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. 

Be still

I am a very restless person. I loathe sitting for more than five minutes at time.  I pace when I think.  I’m a toe-tapper, knee jiggler, and had the mama “rock and sway” stance down perfectly when my kids were fussy babies fighting their own stillness.  I tend to be most comfortable when in motion.  Even as a small child, my mother would take one look at me standing on the stoop with my wild energy and say “twenty laps around the house before you come in.” And I’d come back all out of breath and sweaty with my grubby little face and she’d look carefully into my eyes, measuring and sometimes she’d pull back the squeaky screen door to let me in and other times she’d say “ten more laps?” and off I’d go with my wild strawberry hair flying behind me and my bare feet pounding the dirt.  I vividly remember thinking that my energy was some foreign thing to her.  My mother is an artist.  Which means she sits for hours, painstakingly creating; drawing and painting.  She escapes and manages her lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression through creative expression.  As children we would watch her in deep concentration, watch the rhythmic motion of her pencils, hear the sounds they made scratching on fine drawing paper, smell the tang of linseed and oil paints, note the tilt of her head as she considered a blank canvas and we knew to let her be. She would spend hours in her studio and then emerge blinking like she was disoriented to the fact that it was daylight and she was a mom when we asked for snacks or help with homework.  She was always a little other-worldly and I felt she never quite knew what to do with my too much, too loud, too high wild child ways.

Even when I am still, my mind is going a thousand miles per hour.  Some would call this a manic defense. Not ever slowing down enough to consider the reason for the constant motion. I have been a blur for most of my adult life.  I walk fast, talk fast, think fast, drive fast.  So the concept of stillness, of sitting IN something is incredibly foreign.  And its’ been like lowering yourself into a too-hot bath this past year. First one toe, then one foot, one knee, then the other side, then your bum, then your waist until all of you is submerged and you can’t tell if you are burning or freezing, just that you are uncomfortable and then you… aren’t. I guess that’s the best metaphor I can come up with for early sobriety. At first it’s unthinkable but then you get used to it and then it even starts to feel comfy.

I am good with not drinking.  I am lucky enough that the cravings have passed. I am comfortable stating that I am a non-drinker, and for the most part am honest when people ask me why. I kind of laugh and say “well, it tried to kill me” and when pressed am able to articulate why drinking became such a problem with me and why now I don’t drink anymore.  And I’m clear about the fact that I’m BETTER not drinking.

But this stillness thing.. the idea of REST.  I still struggle mightily with it.

A few weeks ago I had some unexpected down time when my oldest came down with a whopping case of the flu. All of my productive plans for the week, all my workouts that keep my crazy at bay were cancelled as I cared for my very sick girl. I was physically tired but feeling wired. The enforced rest, and confinement in the house really hit me hard.  I got low.  Low low low like apple bottom jeans boots with the furrrr low.  I started having suicidal thoughts, dark hopeless thoughts like I hadn’t had since before I quit drinking.  And I kind of stood on the edge of a deep, dark chasm and thought, “oh.”  That’s what I’ve been avoiding all this time.  Deep thoughts of worthlessness, failures, fear, regrets, bad memories. All the things I drank over and under and through and kept at bay by always moving, moving, moving.  I got a sudden sense that THIS is what the next year of sobriety is going to  be about.. moving forward from all of the things that lie behind. Making peace with them. Acceptance.

Running has been like a spiritual practice this past year. I’ve come to find that I do my best thinking when I’m in motion, and in the process I’ve worn out three pairs of sneakers.  While running and walking, I’ve thought through a lot of the past five years; trying to understand how my drinking got to the very dark place it took me.  I’ve dissected a lot of the whys, the patterns, the things that I need to work on.  At the urging of several sober friends, I’ve been attempting here and there to meditate. It’s probably something I need to do more, since being so still in body or mind is a challenge.  I’ve been doing a lot napping, aka”horizontal life pauses” and giving myself permission to slow down and even stop. Which is kind of huge. And I need to do it more.

One big question I’ve been pondering is whether I necessarily need to go back and try to do the post-mortem.  Do I really need to re-live every crushing rejection, re-visit every time I added a layer of armor to my considerable wall, explore every bad choice? Every trauma, every loss? Every pebble that paved the road to my struggles with addiction. Is that necessary? It’s an honest question. And I’m open to opinions and thoughts from people further along than me.

Is it ok to close the chapter on it, forgive myself, and stop this endless attempt to “get back to who I was before the alcohol changed me”?  I hear that a lot in the recovery community– phrases like “the person I was meant to be,” “the innocent me”, “the un-jaded version of me”. I don’t think there’s any going backwards.  I am who I am because of the things that I have been through, including the considerable damage I inflicted on myself and those around me from my drinking.  But go back? Impossible. I am irrevocably changed, for better or for worse by that self-violence.  I can only move forward. Challenge the lies.  Find new coping. Share the darkness with others when it rolls in like a fog over the mountain. Allow my scars to teach others who may be struggling with a similar battle.

It occurs to me that what I am longing for, and what I possibly fear I won’t find in all my restlessness is Peace. When I look at nature and the created world, I have a deep sense that we as humans were also created for rhythms in life– delight and joy and not just suffering and pain.  Yet so much of our culture, our accepted rhythms mean that we do things just for the sake of doing them.  Because we “should”, or just because we “can”. And we feel the weight that comes when we don’t rest and re-charge because we were created for that as well.

So, my goal for the next few months is to learn to slow down. To embrace the idea of Sabbath or holy rest. The Hebrew word Sabat means ” to stop, to cease, or to keep.”  And it doesn’t have to be the traditional Saturday or Sunday sabbath. It can be a short pause, with intention. Whenever it’s needed or even better, before it’s needed. With cognitive restructuring we are taught to ask “is this true?” when confronted with a feeling. I still have the relentless drill sergeant in my head, pushing me to do more, be more, tackle more, more more more… it doesn’t stop to ask why. The same lack of moderation that led me to drink lakes of booze is still underlying and it needs to go.

I’ve said no to a lot of things and made some big changes to support my new sober life and so in year two I want to focus on adding things. Adding the PAUSE button to my manic life. Adding more rest.

I want to learn to Be Still.

%d bloggers like this: