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

 

Living Hawthorne

I’m off work today and the sky is grey and rumbly with distant storms. Today was supposed to be one of those super productive Mondays where I superhumanly tackled items on my to-do list before the rest of the week crashes onto me full of ER shifts and doctor’s appointments and tech week for yet another ballet production. But my nine-year-old is home sick today with a fever and a queasy belly after spending all of yesterday, (which was Mother’s Day) looking pale and drawn and not at all his usual self. He’s tucked up in his loft bed reading and dozing and so I find myself drawn to write.  I think I’ve written a hundred blog posts this spring, none of which have found their way into little black letters on a page. My brain has been swirling with ideas and connections but the insistent tug of real life on my elbow has meant that they get shelved for some later time when I can sit down and actually hear myself think.

So today, quite unexpectedly,  I find myself with a quiet house and a steel grey sky that seems to call for coffee and contemplation.  So those thoughts that have been shoved aside are creeping up to me asking shyly “now?”

I think the last time I managed to blog a few months ago I was battling the flu, which turned into pneumonia. My months of training and visualizing myself triumphantly (or wheezingly) completing my first half marathon devolved into a struggle to just walk up a flight of stairs without having to sit down at the top.  My lungs took their time healing, and I found myself weighing whether or not I could possibly run my race, with my longest run before getting sick only being 8 miles and then not running for almost six weeks. It was a bitter disappointment to drop down to the 8k, ( as we all know I hate quitting) but ended up being a good experience as I let go of my expectations and decided to just enjoy the experience of running a race in the nation’s capitol surrounded by history and monuments and about 9000 badass women on a blustery cold day. I stayed with a good friend I’ve made in sobriety, one of the core group of truly amazing women that I check in with daily. As I ran, and watched the sun glinting off the Potomac, surrounded by thousands, I had one of those ridiculous smiling, almost out of body moments where all I could hear was that Talking Heads song playing over and over in my mind: ‘you may ask yourself, “well… how did I get here? Letting the days go by… water flowing underground…once in a lifetime” and cracked myself up at my own cheese and sentiment.  But that’s me in sobriety.

And I think it comes back to the Hawthorne Effect. This is something I had never heard of until a few months back when I saw it mentioned in an obscure NYT article (which my swiss cheese brain has forgotten the name of) and made a note to look it up. The idea of tapping into our own potential just by feeling “seen” intrigued me.  I did a little research and then suddenly I started noticing references to this study. My hospital was undergoing a mock quality review in preparation for a visit by the Joint Commision (hide yo drinks hide yo snacks!)  and someone posted a link about a study that was conducted back in the 20s and 30 at a factory in Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago.  It had to do with industrial research and I won’t bore you with all the details but basically there was a study conducted which monitored and changed the physical conditions of factory workers after getting their input. While they found that people’s individual performances are influenced by their environments and the people around them as much as their own innate abilities, they ultimately found that workers’ productivity exceeded anyone expectations due to the fact that they were part of a study.  The fact that someone was actually showing an interest in the workers themselves and their conditions led to levels of production no one had anticipated.  Being part of an experiment, where they knew that they were being watched and not in a punitive sense meant that in the end, they did their best work and morale improved exponentially. All it took was an awareness of “positive regard” and something innate took over.  Their best work resulted from the knowledge that they were SEEN. The study called this the Hawthorne Effect. A kind of intangible, unmeasurable magical thing.

So this got me thinking about the last two years of being sober, and how being part of what started as an accountability group has morphed into something I could not have imagined.  Just about two years ago I was newly sober and shakily staring down the barrel of my first “dry” summer with three small children home. I had gotten into a routine of checking in and posting almost daily on a sobriety support group website. I was looking ahead with fear and dread to awkward pool parties and social events and knew that having my kids home and in my orbit was going to make long, leisurely posts and reading sobriety memoirs and time for self-care a serious challenge.  So, I threw out a plea asking for an accountability group that I could text at least daily to keep myself on track. Five women from all over the country answered my call and two years later we are still in touch daily.  We have been through a lot of life changes and trials and challenges as women and mothers, have had the gift of meeting in person, sitting in the same room together, laughing and crying like the dearest of lifelong friends.  We have basically exceeded our wildest expectations as to what could happen when six women who are trying to get sober decide to let themselves be Seen.

We text and share articles and pictures of our kids and video snippets of ourselves telling stories and asking for advice and offering encouragement. We tell jokes.  We lift each other up. We share the profound and the mundane, the painful trials, triumphs and losses.  We think out loud and we grow as we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. You ladies know who you are and I am humbled and profoundly grateful for all you are to me. What an unexpected gift.

Allowing myself to be observed, in the most positive sense (our own Hawthorne effect) has caused me to grow in ways that I would never have done alone.  It’s one thing to live up to your own expectations and another to put yourself out there and allow your life and actions to be observed, and to be reminded what it is we are striving for.  The daily reminders of why are doing this hard, crazy thing (to make our insides match our outsides and to show others it can be done) but not doing it alone have made this journey rich beyond what I could even imagine that first shattered morning when I realized it was time to get sober. I had no idea what was coming.

And so that leads me to the second thing I’ve been mulling over.  Which is Lobsters. I know, random, but hang in with me for a minute.

As I’ve emerged from my winter funk and cast off the lingering shadows of seasonal angst and depression, I’ve found myself saying yes to things that a year ago would have sent me running for the hills.  I’m saying yes to going and hanging out again, traveling with kids, and taking steps to really do things that scare me. Because the discomfort of staying scared and anxious and stilted is just too uncomfortable.  I’ve outgrown my own stories about myself and it’s time to write new ones.  I’m drawing inspiration from a snippet I heard on a Goalcast episode,  and a story told by Rabbi Abraham Twerski.

The transcript:

“The lobster’s a soft mushy animal that lives inside of a rigid shell. That rigid shell does not expand.

Well, how can the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining, and the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable. It goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell, and produces a new one. Well, eventually, that shell becomes very uncomfortable as it grows. Back under the rocks. The lobster repeats this numerous times.

The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Now, if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow because as soon as the lobster feels uncomfortable, goes to the doctor, gets a Valium, gets a Percocet, feels fine, never casts off his shell.

I think that we have to realize that times of stress are also times that are signals for growth, and if we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity.”

So, in doing something that made me incredibly uncomfortable: asking for help and being vulnerable, I have set off a rate of growth that has caused my shell to be tight and restrictive many times over. But because I’m sober and no longer a stunted lobster, I’m casting off the shell.   I’ve come through things that once seemed impossible: quitting drinking, being able to sit in my own skin feeling all the uncomfortable feelings (surprisingly, it’s not fatal!), attending social events as my majestically awkward self, not having to numb my anxiety, navigating death and  losses, running hundreds of miles a year and completing a triathlon after rebuilding a body wrecked by drinking, writing about this experience for myself and others … an entire world has opened to me beyond the narrow confines of self-loathing and hangovers. This winter I have spent my time under the rocks and have emerged in my new shell.   I’m already feeling that this one isn’t going to fit me long. There have been lots of “Ah-ha” moments this spring like the one I had running along the Potomac with an icy wind in my face and tears in my eyes.  I’ll be writing about some of them in the next few weeks.

I’ve got lots of things to sort and examine and I’ve decided it’s time to ask for help again.  I am meeting with a therapist this week. I have low expectations, am keeping an open mind and trying to be non-defensively curious about what comes next for me. That I can even write that, is a testament to the love and patience of sober warriors who have pushed and prodded and listened and borne with me as I slowly figure it all out.

So if you are feeling the pinch, knowing it’s time to level up and be seen, I encourage you to step out and take that risk. Allow your self to be seen by others with positive regard until you can do it for yourself.  Eventually, you will begin to look at yourself that way too, as farfetched as that may sound. I know it’s hard. Hope was something I became afraid of as I reached the limits of my addiction and was trapped in the small and cynical scarred world I had made. It seemed like it was for people who were stronger or maybe just more naive.   I thought I had figured out how to stop being a lobster–numb with alcohol and just not take the risk to ever be soft and vulnerable.  I could stay forever under the rock and attempt to ignore the tightness of my own shell.  My reality was all pain and no hope, so the best I could hope for was to numb out and take some of the pain of life out. I didn’t realize I was taking life out altogether.  I’m not sure I could have said that out loud, but I was certainly living as if that was true.

Now, I say that life is pain, yes.  It hurts like hell some days. But it is also unspeakably beautiful. And the only way to go through all of this is through. It’s frightening but it’s also all real. Transformations aren’t always pretty like we think of when we think of butterflies or other ethereal creatures. I can relate to the lobster– a little feisty and snappy, down in the murk and under the rocks sometimes.  I am soft and mushy inside of a hard shell.  Sometimes I have a literal pea brain.  But I want to get really big.

Because we know the really big ones get thrown back by lobstermen and they become wily survivors who have the best stories.

I want to be one of those.