The death of Audrey Conn

Audrey Conn died just before Christmas. According to this article on The Fix, she swallowed pills and vodka and then hung herself. It took awhile for the news to break. The founder of Moderation Management was living in relative obscurity at the time of her death.

In 1996, I knew her as author Audrey Kishline. The picture on the back of her book Moderate Drinking made her seem more school marm than alcoholic. In fact, she was clear her approach was not for alcoholics. Moderation Management was aimed at helping problem drinkers return to moderate drinking. If only the lines in real life were that clear.

Moderation Management guidelines are pretty clear about moderate drinking. For women, this means no more than 3 drinks a day, but here’s the real kicker: no more than 9 drinks in a week. This must be some kind of joke, I thought, when I first pulled Audrey’s book off the shelf at Barnes and Noble in 1996. I was 22 and it was the only book I could find that wasn’t about quitting alcohol, although I knew I needed some kind of help.

I’m in awe of people in their twenties who quit drinking. Those were carefree days for me, and I was in denial about where my drinking was headed. By day, I worked as a mental health worker with schizophrenic adults. I lived with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and we reserved most drinking for the weekends. A close friend held fabulous cocktails parties so we’d get all dressed up and head into the city. I’d creep outside my comfort zone of beer and guzzle liquor and later spew it back up along the walkway of our apartment building. It was a real classy affair. The next morning I might recline the driver’s seat of my white Festiva so I could curl into a fetal position in the grocery store parking lot. I was alternately working up the nerve to get the shopping over with and wishing I was dead because I felt like I might be already. That was how I drank. Can you believe I stopped?

But I didn’t stop then, no. I bought Audrey’s book and took it home and poured over it. I started the 30 day abstinence period during the month of October. I’d forgotten all about Oktoberfest. I went to one outdoor celebration anyway and white knuckled through while a drinking buddy snorted “What, do you think you’re some kind of alcoholic?” Of course not, I said. That was such an ugly, hopeless word. When November rolled around, I was relieved, but I wouldn’t say it was all that hard to abstain for a month. Thirty days is a light sentence.

By all accounts, Moderate Drinking should have worked on me. I was in my early 20s and not yet a daily drinker. I had a steady job, a nice place to live, a boyfriend, and no real personal or health consequences from drinking. I binge-drank on weekends, but even then puking and hangovers were saved for really special occasions. I continued to drink for the next 15 years, never once sticking to 9 drinks a week.

I read somewhere recently that moderate drinkers don’t call it moderate drinking. Shocking, I know, but they don’t feel the need to count drinks and plan their whole night around how much they drink or don’t drink. The first sign that you’re not a moderate drinker might be using the phrase moderate drinker.

Fifteen years of progressively heavier drinking got me back to the bookstore for another copy of the book that helped me so much the first time around. It was not there. The shelves were lined with books on how to quit. What the hell? I googled and found a book from Moderation Management, but with a different title and new author. Eleven years after it happened, I quietly read about Audrey Kishline’s deadly drunk driving accident. I think that’s the moment it fell into place for me. I’ve always described my decision to quit drinking as a mysterious, quiet thunderbolt from beyond. But now I think this was it. Thank you, Audrey.

I actually wrote to her in October. I said how much her book helped me over the years. I told her because of her book and my inability to actually drink moderately, I’d quit drinking and found something that felt like peace. I told her I would love to interview her, that I was curious how she was doing and thought other people might be too. I hadn’t worked out where the interview would run, and figured I probably wouldn’t hear back from her and didn’t for awhile.

Her response was short and sweet. She thanked me for writing and said she was glad I found the recovery approach that worked for me. She said she was totally abstinent and planning on staying that way. I remember she put a smiley face after that sentence. She said she was too busy for interviews because she was writing again. I was half-disappointed and half-relieved. It felt like a happy ending. I wrote back and told her I was glad to hear she was writing again and wished her well.

Suicide is black hole territory. I can’t help but wonder if I could have reached out differently and helped her in some way, however small. Imagine how her mother must feel. Her children! I feel sad for the woman who lost her daughter and ex-husband in the drunk driving accident and later became friends with Audrey. They wrote a book together, I imagine to tell about the devastating effects of drunk driving and healing powers of love and hope.

For what it’s worth, it all helped me. I can’t say for sure I would have stopped drinking if not for Audrey’s first book and her accident. Her drunk driving accident was my wakeup call. When I read about it in 2011, I thought that could happen to me. I didn’t know then that not drinking would turn out to be easier than counting drinks and trying hard to be something I was not. Everyone involved in her story cleared a path and lit the way.

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100 years

Before the big party, my grandmother asks me to do her makeup. Her hands are too shaky, she explains, as she hands me a tube of foundation that looks too tan. I squeeze a tiny amount onto my fingertip and feather and blend in the worn light of her bathroom. She asks for rouge – actually calling it that – and hands me a tube of cheap lipstick. Let me go get my makeup bag, I say. Ok, she says.

My fingers carefully navigate the suddenly unfamiliar terrain of her face. When did her skin get so soft, so thin? When is the last time I’ve touched anyone’s face besides my own and my little girl’s? My grandmother closes her eyes while I work with brushes and pencils and the foamy tip of an eyeshadow wand. I alternate between worrying she’ll look garish and no different at all. When I’m done, she turns to the mirror and says to herself You are old but she smiles and seems pleased.

Five of us pile into my dad’s car and head into the city for this big party. It’s a 100 year celebration for a social club my grandmother joined shortly after she emigrated to this country in the Fifties. I spent a half dozen of the longest evenings of my life in this hall when my brother and I were kids. We were surrounded by old people who smiled a lot and spoke a language we couldn’t understand. They served plates of steaming gray sausages and beef rolls that resembled dog turds but fortunately did not taste like them (I assume).

This might be a good place to back up and explain there’s a generation missing. My dad is not my grandmother’s son. He is her ex son-in-law. My mother died from cancer when I was just over a year old. She was my grandmother’s only daughter. My grandmother never got over that one, I can tell you. My dad remarried eventually and my brother and I grew up with a good woman who I have always known as Mom. My dad, good people that he is, still helps my grandmother with things like taxes and escorting her to 100 year celebrations.

When we get to the hall for this shindig, the foyer is in chaos. I have to root through my purse to find our tickets. We give up our coats to women in folk costumes who usher us to a table and hold out tiny glasses of something. It’s Vityra, a honey liqueur. Oh, no thank you, I say. Here, a woman says and extends the glass again. I don’t drink, I say. Everyone’s wearing tight smiles to mask the sudden awkwardness and confusion. Another woman steps in and says Just a tiny sip like I’ve hit 41 and never tried alcohol. I start to feel indignant, a little hysterical even. She says to me, It will help for the next room. You are sadly mistaken I want to say, but I refuse again and this time it sticks and the others take their shot and toast. Ten seconds feels like ten rounds. I feel oddly fortified to face the next room.

The doors swing open and the room sucks us in. An unsmiling photographer snaps our photograph, only I don’t realize until he tells us we can go. If I ever see the picture, I’m certain I’ll be staring open mouthed at the ceiling or wall. The hall is magnificent. I haven’t been here in over 20 years and it looks better than I remember or imagined. The afternoon sun filters through golden curtains and everyone looks airbrushed and perfect.

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I drink Cokes with the girls. Normally I would drink Diet, but today I’m letting my hair down. I take pictures of the hall. My grandmother finds old friends to talk to, so my dad and girls and I head up three flights of stairs to a museum that needs its own museum. I snap about 200 pictures, all of which I’m going to share with you right now.

IMG_0033Oh, just kidding. Sorry if I gave you a scare.

My kids were the first to fade. Kids these days have no stamina for folk carvings and dolls that probably come to life and dance quaintly. Here’s the moment they realize my 88 year-old grandmother is halfway up the first landing.

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I feel like we’d been caught going out for ice cream without her. It’s too many stairs, I say. It’s really cold up there, my oldest points out helpfully. There’s old dolls, my youngest says unhelpfully. My dad’s no help because he’s still upstairs talking to the curator, but my grandmother doesn’t seem interested in the museum anyway. I help her back down and an older gentleman passes us and she whispers to me He wanted to marry your mother.

She says this again later about another man that stops by our table. He introduces himself to me as the man responsible for getting my mother and father together. I tell him thank you very much because if not for him, my girls and I wouldn’t be here. When he leaves my grandmother tells me he too wanted to marry my mother but he was too short for her.

100 year celebrations are maybe only somewhat surprisingly filled with speeches. A congressman, an ambassador, and a former hall president give speeches. Only one is in english. It sounds like the start of a joke, and the punchline is quaint folk dancing. The jarring accordion starts while we’re in the restroom. It looks like it did 20 years ago. I know it’s bad form to post pictures of restrooms on blogs, but I already worked dog turds into this post and hope you’ll understand.

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If not for the overpowering funk of air freshener, I might have pulled up a chair to take it all in. My grandmother swears it was renovated recently. When we get older, do all the decades bleed together?

After all the speeches and folk dancing, my grandmother wants to walk up to the buffet line and serve herself. They’re calling tables by number, we explain. I see several white-haired renegades totter over with their chinette plates. When you get to a certain age, maybe you realize rules are for rubes. Maybe you hit enough buffets that ran out early.

The salad is the best I’ve ever had. The cake has almond paste and layers and looks like it took someone a long time to make. The kids don’t eat much. I sneak them bland things I brought from home and let them fill up on marble cake with white frosting that someone mercifully put out by the coffee. My grandmother eats everything on her plate and wraps fried dough pastries in a napkin and puts them in her sequined purse to take home. Just when I think the night can’t get any better, a man about my age with spiky hair sets up on stage and plays electric guitar and sings Lithuanian rock songs.

My youngest one wants to dance. This kid, she won’t take no for an answer about anything, so I don’t try too hard. We’re one of two “couples” “dancing”. She likes me to twirl her around so that you or I would vomit. Kids just get crazier when you spin them that fast. She’s like a tiny top of madness and it doesn’t matter that I can’t barely dance the hokey pokey because I’m really enjoying myself. It’s a good thing I don’t drink because I’d never be able to handle these spins, I think.

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Soon the dance floor is cramped. This crowd knows just what to do and forms a giant circle. People wearing black hats are allowed to dance inside it. I don’t understand the rules, but we all abide. After the dance breaks up, my grandmother greets an old friend with a hug.

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We don’t stay too much longer. I’m the first one ready to leave. My grandmother is the last. She says my dad doesn’t want to leave. She says he and my mother used to go dancing all the time before they had kids. Eventually we get our coats and head out into the cold dark night in a huddle to keep warm.

Is it too early to call?

When did I regularly start getting up before 5am? This is the dark side of getting up to write in the morning. Sometimes my eyes pop open at 3:30am and I’ll start thinking about coffee and how good it tastes and smells and, yes, let’s have some. I love coffee so much. I did manage to cut it out for about a week when I started having bad heartburn again. I spent the morning of my 41st birthday having a barium swallow x-ray to rule out causes.

Welcome to middle age! Here’s a hospital gown so confusing we also put up a poster to show you how to put it on. In a little while we’re going to give you a metal milkshake to drink, which we’re pretty sure you’ll find delicious if you followed the rule not to eat anything after midnight, which, yes, always makes us think of Gremlins too. 

The test went fine and when I popped off the raised platform at the end, the technician went “oh-ohh” and said she wasn’t used to such mobile patients. So at least I felt like a spritely 41 year-old.

This holiday season has been marked with minor illnesses. I also had bronchitis before Thanksgiving. A couple weeks later, my husband one-upped me and landed pneumonia. Our youngest then caught a fever-cough combo that lingered far too long. These were all relatively minor, but being sick and then in recovery mode sure screwed up my idea of how the holidays were gonna go down.

On Sunday, I hit 3.5 years sober. Since last holiday season felt easier than any before it, I mistakenly thought they would just keep feeling that way. I don’t know why I thought that or if I somehow thought in ten years I’d wake up on December 1st and all the gifts would be purchased, wrapped and underneath a tree elves cut from the black forest of Soberasia.

This holiday season started out more stressful than I’d anticipated. I white knuckled through. Don’t let anyone tell you that’s not a valuable coping strategy, by the way. I don’t recommend it long term, but sobriety and life in general is sometimes very fucking hard. So it makes sense it will also feel that way. Hang in there, kitten! Don’t give up! The storm will pass.

My storm passed on Sunday, which was also Winter Solstice and 3.5 years since my last drink, but those aren’t the reasons it passed. Sunday was also the day I screwed up the nerve to show up for a big local running group in town. I’m no stranger to running groups, but this was a completely different experience from my last one. The group I joined before was more men and more competitive. This is mostly women, and a woman I’d never met before offered to run with me, even though I later found out her normal pace blows mine out of the water. The instant comradery and support reminded me of an AA meeting. I ran 4 miles and joined a group that meets to run when normal folk are still drooling on their pillows.

This is what I needed all along and I feel like someone or something dropped it in my lap like a gift. Here, I got you something I think you’ll like. At first I opened the box and thought what? this sweater? I already have it in three different colors and never wear it. But I held it up and thought what the hell and tried it on and don’t you know it fit perfectly and felt better by the mile. So, yeah, thanks universe. You always know just what to give me.

I got another swell gift from the universe this week. The Fix ran an essay I wrote about the holidays. I wrote it before Thanksgiving and had worked up in my mind that they didn’t like it enough to use, but then I got a very nice email that they were running it as a feature this week. They asked if I wanted to change anything, which I thought about because things went all pear-shaped and then got better, but then decided the holidays weren’t over yet anyway. Is it too early to call now?

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I know better than to label things good or bad, but I still do it. I also eat far too much dessert when stress hits, which makes me feel worse, but I still do that too. What I do differently this year compared to my first sober Christmas is I shop and wrap earlier. When’s the last time a Christmas cookie wrapped all my presents? Thanks a lot cookies, but don’t worry, I still plan to eat every last one of you.

I hope you’ll read the article at The Fix because I tell a story from my first sober Christmas when I was really struggling. A kind stranger I’d never met before or since did something so small I guarantee she had no idea how much she helped me. You never know where the best gifts will come from, but I can tell you sometimes they come from you.

Beat the Bridge

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I’m loading loose groceries into a tiny, ancient rental convertible and waiting for some guy to bring me paperwork so I can leave. Apples roll into the front passenger side, smooshing a shrink-wrapped pack of sausages. I check the time. 6:45am, the same time I’m supposed to meet my sister for the race. I still have a two-hour drive ahead of me. Where is that guy with the paperwork?

The nice thing about built-in alarm clocks is they have the opposite of a sleep function. At least mine does. That’s when you wake up before the alarm is set because your subconscious doesn’t trust real alarm clocks on account of not using them much. I imagine a mostly unused alarm clock might be passive-aggressive when it comes to big events. Plus I’m not sure I even know how to set mine properly.

There’s no taking chances when you have to meet a group of people two hours away at 6:45am on a Sunday morning and you have the parking pass. The rental car dream was a big red flag, so I got up before the alarm did or didn’t go off and I went downstairs to make coffee and mentally prepare for the big 10K.

A 10K is 6.2 miles, which I’d run a half dozen times since late August. My favorite run was also the first one I did along a flat and shaded roadside to an abandoned watchtower on the Delaware coast. On all my practice runs, I paused my running app so the clock wouldn’t roll while I snapped pictures, a hobby that paired nicely with running this summer.

This was the summer of running for the enjoyment of it. Actually, I forgot that I wasn’t going to call it running anymore. I jog. What happened when I went out for sporadic, leisurely jogs and left the timing gear at home was I got slower. Like, a minute-a-mile slower. I started tracking my pace again around the time I started 6 mile practice runs, but I never got faster.

I was nervous going into this race. The night before, we all got an email from the organizer that basically said “Look, we better tell you right now: expect long lines and delays. In case you didn’t know, you’re not the only one doing this race. You’ll be running with 20,000 other people. Twenty thousand. So take off the crown and just show up and enjoy yourself.” I thought it was the kind of email that might be helpful to get every single morning.

It turns out, the race was extremely well organized. I met my baby sister and her running buddies right on time and we parked at the nearest shuttle stop and were whisked off to the start line. Here I am in the only pair of sunglasses I seem to have left after summer, with the stunning Bay Bridge in the background, plus what looks like an unsuspecting woman getting ready to take a swim.

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The course was 4.35 miles of bridge, plus some mileage before and after to make up the 10K. The bridge part was absolutely amazing. At the midpoint, we were hovering 186 feet above sea. There were telephones and sobering signs for a suicide hotline. My sister said she looked over the side at the top, but I didn’t dare. We were so close to heaven. This is where I hit my peak, the part in the run where I felt strong enough to keep going to the finish line and maybe forevermore.

Then mile 5 came. For some reason, I was still chewing gum I’d had since the drive down. I didn’t want to throw it over the side of the bridge and hit an unsuspecting seagull, and suddenly this old gum felt like an albatross, a real liability I was lugging towards the finish line. My mouth was desert-dry and I a little panicky. This is where I wanted to walk so bad. Then a song came on my playlist that made me keep going.

I’m superstitious about using the shuffle feature during races. One reason is that it’s really hard to get my phone in and out of a running belt (more on that in a bit) to skip songs, but I also think the songs talk to me at various points, and often when I need to hear them the most. Around mile 5.2, when desert mouth hit and I noticed a hill looming in the distance, Ray of Light came on. I don’t even know I’d ever listened to the lyrics before, and then in my about-ready-to-give-up-and-walk state, I heard this:

Faster than the speeding light she’s flying
Trying to remember where it all began
She’s got herself a little piece of heaven

I happened to be jogging alongside an airport with grounded planes that were “flying” faster than me, so I got a case of the chuckles, which are like giggles for delirious, tired people. Then trying to remember where it all began brought it home.

Awhile back, I wrote about how driving across the Bay Bridge in the worst hungover state of my life indirectly, and not until many months later, led me to remove the demon alcohol from my life. Running over it sober, healthy? This was a big deal for me. I did remember where it all began and in that moment I was like “okay Universe, thanks buddy” and kept dragging towards the looming hill and heaven.

I got this when I crossed over. The finish line, I mean, not heaven. Maybe they give medals in heaven too, not that I’ll probably find out.

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a major award

I had the best cup of coffee in my life after the run. I got a space blanket, which I thought they only gave out for marathons, but I took mine because a 10K is as close as I’ll get to running a marathon.

The coffee wasn’t free, but luckily I’d brought a twenty dollar bill in my running belt. Remember the post where I shared the preachy, tragic short story I wrote when I was 11? Well, it almost came true.

While taking out my phone at the 1.5 mile mark to take a blurry picture of my feet or something, my precious $20 fell out! Now, I might let a $5 spot go, but not a $20. I nearly took out two unsuspecting runners in a mad scramble to pick it up. I feel really bad about that part and only later did I make the connection that I very nearly died, just like 11-year old me predicted.

So the run is over and I had such a wonderful time. It was amazing and empowering and all the things I’d hoped it would be, despite the race organizer’s low-expectations email. The best part was getting to spend time with my sister, who I don’t see nearly enough. After the race, we cleaned up and went to lunch at a fun place on the water with her husband and sweet baby boy. These are the precious moments, you know? This is what life is all about.

No dealbreakers here

Occasionally I get emails from people who are thinking of getting sober but aren’t quite there yet. I love getting these emails, but they scare me a little too because I want to tell them it’s fine here in Soberland – better than fine, even peachy keen most days – but I remember that jumping off point and how little I thought about it before making the leap. My counselor at the time told me to get to AA and I blindly did that and it just so happened to work for me in those early days. I went to meetings and I soaked in the stories and feeling of support and hope, and sobriety just kind of blossomed from there.

But what about those people who don’t believe AA will work for them? I know numerous people who got and stayed sober without setting foot in a meeting because it didn’t appeal or sometimes didn’t occur to them. They took up blogging or yoga or painting or running or chocolate – sometimes all of the above – to fill that god-sized hole that people at meetings talk about all the time, but of course they don’t know that because they’ve never set foot in one. Is their approach any more doomed or less-than compared to a 12-step recovery program? They certainly don’t seem to think so.

And what about someone who already went the AA route and doesn’t want to go it again but fears there is no easier, softer way? This isn’t a deal breaker. I believe there are as many ways to get sober as there are to go about your day. You can wake up and drink and lose most of it in blurriness and blackout regret or you can choose not to drink and read a sober book or blog or email a sober stranger instead and start to build your sober support network. And not drink. That last part is the only thing you absolutely must do if you want to stop drinking.

In the meanwhile, if you’re thinking of not drinking and aren’t quite there yet or you just want to read a poem about how to climb out of hell, Christy at Running on Sober cranked this out in a bout of sober insomnia. I’ve been up since 3:30 and all I wrote was an essay about carrying a metal Holly Hobbie lunchbox to school  and fighting over a tire swing for my daughter’s first grade class (my daughter just asked who’s Holly Hobbie?). Some of us make beautiful music, some of us clank around pots and pans. It’s still sober, and sober is pretty awesome, let us be the first to tell you.

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Give me some sugar

I’ve written about my struggle with sweet, sweet sugar too many times to count, but I’m pleasantly surprised to find I’m still learning new things.

I’ve had a sweet tooth my whole life, but in sobriety I’d lost my trusty emotional cushion of booze and instinctively turned to sugar. While part of me wishes I could just live with it, I’ve worked really hard over the last five years to lose more than 40 pounds through better diet and exercise, and sugar binges sabotage that. Plus it doesn’t feel good to feel out of control.

I’m writing about it this morning because some new ideas came my way via where else but the sober blogs.

First, More to Me Than This wrote this excellent piece on how sugar affects the brain and how it has affected her personally since getting sober. I would say it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve realized how much I’d been self-medicating with sugar, so her insight and ideas really impressed me.

When I started the herbal cleanse I mentioned in my last post, I took most refined sugar out of my diet. I say most because I did allow ice cream on two special occasions that fell within the cleanse period. In the past when I’ve attempted to wrangle sugar, ice cream was strictly forbidden.

I observed some new things this time around.

Moderation with sugar is pleasurable!

When I drank moderately, I hated it. I used to count drinks and as I got closer to the maximum number I’d allotted, I would feel every ounce of pleasure drain away. I didn’t enjoy a mild buzz. I wanted more.

When I eat dessert moderately, I enjoy the taste and textures. I’ve never really noticed an emotional effect from sugar, but I believe the reward centers of my brain are feeling it plenty. When I don’t overdo it, I also don’t suffer the post-binge crash, though there has been a curious emotional reaction more recently.

The guilt is still there, but maybe not forever

The secretive binges and shame I feel from overindulging in dessert remind me so much of how I used to drink. When I ate ice cream these last two times, I enjoyed the experience but not the guilt I felt while eating it. I wondered where this anxiety and fear came from. I was eating moderate servings. I wasn’t doing it every day. This wasn’t a binge, so why was I reacting like it was?

For me, I think it’s that I don’t trust myself yet. And with good reason. Enjoying sugar moderately is not something I have much experience with in sobriety.

When I ate the ice cream these last two times, part of me was thinking “oh no, here we go again.” Only I didn’t keep going back and I got back to healthy eating with the next meal. I also noticed my mood overall has been better when I eat sugar moderately compared to when I cut it out completely.

How will I know I’m cured?

I predict a continuation of cycles of eating better and overindulging with cravings. This doesn’t sound like much of a cure, huh? My hope is that with continued, consistent practice of making better choices about what I choose to eat, the eating-better cycles will last longer and the binges will slink back from whence they came. This will happen over time, like it already has. I have seen improvement in the last three years, so I can reasonably expect to see more if I continue seeking it.

A “cure” might be asking for a small slice of cake because I know it will satisfy. My hope is that I can enjoy dessert occasionally…moderately.

The last thing I wanted to share (via Sober Truths) is a TED-Ed on how sugar affects the brain. Watch if you have 5 minutes!

Blowing my own anonymity

The same week I finally got around to watching The Anonymous People (on Netflix streaming, thanks for the heads up, Amy!),  I had the opportunity to write something for a new blog feature The Fix is running. I could have used a pseudonym and shadowy picture, but it didn’t feel right after watching so many give convincing arguments for the need to remove the shame and stigma of addiction.

When I first started this blog, it hardly mattered that I didn’t post a picture or use my real name because no one was reading. Around the time when I started to interact more with other sober bloggers and wondered what they looked like – did they look like neighbors, friends, family… you know, like me? – I put up a photo as nonchalantly as I could and waited for the fallout, only to find none.

I’ve used my first name only up to this point for a number of reasons. And while my recovery feels like a sacred, private affair, it also feels wrong to keep it hidden. I am not ashamed of being in recovery.

These are some of the fears I have about being open about my recovery.

What will my family think?

My husband is the one who said “go for it” without hesitation when I told him I was thinking about using my real name on The Fix, so I’m not concerned about ruffling his feathers. In general, I wish I had more of his sense of fuck it when it comes to what other people think. It’s pretty liberating to just be yourself. But I don’t want to bring embarrassment or shame to my family. Let’s think about this for a moment, though. What is shameful about being sober and a better parent and employee and person in general? What is shameful about seeking a solution to a serious problem?

What will my future employer think?

There is no hiding thanks to the almighty power of Google, so I would just like to take this opportunity to point out that untreated alcoholism cost the US workforce $134 BILLION in 1998 due to lost productivity from alcohol-related deaths and disabilities. Over 15% of US workers reported showing up to work impaired and 9% reported being hungover at work, the latter of which seems pretty low based on my own informal research.

What will the neighbors/other parents/mailman think?

This is a mixed bag. There will be some who think getting sober is a brave, wise decision. Maybe they too will have family in recovery, which is likely considering addiction affects two-thirds of US households. Or maybe some will think I’m weak or flawed or making too much of nothing. I’ll never forget a haunting line in True Detective where a reverend said (to an alcoholic) “It’s kind of hard to trust a man who can’t trust himself with a beer.” Some people think this way and it isn’t my job to change their mind.

I do feel it’s important to show others that people in recovery look like everybody else. We’re quietly going about getting help and struggling some days and getting stronger in the process. When I drank and struggled secretively, it made little sense because help was there all along in the form of recovery meetings, therapy, online support and more. Hiding my recovery feels even stranger.

I’m not suggesting we all march into work and announce our sobriety or wear matching jackets to more easily identify as sober brethren. There is no shame in keeping sobriety private and sacred if that feels right to you. No one should put their sobriety or personal livelihood in jeopardy by speaking out. There are ways to speak candidly about being in recovery for those in 12-step programs, but I think more often the fear is for how others will see us because misunderstanding and stigma towards addiction feels too big. That same stigma keeps people like us from getting help every day.

I am in a comfortable place thanks to my sobriety, living a life far better than I could have imagined. There is no shame here, only gratitude.

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Walking on air

The only “talent” show I remember being in was in third grade, when me and two friends played the theme song to the Greatest American Superhero on our flutes. The other third graders sat indian-style on the floor and the three of us positioned our chairs in a tight huddle so we could share sheet music and pretend no one else was there. I still have the recording somewhere and it is just as painful as you might imagine, only worse. During recess, the three of us pretended to be cats and dogs having adventures and once we got into a real cat-and-dog fight over something I do not remember now, though I do remember how everyone stared because my face got all red and welty from crying. I’ve never worn emotion well.

My youngest was in her first talent show last weekend. She’s in kindergarten, so her act consisted of three 5-year olds narrowly missing each other with a dizzying array of willy nilly half-cartwheels, one-legged jumping and devil-may-care spinning. Each act was limited to two minutes, which is about 30 seconds longer than the average person’s attention span for amateur gymnastics, though you get to add an additional 15 seconds if the kids are cute, and kindergartners are really really cute.

During the talent show, I sat through 4 renditions of Katy Perry’s Roar. For the math-impaired, I have a calculator, so sit back and let me handle this. That’s 480 seconds of feel-good earworm, but none moreso than when a 2nd grade girl in a glittery fedora and MJ gloves belted it out and moved me to tears. In addition to weddings and many movies, I also cry at dance recitals and talent shows. The subtle wiping of each eye a half-minute apart is as much a dead giveaway as a red, welty face.

We were in the car the next day when my kindergartner asked me how come the 2nd grade girl could sing so good. You and I know some people just have it. They’re born with it, whether it’s a set of pipes that make old ladies tear up in darkened auditoriums or a natural grasp of calculator-free math or maybe it’s writing or pie making or oil painting. These are god’s gifts, though they are of no use if they don’t get used, and so I told my girl “She practiced.”

This answer didn’t satisfy my girl and she asked me how the 2nd grader practiced and I told her she sang the song over and over again and got better and better at it. Minutes later I heard a tiny little voice singing from the backseat and I smiled and we drove someplace to make things together out of clay that look like they were all made by a kindergartner, which is an insult to kindergartners everywhere.

Practice may not make perfect, but it makes almost anything easier. Each day I didn’t drink in the early days made it easier to get through the next day. Each time I go out for a run, it builds muscle and lung for the next run. Writing feels more fluid and fun as I write more. I’m staying away from cartwheels and singing, but with enough practice I bet I could move you to tears of some kind or another.

Whatever you want, stick with it. Don’t give up.

And here’s one more picture because how often do you get to post a picture of 3/4 of your family on a couch flanked by storm troopers? Not often enough, I say.

At dinner the other night, my daughter matter-of-factly announced to her friend that I’d eaten most of her Halloween candy last year. I might have protested if it hadn’t felt true. Also, her friend had just admitted her parents confiscate all the Halloween candy on November 1st and blame it on some nefarious Candy Fairy, so I guess I was feeling a step above that.

What a difference a year makes, and then again none at all. For the last three months, my stress levels have been through the roof at work and sugar intake has skyrocketed accordingly. It’s my favorite vice and it eases suffering in some way I don’t really understand but do accept.

I have fallen off the sugar wagon, which incidentally has peanut cup wheels with gum drop hubcaps. The carriage is constructed of solid, buttery toffee and the driver sits atop an oreo cushion (double stuff, of course), armed with a red licorice whip. I guess the only reason I didn’t want to fall off the wagon in the first place is I feared it might get away from me and then I could never nibble on its many delicious parts.

I’m not giving up or giving in, though the wagon description did make me very hungry. I am only admitting as proudly as I can that I haven’t got this thing licked. Or I do have it licked and that’s the problem. I’ve come to a certain amount of peace in accepting that my love of sweets is as much a part of me as my love of solitude and office supplies.

I could ask the nefarious Candy Fairy to pay a visit Halloween night. This feels too extreme and cruel, and I can hear the cries of my kids and sensible people asking “why don’t you just not eat the candy, ok?”

I’ve given a lot of thought lately to this expectation that I can remove a character defect that has been with me, I suspect, from the womb. For now, it feels easier to accept that I have a problem and always will. I’ve definitely made measurable progress overall in the last year, which I hear is the goal. This feels like enough for today and, in fact, it feels pretty great.

 

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