Corkscrew

When you become an ER nurse, you get yourself a front row seat to some of the toughest moments a human can experience.  Over time, you absorb a lot of other people’s trauma. For many of us, there is a fine line between accepting the randomness of things while still believing in the inherent good of the world vs. plunging headlong into fear and anxiety about lurking danger and beginning to see death around every corner. If you spend enough time seeing really messed up things, you may begin to think of the universe as some kind of demented Rube Goldberg contraption where each swinging lever meets up at the exact right time with a rolling ball, causing calamity. In my work, I see how all it takes is a single second of distraction, a missed phone call, a misperception, a momentary lapse of judgement that cascades into something terrible. Nothing will ever be the same again. Everything from that point forward will be demarked into “Before” and “After.”

I naively entered the gaping maw of Emergency and Combat medicine with a desire to help. I threw myself into the role of healer, of “fixer”. Eventually I found myself dependent on the rush, then over time, when the unfixable things started coming fast and furious, I internalized all of that cumulative damage.  Instead of looking for ways to unpack and unload, I just absorbed it with a sense of “this is just who I am now”. I think I saw it as the price  to pay for the privilege of getting to save lives, and on some days, being the one there in the sacred moment of death. It is a heavy burden and a calling. For me, my inability to unload all of the absorbed traumas devolved into a sense of self-loathing and punishment for not being able to handle it all better. I came to see myself as the unreliable narrator of my own life. I accepted the idea that once damaged, I would stay that way. The solution was to just find a way to numb it all since I felt myself being constantly, internally divided into Before and After.  I developed a lot of hyper-vigilance, trying to control every little detail as if I could ward off the horrors I saw, make it not be MY family, my little world, my patient. I thought that somehow I could keep it from happening by just trying to control, to manage everything, to avoid the swinging levers and when I couldn’t, when I “failed”, then I would drink to numb myself. Addiction blinds us to many things, especially our true selves. I was operating under the false idea that my self was irrevocably broken because I just wasn’t strong enough. And every time my hands started shaking I just saw it as proof.

In year two of sobriety, I took a deep breath, and decided it was time to look into the abyss of my PTSD. I started going to therapy, looking for tools to help me move past some of the things that haunt me, learning how to practice saying “I am just feeling triggered right now. I am safe. This isn’t happening right now.” At first, I kept getting stuck in wishing that I hadn’t chosen the life I had. I wanted to go back and re-write the past. I thought about the roads not taken, my own choices to wander down the tough paths I have.  I wonder what might have been had I not traveled down the road of trauma and addiction.  If I had accepted myself, my identity as a lover of solitude and quiet. If I had chosen the life of a writer or professor, instead of running headlong into adrenaline and excess because I wanted to appear strong, and feared a small, quiet life.  The irony is that now, coming out the other side, that is what I long for the most.

Alcohol was originally a coping mechanism to turn down the noise, to slow my racing brain, temper my tendency to fly too high and then crash.  And it worked for a long, long time. Until it didn’t. I knew at about 25 or 26 years of age when I was in the Army that my drinking wasn’t normal.  I was the classic apex predator of MORE. I had no off switch once I started. I would lead the charge at the bar, was always there when the lights came on. I rolled back into our barracks at 0200 only to be in PT formation at 0500 with my fellow soldiers, the cloud of alcohol fumes no doubt streaming behind us as we ran in darkness singing loud cadences. Most of us were probably not clinically sober when we started our duty days. I had a few painful consequences to my drinking, but they weren’t bad enough to make me really stop. It also wasn’t out of the ordinary in that warrior culture to be a heavy drinker…I believe the military, with it’s focus on being tough and strong and the realities of war can engender addiction in those of us who may be predisposed.  We are told to be cast iron, the last line of defense. We aren’t supposed to be afraid. Feelings make you vulnerable and get you killed, so you just stuff them down. So many sacrifice their mental health in order to never appear weak. I certainly did.  My second profession has many of the same expectations or subliminal messages: Keep it together, get the job done, don’t break down, don’t fail your patient by letting your emotions override your skill. Don’t let anyone know how scared you are.

Many of us who have lost years to addiction and dysfunctional patterns of survival wish we could go back and do things over. We can get stuck feeling the need to constantly make amends for errors of judgment, for our very “lostness”. In my first few months of sobriety, I had an overwhelming urgency to make things count, to grow, to head a thousand miles an hour down the road in the opposite direction.

At the beginning of this journey, I applied a lot of force to my recovery in typical impatient, “I’ve gotta work this out, heal this, fix this NOW” black and white thinking.  In therapy, I started digging out all of the things I had been stuffing down and tried to rush through them. I was just going to be the best patient ever, and I would have this all figured out in no time.  I would do all the homework I was given and then press even more, and if I failed, then I would just charge back into it. It was the same extremes I had been swinging between for as long as I can remember.

And then, six months ago, with 950 odd days of sobriety, I drank for three consecutive nights. I didn’t drink to excess. I applauded myself for making my drinks in a glass, with ice and appropriate mixers like a “normal” person.  I didn’t guzzle straight out of the bottle. I didn’t pour another and honestly, I sat for a moment enjoying the pleasant buzz, the temporary muting of my inner noise. I didn’t call or text anyone, which is what I should have done when I found the bottle hidden. I didn’t dump it out, just quietly planned to drink it once the kids were in bed.  I just wanted to stop feeling broken and full of holes. I wanted to numb and to change my state. And it did. For a bit. With almost the first sip, my old worn neural pathways kicked in. I felt that familiar old sense of well-being, the relaxation of my tense muscles, the smoothing out of my rumply thoughts and then I slept.  Dreamless, blissful oblivious sleep that had been eluding me for months as I was excavating old thought patterns and working through old traumas. I didn’t plunge headlong back into drinking in the morning or blacking out. I just woke up on day 4 and decided “no more.”

Reliving that feeling of looking at myself in the mirror with a sort of film over my eyes–everything muted, turned down low and muffled made me realize something. I don’t want that feeling anymore, nor do I need it. I like the razor sharp clarity, the quickness of mind that comes with being 100% present and unaltered. Over those 950 days sober had become my new default. I knew that deep in my bones.

The first few weeks after my slip were a jumble of thoughts, regrets, trying to understand how I got to that place. The waves of worthlessness that had prompted me to pick up the glass only grew taller in the weeks after, and the darkness that lies under my surface became enveloping. I know deep down that alcohol doesn’t mix well with my mental health. But I drank. I felt like a failure, like someone was going to pull up to my house with flashing lights and revoke my “sober blogger” card.

I told my closest friends and sober sisters, then sat down and did a long inventory. I made a pretty long list of warning signs that had been brewing.  I had some back to back really bad shifts at work that were very reminiscent of my last few months of drinking when I was at my breaking point. I felt constantly triggered. My insides were shaking, my heart and thoughts were racing and I was distracted, disorganized and doubling down on being hard on myself.  I was also struggling with deeply painful changes in some important relationships. At the same time, juggling three kids and their school and sports schedules on my own had reduced my self care to basically zero.  When I wrote it down in black and white, it was clear to see how I had been escalating for weeks before I ever picked up the drink.

I’ve grown a lot since I started writing this post. I had actually written the first part before my slip. I’ve done a lot of hard work and soul searching since then, and a lot of changes have resulted from what I saw as a failure.  But with time, I see it as a perfect alignment of that swinging lever that bumped into the ball and caused a cascade reaction.  Except it wasn’t a calamity.  It was a catalyst.

In the half year since, I’ve continued going to therapy, and I’ve expanded my tool box considerably. I’ve learned new coping mechanisms. I still have some really bad days but I’m allowing myself to take my time, to float in things. I’ve started taking medication for what has been a lifelong struggle with undiagnosed type 2 bipolar/ADHD. It’s been hard to admit I needed more help, but it became clear that if I am going to keep doing the work I need to do to that it was time to try meds. I had tried literally everything else. Including nearly drinking myself to death.  My therapist told me a few weeks ago that my “kinetic energy” has toned down a lot. I think that was a nice way of saying I’m no longer so hypomanic. But it feels good to be at peace with not needing the extremes. I don’t feel less like myself. I actually feel like I finally have a chance to understand who that is, with the constant head noise turned down a little. It’s definitely a work in progress. Some days are rough. I still want to rush, to get to wherever I think I should be immediately.  And then other days I’m a river of zen. (So maybe my extremes aren’t quite gone).  But there are more days where I can hold loosely and work through the anxiety, the days of the mean reds, knowing that it will pass.  That I’m ok.

I think perhaps the hardest part to accept has been the loss of my vision of myself as a perfect rocket launching into sobriety. A new ghost ship sailed away as I waved from the shore: that story line wasn’t one that I could claim, perhaps wasn’t meant for me. I will never know. But looking back, I’m glad it happened. It cemented for me that I want to be sober more than I want to be safe. I want it more than anything.

“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose.  We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours.  It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” -Cheryl Strayed

 

730 days

Today I am two years sober.

I think when I pictured this day if at all, I imagined I would be spending it in some symbolic way.  Like finally getting a sober tattoo or running an ironic 7.30 miles. Instead, I have the flu.  Talk about anticlimactic.

I’m sitting on my bed with a cat trying to shove my ancient MacBook off my lap so he can take his rightful place.  I have hot peppermint tea, a box of tissues and my favorite blanket.  I can only breathe through one nostril, my nose is red, my whole face hurts and I’m coughing and wheezing and it’s general misery.  But I’m happy. It’s the craziest thing.

A wise gentleman in one of the first online forums I discovered at the start of this whole sober adventure calls drinking/addiction “Fear Jail”.  It’s the perfect description.  And when I was first paroled out of that endless revolving cycle of self-destructive behavior, shame, broken promises, and the crushing mental weight of all of it, I felt like it was close behind me, like a gaping mouth, just waiting to pull me back in and devour me.  The first few months was all about creating as much distance and changing as many things as I could to make sure I never went back there.

In my active drinking,  I had the clarity of mud. I had an utter lack of self-awareness while at the same time I was totally self-absorbed. When can I drink next, do I seem drunk right now, is there going to be enough, why can’t I stop, what if I try moderating again…. on and on in an endless internal loop under every event, every moment of seeming normalcy.. a drumming internal dialogue that just got louder and louder. The coping mechanism (drinking) which worked perfectly, in the beginning, became such a big problem that I lost sight of the original problem. For me, untreated depression, social anxiety, lifelong struggle with ADHD and a whole bunch of other capital letters I won’t list.  For others, well, {insert your thing}.  Social anxiety, loneliness, need for social lubricant, attempt to connect, act of rebellion, whatever. Whatever it starts out as, it ends in the same place. Yet somehow we think that just drinking is the problem.

I still see so many people struggling to get through the first thirty days which, for me, were the most crucial and the most difficult. Honestly, early sobriety really defies description.  If like me, you had any degree of physical dependency, it can take literally every bit of your energy to get through that time.  It is ROUGH.  But continuous abstinence, day after day, no lapses and no slips is absolutely crucial to recovery. The best way I can think of it is like a washing machine. You want to be clean. So you climb into the unknown where you are spun around and splashed. Soap is stinging your eyes, water is going up your nose and you don’t know which way is up.  You can only allow yourself to splash and swirl, and take occasional gasps of air as your head breaks the surface.  You don’t know how long this churning will last, so you just let yourself go with it.  You cling to the words of others. They told you they survived so you trust that you will too. And when the drum finally stops spinning you lie there exhausted and wrung out, wondering what in the world just happened.  And then you stand up, shakily and the light is bright as you climb out and stand on the edge and you look down, with eyes that are unused to such brightness and maybe stinging from the soap but you are clean, maybe for the first time ever. It’s just you, without armor, no defenses, no substances, nothing to “take the edge off”. You are all raw edges. You feel battered, but kind of proud that you made it through and you look down into the deep well and think ” yep, never doing that again.” But if you drink during that time, it’s like you open the washer mid-cycle and dump in a quart of motor oil, some rusty wrenches, rocks and sand and when the spin cycle is over you are battered and filthy and bloody and actually wonder why you aren’t clean.  In fact, you are worse off than when you started and think you never want to go through that again. So you just keep drinking.

Continuous sobriety is all about fatih. Faith as unseen surrender. While you have no idea what lies ahead, you finally decide that you are done wasting your life. Done giving away energy, time, your very soul, to the futile activity of trying to cram a square peg into a round hole.  I will never be able to drink “normally”. And honestly why do we label a person who can’t tolerate literal POISON as the one with the problem?  The people who can easily handle a group one carcinogen/depressant are in fact “normal” while we who are allergic to alcohol are somehow flawed? But that’s a whole other post for another time.  The fact remains that the ship has sailed. I will never be able to moderate, have a drink “socially”. The very structures of my brain have been irrevocably changed and there’s no undoing it.  And while time is healing my neurotransmitters and no doubt my alcohol- ravaged biome, I can never drink again. And that is such a relief. To be free of and done with all the self-bargaining that never worked anyway, the lies about just one or two glasses.  I always ended up drinking against my will. And when a thousand is never enough, it so much simpler to just have none.

As my brain finally settled out, I began to have what I never had while drinking (even in those few hours of “clinical” sobriety)–clarity. For me it was at about 60 days that I suddenly just had this crystal clear picture of what I had become. I saw the lies. I saw how deluded I had been and how tightly I had been clinging to something that wanted me dead. I started to see it as a parasite. In the beginning, ours was a symbiotic relationship. Drinking made me feel less “other”.  I could shut off the endless thoughts and swirling brain that made me feel so odd and different from everyone else. I could be fearless, calm, confident. I could be the brash, rebellious, adrenaline-junkie risk-taker.  I could handle the worst traumas and go back for more.

But eventually, the parasite started calling the shots. I needed alcohol. I pregamed before every social event and still stood there feeling panic and anxiety. It stopped “working” for me yet I still kept on. I just drank more, wishing for the old magic feeling that used to come over me in the moments after the first sip.  The burning sensation down my throat, the spreading warmth, the unfurling of the mind. Eventually, that sensation stopped. It became a desperate search to even get a buzz. The amounts of alcohol I was drinking would have killed a large elephant but I relentlessly chased that lost feeling, laughing with others at my tolerance, my ability to take ten shots and feel literally no effect while my poisoned mind was screaming that the gig was up, but maybe I could carry on a bit longer without having to face that truth. All signs of late-stage alcholism.

Unlike most parasites, though, where the parasite won’t kill the host, this one eventually does.  And once you recognize that you are no longer the one calling the shots and you start to fight it, it clings even tighter. The moment I started fighting back, I really woke it up and then I got a front row seat to the full destructive power of addiction. It isn’t your friend, it isn’t your comforter or your coping mechanism. It is the master of you– a dark force that only craves your destruction. That’s clarity.  It sounds kind of dramatic and hokey when I write about it. But it literally is a fight to the death. There are many people who don’t make it out alive. And so I am utterly grateful to be on this side of it.  And I don’t take it for granted that one bad decision could put me right back where I was.  There are a lot of recovery cliches.  They are annoying because they are true.  A big one that I hear a lot is “you are either working on recovery or you are working on a relapse.”

Some days I wish this wasn’t my reality. I wish I had a quiet mind, one that wasn’t always overflowing with thoughts and jumbled words. Part of me misses the quiet that drinking used to bring, even if it didn’t last. I wish I could have one day off from this fight.  I still have those moments of irrational nostalgia when I remember drinking before it became what it did.  I wonder if I’m “fixed.” But that’s not how it works.

Milestones are really important to people in recovery. Small Celebrations. Even 24 hours can be huge as we all know. So, on this milestone day, I feel very humbled and grateful to be here.  At the same time, I am still me. Which means that I’m impatient, impulsive, lacking in prudence and struggling with acceptance.  I just want to get there.. whatever endpoint I imagine, even when rationally I know there isn’t a finish line to cross. No medal to put around my neck, no greenish banana and icy water bottle and some craggy old volunteer saying “great job, good race.” This IS my life now.

Once out of those early, raw days when everything is new, recovery can be slow and tedious. Some days and weeks I barely make any progress at all. I see all those old patterns of thinking and behaving– they have been worn into me deeply, like years of water flowing over rock, forming smooth channels. I’m trying to make new paths, and not slip into the old well-worn, “easy” ones.  But that takes time and I want to rush ahead, get to the end.

Because I’m a sucker for a good metaphor and because “once a soldier always a soldier”, I often find metaphors in my old experiences that inform my new ones. While training to be an Army medic, I spent hours learning and practicing common “warrior tasks” as they applied to treating patients on a battlefield.  We had all undergone training to ” locate mines by probing” way back in Basic Training. Now, as combat medics, we had to combine the tasks – clearing a path to our patient and then extricating them all while not getting ourselves killed. It totally sucks, being stuck probing one inch at a time with a metal probe at a 30-degree angle, clearing a path 24 inches wide to allow you to evacuate your patient.  You are stuck there, lying prone with all your battle gear on, literally moving at a snail’s pace while your buddy calls for help and you try to talk him through “self-aid” and assure him you are coming.  The natural instinct is to get up and just run to help someone. But that’s the evil genius of mines.  They aren’t designed to kill, they are designed to make you a casualty. You are out of the fight and so are the people who are going to try to get your busted ass off the battlefield safely. It slows everything down to inches.

I remember feeling my brains cooking inside my heavy kevlar helmet in the hot San Antonio sun, sweat dripping into my eyes as I slowly probed my way to my patient and wondering what normal people back home were doing while I probably had at least another 30 minutes of belly crawling ahead of me and wishing I was anywhere but there. But recovery is like that. We need to take our time. We need to probe for the things that are under the surface.  The root cause analysis, the unearthing of things that feel like landmines, the slow unraveling and questioning of old “truths”.  It’s not all explosive and exciting like in the movies.  It’s a tangled web of patterns and experiences and it takes TIME. But there’s no other way to do it.

So, instead of patients, I’ll be taking care of me today. I’m hydrating, resting, enjoying some fuzz therapy with my cats and dog who happily curl up with me when I feel lousy or whenever my usual frenetic activity ceases. When I finally sit down, someone always plants themselves in my lap like a reminder to just stay still.

Instead of a long run, I’m going to take a celebratory NAP. I do crazy things like that these days. I don’t have to go faster, higher, longer all the time. Sometimes I go small and slow. And sometimes I just pause to think what a miracle it all is.

This journey, this recovery.