Shucking a million oysters ain’t gonna do it

Things are a little tangled in my head today.  I’m tired after a long shift in the ER last night, and I’m recognizing that being sleep deprived really is a trigger for bad thinking on my part. So, I see this funk as a sign that it’s time to write some of it out.  To be honest, there are some days when I wish I didn’t have to fight so hard or make myself do the work.  I want to relax and just take the day off.  But, there are no days off.  Which seems unfair, but actually, with the right perspective it is really awesome.  I don’t skip days where I make my health, my life a priority. It sounds better when I reframe it that way. It becomes a privilege and not a burden.

There will always be that voice in my head that wants to think “you’re better now. You can stop struggling so hard. You could probably moderate now”  The same voice that wants me to revert to isolating, being headstrong and obstinate. Doing things the old way instead of the new.

So, with that in mind, allow me to introduce the frog that I met the other morning in my pool:

He looks innocent enough.
But, this, ladies and gentleman is the most “I do what I want” amphibian I have ever come across.  He was gleefully swimming all over, diving down and skirting away from attempts to catch him in my net and I swear if he could have given me the finger, he would have (actually, in the picture above I think he may be). He simply had no idea that if he kept on swimming in the chlorinated water that eventually, he would drown.  There was no way to climb out without help.  He couldn’t see it.
After about ten minutes, I finally got him out. Exhausted from his attempts to elude me, he sat for a minute on the warm concrete where I had gently deposited him.  And then, he HOPPED RIGHT BACK IN to the pool.  Where we then had another game of chase and he did everything he could to avoid my attempts to catch him and save him from himself.  I finally got him and carried him out to my garden, far from the pool and gave him a stern lecture about not even thinking about hopping his obstinate butt back into danger.
Folks, this is what we do when we are in denial.  We have this idea that somehow we will be the exception. Sure, other people who drink as much as I was end up dying way too early. But I’m special. I’ll be that exception. I’ll be like that 100 year old person who smokes unfiltered cigarettes and eats bacon and drinks Jack Daniels all day every day and somehow defies the odds. We stay cocky and stubborn, even when we start to suspect that we are totally screwed if we don’t stop. 
When the truth is, I’ll end up a dead frog floating if I don’t stop swimming in a pool of alcohol and disordered thinking.  So many people are stuck in endless day ones, afraid to accept the help of others who are holding out the net, and instead keep diving down deep away from what looks scary but is actually salvation.  Humility. Admitting the need for help. It’s tough. But it’s necessary.
So I have to remind myself daily: Don’t be this frog.
Which in a round about way brings me to oysters.
Stay with me.
So, this past week I watched a movie called “Burnt.”  It probably got lambasted by the critics for being a little one-note. But the addict in me really resonated with the main character, played by Bradley Cooper (a real life alkie in recovery). He’s a dry drunk, a chef who fell from grace and lost his restaurant due to his addictions to drugs and alcohol.  It is written as a redemption story; how he attempts to rebuild his reputation and his life (without actually truly making reparations for the things he did when drinking or embracing specific principles). At the beginning of the movie, he’s in New Orleans “doing penance” by completing his goal of shucking a million oysters.  He’s not working a program, is still woefully shortsighted and unaware of how his actions have hurt others. He’s a human wrecking ball, and while he announces that he’s been sober for two years, 2 weeks and six days at the beginning of his quest to return to greatness as a chef, he’s an untreated alcoholic through and through. He’s a self absorbed loner, a bully, volatile, and short-sighted. He just doesn’t drink or do drugs.
Ultimately, through loss and failure, and from relapsing (which comes as no surprise) he gradually learns to accept community, help and belonging as key to healing and moving on. Which made it satisfying to me as a newbie in recovery (and lots of beautiful food which just makes me happy). But I think the thing that sticks with me is how this movie made me ponder what it means to not just stop drinking but create a meaningful life. Or as my friend in my online sobriety group put it:”Staying meaningfully sober is different than just quitting drinking.. Just shucking a million oysters ain’t gonna do it.”  Outward actions without inward changes ultimately are meaningless. We can not drink and white knuckle and be miserable.  Or we can not drink, grow, reach out for help and give it in return.
Some days we are the frog, and other days we are the net. But we don’t go it alone.

There and back again

So, my first sober beach vacation is done.

This is the first year in a lot of years that we haven’t packed up kit and caboodle for the journey south to the Outer Banks. We usually rent a big old house, and there a lot of days spent on the beach with very little talking (I’m actually not very talkative, though admittedly verbose in writing), delightfully thick books, surf fishing, kite flying, naps in hammocks and, for me, there used to be a LOT of wine. Vacation used to be the time that no one questioned drinking before noon: We are on vacation! And when the kids were really little and still napped, I could often be found heading over the dune with my beach chair, my book and a travel cup filled to the brim with wine.  The solitude, open vistas, sparsely populated beach, booming surf all appeals deeply to my introverted nature. This year, we just couldn’t swing it money-wise.  So, in January, when my drinking was at its’ worst, and our friends suggested a Fathers’ Day beach getaway at a super fun party hotel I was all “Yeah!” The fact that I only vaguely remember booking the hotel should have been a warning sign.

So, needless to say, heading to a beach with a bustling boardwalk, public transportation, and some of our hardest partying friends was going to be a change of pace in and of itself. Add in the fact that I was going to be doing noise, crowds, bars, restaurants and all of the above all while newly sober, welp. Cue anxiety.

First afternoon we arrived, we checked in and ventured down to check out the beach. Three of the families we were meeting were there and the adults had obviously been drinking since early in the day. I was immediately pressed to get a drink from the beachside bar and finally told my friend, “sure- tell them to give me their best virgin drink.” So, I sat there amongst my very relaxed, incredibly buzzed friends, feeling tightly wound, sipping a virgin mango daiquiri and watching round after round being ordered and thought “There’s no way they can maintain that pace. And who is watching the kids?”

My husband, who for the most part hasn’t been drinking at all these last few months, (he has refused to have any booze in the house as a show of support to me) suddenly found himself being bought drinks and before we knew it he was three deep with very high alcohol content craft IPAs.  When they bought him a fourth, he kind of threw up his hands and I told him “you know you can just say No when they try to bring you another” he gave me a look.  It was the “you are becoming one of those people” look.

I had a moment where I considered, “Am I becoming one of those people?”

I love our friends, and used to really love drinking with them, though I never allowed myself to get “drunk” when out. That was always reserved for the safety of my own home. Or “supposed”
safety, since near the end I was hurting myself during blackouts and it was spilling out into the rest of my life..driving, missing work, etc.  But for the most part, I kept my drinking under control when at other people’s homes or out for dinner because I guess the perfectionist part of me never wanted to look like a bad mom or the cheap drunk (though, I was certainly free enough to be both behind closed doors after my family had gone to bed.)

I woke up early Saturday morning and decided to go running before hitting the beach. I was heading down the beachfront street, enjoying the relative quiet of the morning. I was jogging in place, waiting at a crosswalk, listening to some good tunes and thought “Yep, I am becoming one of those people.”

I’ve seen them. The ones who are out running or biking along the trails at the beach. I would usually see them when I had finally emerged after a night of drinking, usually after 10 am and would look at them like they were crazy. How are they out exercising when I have a headache and want to vomit? How can they stand the bright sun? When can I drink again so I feel better? What is wrong with them?

Turns out, nothing. They value their health and exercise is a pleasure, not a punishment and it helps them feel good. They have time to do it because they ARE on vacation and nothing else is vying for their time and attention.  Am I the only one who never saw this before?

I swear I’m becoming one of those crazy optimistic people who sees meaning in everything. You know the ones. They post inspirational crap on their Facebook pages. I used to scroll past with a cynical eyeroll and now I look at their quotes (even the painfully misspelled ones) and nod internally. I feel it resonate deep in my soul and think “Yep, I’m one of those people now.”

“Those people” used to seem like aliens. Like who goes to a movie and doesn’t bring two or three airplane size bottles of vodka in their purse to add to their soda? Who doesn’t start drinking on vacation right around 10 am and continue until midnight, juggling the perfect buzz? Who doesn’t pregame before going out for dinner and drinks the respectable one glass of whine but then post-games until they fall asleep (pass out)? Well, me for one, these days.

I was the only non-drinking adult the entire weekend.  And you know what? It was fine.

One of my friends actually told me “whatever you are doing, it’s working. I’m jealous of your fitness, you are positively glowing and you look so pretty.” And I’m sure I was gape-jawed for a solid minute. Because all I ever used to hear when I saw her was how tired I looked. Funny, how not killing yourself makes you look dewy and, well, alive.   I know there are external changes. So many. But the internal ones are the ones that are harder to catalogue. There are hundreds of new choices, small shifts that add up to big changes.

For Father’s Day, we all went to breakfast at a very rustic and cool converted- barn restaurant and instead of the usual greasy eggs, bacon, homefries toast post hangover breakfast I would have ordered, I had fresh fruit and a portabello, egg and avocado version of eggs benedict which was delicious and didn’t leave me in a food coma. I felt light, happy, satisfied. And while everyone else had their Bloody Mary’s, I actually really enjoyed my dark roast coffee. I didn’t feel deprived or like I was missing out on anything.  And I think that’s the biggest surprise of sobriety. The things I am doing, and experience sober are so much better BECAUSE I am sober. Things I would have cynically sneered at are actually really great. I simply couldn’t appreciate them because my perspective was all twisted by despair and shame.  My old attempts to conjure a “be in the moment, find the joy in everything” outlook were always sour, and off in some way. Now, it’s authentic. So much so that it’s a little nauseating, even to me.  I’m sure I will find the balance but for now, my soul that is so scarred but awakening again finally appreciates sentiments that used to feel like bullets. Now they are balm.

Like this little gem:

Yes, I had a few moments where I was overloaded with too many people, noise, input.  But instead of drinking, I texted my sober group and took a moment to regulate. Breathed. Used my tools: Paid attention to my own breath and chose to come back into myself when I wanted to check out.  I paused and named three things I could hear: waves, laughter, distant steel drums, two things I could feel: hot, grainy sand under my feet, cool air brushing past my warm skin, one thing I could see: perfect puffy white clouds in an azure sky… and then the moment of discomfort passed and I refocused on where I was.  And went and got some ice cream. Twice on Saturday.

I have always loved the ocean and how it made me feel like my problems were insignificant in comparison to how vast it is. (Plus, whales.)  I love the wind in my face, the salt in my hair and in my nose. The light is even different. The wild air, the rhythm and flow of the cold waves, watching pebbles and shells turned over and over.  The mysterious depths feel ancient.  My own emotions are swallowed by the sheer vastness of it.  But I didn’t feel insignificant this time around.  I felt like I was where I wanted to be: in the waves, with my kids, fully present (albeit with sand in my ears from getting pounded!) My overarching emotions: hope, joy. The real kind.

And while I have a lot to consider about future vacations: where and with who, I’m trying to not stress it for now.  Instead, I’m aware of how many things are shifting, settling, like sand moved by the tide, within my own heart and mind. I’m not sure yet how my new inner beachscape will look in the end. So for now, I’m learning to just float in and out with the waves, not fighting, not panicking.. just trying to relax into it.

There and back again.