Summer of Love

photo-11

Heads turn when our bright orange 1973 VW camper van passes by. People smile, kids wave, hipsters nod approval. I don’t need to smile back because I’m already grinning as soon as the engine starts.

photo-9I call the camper van my time machine. It’s retro AM radio and clunky controls take me back to being a kid in the 70s when a dashboard was eye level (at least on those occasions I was lucky enough to ride in the front seat). My husband and I keep the windows (cranked) down when we drive because it’s hot as blazes in there, and the breeze whips my hair as I gaze at the passing landscape. How is it that same view looks so different with the window rolled down? I feel like I am part of the scenery instead of a moving observer. I reach my hand out the window and let the air bob it up and down, something my mother never allowed. I hear the echo of a scolding voice in my head but I decide nothing will tear my arm off, as I was once led to believe. I feel free and happy and unfettered.

photo-10

We bought this sweet old van to celebrate our 25th anniversary this summer and retraced our honeymoon route through the Rocky Mountains. Back then, a camping trip in my parents’ motorhome was all we could afford and we hoped someday we would be able to travel in luxury. Now we can afford to travel as we wish, and this humble classic is what we choose.

In my early posts, I feared I would no longer be any fun or have any fun on vacations. I feared life would be dull and I would be a wet rag who dragged down the spirits of those around me. I wrote this on my 7th day of recovery:

My husband and I have had many wonderful adventures together and the mental postcards I’ve collected all include a beverage:  Wiki Wackers on Catalina Island, Margaritas by the Riverwalk in San Antonio, PinaColadas on the beach in Dominican Republic, wine at an outdoor café on the promenade in Santa Monica.  As we plan and save for our retirement, we dream of vineyard tours in Italy and having a pint in an Irish pub.

Would I have any fun without alcohol? Would I BE any fun? Would my husband dread the rest of our lives together, saddled with a tea-tottling ninny for a wife?

Let me tell you something. Buying this van was MY idea and retracing our honeymoon was an amazing adventure. We laughed, talked, hiked, made out, roasted hotdogs, and genuinely enjoyed ourselves.

It isn’t that life is really all that different without alcohol. It is that I have changed. I am able to feel my joy in my bones; a deep peaceful resonance. I am able to relax, to be unhurried. When I drank wine, it was to speed up the process of unwinding and I was never successful at drinking my way to the good feelings that I find myself experiencing regularly in recovery.

It has taken time to get here. For the first year or more I wrestled with feeling awkward and self-conscious as a non-drinker. Then I started to get some results from addressing the underlying issues and became ravenously introspective. And recently this peace emerged, maybe some of the old hippie vibes from my van rubbed off on me.

Do I have any fun without alcohol? Can I BE any fun? Does my husband dread the rest of our lives together? Look at the smiles in this picture, and you tell me.

Yes, you will laugh again!

Yes, you will laugh again!

 

 

Posted in Addiction, Alcohol, Getting Sober, Marriage and Alcohol Recovery, Recovery, VW Camper | Tagged , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Vulnerability Hangover

Heroic

In my last post, I showed you my privates: private pain, private shame, private guilt, and private struggles. I laid it all out there because I believed it would help people. I hit “publish” and almost vomited.

That was 7 weeks ago and I haven’t written another post since. I’ve spent the entire time fighting my way out of a “vulnerability hangover” – a term coined by Dr. Brene Brown to convey the regret associated with pushing the limits of the honesty comfort zone.

To refresh your memory, in the post “3 Years Sober: What It’s Like for Me” I talked about having a form of OCD called dermatillomania. People who have this condition (or it’s twin trichlotillomania, which is hair pulling) tend not to talk about it and as a result feel tremendous shame and feel freakish and alone. (Sound familiar, alcoholics? Any experience with isolation and shame? Anyone?)

I wrote the piece to be brave and try to help people, and guess what? I received a TON of emails from people who said “me too” as they expressed shock and relief that they are not alone. Most people did not know this burdensome condition even has a name let alone support communities and even a Facebook group.

With gobs of appreciative feedback, why then the vulnerability?

Back to Dr. Brene Brown for answers. (Sidebar: Brown’s books “I Thought It Was Just Me”, “Daring Greatly”, and “The Gifts of Imperfection” are fantastic tools for recovery and personal growth. If you aren’t already in love with her work you soon will be!)

Brown gave voice to the idea that to be vulnerable requires incredible courage, a counterintuitive notion because we have learned to equate the former with weakness and the latter with strength.

 

The payoff for being vulnerable, however, is nothing less than the eradication of shame. When we share our shame anecdotes with others who connect and utter those magical healing words “me, too,” shame evaporates.

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection,” says Dr. Brown in “The Gifts of Imperfection”. Blogging is about connecting, connecting is about healing, and healing comes from digging deep and sharing our truth. Dr. Brown suggests that if we don’t feel a wee pang, then perhaps we have not been open enough.

I know this and yet I had the hardest time dragging myself back to the keyboard for another post. I’ve already showed you all my stretchmarks and warts – what’s left? Um, plenty. I have a lot more to share and I need to bounce back from the emotional sofa where I’ve waited out my vulnerability hangover.

It occurs to me as I write this that each person who commented and emailed to say “me too!” had the same feeling. It took courage to share your truth and I want you to know that I am grateful for your willingness to be vulnerable.

Here is to everyone out there who writes, comments, email, speaks, listens, and reaches out. We are all heroic in our small ways.

Posted in Addiction, Getting Sober | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments

3 Years Sober: What It’s Like for Me

I had lunch with 3 beautiful sober ladies yesterday, new friends whom I met through this blog and the “Booze Free Brigade”.  What an incredible joy it is to connect with others who understand the journey. I never imagined I would laugh easily for hours with people I’d only just met, and I certainly never thought my recovery peers would be so very much like me.

I also never guessed that I would still be blogging after three years, still be working to change my life, or still be a work in progress. In all honesty, I thought I would be “done” quitting: recovered, emphasis on the “–ed”.

For the most part, I have nailed the “not drinking” part of this deal. My fridge has a selection of non-alcoholic choices I enjoy, and I breeze through most social situations. I order with confidence in restaurants, decline gracefully when offered booze, and generally speaking living alcohol-free is now second nature to me.

I think something clicked partway through the second year; likely the cumulative effect of repeated experiences. Trial and error of what to say, how to act, situations to either embrace and avoid have all added up to a high level of comfort with my new alcohol-free life.

Two of my new friends at lunch yesterday are in their first year of recovery, and to me they seem yonks ahead of where I was at that stage. Ah but we all know better than to compare out insides with someone else’s outsides, right?

The “insides” are the focus of my efforts now. Once we tame the behaviour of drinking we turn our attention to understanding the reasons it was ever necessary. It’s not that hard to see, not that difficult to understand, how things can go sideways. The tricky bit is learning new ways to act and react so that life doesn’t become so painful that we require constant numbing.

This is much more difficult that it might sound. I can intellectualize that I am overly critical on myself; I can understand the root causes of the criticism and identify the patterns of behaviours involved. The real challenge for me is to do things differently moving forward.

It’s not as if I can just say, “I am going to stop being so hard on myself” and BOOM, be gentle. It takes an effort towards awareness.

For instance, last week as I was cleaning my house I could feel my agitation and anxiety rising. The usually euphoric scrub of a toilet was done with resentment; my normally light step was hurried and panic-driven.

In the past, I would have allowed myself to feel righteous anger at everyone else for dirtying the house. This time, however, I was able to realize I was being motivated by a fear of criticism. I was preparing to host a gathering and one of the guests in particular worried me.  I was anticipating her critical eye and imagining words she might say if she saw a dusty baseboard or spotted fixture.  I was expecting cruelty, bracing for it, resenting it, and allowing myself to feel badly.

On the surface, I was being bitchy about cleaning the house and I was working myself up into a lather. As one of the women said at lunch yesterday, “I just thought that was normal, I thought how I acted was just me. Now I realize I can do something about all that.”

You see, if we just quit drinking and make no other changes, we are stuck with all those old ways of interpreting, internalizing and acting out. This is sometimes called being a “dry drunk”.

If we are going to go to all of the effort of getting and staying sober, we might as well muck through a bit more and change things so that we don’t just end up miserable from some other broken crutch (shopping, gambling, sex, food, and so on).

So while drinking is a long way in the rear-view mirror, I am working on all the other “stuff”, specifically:

 

Anxiety:

I once would have DIED before admitting I suffered from the A-word. That was for weak people.

Oh that shaking? That’s just nerves. Sweating? I am excited. Chest pains? Yes, I have a really stressful life but look at me handling it! Look at me, look at me – look at all the amazing things I can do while I shake, sweat and ignore the pains in my chest!

Now I can call it what it is: AN-fricking-XI-E-TY and I am learning better ways to identify and handle it.

 

OCD

I have had (and hidden) a form of OCD called “dermatillomania” since my early adolescence. It is gross and embarrassing and apparently rather COMMON among those susceptible to addiction.

Please read more about it here: http://www.thefix.com/content/pick-me-baby-one-more-time .

I use behaviour modification and relaxation techniques to deal with it and have had great success.

Many readers may identify with this problem. If this describes you, please understand that the condition has a name, there is help available and, as always, you are not alone.  Email me at picklednomore@gmail.com if you want to chat about it and are uncomfortable commenting publically.

 

Eating behaviours

At different times in my life I have fallen into disordered eating patterns – I think that is the right language these days. This partly stems from perfectionism or  fear of criticism, and mostly from a desire to exercise control at times when life has felt unmanageable. I have cycled between binge/purge, starvation, and obsessive exercising – all behaviours I expect to leave in my past.

 

Over-achieving

What is the difference between being a high-achiever and an over-achiever? In my experience, it is that an over-achiever is never satisfied because we are driven by shame and fear. I just never felt good enough and thought I needed to do more than everyone else to be worthy of the same level of acceptance.

 

Anxiety, OCD, disordered eating behaviours, and an insatiable need for success were just other presentations of the same old problems. I had accepted them as normal, as me. I never expected them to change because I never knew they were the outcomes of my own misguided efforts to comfort my old wounds.

So when I talk about recovery, I am talking about getting back to the root of our problems – drinking, yes, as well as other things you and I no longer have to accept as “just us”.

We can do better for ourselves, and just knowing that brings a world of relief.

This is where I am at after 3 years, 3 months, and 10 days of living alcohol-free.

Emphasis on the FREE!

Posted in Addiction, Alcohol, Getting Sober, Recovery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 91 Comments

Recovery is Leadership

recovery leadership banner

 

I spent years wanting to quit drinking but continued because I was terrified of pinning on the “ALCOHOLIC” badge.  When I finally quit, it was without the certainty that I was an alcoholic at all, but rather that I was in desperate need of peace.

Three years later, I am comfortable with the knowledge that I was an active alcoholic, I am a person in recovery, and that recovery is leadership.

Today I made a new label for myself and this blog.

 

Posted in Addiction, Alcohol, Getting Sober, Recovery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

How I Knew It Was Time to Quit Drinking

If there is one question I am most asked about living alcohol-free, it is “How did you know it was time to quit drinking?”

Only occasionally is this question asked with dancing eyes that reveal a quest for titillation: I want to hear every detail of rock bottom. If I sense that is the motive, I generally let them down easy: I was the most boring alcoholic ever – I have no stories of catastrophe. I just knew I was losing control and needed to take charge.

More often it is asked with genuine interest, either because someone would like to know me better or is trying to understand addiction better for personal reasons. Sincere questions deserve honest answers.

I have been reading about the “transtheoretical model of behaviour change” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transtheoretical_model) and I can easily see how it correlates to my journey. In short, it identifies various stages of decision-making and behaviour changes as such:

  • Precontemplation (not ready) – in my case, using wine as a daily antidote for stress and anxiety; enjoying the relief it brought; feeling very comfortable with my routine and experiencing no negative thoughts or consequences.
  • Contemplation (getting ready) – I began to feel an acknowledgement and growing discomfort with the reality of my habits. I started to pay attention to the red flags (see below). I began watching Celebrity Rehab with intense focus (while drinking).
  • Preparation (ready) – I got up the courage to assess my drinking patterns online (I used http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov) and received confirmation that I needed to make changes. I started trying to quit and failed each day. I took no steps to make myself accountable and did not reach out for help, but these initial unsuccessful efforts confirmed my worst fears. Not only could I not quit, but also not moderate or reduce. Throughout this stage, my intake instead steadily escalated and I began to realize where this was headed.
  • Action (initiating change) – for me, this was speaking honestly to a friend, starting this blog, and reaching out to the online community for help and support. I threw myself into the task at hand and little by little made it through each difficult day.
  • Maintenance (supporting the change) – I guess this is where I am at now – you could call this ongoing recovery. This is a great place to be and many recovery advocates say the goal should be to engage in this phase forever.
  • Termination (completion of change) – remembering that the transtheoretical model of behaviour change is not about recovery specifically, there comes an end point where the change is complete and the new behaviours are effortless and normal. There are different schools of thought in the recovery community as to whether or not one can ever end the process. Some pathways teach that if you stop going to meetings and working their program you’ll either start drinking again or fall into the miserable life of a “dry drunk”. Some pathways encourage striving for a point of supported closure on the change – which does not mean it is possible to start drinking again normally but rather that you can go forward as a “non-drinker” and be done with it. I don’t take a position on this – at this point it doesn’t matter to me because I have a lot of work still to do and see myself in the maintenance phase for many years to come.

Red Flags

So what were those red flags for me? It wasn’t any one single “big” thing that led me to change; it was the accumulation of little things. Here are some I recall:

  • Unable to stop drinking daily
  • Unable to reduce or limit amount
  • Drinking alone
  • Shame about bottles in recycling bin
  • Hiding extra alcohol in cupboard
  • Continual concern about having enough alcohol on hand
  • Obsessive awareness of alcohol at every event – planning when and how to get in the “right” amount to get through the evening while still managing to drive sober to and from events, and appear “normal” to the outside world
  • Becoming very agitated when unplanned changes disrupted my pattern – specifically I recall a friend dropping by and my husband poured her a glass of wine. I began to panic knowing that it meant there would not be enough to get me through the evening. I secretly drank shots of scotch before bed to compensate. I felt guilty about resenting my friend for visiting unannounced.
  • Spending the last hour of work each day deciding if I would stick to my plan of quitting drinking or stop at a liquor store on the way home, all the while knowing I would certainly pick up more wine.
  • Rotating stores because I was embarrassed of buying wine every day, but never buying more too much at once because I was planning to quit “tomorrow”.
  • Finding out that my drinking habits fell into the “high risk” and “heavy drinking” categories. I knew my drinking was only increasing, never declining, and I was running out of categories. Next stop: rock bottom. No thanks.

Now what about you, readers? Do you recognize yourself in the stages of behaviour changes? What were your red flags, and was it many little things or one big incident that initiated your decision to live alcohol-free?

Posted in Addiction, Alcohol, Getting Sober, Recovery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 129 Comments

New Level, New Devil

If you are a regular listener to The Bubble Hour podcast, you will have heard me speak many times about the beautiful rituals and routines that support my sobriety: grinding good coffee beans, steaming milk to the perfect froth, using beautiful mugs. You’ll have heard how “Dibbs” ice cream nuggets became my pacifier in early sobriety. You’ll know I order O’Douls in a wineglass at restaurants, and sip tonic water with a dash of grapefruit juice at parties.

If you’ve ever ridden in my car or peeked into my (enormous, iphone-swallowing, key-vaporizing) purse, you’ll recognize the smattering of gold-foil balls as the remains of Ferraro Roche chocolates.  I buy them in sleeves of three, saving the last one for The Mr. as an act of self-control. The cleaners at our office could tweet scandalous photos of the empty 100-calorie packs of chocolate covered pretzels they remove from my garbage can each week (they don’t, I hope). Occassionally, when I think maybe the chocolate thing has gone too far, I’ll buy a bag of oranges and convince myself that they are yummy treats, too.

Yes friends, I owe my sobriety to coffee, tea with one milk and two sugars, ice cream, chocolate, fizzie drinks, and citrus fruit. For 3 years and 3 months this perfect magic formula has kept me strong and sober.

hotel essentials

My “essentials” for business travel – sweet snacks and evening drinks, coffee with proper milk for morning. (The can opener is for the milk, but I know you noticed the corkscrew! Wino radar!)

I have everything figured out, thank you very much. Don’t drink and work on the shit. No problem. Tickety boo. I even called a counselor to help me start working on the super-tricky shit that I can’t seem to get past on my own. Yep. I am goooood at recovery.

Until….what is this new agonizing pain?

Excuse me? An ulcer? Ohhh-kay. There’s a pill for that, right?

A what? A special diet? A special diet that requires no coffee, caffeinated tea, dairy, chocolate, carbonated beverages, or citrus? You’re kidding, right? RIGHT? You’re KIDDING, RIGHT??!

Oh My Lanta. Kill me now.

As the Evangelical preachers say “New level, new devil”.  Sometimes when we get strong and become better people, the “devil” will come at us with a vengeance to tempt us back to failure and despair.

That’s how this feels, but I know it isn’t the case.  I am not happy, mind you.  I feel right rotten and all of my favourite things make me feel even worse. But you know what? I can handle it.

I think this is a little nudge from above, telling me it is time to drop the crutches. An opportunity to become (even) stronger, not an evil curse.

Compared to the heroics involved in setting down the wine glass bottle box, this should be a cinch. I bought a bamboo whisk for my green tea and two peacock mugs from Pier 1. You just friggin watch me drink my tea by the campfire this summer.

We can do hard things. Right?

teacups and whisk

It’s all about tools and pretty things. I will survive!

Posted in Addiction, Alcohol, Getting Sober, Recovery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 53 Comments

Seekers Welcome

This morning the Today show aired an interview with Stefanie Wilder-Taylor about moms who use alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety. I had a lump in my throat as I watched the piece, knowing the impact it would have had on me back when I was starting to notice a terrifying momentum in my nightly wine ritual. It was becoming clear to me that I was losing control as one red flag after another waved – rotating stores because I felt ashamed of how much alcohol I bought; uneasiness about the recycling bin; stashing bottles out of view; cancelling plans so I could spend more time alone (sipping); vowing I’d cut back or quit and failing time after time.

If you are seeking today, I welcome you to this blog and to the online recovery community. My story is one of quitting while I was ahead, before anyone even knew that I had developed an addiction to alcohol. I saw I was losing control and realized that if I continued, things would get worse, then embarrassing, then downright bad. Soon there would be no hiding it. Soon it would not be my choice any more. I had heard that alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before they can get sober, and I did not want to find out what rock bottom might look like for me. Suddenly that whole concept seems utterly ridiculous, like saying “You can’t go on a diet unless you have become morbidly obese.” Screw rock bottom –  I just quit, very quietly and very much on my own.

Now, three years later I am still gratefully sober and recovery is still a surprising amount of work. I thought that by now I would be “fixed” and possibly could even start to moderate (that is, drink a little now and then – I don’t, by the way). I originally thought that 12 step programs that say “alcoholism is forever” were playing it a little heavyhandedly but I was way wrong about that. I also thought it would suck and be awfully boring to never drink again but really I feel great and pleased with my life now. Alcohol addiction alters the brain permanently – the neurological changes can’t be reversed so we live with the condition by avoiding alcohol for life. Recovery consists of more than just “not drinking” – it involves a lot of introspection to uncover and change the reasons WHY we drank in the first place. And now THAT is a big job, and a worthwhile change to pursue.

If you read through my blog entries, you will learn my story. But that is just the beginning. Please, please read the comments – they are an amazing resource and so insightful (except for the weird guy that recently comment “Bullshit” on a few posts – not sure what his deal was).

Check out the list of sober bloggers and resources on the sidebar, sign up for the Booze Free Brigade on Yahoo, and subscribe to The Bubble Hour podcast for which I am a producer and co-host.

I don’t have all the answers, and don’t pretend to have them. I am a little further on the road, waving you forward and (hopefully!) welcoming you to the start of your journey.

There are many pathways to recovery – many people “self-manage” recovery as I have done, without joining a program or attending meetings. Many go traditional routes with great success, and more an more alternative programs are available. Pick a path, any path, and start walking. If you realize it’s not for you, try a different way. Many of us become accustomed to isolating and hiding while we are drinking, and fear reaching out for help to get sober. I urge you to reach out – start with a comment here or on a discussion board like the BFB (above). Go to a meeting and just observe. Call someone you know is sober and ask if they are glad they quit drinking, if they might share about their journey.

The relief you feel will blow you away and you will never meet a kinder, less judgmental group than your fellow recoverees.

 

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