Challenge Accepted!

After more than three years of writing about my successful recovery journey from daily drinking to living alcohol-free, you may think I have run out of new insights to share. No one is more surprised than me that the opposite is true. My growth continues, new truths are regularly discovered as to my delight I find yet another way that the lessons of recovery pertain to so much more than what is in my glass.

At a time when I am inclined to sit back and cruise forward on autopilot, I am giving myself a nudge by signing up for BlogHer’s NaBloPoMo and agreeing to post daily throughout November 2014. This is no small task, since UnPickled is a blog about revelations, truth, self-discovery and brutal honesty. The task of writing daily excites me; it’s the duty to reach deep inside for material that I find daunting.

So with a deep breath for courage, a slow exhale for reflection and a calendar with 30 spaces awaiting X’s, I turn to bravely face November 2014. As soon as the bowl of leftover Halloween candy is installed within reach on Saturday morning, I will be ready to start!

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Daring to be Average

For one sweet week in 2008, my indie folk album charted one spot ahead of Blue Rodeo on a Canadian campus radio station’s “Top Ten” listing. A small Canadian campus, but nevertheless ‘TOP TEN” and “ONE SPOT AHEAD OF BLUE RODEO” are the key phrases here.

Around that same time, I had been awarded “Woman of Distinction” by my local YWCA for creating a clothing bank of career-wear for unemployed and underemployed women, was on the cover of “Profit” magazine as one of the “Top100 Canadian Women Entrepreneurs”, became President of my local industry association, organized a weekly farmer’s market in the parking lot of my office, and was busy writing and recording a second album of original music. All this plus a husband, three kids, a family business, and a dog.

Oh, and on top of it all I was struggling with a growing dependence on alcohol.

I got a lot of positive attention during those years. I was heralded as a role model, a renaissance woman, and a high achiever.

It was a remarkable, frantic, bittersweet time of life. I look back on it now from a different perspective. I am grateful I did not self-destruct entirely. I can reflect and feel more pride than I was able to at the time. Back then, I was numb. I couldn’t stop to breathe in the beauty of a moment; I was too busy scrambling after the next project in hopes that staying busy enough could protect me from criticism, self-doubt and worthlessness.

On a recent episode of The Bubble Hour (“Sober on Stage”) I explained I was driven by an insatiable hunger for accomplishment and approval. I couldn’t do anything for the purpose of simple pleasure. It might start out that way, but very quickly I’d be going all out and leaving others behind. It was a way to isolate, to stay safely ahead of criticism, and to feel worthy.

You can imagine that my friendships were limited to those who could keep pace and refrain from either being intimidated or critical of my chosen state of perfectionist overdrive. Fortunately the handful of strong women that I allowed into my “inner circle” are more balanced than I seemed to be and when I quit drinking in 2011, one by one they were the first to know and the strongest of my supporters. I thank God for these friendships – they are treasured gifts.

Initially, I considered all that I had accomplished despite ending each day with a heavy dose of alcohol (“the brick on my head to slow me down” as I’ve often referred to it) and thought, “Wow, if I did all that while drinking, imagine how much more I will accomplish in recovery!”

Life in recovery IS very different than before. I have learned that my prized perfectionist tendencies are self-destructive. In healing the part of me that only valued myself as others see me, I am now motivated differently.

I’ve stopped performing music, because the anxiety and stage fright was overtaking the enjoyment I experienced once on stage. I have less time for high-profile community volunteering, because I devote my spare time to recovery advocacy – blogging and podcasting anonymously. No magazine covers, no awards, and yet I am greatly fulfilled by these efforts.

As luck would have it, the market changed and so did our business. In order to respond, my husband and I were faced with the decision to either go bigger or smaller. With an eye on retirement in the next few years, we opted for smaller. We revamped our business model, laid off most of our staff, and wrapped our heads around the positives of this change. It is a classic “back to the floor” situation, where my suit and heels have become blue jeasn and work boots. We’ve traded the boardroom for job sites, and essentially returned to everything we initially loved about the business.

This transition has been much easier for my husband, who never worries what others think. He always says, “The truth will come out in time” and he is right. It bothers me though, because even though this has been a good change for us – more profitable and more enjoyable – it LOOKS like defeat from the outside.

Our competitors have had a field day, telling customers we went broke or shut down. Often well-meaning people who assume I should want to confront rumors and set them straight report these words back to me. They are partly right – the old me would have done exactly that.

If recovery had been what I expected – that I’d keep everything else in my “perfect life” the same and only change the drinking – I would have been utterly devastated by downsizing the business, hanging up my (gorgeous) suits, and getting no press coverage for my daily activities, and fending off gossip and untruths.

Thank God I went beyond merely changing my alcohol intake and started addressing the “why” behind the need to drink. Many of the things I thought were strengths were weaknesses, and many things I felt ashamed of were, in fact, the keys to my strengths.

If someone told me back then that recovery would allow me to feel satisfied with less success, I might have continued drinking for fear that I’d lose my treasured drive to succeed! Yet there has always been a little light in my soul that quietly yearned for peace and contentment. Maybe that yearning would have surfaced, and reached for recovery.

I am not sure that I believe “everything happens for a reason” but I do accept that “everything happens with potential.” Recovery has allowed me to lean into this enormous change of identity and to embrace a more authentic, realistic version of myself.

I used to work so so hard and never felt satisfied. I used to get so much attention and never felt truly worthy. I pushed myself to be extraordinary, because it compensated for some imagined deficiency.

The message is this – leaving alcohol behind has allowed me to explore and heal myself in ways that I never thought possible. I look forward to living out my days as this refined version of myself. I loved my life before, but only tolerated myself in it. Now that I am learning to love myself, I can tolerate just about anything.

Everything is different now, and I am grateful.

Recommended reading: If you are struggling with overachieving and perfectionism, you may benefit from working through “Feeling Good” by David D Burns. It is essentially a cognitive behaviour therapy manual for depression, but the section dysfunctional attitudes and the worksheet to determine your areas of emotional vulnerabilities are extremely insightful and helpful.

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Friday Night: OSIFA!

TGIF becomes OSIFA (Oh Shit It’s Friday Again) in early sobriety. For me, I dreaded how the weekend loomed fearfully ahead and taunted me with boozy opportunities for failure. I am not exactly sure when that changed for me, but I like weekends again.

I credit this monumental shift to new practices and habits. Here are some of my tips and tricks for enjoying the weekend:

1. Check the calendar. Do you have events to attend? Do you wish to attend them? The most important thing about going out in early sobriety is planning transportation. Do not allow yourself to be “stuck” somewhere that doesn’t feel good. You need to empower yourself to leave whenever you feel like you need a change of scene. Do it politely, discreetly,and safely. If you arrived with someone else, be sure to communicate the plan so that they don’t have to leave with you. My husband and I would agree before we went out that I would leave if I wanted, and he could take a cab home later – no questions asked and no guilt trips either way. Oh and bring along your own AF beverage – that is your new rule, right?

2. No parties or events on the calendar? Super – it is all about you then. Whereas I used to stop by the liquor store for myself, now I go to the mall and stock up on tea, ice cream, coffee, reading material, fancy lotions, whatever might make my weekend a little more enjoyable. Hello sofa. Hello Netflix. Hello toe separators and purple polish. Let’s all spend some time together. Once you are nesting there, text a few friends and plan short daytime outings for Saturday and Sunday: coffee, a walk, FaceTime. It is important to have a few things to look forward to so you don’t stay on the couch the entire weekend.

3. Map out your weekend. List out the must-dos and the like-to-dos: cleaning, groceries, errands, pampering, coffee with friends, walking the dogs, exercise, phoning your mother. Now plan to do all of it at odd hours: clean house in the evening, meet friends at Starbucks in the sunshine instead of the wine bar at night, move the coffee table and try standing on your head during Saturday morning cartoons, pull out your stove and clean that gunk back there — basically shake up your routine and keep busy. I found that if I broke out the weekend into chunks of time and put an activity or two into each spot, then it gave me something to look forward to and something to do and something to feel proud of at the end of the day. I am someone who needs to actually write down “sit and relax” “read book” in order for it to get done, so even that goes on the list.

4. Drinking caused me to grow blinders for any event that didn’t involve alcohol. Now I am amazed by how much there is to DO in this world! Farmers’ Markets, art galleries, museums, walking tours, lectures, concerts. Stop walking past those event posters at the coffee shop and read them. Go into the library and look at the events listing. Check out the web page for your local schools and see what games, plays, and events they are hosting. Go to some random sporting event where you don’t know any players or teams and just soak up the energy and spirit of youth! When is the last time you watched pre-schoolers playing soccer? It is the most adorable thing in the world.

5. Organize your home. You probably hate me for saying this but trust me, you will feel better. Here is a great link to get you started: http://www.flylady.net/d/br/2012/07/07/how-do-i-declutter-2/ (I love the suggestion of choosing 27 things to throw away while singing “Please Release Me”.)

Readers, what can you add? How about those of you with younger kids – what are your secrets for a great weekend? Let’s get through the next 48 hours together. I know I plan to enjoy myself.

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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 , , , , , , | 55 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.

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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!

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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.

 

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