Shucking a million oysters ain’t gonna do it

Things are a little tangled in my head today.  I’m tired after a long shift in the ER last night, and I’m recognizing that being sleep deprived really is a trigger for bad thinking on my part. So, I see this funk as a sign that it’s time to write some of it out.  To be honest, there are some days when I wish I didn’t have to fight so hard or make myself do the work.  I want to relax and just take the day off.  But, there are no days off.  Which seems unfair, but actually, with the right perspective it is really awesome.  I don’t skip days where I make my health, my life a priority. It sounds better when I reframe it that way. It becomes a privilege and not a burden.

There will always be that voice in my head that wants to think “you’re better now. You can stop struggling so hard. You could probably moderate now”  The same voice that wants me to revert to isolating, being headstrong and obstinate. Doing things the old way instead of the new.

So, with that in mind, allow me to introduce the frog that I met the other morning in my pool:

He looks innocent enough.
But, this, ladies and gentleman is the most “I do what I want” amphibian I have ever come across.  He was gleefully swimming all over, diving down and skirting away from attempts to catch him in my net and I swear if he could have given me the finger, he would have (actually, in the picture above I think he may be). He simply had no idea that if he kept on swimming in the chlorinated water that eventually, he would drown.  There was no way to climb out without help.  He couldn’t see it.
After about ten minutes, I finally got him out. Exhausted from his attempts to elude me, he sat for a minute on the warm concrete where I had gently deposited him.  And then, he HOPPED RIGHT BACK IN to the pool.  Where we then had another game of chase and he did everything he could to avoid my attempts to catch him and save him from himself.  I finally got him and carried him out to my garden, far from the pool and gave him a stern lecture about not even thinking about hopping his obstinate butt back into danger.
Folks, this is what we do when we are in denial.  We have this idea that somehow we will be the exception. Sure, other people who drink as much as I was end up dying way too early. But I’m special. I’ll be that exception. I’ll be like that 100 year old person who smokes unfiltered cigarettes and eats bacon and drinks Jack Daniels all day every day and somehow defies the odds. We stay cocky and stubborn, even when we start to suspect that we are totally screwed if we don’t stop. 
When the truth is, I’ll end up a dead frog floating if I don’t stop swimming in a pool of alcohol and disordered thinking.  So many people are stuck in endless day ones, afraid to accept the help of others who are holding out the net, and instead keep diving down deep away from what looks scary but is actually salvation.  Humility. Admitting the need for help. It’s tough. But it’s necessary.
So I have to remind myself daily: Don’t be this frog.
Which in a round about way brings me to oysters.
Stay with me.
So, this past week I watched a movie called “Burnt.”  It probably got lambasted by the critics for being a little one-note. But the addict in me really resonated with the main character, played by Bradley Cooper (a real life alkie in recovery). He’s a dry drunk, a chef who fell from grace and lost his restaurant due to his addictions to drugs and alcohol.  It is written as a redemption story; how he attempts to rebuild his reputation and his life (without actually truly making reparations for the things he did when drinking or embracing specific principles). At the beginning of the movie, he’s in New Orleans “doing penance” by completing his goal of shucking a million oysters.  He’s not working a program, is still woefully shortsighted and unaware of how his actions have hurt others. He’s a human wrecking ball, and while he announces that he’s been sober for two years, 2 weeks and six days at the beginning of his quest to return to greatness as a chef, he’s an untreated alcoholic through and through. He’s a self absorbed loner, a bully, volatile, and short-sighted. He just doesn’t drink or do drugs.
Ultimately, through loss and failure, and from relapsing (which comes as no surprise) he gradually learns to accept community, help and belonging as key to healing and moving on. Which made it satisfying to me as a newbie in recovery (and lots of beautiful food which just makes me happy). But I think the thing that sticks with me is how this movie made me ponder what it means to not just stop drinking but create a meaningful life. Or as my friend in my online sobriety group put it:”Staying meaningfully sober is different than just quitting drinking.. Just shucking a million oysters ain’t gonna do it.”  Outward actions without inward changes ultimately are meaningless. We can not drink and white knuckle and be miserable.  Or we can not drink, grow, reach out for help and give it in return.
Some days we are the frog, and other days we are the net. But we don’t go it alone.

Center your power

Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri is a god-forsaken place in the middle of March. It’s probably that way in July too, actually.  It’s cold in a damp, bone-deep way.  It’s barren. There is a lot of horizontal sleet and winds that can knock you backwards.  The whole place is ugly: all barracks and training buildings and dirt and cratered firing ranges where there is no shelter from the constant wind. The only part that might have been beautiful was the woods, but it was winter when I was there, so it was all naked trees and frozen mud and shallow foxholes.

It’s where I spent my nine weeks of Army Basic Training.

I vividly remember one morning.  Like every day that wasn’t Sunday, we were up and out and in formation at 0500. It was inky dark and freezing. My stomach felt queasy. I was struggling with a cold that I’d had for three weeks. (They call it the crud and everyone gets it. Too much sleep deprivation and living in close quarters, I suppose).  I felt lousy. The temperature was right around 20 degrees and there was a stiff wind that was blowing occasional bands of sleet right into my face.  One of our burly, seemingly non-human drill sergeants announced that in honor of the beginning of week 9, we were going to run to the airfield and back. There was a collective groan from the whole platoon. The airfield and back was a 10 mile run.  Since it was week 9, those of us that had survived that long were in great shape.  But I wasn’t feeling it at all.

A little back story: we had started our training with sixty two women in our company. We graduated with six.  Of the 200 men that started, only 110 made it all the way through.  Those numbers launched an investigation that took two years and which ended in multiple dishonorable discharges and a conviction of soldier abuse against the Commander of the company I was in. We were clueless that anything we were experiencing wasn’t what everyone experiences when they go through the hellish, “mind and body breaking down and building back up” process that was Basic Training before it became the kinder, gentler version they have now.  We were so exhausted and numb and cut off from the outside world that we just accepted it as reality, put our heads down and pushed through to the end so we could get out of there.  In the end, we endured a lot of things that other soldiers on the same base weren’t experiencing and which we later discovered weren’t in the Army’s training doctrine, but a product of the mind of our ex-special forces commander who had a few screws loose.  It was unorthodox, but I have to admit that it made us tough in every way.  Looking back, surviving that really set me up for success in the Army  So much of my flexibility and ability to endure tough things; problem solving instead of breaking down;  a large part of my personality developed there. I still have my old battered Basic Training Soldier’s manual and I had written on the side of it NEVER QUIT. And I never quit anything, until 81 days ago when I quit drinking. 

Ok, back to that dark morning.

I was shivering uncontrollably as we warmed up with some stretches. My drill sergeant stalked past me, stopped and said “Are you cold, Private?” Through chattering teeth, I managed to say, “y-y-y-es, D-d-rill Sergeant.”  He looked me directly in the eyes. Though he was wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, he looked perfectly warm and unbothered by the sleet that was dripping into his eyes. He bellowed “Center your power.”  And then he walked away.

I had a long ten mile run to think about what that meant, exactly.

And I don’t think I really gave it any more thought in the many years that have passed since then. I’m not sure why it came to mind today, but it did. I used to think that it meant being strong no matter what; cultivating a core of strength that you draw from. I thought it meant never ever admitting weakness, ignoring the sleet, pushing through and never admitting defeat.

So, when it came time to finally surrender to my powerlessness over alcohol, to admit defeat and to finally say “I QUIT!!” it meant undoing a way of thinking I have believed was true for my entire adult life.

Mental toughness can’t overcome hypothermia or addiction.  I used to believe I could think my way out of any circumstance, use my wits, my smarts to just overcome whatever was in my way. Unfortunately, alcohol didn’t get that memo. And so I’m dragging myself up out of the abyss that my life had become and am stepping out into the light.  But I am not doing it alone.

When I think of that phrase, I think of it in terms of community. How community is helping to keep me sober.  The invisible army of other alcoholics that I am meeting on this journey are helping me to center my power, to grow, to challenge my thinking, to reframe external circumstances, to heal the gap between the person I feel I am and the person I became when I drank. To allow my soul to heal from the soul sickness and shame that have made the last few years so very dark.

Instead of drinking to numb my feelings, I am learning to feel them. I am willing to admit when I am weak, when I need help and when I’m freaking out, I can reach out to others who “get” it. They can talk me down, remind me of the good, the privilege of this journey. In giving up one thing: drinking, I get to change the ending to my story. A story that was only going to end in my premature death and an utter waste of life. For “just one more” drink. I am choosing a different ending.

I have the awesome task of rebuilding a life from the wreckage. Some days I am weary, tired of thinking endlessly about my sobriety. It’s WORK. It feels like I am unbeaching a whale. But I have the privilege of taking on this challenge in the company of others who are wiser than me, who have had the way paved for them by others who went before them: a gentleman in my online sobriety support group calls it ” an endless chain of souls all supporting each other no matter what.”

My loneliness when I was drinking was immense and breathtaking and I just drank more when I would start to feel it. In sobriety, I am finding connection, community, and hope. I could never have imagined the life that I’m discovering, when I was in that hole. The changes are immense and the feelings are too.

But I’m finally learning to truly center my power.