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.

A cold wind

” A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”– George R.R. Martin

Winter snapshots from my past:

I sat on a log on the shore, my numb fingers feeling oddly separate from me as I watched them lacing up my skates.  My breath rose like smoke in front of my eyes, as I peered over the top of my scratchy scarf. In the moonlight, the lake glistened and stretched ahead into the dark for miles. The frozen ripples of waves near the shore were bumpy under my skates as I headed out towards the smooth center, pulling my thick mittens back onto my cold fingers.  There was no sound except the scraping of my skate blades, the occasional rustle of trees in the circling darkness around the glow of the lake. Now and again I would hear the groaning echoes of the ice as it would shift and sing and moan beneath me, reminding me of ancient whales singing somewhere in another frozen place.  The moon shifting slowly overhead, my leg muscles burning as I skated, racing ever onward to the darkened shore of the other side. I spent countless weekend hours like this. I never thought to complain about the cold. My thoughts focused only on the smooth gleaming ice beneath me, the speed, the way the air moved in and out of my lungs, stinging wind on my face. I was temporarily invisible, in a lonely place of cold and dark but still buoyed up by the magic of the moon, the music of the ice.

And another…

My boots crunched in the frozen deep snow along a half-mile perimeter of barbed wire. I had my M-16 at the ready, my black Army-issued balaclava scratching my face where my breath froze into crystals. The temperature hovered right around 2 degrees. My Tyvek jacket and fleece socks were fighting a losing battle against the bone-chilling cold.   The icy darkness stretched out along the wire, yet strangely lit from beneath by the deep snow. My voice sounded small, speaking into my hand-held radio, “Tower 6 moving right”.  I could hear a few other staticky voices checking in as re-assurance we were not all out there alone in the frozen bleak. I reached the outer limits of the wire,  then crunched the other direction for another half a mile.  I repeated this trek every two hours as part of Guard Duty on Comanche Base in the middle of Bosnia-Herzegovina long ago.  I thought of fellow soldiers sleeping warm and safely in their bunks as I trudged along for a 12-hour shift in the inky darkness of night. The long hours of walking, freezing then re-thawing in my tower, lost in thoughts and lulled into some kind of other-world with my isolation and the frozen dark and the hypnotizing white all around.  Until one night there was someone on the other side of the wire. He appeared suddenly, like a phantom out from between snow-laden pine boughs, his dog at his knee, his shotgun held over his arm.  I froze.  Breathless.  And so did he.  Our eyes met and held for a full count of ten. Then he raised his hand and saluted me, turned and walked back into the white pines, the branches swaying slightly in the cold wind. I rubbed my eyes wondering if I’d somehow been dreaming.

I can think of a thousand stories of winter, and I could wax poetic forever about my love of snow, the way it covers and muffles everything, the beauty of it, the incredible wonder of little footprints, yet for as long as I can remember I have always hated this time of year. The space after Christmas when hard winter settles in for real, when spring and the promise of bursting green buds and life and hope seem endlessly far away. It’s the winter blahs, when it’s bleak and mud or bleak and dirty snow and the magic seems to have drained out of me and it’s all cabin fever and dry skin and sniffly noses and no number of candles I light or hot cups of tea I drink seem to be able to penetrate the cold gloom that arises from deep within me. I hate it. Seasonal affective disorder. Such a dumb name for something so hard to describe. Joy Vampire? Fleece and angst-itis?

This last half of my second sober year has been rough.  I told someone the other day that it’s basically kicking my ass. Since right before the holidays, I’ve been dealing with a sudden identity crisis due to a major cut back of my hours at work, (as in zero hours).  A major source of my sense of self, and also the source of a lot of trauma has basically been ripped away.  I feel almost like I’m in a second adolescence where I get to decide who or what I want to be, minus the old labels. Of course, this crisis occurs at the time when my usual high energy almost always seasonally ebbs, leaving me bone tired, in a place where no amount of sleep seems to put a dent in my heavy weariness. It also comes at the worst possible time from a realistic, financial standpoint as I struggle not to panic and visions of ramen noodles and malnourished kids and burly car repo types dance in my head.

These days self-care is summed up by actually changing out of my flannel cat jammie pants and making the effort to shower, going to the closet to get a clean fluffy white towel instead of just grabbing my daughter’s hooded duck towel that is hanging on the back of our bathroom door. I put on jeans and a plain sweatshirt, feeling like some kind of colorless bird. I swipe a brush through my hair and put on some tinted moisturizer to cover my dark eye circles, and I try to smile while all the while that voice is there. The constant underlying voice that maybe all people who struggle with depression or addiction fight against. It whispers underneath it all as I pour cereal into bowls, brew coffee, drive kids places and read them stories, struggle through math homework, matching socks, wiping fingerprints off mirrors. It’s there at the end of the day when I crumble into bed, and pull the duvet over my head and feel the comforting weight of a cat curl up in the place behind my knees and pray for oblivion and sweet sleep.  Its there when I answer the thousandth question of the day, through the endless litany of Mom, Mama, Mom, Mommy, the clearing up of yet another mess, the cycle of emptying and loading the dishwasher, the trudging up and down the stairs with the endlessly reproducing loads of laundry. It stalks me down the crowded aisle of the supermarket as I pick up bananas and whole grain bread and feel my eyes stinging in the cold as I load the plastic carrier bags into the back of my sensible minivan. It is there as I scroll social media and try not to compare my rumply insides with the perfect shiny outsides of countless “friends.” It fades a little when I head out the door with a warm hat on and music in my ears, trying to move my body in search of those endorphins I am so sorely lacking.  It’s there as I take my meds, drink another glass of water and remind myself that this too shall pass.

It’s a terrible voice, the voice of depression.  I used to drink to drown it out, if not temporarily, for it always returned with more fuel every time I couldn’t drink “successfully”. The endless loop of old tapes. what did you think would happen when you always settle?  you are nothing special. you never have been. foolish girl thinking you deserve anything at all. everyone would be better off without you.  you’re a fraud. everyone would walk away if they knew how stupid you really are. you are just taking up space. what is the point of you? it’s so easy to think maybe I’m an illness or your “addiction” but what if I’m the only one telling you the truth? people tell you that you have a gift but really, being a storyteller is just a fancy way of saying you are a good liar. keep moving, because the emptiness is so staggering that you will fall apart if you truly looked at it. there is something wrong with you. what have you ever done that is worth anything? nothing would change if you disappeared. who are you without all your stories and lies? you are weak. you don’t deserve better. your children really deserve better than you.

It’s sickening. I want to run from that voice, scared to believe it might be right. It feels like it may be right. But it isn’t.

I heard the phrase “emotional sherpa” the other day and found it to be the perfect description for what I’m feeling lately about the past, my role as recorder and storyteller and the repository of all the memories for my family, for myself.   The roles and labels I have clung to that need to be re-thought in light of this new me, the sober me. The baggage that I drag, the memories and the old worn-out narratives about me, my life, my mistakes. It falls in on me when I slow down and things are dark and quiet.  It’s time to drop the baggage.  I only want to move forward carrying what serves me.  But I’m a slow learner. For me, it tends to be relinquishing inch by inch.  I’m internalizing how to talk back to that voice, how to replace those old tapes with new ones. To remember that feelings are just that. They aren’t facts. I will get through this winter. And the next and the next.  Because underneath all of my stories, there is a core of steel that has never bent.  It’s the part of me that has survived things I never should have. In recovery, I’m making a new me, forged around that central core, that spark of truth.  But I’m not doing it alone.

Camus said it so well: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.  And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger–something better, pushing right back.”

So, if you are struggling with your own winter of discontent, with deep sadness or shifting of roles, or wanting to isolate, or even somehow deeply mourning that old carefree you with pint in hand, the you of BEFORE, I want to remind you that you aren’t alone.  The community of friends in recovery who drag us out of ourselves, challenge our assumptions, call us on our dramatic, overwrought bullshit.. they are part of the invincible summer. One of the gifts of surrender. A roadmap for when we get lost in our own heads and thoughts. So I challenge you: even if you are in an enforced hibernation due to mother nature being off her meds… if like me, some days it all feels dull and muffled and endlessly blah. Reach out. Talk about it. Tell the truth about where you are. You may be overwhelmed by the number of “me toos”.  Because you are NOT the only one. Addiction wants you to believe that you are terminally unique, the only one suffering as you are. But you aren’t. We recover.  We move on. We learn new things, and even if we slip down the slope a little and even fall off entirely, that’s not the end of the story.  Not by a longshot. 

Spring is coming.