Embrace the suck

Last week I celebrated 200 days without alcohol. It was at the end of a few stressful weeks of bounced checks and crazy shifts at work and hard family issues and I happened to glance at the calendar and noticed a shaky “200” written in the margin of my day planner. I had written it on my last day one when my hands were shaking and I felt physically wrecked. I look back at it now as a sign that I really was done with the toxic merry go round of drinking. Though I had just the smallest flicker of hope, it made me count and look ahead.

Gradually, as I’m settling into this new sober life, it has become less about not drinking and more about building something: a total overhaul of my neural wiring and developing new habits.  It means that I have been systematically (well, more erratically, this is after all me we are talking about) examining and removing things and also trying to no longer avoid or deny painful things.  It all started getting crystal clear that in order to get to “the other side” and the transformation I long for that I need to dive into the pain.  Which sounds so lovely and poetic but is actually terrifying and sucky.

Our modern world gives us a million ways to distract ourselves from what IS.  We numb, deny, lie to ourselves, avoid, procrastinate, and bury our heads in our I-Gods (to quote a friend). Anything to avoid taking a cold, hard, clinical look at our patterns and motivations.  But I’m discovering in sobriety that I have to do that in order to move forward. It’s scary. There’s years of crap buried under my carefully crafted persona of Teflon warrior, the tough woman who everyone thinks can handle anything that is thrown at me.  I’ve bought into this narrative as much as others have propagated it, like the fact that they call me the Ginja (ginger ninja) at work and the fact that I’ve been voted most likely to survive the Zombie apocalypse two years running in our ER competition. (Little did everyone know that I would have had to drag 5000 boxes of wine along for my survival stint).

So, this got me thinking about what it means to be a true warrior.  There’s lots of sobriety lingo tossed around and a lot of it reminds me of warrior slang from my Army days. War is risky, and all-consuming in every facet. The warrior slang is a language of shared suffering and phrases of discipline become second nature and rituals make the difficult things more bearable. Sound familiar? As I was talking to sober friends about the last few weeks of life just totally slamming me, with one ludicrous challenge after another, I actually said, “You know what? I’m just going to embrace the suck.”

It’s actually a kind of zen concept when you think about it. When we try to run away from our reality, or what is truly occurring (with drugs, alcohol or other escapes), we create suffering.  It’s that yoga concept of that which we resist grows stronger.  When we say “embrace the suck” while deployed, it’s a recognition that “yes, this situation is terrible, but we are going to deal with it.” The only way to get through a crap day in the Army is to embrace the challenging, sucky experiences because ignoring them or denying them is literally impossible.  You can’t check out mid-battle or you die. Or your buddy does. The same is true in early sobriety.

We have to do the dirty work with a good attitude.  Or maybe a bad attitude some days is all we can muster but the idea is forward progress. Not allowing our situations to control our attitude. Because pain is inevitable.  Recovery means facing the demons I’ve been running from so long that they’ve become fearsome (the longer I try to rationalize away the problem, the bigger it grows.) Doing nothing prolongs the pain and the fear of the unknown crippled me for years. Even if I’m creeping forward, I’m still moving forward and that is just a daily decision. To get up and do the work.

One of the amazing, wise friends I’ve met in sobriety challenged me a few months back to think of myself as an athlete in training, both in my life and in how I approach my sobriety.  And that had me thinking about how I endure physical pain and the mechanisms that I’ve learned over time to deal with it.  With running, or yoga or any other sport, there is a part of us that embraces the pain, knowing that as we push up that hill, or hold that plank that we are advancing towards a goal.  We beat the pain with self talk and checklists.  ” Am I controlling my breathing, how is my posture, am I over striding, can I relax my tight shoulders?” etc.  Some things are beyond our control, and others are not.

I’m trying to apply the same principles to facing my fears and the uncomfortable aspects of early sobriety.  Or at least I was.

So, I started this blog post last week. Was fleshing out these ideas, feeling pretty darn good.  I envisioned my sobriety like a fortress I was building on a hill, brick by brick. I was finding my groove, in spite of stresses and work and life stuff.  Most days passed without a single thought of drinking. I’ve been immersed in self-improvement, self-care, healthy habits and mindfulness. I even started meditating. Yep. You read that right. So when I uttered the words ” I’m just going to embrace the suck”, I’m not sure what I summoned other than an opportunity to do just that.

Perhaps I was just getting too comfortable with my routines, and maybe focusing too much on one or two particular sober tools but, within 24 hours of saying those words out loud, I lost my two biggest ones.  My phone basically had a seizure and died after updating to a new operating system. I was phoneless for three days, which meant I was cut off from my small group of sober friends who are more like sisters. I lost all my contact information and all my photos from my first ever sober summer with my kids. For me, sobriety is all about connection, and I depend on hearing hard truths and giving/getting encouragement daily from other alcoholics kind of like I depend on air. With one fell swoop, it was like I was back in 1992 from a technology standpoint.  But, I still had my other “pillar” of sobriety. I could still get out and burn off my crazy with exercise, right?

Well, the day after my phone went belly-up, I fell rock climbing and broke my foot. (Trust me, that’s not nearly as sexy or adventurous as it sounds). I’m out of commission for six to eight weeks.

Any cockiness I had, any swagger about being ready to “dive into pain” or whatever, has been sucked away by the SUCK.

What seemed like a great idea a few days before became almost laughable as I was crutching around with a throbbing foot with a constant internal dialogue of “embrace it? Who am I kidding? I’m an alcoholic. We run from pain. We numb it. We kill ourselves slowly in order to not feel it. Regular life? Kids, bills, crazy hours at work etc. I can embrace that, I think, maybe after 6 1/2 months of practice. But this? Cut off from my support? How am I going to work and pay bills with a broken foot? And NO outlet for my crazy? This is going to get ugly. I want a drink.”

As another lovely friend pointed out to me yesterday after I finally had a working phone, it’s time to expand my tool belt. She said, “Maybe this is the universe’s way of saying ‘Wen, you’ve mastered sobriety with two main tools.  Now go out and find others that work too.'” And she’s totally correct. As much as I want to stomp my non-broken foot and whine “but I like what I was doing. It was working for me. I don’t want to get all YODA-y anymore and say crazy things out loud like when the student is ready the master appears. I want to just keep running and doing what feels cozy. I want my La Croix water and my podcasts and to stay in my bubble where it’s safe.”

That’s just not an option. So, the only choice I have is to do what I set out to do: embrace the suck.

Which means that I have a chance to do a CTRL+ALT+Del in the middle of my first sober year.

Clean slates are good, right? Lost contacts means new contacts, lost pictures means I have to trust my memory again. Putting myself out there in the middle of this, not from a perspective of having moved through it feels like trying to shine a light while my lighthouse is still only half-built. But maybe that’s what needs to happen.

My fears about being found out as a fraud, as a weak person really are unfounded.  I’m doing this every day. I’m in the company of others who are doing it too.  Even if we stumble some days or fall completely off the rock face and have to get up, bruised and bleeding.

I will take the pain of having to be stretched and learn new things over the soul-pain of active drinking any day. I don’t have answers. But if you are considering being done, of trying things that scare you, of giving up the “comfort” of alcohol, wondering how in the world you will ever feel your feelings without being blown away, take heart.  While I am gimpy and bruised and a little bewildered, I can still continue to hope and look ahead.  Because I have found others who tell me it’s possible.  It’s possible to change your entire life.  I’m doing that. It’s possible to grow, even if you break your foot and bounce checks and have to deal with things that would have driven you to numb and obliviate yourself with booze just a few months ago. You will find yourself continuing to get up every day and living in just that day. Because I’m doing it. And if I can, then so can you.

For today, that means enforced rest:  icing and elevating my foot and watching the rain outside while I try to find words and make sense of things.

So stay tuned, friends.  I’m just getting started. Again.


Day 100.

I’ve been thinking about numbers this morning.

Zero used to be a number I wanted to avoid. It seemed empty and sad. But when I think about zero blackouts, zero hangovers, zero times driving buzzed, zero times I slurred my words, zero milligrams of Tylenol for splitting headaches, zero dollars spent on booze, (when in a very conservative estimate I would have consumed at least 200 bottles of wine in 100 days when I was drinking and even if that came from the cheapie wine bin, I’d say a thousand dollars? Mind boggling) then the idea of zero has weight to it. It represents freedom. Zero shame. Zero regrets. Zero moments that I wish I could get back and do over.

And then I think about “good” numbers. 539 miles run/walked in 100 days. 250,000 liters of water I’ve drank instead of booze. 100 wine-breath free bedtime prayers with my kids, 1 blog started, 100 journal entries written, 2500 hours spent doing yoga, 15 books read… None of those numbers would exist if I hadn’t strung together consecutive hours, and days of just not drinking.  Not drinking was just the beginning. It was like opening the cover on a mysterious book and finding wonders inside, turning page after page as the story sucks you in. I’m hooked.

I was stuck so long in the revolving door of addiction. I’d spin around inside, heaving my weight against the push bar to keep the door endlessly moving, occasionally catching glimpses of the world and light outside, think about jumping through that crack as it spun past, but ultimately I was afraid I’d get pinched in the door and so I just kept circling and circling. Until the day I was so desperate, I just flung myself at the opening and found myself blinking on the sidewalk with an entire colorful world opening around and up and up over my head. These last one hundred days, I have been walking (well, running) away from that spinning cycle of shame, promises, lies and despair and finding an entirely new world.  I wish I had just taken that leap twenty years ago when I first knew I had a problem with alcohol. What would my life look like if I had done that?  And how do you capture that moment, that moment of surrender, that moment of “enough, now” for others who are still trapped in that endless cycle and desperately want out but don’t know how? I wish I knew.

Unraveling all the strings and connections of why I drank and surveying the patterns and damage it has done over the years is stretching my mind, making me question and explore my motives and behaviors. I feel like I’m an anthropologist going through my own wrecked civilization and piecing it all together. Now I go to parties or out to dinner and watch friends and family with an almost clinical detachment, observing them cracking their 8th beer or struggling to find a wine opener for the 6th bottle of the night. Realizing how wobbly the conversation path gets when you are talking to someone who has been drinking for hours, how angry and incapable drunk people really are. How incredibly rare and radical it is in a way to be the only sober person in the room. And my inner rebel, the one who used to drink burly Army dudes under the table in my heyday is now shifting in perspective to think that the truly rebellious act in a room full of numbed out people is to be completely myself. My sober, non-impaired, capable, fully present self. It’s a sad testimony to our society that sober is rare.

Maybe my radar is just extremely sensitive, but I can’t help but notice the complete saturation of every aspect of our culture with alcohol.  Now, I drive past my old favorite liquor store, and I really read their sign, and notice the messages:

“Drinking rum before 10 am makes you a pirate.”
“Rain, rain go away… Beer.”
” If you are at a party and there’s no booze, you’re at the wrong party.”
“Make your liver quiver.”

My perspective is shifting, my eyes are different. I hear and see and live differently now that I, and not my addiction am calling the shots again. I think so much of the horror of alcoholism, at least for me, was living with cognitive dissonance: “contradictory or clashing thoughts that cause discomfort.” (that’s putting it mildly. It wasn’t discomfort, it was PAIN.) People have an innate need for consistency in our thoughts, perceptions and images of ourselves. Alcohol made me act in ways that were wholly inconsistent with my self image.  I wanted to think I was a good mother, a loving wife. And I am, when I don’t drink. I’m witty, and reliable, creative and kind. But when I drink, I’m a liar. I’m selfish, petty, self-serving, short-sighted, maudlin, careless, unfiltered.  Trying to reconcile those behaviours with who I imagined I was on the inside was impossible. The only way I can be who I truly am, is to remove alcohol from the equation.

I have a long road ahead. There’s a lot of popular wisdom about how long it takes to form new habits or break old ones. There’s a debate about whether it’s 28 days or 66 days. I’m not sure if those numbers matter, even when I’m writing a post celebrating numbers today. Each morning I just have ONE in mind. The day I’m in is the only one I can control, really. I can’t undo my past, can only try to make peace with it and learn from it. I can only impact my future by living in this day. This ONE day.

What I do know, deep down is that sobriety is delivering miracles to me on a daily basis. Small coincidences, signs…. all point me towards the truth that I am SEEN in this journey. I go running and see a tiny plant growing in an improbable place and I see it as a sign instead of a weed.  I would never have even noticed it before.

What am I really doing without? The one thing that was standing in the way of me reaching my full potential, my peak abilities.  The only thing preventing me from living with my insides on the outside.

Nothing has been lost. But I’m gaining everything.

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