It starts with a sign

So much for having less to say…

A close friend told me that a man from my regular recovery meeting relapsed after five years of sobriety. She saw him at another meeting and was humbled by how proud he was to be celebrating Day 6…again.

I cringe at stories like this because they seem hopeless at first glance. Why bother with sobriety if we’re all bound to relapse? The relapse rate is somewhere around 50-90%, although it varies according to gender (women are less likely to relapse than men), the severity of addiction, length of treatment, support systems in place, etc. Every time I hear about someone who seemed to “get it” relapsing, I remind myself that doesn’t mean I have to.

The topic of relapse isn’t talked about often, probably because it’s so scary. When I first got sober, I was seeing a therapist.  Once I remember telling her I was nervous about a party we were throwing in my first month of sobriety. I told her my husband had picked me up some non-alcoholic beer to have on hand, just in case. She asked me “Do you think drinking them would be a step towards or away from relapse?” Opinions differ greatly on non-alcoholic beer in recovery, and I personally don’t have a problem with someone else drinking it (why would I?), but for me the answer was clear. I could tell myself I used to drink beer because I liked the taste, but the truth is I only liked the really boozy beers. I never liked and rarely drank light lager, which is what non-alcoholic beer reminds me of. So I didn’t drink the fake beer and I always kept her question in the back of my mind.

I also learned from this therapist that relapse isn’t simply picking up a drink one day. It’s a gradual, often slow process that happens so discreetly we may not notice the signs. This is the reason I wish it was talked about more. Here is a basic primer on relapse warning signs based on research by Gorski. The warning signs that struck me most are feeling stuck in the recovery process and denying that this and other stressors are getting to us. I am the queen of denial. Always have been, trying hard not to be, but it’s easy to fall back into that pattern of clamming up when stress piles on. Everything is not fine. Admitting that is a step away from relapse.

I can definitely see myself in some of the 11 warning signs. I tend to isolate normally because I’m an introvert, so this is where I need to tailor the list to fit me. I know if I start finding myself keeping secrets and bottling up frustration and fear, that’s a sign I’m getting closer to a relapse. If I stop making time for the things that help me feel good (morning runs, for example), that’s a big red flag. Everyone is different, so that’s why I really liked my old therapist’s advice: if you’re not sure about doing something, ask yourself if it’s a step closer to or away from a relapse. If you’re still not sure, get another opinion, preferably someone you know has your best interests at heart or a friend in recovery (often one and the same!).

Recovery is like marriage…it’s hard work. Some days I’m breezing along, enjoying the hell out of it, appreciating my new, better life. Other days I question everything, expect I should have more than I do and generally feel like I’m doing it all wrong. When I get like this, something is wrong and that’s a sign I need to dig deeper. I am pretty out of touch with my feelings after a lifetime of practice, so I need simple signs to look for. Not everyone is this dense, fortunately.

I’m glad the guy from my meeting came back. No matter what happens, if we do relapse we always have the choice and chance to come back. There is hope in this too.

$5 pretzels and (free) double rainbows

Inspired by Below Her Means, here is a Bits and Pieces post:

I just got back from vacation. I didn’t relapse or ditch this blog. I just feel weird announcing to the world when I go on vacation. Not that you’re the type to rob me. Not that I have anything to rob if you were. I’m just weird.

I went to Disney World, where my husband and I witnessed two random, completely unrelated physical altercations between parents and their adult children in one day. It may be the happiest place on earth, but that expectation puts an incredible strain on visitors.

Pictures taken at Disney turn out better than at normal places. The clouds are puffier and everything smells nicer too. Soft pretzels shaped like Mickey’s head cost $5 and there’s fistfights, so it’s not all sunshine and lollipops.

I thought very little about recovery on vacation. I didn’t go to any recovery meetings, though that’s not unusual for me. I didn’t think about drinking or not-drinking much at all. Maybe I was just too busy. It was pretty nice.

I’ve been thinking of scaling back here because I have less to say. I think this is normal but I don’t want anyone to think I’ve relapsed. Is there anything scarier than seeing a sober blogger suddenly vanish?

That being said, I’m starting to feel the cyclical nature of sober blogging. I remember going to a recovery meeting when I had less than 2 weeks and seeing a woman stand to take her 9 month coin and thinking that seemed impossibly far away. Now it feels like a long time ago. In blogging, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing newer newcomers come in and gain 9 weeks or 90 days or 9 months. They share their experience and hope with the even newer newcomers. And so on.

This is the really comforting thing about recovery, whether in meetings or online. No matter where we are, there is always this safe place to go and be understood. There is always someone who has already been through whatever you’re going through now, ready to help. Don’t be afraid to speak up. The sober community is filled with amazing people. I’ve never known anything like it.

Finally, I leave you with this picture of a double rainbow, which I saw with my very own eyes. They’re real!

Apple Cart

I guess I’m starting to understand what people mean by white knuckling it. Before I never thought it applied because I work a spiritual program of recovery. I have coins and everything!

Without going into details that frankly bore and confuse me, we occasionally sell some stuff on amazon and I’m dealing with a douchey buyer. It happens. I know this already. What I didn’t know – had no freaking clue – was that I had an apple cart and it’s been upset because that’s what happens to apple carts.

Maybe people shouldn’t have apple carts? You push it over a big enough bump and those apples are coming down in a terrible avalanche no matter how excellently you engineer fruit pyramids. But what about the small bumps… the tiny pebbles in the road, really? I think I have too many small stressors going on right now. Most of them are really good, but stress is stress, I guess.

Like I said, I didn’t even know I had an apple cart until recently. Before I shrugged the little stuff off because I didn’t care about it. This part is good, this caring thing.

I still don’t know if any of my apples are salvageable because douchey buyers are terrible about responding to email. Thinking about apple carts has made me feel better. I still say there’s got to be a better way to transport apples, but it is kind of funny in that moment after the terrible avalanche and all the rolling stops and you think, wait, these are just apples.

update: I feel bad calling him douchey because he got back to me and those apples are barely bruised. I can probably still make a pie out of them. 

Progress

Yesterday I noticed my running pace had bettered by about a minute/mile compared to two months ago. It is still old-lady-slow, but I run without goals and simply for my own enjoyment and sweat, so I felt a sweet shock of progress I hadn’t been expecting but it happened anyway because I literally kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Sometimes I still see a big glass of red wine on the counter and I hate it and even the person who put it there a little for leaving it out in the open like that — as if booze should suddenly become invisible or banished from earth because it’s evil and makes us do evil things. Then I remember this is only true for a relatively small percentage of the population and eventually this glass of wine gets drunk and does become invisible, but by then I’ve forgotten about it anyway.

Most days I never think about picking it up and drinking it. Some days I don’t notice it at all. This is progress, not perfection.

I pay my bills in a more organized fashion because I am not afraid to open the checkbook. My husband and I even set up a budget last month and I feel good about this, though also terrified because every bottle of OPI I buy will be scrutinized. But then again so will his bottles of wine, so I am not suffering alone at least.

I am more patient with my children. I am more present for them. I see that the people I can reach out and touch (without getting strange looks/arrested) are the ones who deserve my charm and patience and, well, love. I don’t go on twitter anymore because the endless stream of it’s 5 o’clock somewhere! jokes make me remember more than I want to and facebook feels two-dimensional, like a boyfriend I met at summer camp and we stopped writing each other because what the hell do we talk about anymore? I even feel funny mentioning social media by name, like I’m using “far out” in a work email.

There is more work to be done. There is always more work to be done. I will never be done and I will never get a gold medal as a wife or mother or employee or runner or even nail polish collector. Some days will suck more than others, but overall the days suck substantially less than they did one year ago (when I was not even 2 months sober!). That doesn’t sound very romantic, but I am very much in love with my life in this beautiful moment, the only one that matters.

Alone (but never lonely) with cookies

Imagine you come home and go into the kitchen. A plate of warm chocolate chip cookies sits on the counter just out of the oven. Their smell hits you as you walk in. You do not feel hungry. No one else is around. What would you do?

From How do you know if you’re sugar sensitive?

If you’re like me, the thought of this made you literally lol or at least smile. No one else is around? Is it possible to make sweet, sweet love to a plate of warm cookies?

The cookie scenario is from a book I read after yet another shameful post about my troubling relationship with cookies prompted Below Her Means to recommend Potatoes Not Prozac. I had no idea this book existed, though I know from reading enough recovery blogs that alcoholics love their sweets. It seems we shift from too much booze to too much sugar, which is hardly surprising since booze is mostly sugar.  But I had never found any theories on why we make this switch or why we might be drawn to alcohol in the first place, and now I can’t put this book down.  

The author, Kathleen DesMaisons, believes sugar-sensitive people have an inherited biochemical tendency towards unstable blood sugar levels and low levels of serotonin and beta-endorphins. We naturally seek out sugar to fix these shortfalls, which kicks our pleasure receptors into overdrive and sets up a powerful cycle for cravings. This is why the chocolate chip cookie question made me laugh. Maybe someone could resist them, but it never crossed my mind. I was already pouring myself a glass of cold milk.

I’ve heard people talk about sugar highs and crashes, but I can’t say this fits my experience. Many times I crave sweet things more than I craved booze in the beginning months of sobriety, but I wouldn’t say I feel high after a sugar binge. It’s safer to say I feel normal but with a heaping side of shame, which is why I was drawn to south beach diet back in March. South Beach is all about eating more lean protein and lower glycemic-index foods to stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce sugar cravings. I remember looking at their list of foods to avoid and seeing two of my long-time favorites: pineapple and beets. This was the first time I felt like maybe I really was born this way.

My father has a drawer in his kitchen for hard candies and jelly beans. My great-grandmother used to eat fun-sized Milky Ways before bed because she said they helped her sleep. My anxiety-prone grandmother brings along a bag of butterscotch discs when she goes grocery shopping because she says it makes her feel calmer. My family jokes about these quirks because our natural draw to sugar is so powerful we don’t know what to make of it. This family history of sugar-lovers is an early red flag according to Potatoes Not Prozac. We can’t fight genetics, but we can change the way we eat.

I did take off weight and had fewer cravings (and subsequent shame) when I followed south beach diet. I kept the weight off and have continued to lose more, albeit at a much slower rate, probably because I regularly have forbidden things like ice cream and, yes, even pineapples and beets. The sugar cravings came back once I started giving into them, but I still focus on eating more lean protein, vegetables and whole grains. Breakfast and lunch are really easy for me to control for some reason. So I eat well when I can and recently started keeping a food journal to track what I eat and what my moods are. I am completely oblivious to a link between the two, but I’m pretty sure I’ll see one if I keep at it.

That’s another thing I like about Potatoes Not Prozac.  The solution seems like one bred of common sense and patience. It doesn’t promise overnight success and even warns against quick fixes. This and its 7-step process (which is slightly different in the older edition book I got at the library) reminds me of a certain 12-step program many alcoholics are already familiar with, though that shouldn’t be a turn-off for those not fond of formal recovery programs. Slow and steady wins the race is the message I take away. If you mess up, keep trying and find what works for you. Eventually you’ll get there.

Ultimately I need to cut out sugar binges because they make me feel worse about myself than I did in the first place. That’s a road I’ve already been down with alcohol. Sugar is harder to avoid, for sure, so I’m not looking to cut it out entirely. That doesn’t feel realistic for me. Anyway, I’m getting too far ahead of myself as usual. For now, I will do step 1, which is journal what you eat and how you feel because it’s easy enough to do and because I love pretending to be a scientist.

In that vein, I’d love to know your reaction to the warm-plate-of-cookies scenario. What would you do?

Tiny worries

The summer I was eight, a semi-distant relative drove several time zones over to deliver a handcrafted dollhouse. There were other reasons for the visit, but I hardly noticed once my parents centered the dollhouse on a table in my room and put a chair in front of it. I’m pretty sure I mentally moved into that house and never left until summer ended and I was forced back to school.

I created many adventures in that dollhouse, many of them involving tartily-dressed Glamour Dolls and the hideously deformed dad-doll that came with the house. Let’s just say he was one lucky dude.

I spent hours rearranging the attic or the kitchen or the bathroom, which was also sometimes the baby’s room. My dollhouse may not have been sanitary but it was very organized, the byproduct of a budding control freak.

My fantasies blossomed and I started thinking how perfect it would be if I had a real family of miniature people living in my dollhouse. The dad could ride to work every morning on an electric train looping through my room. Underneath my bed would be the tunnel, of course. I’m not sure what kind of job he’d be going to, but there was a lot of stuff underneath my bed so I’m sure he could have found something to do, had he existed.

My point here is this: I have always had control issues.

I still love dollhouses and built one for my daughter when she was so little, her and a friend broke the front door off in the first week. I also love dioramas and recently found an app that lets me arrange a virtual city however I like.  Mine has several factories, a movie theatre, a really lovely park, and even its own clown college.

Currently I am finding an obscene amount of pleasure in planning a family trip. All those delicious details, so tiny and perfect and all mine because no one else is crazy enough to want to deal with them. Control can be good!

But what about all the worry I’m expending on those details just outside my control? Oh dear god, there are so many. Will our flight leave on schedule, will we even make it to the airport on time, will our room be ready, etc. etc. infinity.

I tend to hear what I need to hear, and lately my blogroll reading has focused heavier than usual on control issues. Giving it up, taking control, wanting more, being sick to death of thinking we have control over much at all.

The contradictory nature of this is that as much as I love control, letting go of the worry allows peace. There is room for both, and I believe I’ll get to that balance if I stay open and honest with myself on why I want control in the first place.

Here I am commandeering a tiny house and cat and even a shirt with tiny tennis racquets on it and see how happy I look?

The reverse hangover

I’ve been very fortunate to avoid or at least limit my exposure to the kinds of social situations many of the newly sober find themselves in right away:  weddings, business trips to Vegas, work happy hours, boozy client dinners, etc. I even skipped my 20 year high school reunion last summer because I didn’t want to face all that drinking sober. Never lost any sleep over that decision, btw.

This weekend was an abrupt switch from my carefully conscious sober life to being around people who drink like I used to drink. Alcohol was discussed and poured and even spilled more in front of me in a 24 hour period than in the last year of my life. At first I found myself thinking “why can’t I just drink with them?”  They were all having so much fun. But the experience was like a hangover in reverse: the more everyone else drank, the better I felt in my own sober skin.

4pm Saturday –  The other grownups drink beer or whiskey and get ready to go out and I feel anxious and low. I remember golden Saturday afternoons and fuzzy-headed buzzes and how nice those things feel. But when did I even have that last? I can’t remember the last time I waited until 4pm on a Saturday for a drink. What’s so great about being buzzed at 11am?

6pm –  The others return from the brewery that used to be my favorite. Their high octane beers were my pride and downfall. They still serve amazing soft pretzels and root beer, plus their game room keeps the kids amused for at least 15 minutes, but I’m glad I didn’t go. In that moment, I didn’t belong there.

8pm – I’m glad I’m not slurring my words or having to expend all that mental energy to keep from slurring my words. I used to pride myself on not appearing as drunk as I was, so being drunk was pretty exhausting. It feels good to be a sober hostess…no forgotten side dishes or taking an hour to clear the table in between drink and smoke breaks.

9pm – I’m not out of breath or incapacitated after a few games of ghost in the graveyard. I used to be a social smoker, which means I smoked only when I drank. Which means I smoked a lot.

10pm – Our guests’ cigarettes smell good but I don’t want one. I can’t follow anyone’s conversation because everybody is talking over everbody else. I really want to go inside and watch Gremlins 2 with my kid, and I will soon, but first I think about what I would be doing after six hours of drinking.  I would be talking over everybody else too but making less sense. I would be sharing too much and slurring and no longer caring. I might even be drinking from a beer bottle with a cigarette butt swirling around the bottom.

9am, the next day – I am hangover free and it is no less beautiful than it always is. We go to breakfast at a place that has great food and I didn’t feel the need to lobby for somewhere that at least serves mimosas. I enjoy our company in that relaxed, giddy mood of morning afters without all the pain.

For those who are new to not-drinking or struggling with all the changes it entails, it absolutely does get easier over time. Other people told me this before and it turns out they were right. Everything gets easier, but being around other drinkers is something in particular I’m more comfortable with now. My husband said me not-drinking just feels like the new normal, which is great. I’m glad he feels that way. I don’t quite feel this myself and I suspect it will always be a little hard and feel a bit tempting when I’m around others enjoying alcohol in the same carefree way I once did. But it’s not hard to remember carefree weekend buzzes were not my reality in the end.

Now I’m rewarded with a different kind of peace when I don’t drink. It lasts longer than any buzz and I don’t have to pay for it later, and that is why I don’t drink.

An old counselor I knew during rougher times called nasty spats thunderstorms, and I found this both corny and calming. Thunderstorms seem to come out of nowhere and are really intense and scary, but they quickly pass. I’ve had my share of rough mornings in sobriety, but usually my mood levels out by lunch. This week was a little rougher and the storm lasted longer, but it did pass and with minimal damage.

Inspired by a post on gratitude lists by Furtheron, a blogger I’ve found inspirational and supportive for some time now, I thought about all the tools I have at my disposal that helped pull me out of the funk I was in. I am grateful for these tools.

1) Exercise: Even though I didn’t feel like it, I jogged/walked/elliptical’d as usual. Yesterday my sweet husband added the Olympics soundtrack to my shuffle, so this morning I geeked out on that during a run. I also saw a mother deer and her two babies (still with polka dots!) drinking from a skunky pond that used to have a big orange koi in it. Then I noticed a blue heron standing bone-still several feet away, which struck me because I didn’t know different types of wildlife hung out together. Also, I’m pretty sure I know what happened to the big orange koi.

2) Getting shit done: This week I bought a personal organizer for an upcoming trip. The trip itself is stressing me out, even though it’s something I’m very much looking forward to. All the thoughts swirling around in my head fell into place shortly after I bought a personal organizer. Coincidence, hmm? Also, I was productive at work and other areas that did not involve online shopping, even though those weren’t as fun.

3) Food: I’ve written about this before, but I comfort eat when I’m stressed out. Because I am a half-assed scientist, I post the below picture, which I’m probably not supposed to do because I didn’t draw it, though I definitely would have included a plate of piping-hot chocolate chip cookies too. Self-medicating with food is not something I’m particularly grateful for, but I am glad I can occasionally dive into a plate of cookies and then get back on track. I am extremely grateful to weigh less than I did on my wedding day ten billion years ago. Most of all, I am grateful I crave cookies and not alcohol. It was not this way last summer.

4) ELMO IS COMING TO MY HOUSE: This was another online purchase to replace my sweet little girl’s vintage 1996 Tickle Me Elmo, whose eyeballs started to separate from his face in a horrifying turn of events. I don’t know why this makes me grateful, but I suspect I just wanted to type that out in bold allcaps. After I tackle my food addiction, I’ll figure out how to scale back on amazon prime, but they don’t make it easy with free 2-day shipping.

5) Feeling like I might be able to let go: If you’re still reading, I have no idea why, but thank you. I’ve been struggling with Step 6 lately in that I probably believe in god, but not necessarily God. Then I was driving in my car the other day and it struck me that I can work on my character defects by recognizing them and actively trying to correct my response in that moment. I know, this doesn’t read quite like the epiphany it felt in the car, but trust me, it’s huge for me. I just have to be willing to stop fighting with myself and work with what I have.

Thanks for reading and try a gratitude list next time you’re feeling mopey. I do believe gratitude is a muscle I need to exercise regularly, and doing so always leaves me feeling better and stronger.

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