chose her because her background was in addictions counseling and this felt a safe first step. The stars had started to align.

She didn’t prescribe me an antidepressant, obviously, though she did gently suggest that I seemed depressed. Maybe it was all the crying I did in front of her. I distinctly remember sitting on her couch and folding damp tissues in my lap like the saddest origami ever. I agreed to see an in-house psychiatrist and left with a low-dose script for Effexor, an SSRI. I suspect he chose Effexor because it has a low occurrence of weight gain and sexual side effects compared to the other SSRIs.

I felt Effexor rushing through my head within the first couple of days. I felt terribly wired and restless and my jaw clenched involuntarily. I knew there were going to be side effects, so I hung in there. I also hung in once I discovered I had lost the ability to orgasm, though that was most terrifying of all. I speak openly about this because I believe orgasms are as important to our state of well being as adequate food and rest.

The crazy-wired feeling and inability to orgasm did pass after a couple of weeks, though I suffered from difficulty reaching orgasm the entire time I was on it. After two months, I started feeling really good. The cloud lifted, just like they say, and I felt comfortably numb and no longer sweated the small stuff or even the big stuff. This was a wonderful drug to be on in early recovery.

After about 4 months, I started getting insatiable carbohydrate cravings. I would wake up at 3am and pad downstairs and raid the refrigerator like Dagwood, only instead of clever sandwiches it was an all-out binge on ice cream and cookies. Not surprisingly, I started to get fat. I gained 12 pounds within two months, and that was tipping point where the therapeutic benefits no longer outweighed the side effects.

I weaned off the SSRI and switched to Wellbutrin under the supervision of my regular doctor. (I stopped seeing the psychiatrist when I called and was told by his handler that I’d have to wait a month to see him and would also need to pay a $25 convenience charge to have a refill called in. My experience with psychiatrists was short lived and unpleasant.)

Effexor was sheer hell to get off of. It has a ridiculously short half-life, which accounts for the severity of the symptoms, but I still don’t like how the brain comes to rely on a drug to process serotonin. What I don’t know about psychotropic medications could fill space, but I do know I felt way crazier while coming off Effexor than I ever did before. It turns out all the reasons I was afraid to go on an antidepressant were well founded! Unfortunately, I needed something else to keep from crashing and burning and very likely relapsing.

Instead of serotonin, Wellbutrin works on dopamine receptors. Before I took a single pill, I felt in my heart it would not work the same for me. And it hasn’t. Actually, it hasn’t worked at all because I’ve only been on a therapeutic dose for about two weeks.  So far the only thing I’ve noticed is that I sure do cry a lot in my car. But instead of turning my tears into tissue origami, I feel like I’m releasing pent-up emotions I haven’t dealt with in years. It’s hard to explain, but it feels important and, more importantly, temporary in its intensity.

I don’t expect Wellbutrin to provide the comforting numbness of an SSRI. This makes me sad because I loved feeling calm and mellow, but I also know it doesn’t cause weight gain. And the sexual side effects are gone, so double yay! It also helped me quit smoking, so triple yay!

My doctor told me she hopes to be able to stop the Wellbutrin in about six months. This is what I wanted to hear. If I have another recurrence, I’ll be open to treatment, but I am very wary of relying on psychotropic cocktails to get happy. I’ve followed enough message boards to see the patterns emerge. It would appear that mental illness can be just as progressive as alcoholism and I can’t help but wonder if that’s at least partly caused by the chemicals prescribed to treat it.

The end goal is always balance. When I think of balance, I think of moderation. I have a little bit of elation and hope on one side of the scale. I wish I had more, but life gives me as much as I need if I am in the right state to receive them. The other side is weighted with fear and pain. When this side tips too far, I have to use my resources to get back as close to even as I can. Drugs help with this, but they are not a quick fix and often cause a whole new set of problems for me. The answer feels as if it is just in front of me if I give it time and stay away from things that I know bring pain. Just having hope again is major.

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