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.

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.