Well, that happened

It’s been a stressful week. Oddly, most of these things have not involved me directly, but I’ve felt them just the same. I’m not really one to quote prayers, but the line in the Serenity prayer about accepting the things I cannot change comes to mind.

There’s been work junk and underhanded Machiavellian moves (thanks, Joe, love that word!) and other small, random sad things. A couple blogs I dug just closed up shop and went away. One clear night, the neighbors across the street lost a tree that must have been 5 million years old. If a tree crashes to the ground while you’re taking a shower but no one sees it fall, your husband will come upstairs and ask you what the hell you’re doing in the shower. After your name is cleared, you will feel sad for all the displaced squirrels.

I know, none of this makes much sense, but this week has me feeling like an antennae for gloom and the good news is I know it will pass. The bad stuff always does. Yesterday when I was feeling blue, I told my husband how I was feeling and then walked over and kissed my baby’s big fat cheeks while she was eating grapes and trying to act annoyed with me. That’s what it’s all about.

Got my 1 year coin at a meeting Tuesday and a friend surprised me with a book on gratitude, which is funny because that’s what my last post was about, and a cake that was so delicious I gained two pounds this week. My husband got me this coin holder keyring, which I feel is very sharp.

I guess this week wasn’t so bad afterall.

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Gratitude

About a month ago, someone from my home recovery group asked me if I’d share my story at a local rehab. In order to keep it, you have to give it away, they say.

The first time this guy asked me about speaking, I apparently pulled out my phone and put the date in my calendar because it was already there when he asked me about it again last week. I hadn’t agreed to it then and figured (hoped) he’d forgotten all about it, but he had not. I’ve heard enough people say they always take a speaking commitment unless they have a good reason not to. Still, I thought about it another day or two before committing, not because I didn’t want to but because I was afraid.

Just like some people fear flying or dogs or germs, I am afraid of public speaking. It’s irrational, although I was somewhat comforted by another member reminding me that sharing our story comes from the heart and extemporaneously, so is not much at all like public speaking. We can change subtle things about our message, but our story never changes, and this is precisely why I freaked out a little once I set foot inside rehab yesterday.

I guess I had a different idea of what rehab would look like. Like many in recovery, I detoxed at home and never went to rehab, although I romanticized it plenty in those early days. I pictured plenty of natural light and down time and tired looking women in sweatpants and very little makeup. I hadn’t pictured so many heavily tattooed men (and women) and so much syrup on the dining hall tables we pushed together to form our own makeshift recovery meeting. A handwritten sign on the wall listed a different radio station to be played each day of the week with the threat of talk radio ALL DAY (emphasis theirs) if anyone had a problem with it. This rehab felt like prison if prison had a lobby with a murky, half-empty aquarium with too many orange fish and one big turtle straining to escape.

What possible good came of me sharing my suburban-white-mom story with a bunch of people with probably very different circumstances? I have no idea. It’s possible something I shared from my first year of recovery stuck with someone…maybe how I didn’t do anything perfectly except for not drinking. I don’t know, I’m reaching. I shared my story, avoiding eye contact and feeling a bit like my 4 year-old when she meets someone new and runs to hide behind me (if I can’t see them, they can’t see me, right?). Everyone listened politely. A handful of people used the time to fill in worksheets, which probably had to do with step work. At one point a woman loudly crumbled up a page she was working on, but I don’t think it was to protest anything I said. After the meeting, some came up to shake our hands and thank us for coming, and this touched me. I took something away, though it was not the pat-myself-on-the-back feeling that I expected. I took away gratitude that I got to leave and drive home at the end of the hour to be with my family.

In an email to a recovery friend I’ve started getting close to (my first real-life recovery friend!), she talked about gratitude and how seeing someone with less made her appreciate all that she had. I knew just what she meant. When I snuck glances around the room yesterday, I was aware how lucky I am to have gotten out when I did. I hate the term “high bottom” because frankly it reminds me of firm asses. But there are so many points in a person’s life they can choose sobriety. Maybe it’s more apt to say sobriety chooses us. How else can I explain the college student sitting next to a newly sober retiree at a meeting? Why did I stop drinking at 37 and not 27 or 47 or never? Who the fuck knows, but I’m even more grateful I had the resources and support to stop as easily as I did. Looking around the room yesterday, I saw how easy I’ve always had it. The experience was unsettling and humbling.

Right now, gratitude is as much about being thankful for the life I avoided as it is appreciating the life I have. Eventually I hope I feel it without so much fear and judgmental-ness, but hey, one more thing to work on. I am grateful for that and even the smell of syrup, which stayed with me for hours afterwards and reminded me of the world I left behind.

Happy hour without all the crying

When I was still drinking, my husband and I made a pact one night that the next big snow day, one of us would drive the other to this divey old watering hole for a day of unfettered drinking. We hadn’t figured out the logistics, like which one of us would get this fantasy vacation or why the other would be risking life and limb to drive to a bar in a snowstorm, but this was my idea of the perfect happy hour(s). Dark, dusty walls…beer bottle rings worn in the bar…the lingering smell of stale cigarettes from when you could still smoke in bars. I hope I don’t sound like I’m romanticizing it, though I suppose I am in my own sad little way. Drinking will always be the lover I gave up for my own good, but I’ll probably always miss it a little too. The fucker.

When I gave up drinking (365 days ago today!), I had to find replacements for happy hour. Happy hour at an actual bar hardly ever happened, but I happily drank at home. I mixed gin and tonics or vodka tonics and then moved onto beer or wine until I was cut off by the bartender (husband) or myself (“going to sleep”).

Newly sober, I was terrified of picking the kids up after work and coming straight home. When I ran out of libraries to visit or errands to run, I came home and felt twitchy and unsettled. The liquor cabinet was still in its same spot, but I was not. I poured myself an iced coffee and went out on the back porch to smoke a cigarette instead.

This recipe for iced coffee saved my life back then. I made it up in giant batches each week and stirred in heaping tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk because at least it wasn’t a vodka tonic. That ritual of another sinful drink was crucial. I am a creature of habit.

It was more than just habit, though. It was about treating myself after a long day. It was about escaping from the tedium of parenting and life…the snacks and baths and homework , the dinner, the laundry. It didn’t occur to me that these things would get easier and actually stop feeling like tedium in sobriety. I wasn’t there yet, so iced coffee and smoking were my new drugs.

The funny thing is I gave up both those things suddenly only months later. Smoking was first on the chopping block because I hated that my kids saw me smoke. Drinking was easier to hide from them, but smoking was so obvious. I’d quit before and I quit again and missed it for awhile, but then eventually I didn’t.

My sweet iced coffees were next. I started having searing pains behind my breastbone that made it difficult just to breathe, and they’d last for days. At first I thought I might be dying, but fortunately and unfortunately, the internet is great for self-diagnosis. My doctor put me on prilosec for a month and told me to watch caffeine intake. Iced coffee was sweet while it lasted, but it didn’t last long.

I can’t forget the meetings, either, though those were decidedly good for me. Healthy. I went to 3-4 meetings a week all summer long. That’s not a lot of meetings to some, but it was a big deal to me. I went at night after my husband got home from work and the kids were in bed. I did it so I wouldn’t sit on the couch and reach for a glass of wine that wasn’t there. After awhile, I found I could sit on the couch again and watch a movie without wishing myself dead.

The meetings were good for me because I heard absolute truths and secrets I’d never told anyone, only they came from the mouths of perfect strangers. The rooms had that faintly churchy smell of floor wax and cheap coffee, and I never felt so at peace as when I closed my eyes and just breathed in. There was no pressure, no judgements, no nothing but just feeling like it might all be okay again. Most of the time I didn’t talk to anyone, and that was fine by me. Sometimes women introduced themselves and we made small talk about what it was like to quit drinking.

Once I told a woman about my newfound love of candy and she smiled to remember how she carried around a bag of starburst candies in her early days. While I was thinking “my god, they sell starbursts by the bag?” she added “but you have to be careful with the candy.”

“What does she know,” I thought. “Candy is all I have left.”

This was not entirely true because I also had ice cream and cookies and ice cream cookies and all of those things dipped in milk, even the ice cream. I had some real sweet eating habits there for awhile (and still do at times), but I was like an ice cream cookie dunking robot. It was a compulsion I felt helpless to resist, plus I rationalized it was still better than vodka tonics. And it was.

The thing about giving up booze, at least for me, was that I was not able to replace all those calories with dessert. Doesn’t seem fair, I know, but I gained 10 pounds in short order and felt absolutely miserable. What I did next, though, was something else healthy.

In late winter, I started running. I’d walked regularly and done other light exercise for the last three years, but then I started feeling restless and motivated and like I wanted more. Exercise releases neurochemicals I don’t begin to understand, but I do know that after I run or otherwise work up a sweat, I feel really, really good. I feel good about myself and I feel strong, but there’s some other change to my mood that I love so much it hurts. It levels my bad stuff in the same way drinking used to…only better.

What strikes me now about all of these routines that replaced drinking is how they’ve progressively gotten healthier. Smoking, then coffee, then overeating, now exercise. I should also mention buying stuff I don’t need and spending too much time online, but the list could go on and on, couldn’t it? I still slip back into bad habits, but I’ve learned to be more gentle and forgiving with myself because I’m not doing the worst one of all for me: I’m not drinking.

Mostly I want to stress that all of these changes came gradually and naturally. When I look back at the blur of the last year, I almost feel like all I had to do was stop drinking and the rest just kind of happened in a chain of events that helped me make smarter, healthier decision. I’m sure there was more to it than that, but it seems almost laughably simple in a way. I do know I’m a lot happier now and I attribute that to one thing: sobriety.

363 Days

I love those people who introduce themselves at meetings as Dave, Grateful Recovering Alcoholic with 282 days. I imagine Dave with 282 tiny notches on his bedpost, but it’s more likely he has an app. I knew I was coming up on a year this week, but I only know it’s 363 days today because of google and the sobriety calculator I found.

I don’t feel happy or relieved like I thought I might coming up on a year. That might be because it hasn’t passed yet, but I doubt I’ll feel much different in a few days. I thought about it this morning and the thing about a one-year anniversary is that it dredges up a lot of bad memories.

I remember acutely what it was like to stop drinking. I remember how hard it was that first week, physically and mentally. I remember how sick I felt drying out. I didn’t go to rehab or get anything from my doctor, though I should have at least done the latter. I was afraid she would insist I go to rehab and I couldn’t fathom this as a mother of little kids and a full-time employee. It’s not that I was in denial of my problem…I just didn’t want anyone else to know how bad I’d let it get.

I remember when that Monday came around that I’d decided I’d stop drinking. I had told my husband the Friday before “I’m going to stop drinking on Monday but I want you to leave me alone until then.” I didn’t go on a bender or anything, but I didn’t want to hear his concern over how much I was drinking. That’s what the end was like for me. It was pretty pathetic, and I’d had enough of that.

Except that when that Monday morning came around, I realized I couldn’t just quit. I had two drinks that day, the first one strong and spaced out over a long period of time. I imagined it like an IV drip that kept me from laying on the floor in a pitiful lump. It did nothing to stop my stomach from churning or my body from trembling just enough to make my eyeballs feel like googly eyes. It did help me through an incredibly long day. My last drink was a lukewarm Yuengling in a can that I pulled from a case in the garage. Do you know how hard it was to stop at that and not pad out for another and just quit tomorrow instead? You might know.

My impending one-year anniversary reminds me of where I was one year ago, and it was not a good place. It took about another day for the shakiness to leave and several more for the mental terror to go away. If that sounds melodramatic, I’m sorry because I don’t know how else to describe it. Drying out was like a black hangover with bouts of irrational panic and overwhelming sadness I was determined to keep private. I wasn’t even mourning the loss of alcohol, which didn’t truly come until many months later.

About a week after I stopped drinking, I went to my first recovery meeting with a sober friend. That was the beginning of my sobriety, and the start of an upward climb. In the early days, I replaced my old drinking routines with new rituals. I’ll write about those later this week. I want to do something more positive to celebrate one-year, but it feels important to start at the beginning, which was really the end.

Curse

While we were waiting for a bus along Coastal Highway yesterday, three girls crossed a small side street to stand and wait for the light to change. Then two of them noticed me and my two young girls and thought better of it and dragged their drunk friend in the middle to wait on the other side of the street.

It’s Senior Week down at the beach, which probably makes you think of slow-moving droves of blue hairs with walkers, but it’s just the opposite. It’s where kids who just graduated high school go to get their first taste of freedom. Beer bongs are sold in every beach shop next to the t-shirts reminding us YOLO.

The drunk girl in the middle was being held up by her friends because she could barely walk, but they were all still in the laughing-and-having-a-great-time phase. My oldest daughter, who is 11, asked me “Is she drunk?” her tone mostly of disdain because this is the age where Just Say No feels effective…young kids instinctively hate drugs and alcohol and smoking because they haven’t had the chance to question why everyone still does them if they’re so awful.

Looks like she is,” I said and prayed the girl in the middle would be content to stay on the other side of the street. Maybe her friends were being considerate when they steered her away from us or maybe they were afraid I’d get spooked and call the cops. To what? Report a drunk kid at senior week?

I went to senior week many years ago. My grandmother, for some reason, let me and a group of friends stay in her condo. I think we only broke one framed picture of fruit hanging behind the table we used for drinking games, and it wasn’t me but this girl Karen, who couldn’t handle her liquor and wore entire outfits over her bathing suit when we dragged our asses to the beach at noon. We had a yellow beer bong that I must have bought because I remember smuggling it home in my suitcase. I don’t know what happened to it but I don’t think it made it to college in the fall, which is probably for the best for sanitary reasons because it wasn’t like I could ask my mom to run it through the dishwasher.

It does kind of look like fun,” my kid said. She meant the giggling, drunk part. As I said, the three girls were still in the “oh this is so crazy!” smiling phase. It wasn’t even 5pm. I told my daughter the drunk girl was going to be very sick later and would probably throw up all over herself and feel very sad, and not even about throwing up all over herself. If her friends lost interest in babysitting her, it could even turn ugly, but I didn’t go there. My daughter didn’t seem to be listening anyway.

I’m never sure how much to tell my kids about drinking. My 11-year old knows I don’t drink anymore, but she never asks why not and I don’t offer. She knows I go to meetings once a week, and she never asks what kind. There are different schools of thought, but mine is I’m not ready to tell her. When she’s a little older, I will tell her I stopped because I drank too much and it wasn’t healthy and I am happier not drinking at all.

The thing that depresses the hell out of me is yesterday I realized she’s going to experiment on her own, no matter what I tell her. She has that gene, but it’s more than that. She’s a kid who likes thrills and whatever she has is never enough. Yesterday she won this talking orange at a midway game and said to me “I really wanted the bigger one.” She’s a bright, energetic kid and she’s sweet and thoughtful, but I see a lot of myself in her and that scares the hell out of me. I told her “you’ll never be happy unless you learn to be happy with what you have” but I knew what she heard was “blah blah blahbah blahbah blah.” In a few years she’s going to discover alcohol and it will be like she’s the first person in the world to feel that click where everything comes into focus for a little bit. It won’t last long but it will feel absolutely perfect and she will want to feel it again and again.

I can never tell her about the time during senior week that I brought a boy back from a party to my grandmother’s empty condo. I had a moment on the bus ride back where I thought “I don’t know anything about this dude” but still I brought him because I was afraid of upsetting him and I was drunk. Once we were back at the room, I was sure I wanted him to leave, so I fed him spaghettios and asked him to go. It turned ugly, but only verbally, and even then I recognized my good luck. I gave him a dollar for the bus and he called me some names and left and I never saw him again.  I remember he looked like a skinnier version of an old boyfriend, but he was a lot meaner.

And that is a good story from senior week because it had a happy ending and I remember it. I felt a lot of shame and regret from that week. Was it fun? I don’t remember it that way, though surely some of it was fun or seemed that way at the time.

Yesterday the bus came and by then the drunk girl and her friends had already staggered across the street to home or another party or who knows what. The bus driver accelerated hard before me and my 4 year-old found a seat, so we both lurched forward and she started to fall. In horrifying,hilarious slow motion, I scooped her up in my arm and we landed in an open seat next to my other daughter and she looked up and said “Mommy, you saved me!” It was a precious Hallmark moment except for the thoughts I was having about the bus driver.

If only it were always this easy. I know from friends with older kids that it only gets harder. How do I raise my girls not to take the same easy path I took? Drinking looks like so much fun, but it makes everything so much harder. I know this, but they don’t yet. I know the serenity prayer, but I’m not sure if this falls into the “wisdom to accept the things I cannot change” or “the courage to change the things I can” camp. It’s probably a mix of both and something I may always struggle with. I know I’m doing the right thing by modeling good behavior now, but I wish I could just save them.

Bad pot, resentments, plus a trip to the beach

Yesterday, for some reason, I thought about that time my best friend slept with the boy I was in love with right in front of me when I was so high I could not remember my grandmother’s last name. I’m learning there is no statute of limitations on resentments and that I could probably keep doing Step 4 forever and never finish because there’s always going to be some hurt that won’t stay buried.

For those of you not into the whole 12-step scene, Step 4 is where we create a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” and beam up every sleeping resentment we can find and then probe the hell out of it. In the case of my not-very-good best friend, I quickly saw my role in the pain. I knew she was only interested in me for who I knew at that time and I played that up. I let her hurt me because I was afraid of losing her as a friend. The only part I don’t understand is why I couldn’t remember my grandmother’s last name, but I think it was just crazy pot. When I ran home that night, I thought a squirrel was chasing me. Maybe I should just resent the pot.

The point of Step 4 is not to hash out all the slights and wrongs in our life at one big, dry pity party. The point is to identify the role we played in the biggest messes of our life so that we are no longer doomed to repeat them. It has been an eye opening experience so far. I do believe my drinking was a symptom of my self-absorbed personality and fearfulness. I drank because alcohol was the sweetest escape from my own head, though not reliably over time.

Yesterday I also thought about that time a wise woman told me that people who talk about being bored and doing reckless things to “feel alive” are often in a lot of pain and they don’t even realize it. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy escaping feelings that don’t feel good, so this resonated with me. It turned something I thought was fun and exciting into what it really was: a sad affair.

I know I’m babbling, but I am going somewhere with this. I don’t know exactly how it’s related, but next week I’ll be at the beach with just my kids and I’m well aware of my tendency to tune out when the tedium gets to be too much. There are a million different ways to escape and I know all of them. Step 4 has helped me see how too much alone time, literal and figurative, makes everything worse. If I simply stay in the moment, I feel more alive and want to escape less.

I’m going to read up on mindfulness because the idea fascinates me, but I don’t really understand how to put it into practice. This is probably something I could figure out on my own slowly over time, but I hope to have something practical to help me next week.

I tell you what: I am extremely grateful for being sober because I have the chance to be a better parent (and person) than I ever could have been before. In early recovery, it was all about the booze and how much better my life was without it, which was great. Now that the honeymoon is long over, my recovery is about learning how to change the way I see things so I don’t have that underlying desire to escape in the first place. I’m up two weeks, down the next, but still it feels like progress and I am grateful for this.

Exercising Demons

I just finished taking a licensing pre-exam I’ve been putting off for roughly the last year. And I passed. Just like that. I now have to take a separate, probably tougher exam at a facility where I will first have to empty my pockets and lock up my purse and phone. I can’t imagine anyone would bother cheating on an exam like this one. There is so much information, I wouldn’t know what to begin writing on my hands and along the inside of my arms and eyelids and on the soles of my feet. Anyway, the thing about procrastinating for so long is I now feel more guilty than relieved because the pre-exam was much easier than I imagined. Plus I’m not done yet.

Fear of failure cripples me. I miss the days when I was young and hadn’t failed much, so hardly saw it as something to worry about. The funny thing is my overall failure rate is less now. Maybe this is because I take fewer risks or work through things more carefully or have more life experience. So why am I more afraid to fail?

I recently decided to run a 5K on July 4th. A friend mentioned it the other day when I was lamenting that we won’t be at the beach over the Fourth for the first time in many years. I’ve been running since late February, so her mentioning the 5K was one of those signs I couldn’t ignore…I really want to do this. The problem is I’m barely running 2 miles now, and a 5K is 3.1 miles. What’s another mile? A lot when you’re already huffing and puffing on the treadmill while running a no-incline program. So I have to punch up my game get up to 3.1 miles of mixed terrain. I have a month to do this. In other words, I cannot procrastinate for a year.

I don’t know if this is a normal thing with running, but sometimes I run and actually enjoy the process. When I run outside, I enjoy the smell of the woods around me. I love how strong and capable my body feels. Most of the time, though, I struggle and continue only because I know I will enjoy the feeling afterwards. I run about every other day (and do elliptical or walking in between) and cannot detect a pattern of when it’s hard to run and when it feels easier. Maybe it’s linked to my diet, which some days is not so hot. Maybe I’m running too much, but I don’t think so. Maybe I’m just old.

My husband jokes that I’m running from my demons. This is funny because it’s dead true. Before I started running, I tried to sedate my demons with massive doses of sugar and caffeine. Not surprisingly, this did not work. Running is supposed to tire my demons out, but instead I feel like a parent who dozes off while reading a bedtime story to a toddler who silently continues to bounce through the night.

I’m hoping the clear cut goal of a 5K will help me turn the corner in my running. I want to feel stronger and leaner and tougher, and I don’t just mean physically. It does remind me of what an AA friend said the other day. He’s an older guy with a lot of quirks and time in the program, and he warned me “I lost a lost of friends to exercise.” I had no idea what he meant, so he explained that a lot of people get sober and go to meetings for awhile and then move on to exercise as their addiction and cure. I don’t see this as a bad thing, necessarily, since health nuts generally don’t drink. Exercise might be up there with religion when it comes to addictions that help more than they harm. But maybe the risk is when you tire of exercise or suffer an injury. Then what?

I gotta have something to look forward to that’s fun (mostly) and rewarding and takes me out of my own head for a bit. For awhile, meetings helped me feel that way. Then I discovered candy, then exercise. Maybe one of these days they’ll all work in harmony and lull my little demons to sleep. That sounds nice.

by Bobby Chiu

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