Follow Me Along

I will be tweeting about my sober travels through Switzerland and Italy for the next two weeks. Follow me on Twitter @unpickledblog 

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4 Years Sober and Still Not Perfect

Four years sober last week and guess what? It still takes effort.

This comes as a surprise. I thought it would be easy-breezey-nothing-to-it by now, and more often than not it is easy and enjoyable to live alcohol-free.  But sometimes….sometimes….I feel a sucker punch of emotion: anger, jealousy, fear, resentment. I’ve spent the past few weeks in a mental stagger – that rocking feeling that something is off yet nothing is really wrong.

I hear from hundreds of people each week in various stages of recovery, and I am honoured to give help and encouragement whenever possible. Often this correspondence comes from people who are struggling with chronic relapse or who give up on recovery because it is harder than they expected. I’ll be honest – I’ve been finding those kinds of messages harder to handle lately.  I want to instantly “fix” them…and not entirely out of kindness.

I want them to stop failing because it bugs me. I want them to keep their failure out of my face because if I can see it, it’s real and I don’t want failure to exist. I want us to all hold hands and skip together into recoveryland. I want everyone to love their lives and get better, dammit.  Just. GET. BETTER. It scares the shit out of me that failure is even an option.

(See what I did there? I made someone else’s pain about ME.)

This is where I am going wrong and I know it. I understand full well that other people’s actions are about them, not me. I’ve learned the value in the recovery adage “Keep to your own side of the street”. The moment I view someone else’s story through the lens of my own feelings, I am setting myself up for trouble.

I have found myself saying, “I am sorry you are hurting, this is hard stuff” and meanwhile thinking, “How come you get to fall apart and I have to keep being strong? It is hard for me, too but I don’t get to relapse.”  (I am literally cringing as I type this brutal truth.)

A better response to these situations is compassion – my heart aches for those who want recovery and can’t seem to grab on, and I feel for people who would rather tolerate an unhappy relationship with alcohol than work through the discomfort of breaking up with booze.  Over the past four years I have learned to feel for others while allowing them full ownership of their situation, knowing that the pathways to recovery are available for those who are ready.

So why the backwards shift in my thinking? Why is my knee-jerk reaction suddenly the opposite of what I know to be good and useful? Why revert to the old self-centered patterns that contributed to my drinking in the first place?

My friend Ellie reminded me to take my gloomy mood seriously, since this type of discontent can be one of the early signs of relapse. Me, relapse? Never! (Hah, denial is the next stage.)  I dug through the Bubble Hour archives for the most recent episode on Relapse, remembering that I’d been shocked during the show to learn that relapse is preceded long before the event by 11 various warning signs. This has been researched and documented in the work of Terence Gorski and can be read here.

Am I subconsciously looking for an excuse to relapse?  Possibly.  My husband and I are leaving soon for a dream trip to Italy and I am anticipating the abundance of wine that will be offered. There is plenty to see, do, eat and enjoy in Italy without wine, but I am bracing for at least a little discomfort. Some corner of my psyche must be considering whether it is truly possible (or necessary) to stay sober on this trip. Much as I hate admitting to imperfection, this bit of doubt is worth acknowledging, considering, and working through.

So keep writing and posting here about your ups and downs, because your journey is your journey. I will do my best to let you own it, and I do hope you will. For those who are struggling, I think you will find Gorski’s work a tremendous resource.

Try doing this assessment called the Aware Score, which stands for “Advanced Warning of Relapse” and consider if you need to boost your recovery efforts. I scored an 85, indicating to me that I need to do some serious work on self care and reach out to my support network.

I am in awe of the changes and insights the past four years have given me. Even more so, I am amazed that at this point in my recovery I still find things that need attention. It is a gentle reminder that recovery is never over, but is more like a garden; as long as we keep to the task of tending it, good things grow in abundance.

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Drinking Dreams

On last night’s Bubble Hour podcast, Ellie and I talked about “Drinking Dreams” with recovery blogger Josie ( We looked back over different stages of our recovery and reflected on how they seemed to bring on different types of dreams. Some of those dreams are recovery-enhancing and some can foreshadowing danger.

Drinking dreams in early recovery happen frequently as the brain is just so used to alcohol being part of every activity. We may be having a perfectly lovely dream about a normal event – say, a family picnic – and suddenly realize we are drinking in the dream. After waking with a start, there is usually relief that “it was only a dream” and we are grateful to still be sober.

In time, the dreams happen less and less frequently, and may take on more of a “processing” quality – like trying to figure out how to handle a situation involving alcohol, or dealing with the aftermath of a relapse. How you feel in the dream (and upon waking in reflection) can indicate if the dream is warning of possible relapse.

Near the end of the episode, I rattled off a checklist to help assess dreams. After listening to the podcast this morning I’ve decided to post that checklist here as a resource.

Here is a link to the episode:

When you wake up from a dream about drinking, reflect on it and consider the following:

  • Was your alcohol use incidental, such as you didn’t know you were drinking and suddenly realized you were holding a glass? (This is an example of the “familiar backdrop” of alcohol – often occurring in early sobriety because the brain is so used to alcohol being ever-present. Your shocked reaction to the alcohol is a positive indication of your desire to stay sober. Write down the dream and keep it as a reminder to strengthen your resolve to stay sober.)
  • Was your drinking dream about using intentionally and were you pleased to find yourself drinking without consequence? (This is an example of “wishful longing for alcohol” and your response may be to spend some time considering all the benefits of your new life in recovery. If you find you have an unstated desire to drink, acknowledge it and look at ways to alleviate it safely. Exercising daily gratitude might be a good idea, to help you focus on the things you love about your life without alcohol, instead of romanticizing it on some level. Going back to journals from your early days of sobriety can be helpful as well. Talk to someone.)
  • Were there consequences to drinking in the dream? (If yes, this is a good sign as it shows the subconscious is aware of consequences and plays them out. If not, heed this dream as a warning sign that the subconscious is responding to the lure and appeal of alcohol as relief. This is a time to assess other means of finding pleasure and assuring that the “recovery toolkit” is stocked and ready. Create and stock your recovery bubble – a safe place and means to look after yourself)
  • Was the drinking in your dream a solution to a problem you are dreading, like an awkward social event or big work project or public speaking requirement? (If so, take note that your mind is stressing about this and defaulting to the old fall-back of booze. Plan ahead for the upcoming event and acknowledge the real concerns you have. Decide if you should attend or participate, and if you choose to be sure you have a solid plan to enjoy yourself and stay sober.)

I found this article to be a great resource in researching this topic:

What about you? Have you experienced drinking dreams? Have they helped firm your resolve or do you find them to be triggering?

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A few years back my husband and I hired a business coach to help us write a growth plan for our business. After nearly two decades of operating our company, we wanted fresh eyes to help us see new directions. The business coach gave us a number of written exercises to do, including listing our personal and professional goals.

“You probably already have these handy,” he said. “I assume you already write these out on a regular basis.”

“We own this business,” I replied. “There’s no corporate ladder to climb so I don’t need professional goals. I take opportunities as they come and run with them. I have been pretty successful doing it this way.”

The business coach was shocked. I was shocked that he was shocked. Goal lists were for beginners, in my not-so-humble opinion, not long-time business people like me. I was at the top of my game with the successful career I always wanted.

“If you don’t have specific goals you are missing opportunities,” he said with certainty. I was annoyed. Who hired this guy? What did he know?

“I’ll prove it to you. You mentioned you like cars,” he said. (Apparently he really was listening – I love cars.). “Are you familiar with the Audi Q5? There’s only six of them in town.” (We live in a smallish city that does not have an Audi dealer, so this fact seemed likely. I rarely if ever saw an Audi in our town, and certainly not the SUV model. In fact, I thought six seemed like rather a lot.)

“You probably see thousands of vehicles each week,” he continued, “so the chances of noticing one of six Audi Q5s among them is pretty slim. But I will guarantee you that you will spot one within the next few weeks.”

“I am not a fan of “The Secret”,” I protested. “I hate the idea that we just tell the universe what we want and poof, it delivers. I have gotten what I wanted through hard work and high expectations.”

Fortunately, we had hired a very patient coach. “Don’t worry. That’s not what I am saying at all. Let’s make a deal,” he said. “If you see a Q5 before our next meeting, you have to write out a goal list for me. Deal?”

I agreed, because I thought it seemed a little farfetched.

A few days later I was sitting at a red light and sure enough a Q5 turned in front of me. I burst out laughing, “Dammit!”

At our next session with the business coach, I confessed it had only taken a few days to see the mythical Q5. “But don’t tell me I made it come to me because I wanted to see it!” I warned.

“That’s not it at all,” he smiled. “That car would have passed you then regardless. It’s just that you noticed it because I gave you the goal of seeing it. That’s the power of setting intentions. When you know what you’re looking for, you realize when it is right there in front of you.”


As a stubborn person who enjoys being right and having the last word, I found this lesson humbling. I wrote my (stupid) list of goals and gave this fellow his due respect.

My newfound regard for acknowledging intentions came in handy as I embarked on a life of recovery. You may find that once you set a goal to stop drinking, you notice others who don’t drink. You start to see alternative beverages at the grocery store that never interested you before. You realize there are events in the evenings that don’t involve alcohol, and that people actually GO to these things and have fun without drinking.

I heard a great suggestion today and encourage all of us to give it a try (perhaps right here in the comments section if you’re willing). The exercise is called “Best Possible Self” and the instruction is simply to spend a few moments imagining what your future life would look like if things went as well as they possibly could and you realized your dreams. Write down how you see yourself in this vision. (Credit for this exercise goes to professor and researcher Laura King, with gratitude to a friend in the BFB for mentioning it today.)

In the words of Louis Pasteur, “Chance favours the prepared mind.” Sometimes I think I am lucky to have a happy life, to be sober, healthy, active and surrounded by people I love. Then I realize that these things exist because I value them and actively seek them out – they aren’t luck at all.

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Chronic vs. Acute

I first heard it on a Dr. Drew podcast and it whizzed over my head. I read it elsewhere weeks later and took note. Then yesterday while walking my dogs I was listening to this podcast (Sober Conversations with Dr. Harry Bell: Guest Joe Schrank) and there it was again:

If alcoholism and addiction are chronic conditions, why do we treat them as acute illnesses?

Alcohol addiction grows over time and the brain changes remain permanently (i.e. a chronic condition), so why is it only considered worth treating once it reaches crisis (i.e.  acute illness)? Why watch the problem escalate to dangerous levels but then only treat it with episodic care? Do we do this for any other health issues?

How many of us ignored our growing drinking problem for years because it “wasn’t that bad” in our own opinion? How many had some idea in mind of what behaviour or consequence would be “bad enough” to require change? Isn’t this the opposite of how we have been taught to care for ourselves?

We check our moles for change and our breasts for lumps, rushing in for assessment at the first sign of trouble. No doctor ever says, “Yep, that looks bad buuuuut let’s wait until your life is threatened before we treat it.” The idea is preposterous, but that is how we think about getting help for addiction: wait until it is the worst that a person can tolerate before getting help.  And by the way, the help available is 30-90 days of treatment generally, and though the care may be excellent, shouldn’t the medical system then follow patients for a lifetime if they have a life-long condition susceptible to relapse? My sister had cancer and she received routine scans for 20 years after her treatment.

I’ve always felt a bit apologetic about getting sober pre-crisis. I used to feel pressure to explain that even thought my situation wasn’t “that bad”, the process was clearly well underway and needed curtailing.  I’ve since discovered that most people in recovery don’t need to hear this justification – they understand that all of us follow a similar trajectory and our differences are really just “yets”. By that I mean we can take all the things we didn’t do (I didn’t lose my license, I didn’t publicly humiliate myself, I didn’t blackout) and tack the word “yet” onto those statements, because if we kept drinking they likely would have happened to us.

I hadn’t lost my license, yet

I hadn’t publicly humiliated myself, yet.

I wasn’t blacking out, yet.

The “yet” is a reminder that I stopped before those problems arose, but they were certainly as possible for me as for anyone if I continued to drink.

Like myself, many readers  of this blog have stopped drinking before their condition reached an acute stage. This can leave us wondering if we over-reacted, over-compensated, over-corrected. It can mean that those around us are not as supportive or understanding because they were not personally impacted by our behaviours…yet.

It is simply wrong to think that help is only necessary for the worst cases. I suspect that recovery care providers would LOVE the opportunity to work with people earlier in their addiction, but so many of us have been conditioned to think that we are not worthy of help unless we have had a horrendous “rock-bottom” experience.

Even though this whole blog is about how I self-managed my recovery, I hope one day it is easier for everyone to talk about this and ask for help. Shame and stigma kept me hidden and sick for far too long. I was lucky it didn’t kill me, and I am glad it didn’t kill you either.

Perhaps the real obstacle is public perception. Funding, legislation, and treatment protocol all respond to societal demands and until Joe Average starts to understand the “Chronic vs Acute” issue, there is no outcry against the system, no support for proposed changes, no money for tv campaigns with catchy jingles.

Maybe there are a lot of us in recovery who need to understand it better ourselves before we can hope anyone else will.


Note: shout out Bubble Hour co-host Catherine for introducing me to the concept of “yet”. We all learn together. 

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Don’t Give Up

Well friends, we are 8 days into the New Year and by now some of us have already blown our resolutions. Last week on The Bubble Hour, I publicly vowed to stop using the F word and I confess that one slipped out the other day. No one else was present to hear it and I was totally justified in using it (having burnt the pizza I was making for supper), but nevertheless I swore I wouldn’t swear and I still swore. I am back on the F-less train and optimistic about my chances of staying on board.

Today I am reaching out to anyone who woke up January 1st saying “never again” to alcohol, only to find themselves back in its grip within days. Don’t give up. Don’t think you have to wait until next year to try again. Don’t even wait until after the weekend party, the big conference, that upcoming wedding or the vacation you have planned. There will always be something on the calendar to justify drinking, but you can make a change today and persevere through anything life throws at you. It is hard at first, but eventually we get to a place where parties, conferences, wedding, and vacations are MORE enjoyable because we are sober.

Does that sound impossible? I thought so too at first. I worried that I would never have any fun or be any fun. I thought no one would want to be around me, and that would probably be fine because I didn’t want to be around others either. I thought everyone would notice I wasn’t drinking, and I would be ostracized. I thought I would be in constant misery watching the wine go by.

The first few weeks of recovery are pretty tender, it’s true. There’s the physical discomfort of alcohol withdrawals, the mental wrestling with a brain that has been programmed to only recognize one form of comfort, the social awkwardness of handling invitations and obligations while feeling incredibly vulnerable, and the emotional pain of grieving the loss of something so dearly loved. That is a lot to handle all at once.

Little by little, these layers of discomfort fall away. Our bodies start to mend. We go for coffee or breakfast with a friend and realize there are other ways to socialize. We order an iced tea with dinner and no one notices. We feel our grief, cry and sleep our way through it and in time is lessens, as grief does. The most resonate aspect of recovery is the mental one, in my experience. We spent a long time training our brains to recognize alcohol as a reward and over time our pleasure-reward circuitry became hard-wired to demand this substance it perceived as essential.

We have also spent a lifetime investing in beliefs about the world and ourselves that may have ultimately contributed to the need for comfort we found in alcohol. If you asked me about my life 4 years ago (as evidenced in my early posts), I would tell you I was a hard-working, high achieving individual who loved everything about my life except for one little thing: I needed to stop drinking. I would tell you proudly that I was a perfectionist with high expectations for the people around me. I saw that as a good thing.

There are also many things I would not have told you about myself (mostly because I refused to acknowledge the existence of these things): I often awoke at night and wept over my failures and shortcomings. I felt unworthy of my success, my spouse, even my children’s love. I wouldn’t tell you that my hands shook with fear as I stood before an audience to give a speech or perform music, that I saw myself as an ugly person who hid it well with good hair and makeup, or that I felt I had to earn love because otherwise I simply didn’t deserve it. I wouldn’t tell you that I had binged and purged through my university years and as a young mom – no one knew about that. I wouldn’t tell you that I got really good at keeping secrets when I was 9 – the summer another kid molested me and I went along with it because I wanted that kid to like me (clearly I was “bad” from a young age). I could not have told you about my ongoing anxiety because I called it “stress” – anxiety was for weak people, strong people get stress.

And then there was this weird thing I’d always done in private – picking and tearing at hidden areas of my scalp. If I was very “stressed” (certainly not anxious, right?) in a meeting or social setting I would raise one finger and rub behind my left ear, but that was as much as I permitted myself in public. At home, that rubbing would turn to scratching and tearing. I never understood why I did it – it was embarrassing and gross. I was always worried about having dandruff on my shoulders – we must be perfect! – but I could not stop myself from this behaviour. Oh, but never mind about that, because I wouldn’t have told you anyway.

My life was perfect and I just needed to quit drinking so that it would be FULLY perfect and I wouldn’t have secrets (except the late night crying, self-loathing, self-harm which were just normal and had to be tolerated because that was just “me”).

This is hard for me to write. This is hard for me to imagine others reading. But this needs to be said because I believe it will help someone.

After I quit drinking, other people in recovery encouraged me to reflect on my anger, resentments and expectations of myself and others. They told me that these things had fueled my addiction. This was intriguing to me, so I started considering these ideas. Many new truths came to light.

Perfectionism is not a good thing, as it turns out. I worried too much what others thought of me, I felt unworthy, I dreaded judgment, so I strove for perfection as a way to pre-empt these things. All of this is rooted in anxiety – and once I stopped pretending it was stress and acknowledged the truth of what I was experiencing I could start finding ways to cope better. It was humbling, but I had to admit it – I have crippling anxiety.

I also found out that my embarrassing, gross skin-picking habit is a form of OCD called “Dermatillomania” – very common among those of us with anxiety disorders. It can be based in unexpressed anger, which we turn towards ourselves because we fear that others will reject us if we displease them by showing anger. Dermatillomania is mainly treated with behavioural therapy, and I have found that simply keeping my nails done at the salon with an acrylic or gel coating makes them too thick to do damage and has greatly reduced my behaviours. That said, I removed my fake nails last week for a few days and immediately found myself right back at it. I headed straight in for a full set and order was restored. There is lots of information online about the condition – just search the name and see what you learn.

Therapy was another thing I considered “weak” and I moved a long way through my recovery by simply reading, communicating with others (online and on this blog), listening to podcasts, and reflecting quietly on everything I learned. But after about two years I felt like I was stuck and kept encountering the same negative patterns with some people in my life. I still had a lot of anger and pain. A friend suggested therapy and suddenly I realized that I had held it as a “shame identity” – something for the weak and stupid and self-indulgent.  By this time, I had come to see that all of my old ways of thinking were what led me into addiction and I was open to change. Talking to a professional moved me forward like a slingshot because I was so eager to find whatI needed to do differently.

So here I am, and I offer my story as a message of hope to anyone who is struggling, hiding, crying alone, and wondering where recovery will take them. Quitting drinking is only the beginning, and soon you will start to see many other parts of life improve – things you may be refusing to acknowledge or scared to change. Things you tolerate because you think that’s “just how it is” may not be true at all. Shame you feel  can be lifted. You can be free in so many ways. I wish this for you.

I am not perfect, but I am getting better. I enjoy my life so much more now. I am present for it, and I do not constantly feel the need to get numb. By ignoring all the things that hurt and shamed me, I was tolerating the pain they caused – it was like a constant background noise. Now that I am dealing with them, their power is diminished.

If you are wavering in your resolve to get sober in 2015, please hang in there. You are not alone – there are many of us on this pathway with you to light the way and encourage you along. You may feel that you are just signing up for a boring life without alcohol, but I promise you that there is MORE joy, MORE freedom, and MORE opportunity ahead. Don’t give up. It gets easier, it reaches further, and it will bring you to a version of yourself that is stronger and more real than you ever thought possible.

Finally, I encourage you to seek out other sober people. Be it a recovery program like AA, SMART Recovery, Life Ring, Celebrate Recovery, Women for Sobriety, or talking to someone you may know who is in recovery. Consider treatment – you don’t have to be a hot mess to go to treatment; it’s just another way to kickstart recovery. I got sober on my own, many do. It is possible. However, there is something magical about talking to another person that will add a whole other dimension to your journey. Start by commenting here, and see how great it feels when someone responds. Real-life support is exponentially greater, I promise.

Here’s to 2015, my friends. It is going to be effing great!

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Top Ten List for Supportive Normies

“Supportive Normies” are the people in our lives who can drink normally but support our recovery. I highly recommend enlisting one or two “normies” in your life to be trusted insiders. You may be finding a lot of support in meetings or recovery groups, but as this time of year closes in on us we may find ourselves adrift in a series of family gatherings and social events with nothing but normies (and likely a smattering of active heavy drinkers). Your sponsor and supporters are likely only a text message away, but it can also be very helpful to open up to a few choice others who are part of our daily life.

supportive normie

I’ve created a “Do’s and Don’ts” list that you can print for or email to your Supportive Normies. First though, think carefully about choosing your confidants. Your knee-jerk reaction may be to bee-line for the usual suspects (your sister, bestie, or spouse), but the best choices may be someone you spend less time with. If you are new to recovery, you may have surrounded yourself with drinking buddies and enablers. Certainly there could be true gems among this group, but also consider a favourite aunt, neighbour, or other person who has become peripheral in your life because they were not part of your drinking structure. Give this some quiet thought.

Once you have chosen a supporter or two to confide in, you may want to share this list with them. It can be used to spark discussion or to avoid it, whichever you need at the moment. You may want to create your own version of this list, adding and omitting as needed. The main goal is to create awareness for your needs, and to help you ask for support.

Here is the list in both text and graphic form. You will also find it on my “Graphic Quotes” section:


  1. DO keep my sobriety confidential. I am still deciding when, how, and with whom to share this information so it is a vulnerable time for me. Sometimes I may seem comfortable speaking about it openly and sometimes I may seem unnecessarily guarded. This is part of my learning curve so please be patient, even when it is awkward. If someone should ask why I am not drinking, tell perhaps I am a designated driver or on medication. Your inside knowledge of this situation is proof that you are a trusted person in my life.
  2. DO have some safe alternatives for me on-hand if you are hosting a gathering. I can let you know my preferences, or you can have fun looking for gourmet sodas in the store. I will likely arrive at your home with my own beverages, as well. I feel gratefully supported and cared for to know you have a back-up.
  3. DON’T think I am judging you if you drink. My decision to avoid alcohol is in reaction to my own experiences.
  4. DON’T blow off my efforts. Please understand that I have kept my struggles private out of shame, so you may not be aware of the impact alcohol was having on me. Even if you are uncertain that I need to fully abstain, please be supportive anyway. You may think that cutting back makes more sense or that my drinking wasn’t that bad, but hearing this is not helpful for me. I do not have the ability to cut back or I wouldn’t be abstaining, and it is important to me that you understand and support this.
  5. DO invite me to all the usual events, and let me decide if I feel comfortable attending. Please be patient with me if I decide to accept an invitation and then realize it was not a good idea. I may leave early or arrive late or disappear mid-evening. I am not being dramatic or disapproving if I depart suddenly; I just need to follow my instincts while I get used to a new normal.
  6. DO know that our relationship may change, because I need to change myself. We may have to meet for brunch instead of cocktails, but we can still be involved in each other’s lives. I am excited to strengthen our relationship in new ways that will support positive changes in my life.
  7. DO be my secret supporter. We can have fun subversively protecting my glass at events, or chatting up bartenders for mocktail creations, or dancing together like the craziest pair in the club. Ask me what I need at the start of the evening (because each day can be different) and let’s make a plan.
  8. DO know that if I drive you to an event you may have to take a cab home. We can discuss this beforehand, but having the freedom to escape quickly is vital to my safety.
  9. DO ask me questions. I think about my decision a lot and I don’t mind talking about it. My answers may change from day to day, because I am constantly learning new things about myself.
  10. DON’T ask me when if or when I plan to start drinking again. Just support my decision of being alcohol-free for today.

top ten list for normies

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