What a difference 2,192 days makes

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52,608 little hours. 3,156,480 minutes. 189,388,800 seconds. Did I spend them all well? Certainly not. But I spent them all sober, and that has made all the difference.

I never thought I’d get to 6 years sober and think boy, that went fast. A good part of me wasn’t convinced I’d get to 6 years at all. I’d heard the cautionary tales of relapse and how vigilant one needed to remain at all times and that made it seem harder than I was capable of.  A future without summer beers or celebratory cocktails wasn’t one I could easily imagine, nor did I want to. But I stuck to each day which turned into months and then somehow six years. Time is funny how it slips past and takes care of everything, including us.

Somewhere between years 3 and 5, I noticed a shift from feeling like I’d made a real sacrifice in giving up alcohol, which invokes all sorts of fearful, complicated responses in sobers and drinkers alike, and realizing I never needed it in the first place.

Alcohol was a filter I used to mindlessly slip on when I wanted to feel more of something or less or occasionally nothing at all. I rarely wanted to feel what I was already feeling, which now strikes me as odd and sad. Once I removed the filter and kept it off awhile, I saw everything more clearly. It was a blessing and curse because the view was raw and sharp, not unlike getting glasses for the first time and taking a good long look in the mirror. Every imperfection was there for examination. Sunsets and kittens were equally clear, so it wasn’t all bad, not at all.

The other thing about removing the filter was I got to feel again which, as you know, is a mixed bag. Sometimes I love my family so much I’m sure my heart will explode into confetti. Sometimes I care about people or issues I am in no way obligated to care about, which is both reassuring and baffling.

Anxiety doesn’t go away. I wish I could say it did, but I’m 99% sure that’s why I took so well to drinking in the first place. Why would it leave when I’ve fed it my whole life? These days I notice it and think “I feel anxious” or else lonely or bored or weary. I put a name to it and realize it often has nothing to do with current circumstances but triggered by an old memory or not eating or sleeping well or mysterious moon cycles. I don’t own a mood any more than I own the weather. This too shall pass, they say, and goddamn it they’re right.

I can still go out to dinner and make small talk at a party and fall asleep and have sex (not in that order) and go on vacation and get through a stressful day or the holidays. I can handle being happy or excited or bored or worried or angry or sad. None of these things make me think of a drink anymore. (But oh, they used to.) Sober is mostly easy and second nature and sometimes fantastic and finally okay when it’s not. 

There are still a number of ways to numb out, and I’m intimately aware of most. A cupcake may not be a keg, but I can’t really seem to be able to handle myself around either. This disappoints me. I figured by 5 years sober I would have shown my sweet tooth (precious, adorable) to the door with a chuck of the chin and knowing smile. Same with the perpetual two-minute smartphone circuit, which my dexterous fingertips train hard for even though it never awards much. This year I’ve experimented with letting things go and I can tell you it feels different than the fifteen dozen times I’ve done it before.

Sober isn’t a cure all but I think it’s better than that. We are not meant to numb our spirit to the point of dysfunction, and there is deep and meaningful reward once we stop doing this to ourselves. We get to feel alive again, which is something drinking used to do before it stopped working. This time it’s real.

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Will you be at She Recovers NYC?

In a month, I’ll be headed to NYC to attend She Recovers, the first women’s recovery event of its kind in the US. I don’t get out much on my own these days, and can’t think of a better cause to get behind. Will any of you be there? If so, drop me a line at byebyebeer at gmail or leave a comment. I’d love to put faces to names.

With keynote speakers like Glennon Doyle Melton, Gabby Bernstein, Elizabeth Vargas and Marianne Williamson, it’s bound to be pretty amazing. Here’s an article I wrote about it (click image below to read more) and another will follow the event. As always, thanks for reading!

The sweetest 5 years

Summer tumbled in a little bit like how I literally tumbled out of bed this morning. Our bed had an extra guest (no more ghost hunting shows before bedtime) along with her patented sideways-sleeping method, and in my effort to not disturb anyone, I woke everyone with a clamor and made the cat flee in a panic of terror, which was easily the best part. On my way down to the floor, I had enough time to wonder how I might explain this in an ER room. No, I wasn’t drinking, I’d say. I haven’t had a drink in over five years, though I’m still hitting the cupcakes pretty hard. 

Write about what you know, they say. Recently I had two pieces featured elsewhere. The first is about my love-hate relationship with sugar in sobriety on Ruby Pipes. Ruby is a very talented writer and I hope to see more from her in the year ahead.

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Side note: I wrote it back in January, and the “very bad day” I referred to was this one.

I also celebrated 5 years sober this week and wrote about it for AfterPartyMagazine. I’m not saying the last 1,825 days has been a cake walk – unless that means there was cake every day because clearly there was – but time flew by. I am reporting from the other side to anyone new to sobriety and saying life just keeps getting better or feeling better (who am I to question it?) the longer I’m sober. I know this won’t keep happening to the same degree, but life is good and I’m grateful. I’m going to disable comments here and hope you’ll go read. Thank you so very much for being here.

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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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Stripping down

My first year or so sober, I remember being obsessed with relapse. I took every mood swing and longing as a warning sign. I heard horror stories, often secondhand, about people who drank after years of sobriety. I looked for similarities and clues. I didn’t drink. This last step is the only one that brought any measure of relief. Eventually fear of relapse faded from a constant roar to a fainter, warbly hum.

By now, I’ve stripped away a lot of the so-called protective layers that allowed me to numb and check out and avoid. This sounds like a big accomplishment, but most days it feels involuntary and like I’m standing naked in front of a mirror in the harshest light. This is me, cellulite and stretch marks and that scar from kindergarten from when I fell on rocks in the parking lot of a fair and limped on to win a stuffed donkey. It is possible to feel horrible and happy at the same time.

Next month I’ll be coming up on 3 years of not drinking. It seems impossible it has been this long. (This probably sounds good if you recently stopped!) I wonder if others feel this way or is it like how I can’t believe I’m already 40? Time flies when you’re having fun or oldish or sober. I wonder if other people have recently, suddenly found themselves unsubscribing to emails and avoiding Target like the plague and deleting entire inboxes with glee. I think sometimes I’m shrinking my life down so small there won’t be anything left.

 

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You can tell a lot about a company by their unsubscribe process. I would consider taking this one back.

I’ve worried before about shrinking my life too small. It might be an introvert thing, but free flowing information and interaction inevitably burns me out. For example, when I go on facebook regularly, I compare my reality with other people’s carefully presented posts and it’s not a good place for me. Hell, even my fantasies don’t measure up. I have options here – I can deactivate my account or pare down my list of follows, or just not log on as much – but I think what bothers me is how bad I feel about something that brings people together. I accept I am this way, but I feel bad about it.

Maybe I’m shrinking to grow in another way. This feels right. Above all, I am still an optimist. I am still fall-to-my-knees grateful to be sober. I am grateful that I am grateful. I’ve seen visible, exciting progress from the last not-quite 3 years. I run regularly and lost a good chunk (ha) of weight. I yell less and laugh more. I have a sense of spirituality that continues to sprout and grow. (I am most excited about this.) I cook less than I did when I drank, which is puzzling, but I read more. I find lately I don’t enjoy television as much and in fact find having to keep up with shows tedious. I love my bed more than I thought humanly possible. We’re practically engaged to be married.

This is where I am today, right now. Everything I just wrote could likely change in months or years, except hopefully not the part about not drinking. This is the gift that keeps giving, even as it strips away.

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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