The Legend of the Lost Ironing Board

There is a strange contraption that lives in my basement.  It has only been unearthed from the storage room/laundry room/ the “don’t try to shift any boxes or you may be crushed in an avalanche” room/ the “oh please, let there not be any wolf spiders lurking in the dark space behind the washer” room a handful of times this year.

It’s called an ironing board. It’s a symbol of my former life.  A relic from a time when I used to actually iron clothes before appearing in public.  Back when I used to iron the scrubs I wear to work, rather than grabbing them out of the clean clothes pile and looking at the wrinkles and telling myself maybe no one will notice.

It creaks and squeaks and protests when I unfold it, probably because it rarely gets unfolded anymore. I dragged it out the other day to touch up the kid’s back to school outfits and they all ran screaming from the hideous screech it made. They came back to investigate, only to back away in wide-eyed horror at the clouds of steam rising from the snout of the iron as it sat there puffing like an ancient dragon.  “WHAT IS THAT THING??” they cried. 

I took a moment to pause since that sound triggered a whole big swirling whirlpool of memory and shame. I hadn’t ironed since I got sober.  That board and I have had a complicated history. When my drinking got really bad the last few years, I would wildly overcompensate to prove to myself how “high functioning” I was.  I would often set up the ironing board after the kids were in bed and drink while I tackled a huge amount of ironing. It was one of those misguided, wine-fueled attempts at proving that I was still a good mother. And it was something that I stopped doing at all when my drinking started taking me down to my rock bottom day.

During this summer of learning to say no to some things and a lot of new “yeses”/safeguarding my sobriety as my first priority, there was zero ironing. It was one of those things I decided really didn’t matter.  I’d rather give kids my time and thoughtful words instead perfectly coordinated outfits and fake “put-togetherness”.

There was something I used to notice whenever I saw pictures my husband has taken of them when I was working.. He sent snapshots of them eating a yummy dinner or at the park and yes, they may not have worn wearing perfectly matched outfits and that was some left-over ketchup on someone’s face, but I would look at those cheeks, the sparkling eyes. The big scrunchy-faced smiles. They were so darn happy to be with their Dad, at the park or wherever.  They were completely un-self conscious about how they looked.  The were in the moment.  And they were gorgeous to me.  But I couldn’t let go of overcompensating when I was with them, as though my kids’ appearances were somehow a reflection of me. I could never relax completely, always feeling waves of guilt about being a drinking Mom washing over me. I perfected a fake cheerfulness, an over the top gritting my teeth creating perfect memories all while my brain was screaming for that next drink.

I’m still flawed and get it wrong a lot, but I don’t have that desperation to prove anything anymore.  That voice telling me I’m not good enough, not a good mother, a selfish person, a weak person still tries to creep in from time to time. But my brain is no longer pickled and so it can identify when my thoughts head that way and put a stop to it.  Its an amazing thing when your voice of reason is no longer gurgling at the bottom of a bottle of wine.

The lost ironing board is perhaps a symbol of me finally coming in to my own .  Because most of the time I still have no idea what I’m doing.  I still wait for somebody to show up and say “ok, we know you are just faking this whole Responsible Mom of Three thing.  Please stand here against the wall with your hands behind your back until a real grown up shows up to take over.” I think that struggle; that feeling like a fraud was one of the things that really fueled my drinking. But as in so many other areas of life in new sobriety, I’m just trying to float in it gently, and stop reacting so much. Give myself the grace I would give a friend who is struggling with motherhood.

I will never do this perfectly.  Every day brings its’ challenges, triumphs and crushing moments.   Things that worked yesterday suddenly don’t work today. I mull, stew, think and plot.  Some days I feel like I’m on some long, long, long version of Survivor where all I need to do is just  OUTWIT, OUTLAST, OUTPLAY.  And the stakes are high, but I’m tired of being driven by fear, worries about appearances and expectations. So I’m letting go of them.

Because ultimately, no matter what is going on, whatever mind-numbing repetitious “wash your hands, stop hitting, use your words, where are your shoes, say sorry, forgotten lunch, playground drama, phantom stomach ache three calls from the school nurse” kind of day I am faced with, sobriety is forcing me to prioritize.  I must choose what will and won’t matter.  And I’m growing in confidence about those decisions as a sober, fully present mother. I honestly have no idea how I managed any of it all the years I was drinking.  And I’m so grateful to be done with it. Because life has plenty of challenges in and of itself.  The massive amounts of energy I used obsessing over drinking, recovering from drinking and feeling awful about drinking is mine again to use for living.  And life is less frantic when you aren’t constantly overcompensating and hiding a huge secret.

So going forward, there may days when we look like we climbed out of the laundry basket. And that’s fine by me. There may be other things that will fall by the wayside as we continue on this journey.. but maybe don’t hold your breath for the Legend of the Lost Steam Mop.

Because with two big dogs who sneak slobbery tennis balls into the house, a husband who sometimes forgets he’s wearing muddy boots and kids with questionable snack-wrangling skills, I really need that thing.

Dispatch from the laundry room

Summer has been busy, finding me home with my three kids and trying to balance life while working nights in the ER. I’ve had this blog post bobbing around in my mind the last few weeks, like an iceberg gradually adding mass underneath the calm surface. And so today is the day I’m giving it life. Or trying to.

I remember waking up, not all that long ago, sitting on the side of my bed and wondering if I was actively dying.  Chest tight, hard to catch my breath, waves of nausea. Dry mouth and bloodshot eyes. My soul hurt. All I could think about was when it was going to be time to drink again. My future only went that far. It hurt too much to think farther than that and if I could just get that first sip, the rest would fade away. Or I hoped it would.

Now, I wake up and sit on the side of my bed in the early hours and take an inventory. Weird twinge in my back from sleeping like a rock for eight consecutive hours, slightly sore muscles from yesterday’s run.  Notice my hungry belly; anticipate the first sip of dark, rich coffee. I think ahead to the next few weeks of being able to wake up lazy this way instead of to the clamoring alarm that shouts at me to get up and get going, move move move, in school-year mode.

With the end of summer looming, I have a million things I could be doing to be getting ready for back to school. Errands to run, projects around the house, weeds to pull.  Actual school supply shopping. New sneakers for feet that have undoubtedly grown but are still enjoying being barefoot and filthy. But I’m not doing any of those things.  Mostly, I’m just being a mom.  And doing a ton of laundry.

Which brings me to the haiku I composed last night at 1 am while folding another giant load as I stayed up ridiculously late watching the Olympics:

The pile grows higher
Forget, restart endlessly
Wash, fold forever.

I’m not sure if it is the fact that my kids spend a lot of time outdoors or if they are just extra grubby or can’t eat a meal without half of it landing in their laps, but I have been doing a ton of laundry this summer.  And while I sit there watching it spinning in the last few minutes before I transfer it to the dryer, I appreciate the fact that I’m actually getting time to myself in the cool basement (with some kind of uncool wolf spiders but lets forget that for now) and I can take a moment to reflect on sobriety. Today marks 161 days of continuous non-drinking. Consecutive days where I have been retraining my brain to realize that just because an emotion surfaces, that’s not a cue to drink.  I’ve done this thousands of times in the last five months.  And you know what? My slobbery brain is learning that an emotion is just that: not a ringing bell telling me to go pour a drink and numb out.  Honestly, when confronted with tough things lately, I actually think how to handle it, which is probably what people have been doing for thousands of years without having to blog about it but oh well, I’m a slow learner.  These days a drink is about 29th on my list of things that will “fix” or get me through the next few minutes, hours, days… And that is the miracle of sobriety in a nutshell. I couldn’t have imagined even five seconds at the beginning where I wasn’t constantly thinking about drinking.  And now some whole entire days pass where I haven’t thought once about drinking. I’m busy living. And folding laundry.

But, all this laundry has me thinking about how early sobriety is a lot like a heavy duty wash cycle. You dive in, not knowing what to expect, and the water starts rising and you think “ok. I can do this. I’m a little damp but I’m floating.” Then the agitating part starts; you spin and churn and can’t tell what side is up and start getting water up your nose and you are being blinded by soapsuds that sting and burn and it just all feels like too much and all you can think about is just climbing the hell out of the washer and getting back to your regular dirty, smelly and worn state. It doesn’t seem worth it when you keep spinning and getting pushed down over and over and you aren’t sure when it will end.

Well, I can tell you that eventually it stops. The spinning dies down, the motor cools and you are lying there, wet and wrung out… but clean.  It’s quiet. You made it. For me that phase was right at about 80 days without alcohol.  At that point, I thought, hmm… maybe I’m ready to try the dryer now,  (the real work of sobriety) and you begin to feel warm on the inside. You start glowing literally and metaphorically.  Your healing brain starts to smooth out the rumpled and wrinkly parts. And then, almost without realizing it, you start thinking about what it might be like to really go the distance and withstand the heat of the iron and get your soul and body in tip top shape.  And some days this seems like a lot of work and other days it comes easily. Depends on the day.

Still with me on this metaphor? Well, if you drink during the early period where you are sloshing around… It’s like you open the lid on the washer mid-cycle and dump a gallon of mud in.  Add a few greasy wrenches, some musty sneakers and a bag of rocks and then close the lid and let the cycle finish.  Not only are you not clean at the end, but you are beat up and filthy and think you never want to go through that again because you feel worse than when you started. There is nothing appealing about even thinking about climbing back in for a do-over.  That was me for years.

Consecutive days.  That’s the key to allowing your brain time to reset and heal.  Not three days here, eleven days there, drink and then start over.  That’s just some kind of awful torture where you leave your brain more confused than when it started.  It takes full commitment to putting as much distance between the drinking and the new you. And that can be done even when you have kids climbing all over you, a job, a nutty husband and a busy life. It just means taking each decision as it comes. Being all in. Declaring deep down with complete conviction that booze just isn’t an option anymore. Eventually your brain gets the message. And when it does, it’s pretty great.

I had a moment at work the other week when a patient came in with a dislocated jaw.  We were kind enough to put it back and I was giving her discharge instructions and noticing how uncomfortable she was and she sadly told me she was disappointed because the next day was her birthday.  And I said “well, looks like a smoothie with a candle in it for you.”  And she snorted and said through her giant ice pack: ” More like a bucket of margaritas with a straw.”  And BLAM. That was it, the moment I realized that I would have said the same thing five months ago and it hadn’t even crossed my mind that drinking was an option in that scenario.  And I got kind of ridiculously giddy and had to share it with some sober friends.  Perhaps that’s how normies feel. I will never know because I’m not one. But still, it goes to show that the brain CAN be re-wired. We can move from our obsession with booze to being at peace. And that was something I could not have even imagined when I first quit.

My early attempts at re-training my brain made me feel about as competent as the Filipino Olympic diving team.  (If you are early to sobriety and suffering from insomnia like I did, I highly recommend you google this. Just because. You’re welcome)  The beginning days of sobriety where you are being forced to feel your actual feelings, sit with your unfiltered, raw thoughts is excruciating.  It’s like being stuck in permanent fight or flight, jangly nerves and overload when you are forced to plug in for the first time, possibly ever.  I read a research study where subjects chose to be subjected to ten minutes of electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts for ten minutes.  That’s our numb-out, tune-out, check out world for you.  And for alcoholics, it’s probably worse since we were the masters at not feeling anything.  But adding day after day, moment after moment, where drinking isn’t an option, my synapses are stretching and re-wiring. I can sit in a feeling and then it passes.  I can examine an unpleasant memory and not fall to pieces.  And that is so encouraging.  I am finally becoming one of those people I used to look up to… the ones further up the mountains who kept shouting down through the clouds: “It gets better! Keep going! The view up here is incredible.” Because it really is.

So, we have two weeks left before my minions return to school.  Everywhere I go, I get “the look” (which is half bemusement and half relief it’s not them) as people survey my three spirited kids and say “I bet you are really ready for them to go back.”  And I kind of smile wistfully and say “not really.”  Because part of me is.  It’s been a long summer of sobriety and motherhood.  Ups and downs and false starts.  But I’ve also been fully engaged for the first time in years and so I’m not quite ready to let go of them, and go back to only seeing them in the afternoons when they’ve given their best to their teacher and friends and have only dregs of crankiness and homework resistance left for me. Which is ok. I am working to accept that I wasted so many years either giving them my dregs, or wildly overcompensating.  I still have a lot of guilt about that. But, I want to squeeze out every last ounce of summer time we have… Which doesn’t mean that they don’t drive me absolutely nuts some days with the squabbling and messes and filthy sneakers and tween drama and ludicrous battles over Minecraft and groans of “I’m borrred.”  I have had plenty of moments where all the noise is just overwhelming and I want to yell ” Stop being ungrateful little jerks, I’m trying to cherish you for crying out loud!!”

Last week we got a tough diagnosis for my five year old daughter.  Life as we know it is probably going to change in ways we can’t even imagine.  And it’s scary and unknown and I kiss my daughter’s head and thank God that I’m sober and can be there for her as we navigate this new world of tests and needles and procedures. My first thought when we got the call wasn’t that I needed a drink. I cried and felt honest, real sadness. Which I let flow over me, and then I got on with formulating a plan for how we would support and hold her up and walk into this new chapter.  This would have been impossible five months ago.

So, for you newbies who are in the first days of trying sobriety on for size.  You know your time drinking needs to be done. And maybe you are having some false starts. I think we all did. But  let me be yet another voice in the invisible army that is doing this with you: Be encouraged. It does in fact get better.  So much better that I won’t even spoil it for you.  Because you will get to that place and you will notice one day that your heart isn’t in a crumpled ball of pain, your breath comes easy, you actually feel GOOD.  And quite possibly, nothing “tangible” will have changed.  You will still have an asshole boss, money troubles, a painful marriage, maybe health problems or a lack of support.  But everything will feel different. Because you will be different.

And so, that’s all for now. I’m going to keep on plugging.

Yours with love, signing out from the top of Mount Laundry.