Peaks and valleys

This fall has been a doozy so far. It’s like I’ve been performing the Dance of Seasonal Affective Disorder Fairies, while wearing only one shoe.  This happens every year without fail: brought on by cold temperatures, sunset at 4:30 pm, sibling squabbles, darkness, evening activities where we are late and my sensory issued son freaks out constantly about having to wear actual winter clothes and everyone seems to be hungry all the time. Memories are surfacing as we approach the holidays, and my restlessness has been fueled by sometimes cringe-inducing “hey, remember this?” ON THIS DAY Facebook reminders, a sad farewell to my old ghetto minivan, a parade of viral illnesses that my kids bring home with such frequency that I wish we could just autoclave the entire house, or barring that, I’ve considered spelling out “Unclean” in Christmas lights on the roof of our house, for the duration of the season, oh and a giant WASP NEST that has caused an entire chunk of my living room ceiling to cave in, you know, the usual…

It’s been a veritable parade of one thing after another. Super highs and super lows. And in the middle of it all, a gentle hum of internal brain buzzing that tries not to read too much into the patterns, the inevitable feeling of things falling away or going dormant that I always feel so heavily this time of year anyway.  November/December has always been a time of upheaval and change. My mood is as volatile as the stormy weather. Some days I’m all high energy badass, out crushing some sneaker therapy miles and other days I’m all low energy fragility/blah wanting to eat carbs and hibernate. I guess I’ll take fragile badass over numb, though.

I can almost pinpoint the exact day that my drinking started going off the rails in November six years ago. And it was two years ago in November that I saw the end coming: I was riding the elevator down, down, down without brakes, blasting past limit and rule after rule and was trying so hard to get off. Thanksgiving that year was a blur of me dealing with dysfunctional trailer park type relatives and getting obliterated instead of setting limits and saying “no” to sitting at a table where my sister in law’s mothers’ boyfriend (I know, right?) who had just been paroled was waxing poetic about women’ titties in front of my then seven year old son. Christmas Eve 2015 I got so drunk at a friend’s open house that I was still drunk when the kids opened their gifts on Christmas morning.  I have no idea what they got from anyone, was squinting with one eye trying to not throw up during the whole gift opening and took a four hour nap in the afternoon.  I was awash in shame, blank spaces and disgust at myself for becoming what I was.  So, of course I drank that evening and then woke up shaking on December 26th for my first ever Day One. It didn’t last, and I ended up hospitalized on Dec 30th with pancreatitis. I rang in the New Year alone in a hospital bed fighting withdrawal symptoms as the ball dropped. I’m not proud of it.  But it takes what it takes. And I’m thankful to say I’ve managed my second sober Thanksgiving and am ready for my second sober Christmas.  Hopefully the new memories will eventually stop the old squirmy shamey ones from kicking me in the gut.

In the midst of the sometimes ludicrous feeling that I’m just dealing with the apocalypse du jour, a few really major things have happened in the last few months.  I’ve struggled with writing about them, though.  I’ve opened my computer a dozen times and looked at the white glow of the waiting blank page and have been unable to find words. And while I know this is disjointed and all over the place, I’m writing it, at the least as a reminder to myself.

In July, I said goodbye to my beautiful Maddy, our almost 15 year old black lab.  She had been steadily declining all spring.  There were some days where she was confused, couldn’t get up to walk to go outside. I would see her eyes on me as I helped clean her up after an accident, see the shame and pain in her face and still she would try to lick me as if to comfort ME.  Some days she would stumble and whimper and sleep almost all day.  Watching her declining was agonizing, and I didn’t want to have to make the decision about when enough was enough.  It was painful seeing how excited my kids would get when she would have a good day, still wag her tail and perk up when she saw her beloved tennis ball: “see Mom, she’s doing better today” and I would smile and blink away tears. I couldn’t even talk about the end of life decisions without tearing up. She was a fixture in my life. She was always there in the background: from my army days when she would youthfully leap into the back of my Jeep, ready for adventures long before my first baby was born, then later faithfully watching over the two babies that followed, and even in the last days always wanting to be wherever we were. My kids would snuggle up to her soft fur and whisper all their best secrets to her.  In every photo, on every holiday, through every illness, every move and life change she was there wagging her tail, looking at me with her wise brown eyes.  It was unthinkable to me to consider a life or a home without her in it.  So, the day came when I just knew it was time to say goodbye.  Because I’m sober, I was able to hold her and cry and say thank you for all the years of being there, even when I didn’t deserve her unconditional love. When I first stopped drinking, there were so many days when she would curl up next to me as I sat in the deepest pain, just breathing through wave after wave of finally feeling again. She sat with me as I cried and kept me company in the wee hours as I tapped away on my computer, trying to find words for what I was feeling.

Because I was finally in a healthy place,  I was able to let her go and give her the gift of mercy; letting her be free from pain. It’s been three months and I still look for her in “her spot” by the fireplace, miss greeting her, miss her soft ears and the “what ya gonna do” look that she would give me as the volume level rose and the kids swirled around us. She was calm and zen and all that is right in the world and her leaving has left a hole.  But I’m so glad I wasn’t drinking, that I could spend her last days fully present.

In mid July, we had about ten days notice that my husband was being re-assigned with his job and in that time he packed up and moved to Louisiana for at least a year and a half.  I’ve been single Momming for almost four months now which is simultaneously more simple and more complex and gives me incredible amounts of admiration for single mothers. It’s allowed me time to have some distance from my relationship which has been a rough ride the last few years and time to just be myself without worrying about managing another person’s moods and behaviors.  It’s been tough having no safety net and having my “emergency contact” be 1200 miles away.  There is no down time or break and that’s been challenging from the standpoint of self care, but like everything else, it’s one day at a time.

In September, smack in the middle of life changes and upheaval, I completed my first ever Triathlon at the age of 44.  It was 48 degrees when I went into the water without a wetsuit (noob error), and I almost immediately started hyperventilating due to the cold.  I pushed down my rising panic and had to breast stroke and float on my back when I got to the first buoy and talked to myself, trying to slow my breathing down.  I was floating there, with the blazing morning sun almost blinding me, and I looked towards the shore and saw an enormous white heron sunning himself on a log.  The sky was impossibly blue, I was surrounded by the choppy waves made by hundreds of swimmers and I thought “well, if this isn’t amazing I don’t know what is.”  I was awash with gratitude for my sobriety, knowing how close I came to losing everything.  If someone had told me I would be competing in a triathlon 18 months before when I was a burnt out shell I would have never believed it. But I did it.  I conquered my fears in months of training, hours on the bike, mile after mile of reclaiming my mind and body from the ravages of alcohol.  And I wasn’t even dead last!  The distance I have come so far on this journey is staggering when I think about it.  And while I may be middle aged and struggle with asthma, I was out there getting it done and achieving a goal I’d had since I was seven years old. Only because I choose to be sober every day.

It’s easy to lose sight of the trajectory of recovery when I get bogged down in the minutae of life.  I find myself trapped in that old useless game of comparing my insides to others’ outsides. This time of year especially, I see the seemingly perfect moms who can drink normally and have their houses tastefully decked out for Christmas on Nov 24 while my house, in the midst of a giant de-cluttering project looks more like it was styled by an F-5 tornado after it hit a Goodwill and I feel LESS THAN. I forget to look back at where I’ve come from, what I’ve handled in 2017 without my old frenemy alcohol.  In those moments, having sober friends to remind me of the miracle that is my sobriety is invaluable.  Because it’s too easy to lose sight and let my joy be stolen when I compare myself and get bogged down in all the “shoulds.”

This week I am only working one day, so am committing to purging and cleaning out closets and my frightful basement: all the things that were stuffed or shoved somewhere else in those years when I was just surviving. Yesterday I found chicken in my chest freezer from 2014!  Yep. Addiction isn’t pretty. There’s a reason there isn’t a Martha Stewart Collection for Moms who hide whiskey and wine and put literally everything somewhere to “deal with it later.”

I guess Later is here.  As with other difficult aspects of my recovery, I’m just diving into it and embracing the suck.  It’s not easy to face the truth. The irony of the changing of seasons, the shifting of light and shadow, the dying away, the cycle of living things going dormant, coupled with the symbolism of resurrecting old boxes, and throwing away vestiges of a life that went off course for a while isn’t lost on me.  Some days are easier than others and then there are moments when I just have to close the door and go drink some tea or take a bath and tell myself to stop being so f-ing dramatic and symbolic.. sometimes clutter is just clutter and other times I suppose it’s not.  The memories are painful, and as I exorcise old things and clear room for the new, I feel like I’m healing.

It’s funny, how this healing happens in layers and circles, and I travel over and around the same places and memories: scorch marks on my timeline from old traumas that have gone dormant.  I’m clearing room, tip toeing around other things that I’m not ready to deal with yet, but getting stronger with each small victory.

There have been many days that I’ve wanted to drink. I think I imagined that I would stop feeling those cravings, that desire to escape from what feels like TOO MUCH some days. I’m still surprised by how easily those thoughts and feelings slip in, as I approach twenty one months sober but I am also grateful for the reminder to stay on guard.  I don’t feel like “I got this” by any means.  I still have a fear that it could all just be swept away by one poor decision and so it reminds me to be diligent; to be thankful, in this season of thanksgiving.  I’m still not grateful for all of it yet. I’m still pissed about a lot of it and coming to terms with that being ok too.

My life and recovery is messy and non-linear, and full of peaks and valleys. It’s not going to be a nice little story with a perfectly tied bow. My friends like to remind me that perfection is boring when I lament my hot mess state.  I’ve been chasing some form of perfection for too long. Enough now.

So that is perhaps the biggest relinquishment of all: to allow my story to just be what it is, and permit myself to watch in wonder as it unfolds.

*never going to thankful for the wasp nest though! That would just be crazy.

Rip off the plastic

Have you ever gone to visit an elderly relative, been ushered into their somewhat musty-smelling living room full of old yellowed photographs in garish frames, knickknacks, military memorabilia and scratchy crocheted pillows?  They motion for you to sit down and as you do you have a sudden realization that the couch is shiny and CRUNCHES and instead of sinking in like a regular couch you just sort of perch atop the thick clear plastic cover. You try to make polite small talk as you realize that you are beginning to sweat and you are totally uncomfortable in a way you have never experienced before.

Later, when you’ve eaten cookies and had strangely strong unsweetened iced tea and it’s time to leave, you try to get up and if you are wearing shorts, make an obscene sucking sound as you separate yourself from the plastic. Your legs are stinging and you are scared to look to see if you left any skin behind as you stoop to receive heavy on the aftershave kisses from your very tiny elderly uncle who seems to be held up by his massive belt buckle alone.  Anyone else had this delightful experience? Or maybe it was just me.

I’m not sure if it’s a generational thing: folks who lived through the Depression and WW2 and saved things “for special occasions” decided that covering their couches in thick clear plastic covers meant that they would endure indefinitely.  I guess what they lived through meant they were willing to give up comfort and the very essence of “couches” for an illusion of everlasting newness?  I mean, everything about a couch that is couch: comfortable, shabby, womb-like on bad days, with the perfect lumpish pillows, where you can curl up with a book and your favorite blanket and maybe spill a little coffee or tea but it’s a practical brown or greige color and so it’s ok. It just gets more worn and more comfortable and to others it may be a little questionable, but to you it’s just your couch.

I’ve been thinking about this lately when I consider what life was like when I was drinking and also as it applies to my relatively new sobriety. In those years when my drinking went off the rails and crossed over from being a coping mechanism that worked for the most part, to something that absolutely was going to kill me, alcohol was like that plastic couch cover. When I was drinking nothing touched me, nothing stained me, there was no wear and tear.  I was perfectly preserved and uncomfortable as hell in a prison of my own making.  I had armor. I felt nothing, or if I started to, I was quick to smother it in a sea of wine or whiskey.

And now that I’m sober, I feel like my sobriety is something I’m protecting in a similar fashion. It was so hard won that I think part of me thinks it needs to be preserved at all costs.  Forget comfort, I’m covering it in thick plastic because I’m scared it’s going to be ruined.

RELAPSE: the boogie man, the scary clown, the monster in the closet of those of us who are in active recovery.  I fear it.  And so I wake up every day and decide, today is not the day.

I’ve been reading a lot and listening to podcasts on relapse: the signs, the ways you slip and slide and honestly, it scares the shit out of me to hear people tell their stories. People who had lowish bottoms like mine, who had years of sobriety and then relapsed in huge, painful, public ways. They went down HARD.  And the common denominator seems to be that they stopped making sobriety their number one priority.  It’s tempting, even at almost 15 months which is just a drop in the bucket to think that I can take a day off, slack on the self care, maybe indulge in some old patterns of thinking. But where does that lead?

The other deadly error for many seems to be overextending, even in recovery advocacy work.  Once things got out of whack, the drinking came roaring back and as we have heard ad infinitum, the drinking picks up right where it left off.  Everyone who relapsed says that getting sober again is harder than staying sober.  I read all of this and so I stay in my little sober cocoon.  I keep my sobriety under wraps where it’s safe.

But then I get to the big themes of Service. Breaking stigmas.  So much work that needs to be done.  Yet I look around at others I feel are better qualified to do it than me.  I sit and wait for them to do it, and wonder why nothing is changing in public opinion.  How are these stigmas and fears ever going to change unless WE, the sober, the alive and thriving ones show people what it looks like?  And what does that mean for me personally? At what point do I decide that I’m “legit” enough, that my sobriety it strong enough for me to put myself out there?

That’s what I’m pondering these days.  I’m trying these thoughts on for size, and saying them out loud. Admitting my fears and cowardice makes it seem less powerful in a way.  Of course I’m scared.  Who wouldn’t be after all I’ve been through the last few years and as my fried synapses are healing it almost shocks me at random times when I take an inventory to realize I feel freaking awesome.  Even when I’m tired, it’s a good tired.  An honest tired from being engaged with my three kids all day, or working in the garden or a shift in the ER, or running a few miles at the end of the day. I never want to go back to that soul-dead crushing exhaustion that haunted my every day, my every waking moment that I wasn’t drinking. I don’t want to lose what I’ve found.

And yet I wonder if my fear is just a safe little excuse not to be brave…

One of my favorite books as a child was the Velveteen Rabbit; the story of how this little rabbit was played with and had adventures and to the critical eye, he got shabbier and shabbier as time passed, yet he became more beautiful and magical to the boy who loved him because of the experiences and time they spent together.  Like my shabby couch where I float off to far off Netflix lands and my lazy dogs curl up when they think no one is looking, and my kids watch tv and eat cereal in their jammies in the morning and it’s all just comfortable and not something we save “for a special occasion.”  I wonder if in keeping it so close, if in being so afraid to mess it up or get some dings and scratches on it if my sobriety doesn’t have a chance to be fully Real?

Am I ready to rip off the plastic?