Rip off the plastic

Have you ever gone to visit an elderly relative, been ushered into their somewhat musty-smelling living room full of old yellowed photographs in garish frames, knickknacks, military memorabilia and scratchy crocheted pillows?  They motion for you to sit down and as you do you have a sudden realization that the couch is shiny and CRUNCHES and instead of sinking in like a regular couch you just sort of perch atop the thick clear plastic cover. You try to make polite small talk as you realize that you are beginning to sweat and you are totally uncomfortable in a way you have never experienced before.

Later, when you’ve eaten cookies and had strangely strong unsweetened iced tea and it’s time to leave, you try to get up and if you are wearing shorts, make an obscene sucking sound as you separate yourself from the plastic. Your legs are stinging and you are scared to look to see if you left any skin behind as you stoop to receive heavy on the aftershave kisses from your very tiny elderly uncle who seems to be held up by his massive belt buckle alone.  Anyone else had this delightful experience? Or maybe it was just me.

I’m not sure if it’s a generational thing: folks who lived through the Depression and WW2 and saved things “for special occasions” decided that covering their couches in thick clear plastic covers meant that they would endure indefinitely.  I guess what they lived through meant they were willing to give up comfort and the very essence of “couches” for an illusion of everlasting newness?  I mean, everything about a couch that is couch: comfortable, shabby, womb-like on bad days, with the perfect lumpish pillows, where you can curl up with a book and your favorite blanket and maybe spill a little coffee or tea but it’s a practical brown or greige color and so it’s ok. It just gets more worn and more comfortable and to others it may be a little questionable, but to you it’s just your couch.

I’ve been thinking about this lately when I consider what life was like when I was drinking and also as it applies to my relatively new sobriety. In those years when my drinking went off the rails and crossed over from being a coping mechanism that worked for the most part, to something that absolutely was going to kill me, alcohol was like that plastic couch cover. When I was drinking nothing touched me, nothing stained me, there was no wear and tear.  I was perfectly preserved and uncomfortable as hell in a prison of my own making.  I had armor. I felt nothing, or if I started to, I was quick to smother it in a sea of wine or whiskey.

And now that I’m sober, I feel like my sobriety is something I’m protecting in a similar fashion. It was so hard won that I think part of me thinks it needs to be preserved at all costs.  Forget comfort, I’m covering it in thick plastic because I’m scared it’s going to be ruined.

RELAPSE: the boogie man, the scary clown, the monster in the closet of those of us who are in active recovery.  I fear it.  And so I wake up every day and decide, today is not the day.

I’ve been reading a lot and listening to podcasts on relapse: the signs, the ways you slip and slide and honestly, it scares the shit out of me to hear people tell their stories. People who had lowish bottoms like mine, who had years of sobriety and then relapsed in huge, painful, public ways. They went down HARD.  And the common denominator seems to be that they stopped making sobriety their number one priority.  It’s tempting, even at almost 15 months which is just a drop in the bucket to think that I can take a day off, slack on the self care, maybe indulge in some old patterns of thinking. But where does that lead?

The other deadly error for many seems to be overextending, even in recovery advocacy work.  Once things got out of whack, the drinking came roaring back and as we have heard ad infinitum, the drinking picks up right where it left off.  Everyone who relapsed says that getting sober again is harder than staying sober.  I read all of this and so I stay in my little sober cocoon.  I keep my sobriety under wraps where it’s safe.

But then I get to the big themes of Service. Breaking stigmas.  So much work that needs to be done.  Yet I look around at others I feel are better qualified to do it than me.  I sit and wait for them to do it, and wonder why nothing is changing in public opinion.  How are these stigmas and fears ever going to change unless WE, the sober, the alive and thriving ones show people what it looks like?  And what does that mean for me personally? At what point do I decide that I’m “legit” enough, that my sobriety it strong enough for me to put myself out there?

That’s what I’m pondering these days.  I’m trying these thoughts on for size, and saying them out loud. Admitting my fears and cowardice makes it seem less powerful in a way.  Of course I’m scared.  Who wouldn’t be after all I’ve been through the last few years and as my fried synapses are healing it almost shocks me at random times when I take an inventory to realize I feel freaking awesome.  Even when I’m tired, it’s a good tired.  An honest tired from being engaged with my three kids all day, or working in the garden or a shift in the ER, or running a few miles at the end of the day. I never want to go back to that soul-dead crushing exhaustion that haunted my every day, my every waking moment that I wasn’t drinking. I don’t want to lose what I’ve found.

And yet I wonder if my fear is just a safe little excuse not to be brave…

One of my favorite books as a child was the Velveteen Rabbit; the story of how this little rabbit was played with and had adventures and to the critical eye, he got shabbier and shabbier as time passed, yet he became more beautiful and magical to the boy who loved him because of the experiences and time they spent together.  Like my shabby couch where I float off to far off Netflix lands and my lazy dogs curl up when they think no one is looking, and my kids watch tv and eat cereal in their jammies in the morning and it’s all just comfortable and not something we save “for a special occasion.”  I wonder if in keeping it so close, if in being so afraid to mess it up or get some dings and scratches on it if my sobriety doesn’t have a chance to be fully Real?

Am I ready to rip off the plastic?

We Recover

Contrary to what I’ve learned in the past about the stages of grief, in this life of loss and moving on, I’m finding that grief doesn’t unfold in some easily identifiable, progressive pattern like I’m playing a board game. Like “Ok, I rolled a 2, now I jump ahead two squares from denial to bargaining.. Ooh I rolled a 10, onto anger for me..” No, it’s not that neat. It’s a crazy hopscotch of two steps to the left, a hard right into acceptance and then back to anger again with a little detour back to denial and a two week cruise on the river of bargaining.  I’m aware that I don’t always just grieve the “right” things. Even letting go of things not meant for us leaves a hole that has to heal. I’ve found that even though by the end I was desperate to be free from my addiction to alcohol, a loss is a loss and the natural pattern of healing has to play itself out.

I’ve moved through all the phases multiple times this past year.

So now I’m into year two and kind of looking around like “what now?” That first raw year of newborn sobriety where I just laser focused on survival and maintaining my tender, non-drinking life has now morphed into an unexpected phase where this disease is fighting back with a toddler ferocity at being squelched.  I wasn’t expecting to suddenly have days of self-pity and moments where I wonder if I’m all better now. I have irrational moments of sadness that this is the new normal which is crazy because sometimes normal is amazing and good and why would I ever want to go back to that life?  The half life of “before”. Yet the thoughts cross my mind about moderating or trying to drink like regular people do.  Even when I know that ship sailed a long time ago.  Now that the first “make it to a year sober” milestone is met and I’m getting into the long haul I find myself contemplating grief and the idea of DNF.

I think its safe to say that a commonality among recovering alcoholics/addicts is a tendency toward perfection, workaholism, hiding weakness, not accepting help, not wanting to appear, well, like recovering alcoholics or addicts.  Which means that even sobriety we want to do perfectly. We want to ace it.  We want to knock it out of the park, get the medal, be a hero.  Yet the very nature of what we are trying to do: get real, show vulnerability, feel all the feelings means that this is a totally messy process.

I had the amazing opportunity to attend #SheRecovers in NYC this past weekend.  Basically, it was like the hall of fame for people in recovery: speakers like Glennon Doyle Melton, Elizabeth Vargas, Nikki Myers, Gabby Bernstein and Marianne Williamson.  They are sober women who are revered, and looked up to; women who have learned and lived and written books, all looking fabulous while doing it and kicking down doors for recovery advocacy while wearing super high heels.  There were famous sober bloggers and yoga gurus and poets and it was all incredibly inspiring in a way that kind of defies describing.

In attendance were 500 women all in various stages of recovery from a variety of things, from all over the US and several other countries, all converging on a beautiful hotel in Manhattan just steps from the Freedom Tower. Early Saturday morning a group of 25 or so of us ran along the Hudson. It was hazy and cool and there was talking and laughter as we ran through beautiful Battery park, looking out across the water to Lady Liberty and ahead towards the looming Brooklyn bridge, the city strangely hushed at that hour.  It was incredible to run in the company of other women who “get it”. And all weekend long there was hugging and laughter and deep discussions and that “me too” recognition and groups soaking up each other’s company.  It was remarkable hearing women with 10+ years of sobriety asking questions with raw emotions in their voices, still deeply engaged in the struggle.  And while I truly admired their eloquence and years of sobriety, part of me recoiled a little: like, wow I hope I’m not still that raw at 12 or 13 years.  And I realize how bad that sounds in a way.  And then of course all the woo woo it’s your journey, lean into the pain, one day at a time pearls of wisdom that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my head and heart reminded me that everyone is different and no two recoveries are the same.  But there’s still a part of me that hopes to be leaping buildings by year 12. Is that crazy?

I also was finally able to meet in person the Super Six: the group of women who have saved my life in this first year of sobriety.  What started as a text accountability group became something none of us could have imagined.  At the beginning of last summer, I knew I was going to struggle.  I knew with my three spirited kids home and all bumping into each other, my busy job and our reputation as the “pool party central house” that it was going to be a rough road. So I did something utterly unlike me. I asked for help.  I reached out on my support group board where I had been posting almost daily and suddenly we had a group.  And it’s been nothing short of remarkable.  In the past year, we’ve talked each other through both incredibly hard and mundane things. And all of us have maintained our sobriety. Meeting them was beyond words.  Six sisters.  And we just picked up where our rambling, long text and video conversations left off; just in person.   It was a weekend full of laughter and deep talking and just solidified for me that connection is the opposite of addiction.  It was a balm at the end of a year that left me with not one single surviving “in real life” friendship.  I got sober and everyone scattered. So, to meet these sisters who have helped me as I move through that grief was a gift.

On Sunday morning the six of us decided to run across the Brooklyn Bridge.  Halfway over, with five lanes of traffic below me and the wind blasting in my face, I looked all around me at the incredibly surreal, breathtaking view and it struck me that just a little over a year ago, I couldn’t even walk to my mailbox without getting winded.  Yet there I was, with five of the most amazing women I have ever met, on our second early morning run in as many days, running five miles like it was nothing.  Later that morning we stood together at the 9/11 memorial in the eerie quiet and it was overwhelming to consider that I was there in that sacred place.  But I didn’t need to escape from the emotions it brought up in me.  I could look down into the endless falling cascading water and feel profound sadness and awe.  I wasn’t numb.  I could stand there in that moment and realize just how remarkably far we have all come.  In one year, I have gone from soul-sick and near death, and being the kind of person who found memes like “If you see me running you better run because I’m being chased by something” utterly relatable and have become a woman who gets up early and moves and breathes and runs and  LIVES.  I’m not wasting my life anymore. And I don’t have to stand there ashamed at the site where so many had their lives violently taken away.  I am profoundly lucky that I am still alive; that I can make connections and form relationships.  I can drive through the Holland tunnel and not have my heart rate go over 60 when I would have been a hyperventilating ball of anxiety with sweating palms and shaky hands 426 days ago.  That’s remarkable.  It blows me away completely.  And it gives me a sense of purpose. And fear.

So now I’m home and the inevitable “what now” hits again.  It was a mountain top. Yet as we are reminded, we live in the valleys.  That’s where the daily grind, the opportunities for pain are. And if this past year has taught me anything it’s that the pain is what makes us grow.  Part of me wants to blast ahead, to the next mountain.  To become a recovery advocate who kicks down doors in her bad ass high heels or maybe in my old combat boots.  Yet, I’m reminded that this journey I’m on is just one day at a time.  One step at a time.  I get too far ahead of myself or spend too much time dwelling on what’s past, then I risk becoming a DNF.  Did not finish.  I want to finish my race, without regrets, in whatever messy way that is entirely mine. And after this weekend, I know even more deeply that I do not journey alone.