Enter the Weighted Blanket

Summer break has officially been in effect for seventeen days. The usual end of year overstimulation/overbooked/house descending into hoarder chaos never really let up since we plunged directly into two weeks of various day camps and were getting up even earlier than during school.  I was shuttling my three plus others, coordinating ride shares, packing lunches, trying to cram in quality Mom-kid time with the one kid I had home each week, working on my run streak, tackling revoltingly filthy camp clothing and gnarly sneakers and then trying to usher all the overtired kids to bed then lying wide awake myself.

This week is the first one I have all three kids home with nothing scheduled and it occurs to me that what I’ve been struggling with the last few months is kind of being amplified by being the sun to three needy planets who are orbiting 24/7. I have sat down ten times to write and immediately been bombarded with requests for snacks, complaints of being bored, squabbles over Fortnite, requests to go somewhere, pleas for assistance with some random lost item that has suddenly become vitally important to a childs’ very existence. You know, the usual.  And it hits me that motherhood, even as my kids are getting older is still the toughest job there is and one I struggle mightily with when it comes to BOUNDARIES. It will take all you have and then ask for more and it’s a breeding ground for exhaustion and resentment if we allow it. Which brings me to towels.

Imagine a Turkish towel. The magical kind found in fancy hotel rooms that most of us can only dream about but have maybe experienced once in a lifetime. Baby chick soft, deliciously thick loops of perfectly fluffy cotton that envelop you and magically suck the water off your skin. You wrap yourself in it like a giant hug. That’s how I envision self-care.  The best, softest, most decadent kindness you can give to yourself.  And you know what my self care has been lately, at least the last six months as I am juggling single parenting and major change? Like an OD green Army issued bath towel.  If you are unfamiliar with what this is, it’s a horrible brownish green towel issued to every recruit during in-processing.  It is about half the size of a regular bath towel. It is scratchy like coarse grade sandpaper, it is utterly non-absorbent, it barely covers even your most essential parts and it looks like something your grandpa would use in the garage to mop up oil or paint spills, then throw in a dusty corner to dry into some kind of stiff crunchy folds.

What I can’t seem to get though my very slow-learning brain is WHY on earth, when I have experienced the Turkish towel would I consciously choose the Army towel? Yet that is what Moms are doing right now in this culture. We give our best to everyone, give until empty, bitterly laugh off the exhaustion, fiercely love our kids and then all get together and bemoan the fact that  we are so so tired and unappreciated and how moms give and give and all we get is the crappy towel. No wonder a glass of wine or five sounds appealing. After all, billions of dollars are spent in advertising telling us this is true. Just open your eyes and see the messages we are bombarded with any time we go into a funky boutique. The pink wine glasses, the funny tea towels all saying that Moms need wine: “I drink because my children cry” is the battle cry of the modern American mom these days. I may have removed alcohol from the equation 846 days ago but I still fight against the old internalized messages.

But the truth, (which no one is hiring a plane to fly a banner down the beach with) is that we don’t need to numb or take the edge off or distract ourselves from the real pain that is mothering without a break. We need an actual break. Real self-care: deliberate moments of peace wrapped in a Turkish towel of our own design. Yet somehow the message is that a Mom taking a real time out, to go to a museum alone, going for a long run or tucking herself up in a corner with a book is somehow selfish.. But add a glass of wine or a beer to that then, somehow it’s OK. After all, we live in a culture that praises selflessness, the Pinterest “Moms who do it all” and then blatantly encourages women to self medicate with alcohol when they realize they have lost themselves somewhere along the line.  Don’t look inside, don’t question whether this is killing you, just drink up. All the fun Moms are doing it.  Unless you can’t handle your booze or endanger your kids because you went too far and then you are a worthless piece of trash that thousands of online commentors would burn at the stake. What a mess.

Real self care looks different for each of us.  Some need meditation and essential oils, some need to pick up some heavy weights and listen to loud techno. Others need to write poetry or bust out their old paints or take long walks and others enjoy being in the middle of the bustle of a big city or need join a roller derby team like they’ve always dreamed of. Others need to do hot yoga and others need to reaquaint themselves with long-lost hobbies. What appeals to me might not to you, but we need to get more creative about what a time out or self care is. Drinking ethanol is not a time out or a break. It’s slowly poisoning yourself and basically guaranteeing that none of your aspirations regarding yourself will ever come to pass. It’s a very costly trip to nowhere. You can’t smash the patriarchy or write that book or finish that degree or start that clothing line or be a woman of integrity in your life if you are letting alcohol drive the bus. It’s just that simple and that hard and going against so much overt programming is tough but when you get to the other side it is crystal clear.

I am revisiting the idea of self-care since my old pattern of swinging wildly from manic to exhausted is so easy to fall back into. I have found a small group of people to hold me accountable this summer. I have set some small goals which I will begin to implement this week, actually starting right now as  twenty minutes ago I announced to my offspring that I was going to my room to write and unless there is blood squirting from someone’s eyeholes or the house is on fire, I am not to be disturbed for one hour. My list is small and I think do-able, and I had to consciously reel in my perfectionist overstriving tendencies.

The list:

Be creative–either writing or art, a minimum of 30 minutes daily

Exercise/ move body every day without excuse (I’m doing a run streak challenge right now to jump start this goal and it’s been eye-opening to say the least. I’m on day 37/38)

Declutter for 10-15 minutes

Coffee and quiet time in the morning–work on incorporating meditation into daily routine

Go to bed earlier (moving bedtime back 10-15 minutes at a time).

And that’s it for now. No massive ten year plan, no ultramarathon or Ironman training (which my squirrel brains think is a great idea because then I can just keep moving instead of pausing). Instead, I chose simple, soul filling things that if I’m honest, I CAN find time to do. It may mean letting something else go and that grates on my need to control things, but I’m getting there.

The last time I wrote, I was thinking about lobsters and what we do when our shells get too tight and I decided I needed some help with leveling up.  Therapy has been like shedding a shell every single week.  I feel raw, vulnerable and self-preserving. I feel off-balance and in pain. Like I’m some kind of evolving Pokemon with bewildered anime eyes. But I recognize that this is pain with a purpose. Sitting in my old patterns and staying stuck was pain for no reason. The reasons I haven’t wanted to go are still there but I know deep in my marrow, that if I’m going to transform, put things to rest and move forward, this is necessary. It has been painful, surprising and I’ve been astounded at how utterly un-self aware I am in some areas. My second session we were talking about a past event (my therapist specializes in substance abuse and trauma and has been amazing) and she stopped me and said “what just happened” And I said “what do you mean?”She replied “your eyes changed and you seemed to check out for a few seconds.”  And I said “Oh, I think I’ve always done that when I think about tough things.”

Some more conversation and questions passed and we came to the conclusion that I dissociate.  I always assumed everyone does that. I mean, doesn’t everyone leave their body when things are too intense? It’s a great skill as an ER nurse– just watch yourself from a distance, no muss no fuss. Turns out, NOPE.  Most people do not do this. Traumatized brains do this. After my last session she mentioned that it’s ok to leave some of what we are talking about there in the room. She wants me to say it, feel the emotion and then let it go. She told me ” I smudge after every session”. The old me would have thought that was a bunch of woo woo malarkey but I smiled and said “not sure there’s enough sage in the world for all this crap” and she laughed. Some days I wish I could just roll around in a field of sage and not have to do the hard work.

The other component that I’ve been working on is sleep. I remember the early days   when I couldn’t imagine ever sleeping again but then at about four months sober I was finally experiencing natural, non passed-out, no 3 am sweaty frantic wake ups sleep and  after that for the most part I had deep, dreamless sleep where I woke up feeling rested and ready to go (this is one of the miracles of recovery people go on and on about. With good reason). Once I started therapy my sleep went out the window. Restless, tossing, like my body was working through all the things I was thinking through in my “homework”. Vivid nightmares, fighting and terror, waking exhausted left me irritable and tired during the day.

My therapist recommended a weighted blanket and said it’s great for PTSD and anxiety. I was initially wary due to the expense (they are pricey) and worried that being claustrophobic and not really a touchy person that it would be suffocating and make me panicky. But I read some reviews and ordered a mid price one on Amazon and the first night I slept like a rock.  And the second.  And just about every night after that. It has been a game changer. The second I climb under,  I can feel my overstimulated, buzzing nerve ending switching from crazy to “chill.” The weight of it stimulates deep pressure points and reminds me in an odd way of my old Army body armor. I had always found the weight and pressure of my flak vest to be strangely calming.  I look forward to the moment at the end of each day when I’ve been tested and pushed to my limits with my kids when I can climb into bed, pull it over me and exhale. It’s like a literal “off” switch. It’s not chemical or aritificial and I’ve been grateful for the restoration that real sleep brings. So, add my name to the list of believers. Definitely worth every penny and lives up to the hype.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of work to be done, including actually staying in my body. Which sounds utterly ludicrous to write.  Perhaps I should add that to my list. But what I’m trying to get at is that in the midst of doing hard things: parenting, getting sober, exorcising demons, it’s vital to replenish and support ourselves. For me, it’s making little self-care to do lists, going to therapy and obsessing on my weighted blanket and the deep sleep it provides.  Those of us who struggle with addiction and are relatively new to recovery tend to have buckets of shame, an idea that we deserve to be punished in some way. But the opposite it true.  We need and deserve to be healed. The work of recovery is just that: WORK.  What if we approach it like we are elite athletes? We do the training and stretch and break down the muscles, then provide the optimum healing environment. Hydration, rest, nutrition. In active recovery, we do the same, in a way that re-integrates mind, body and soul. No more scratchy towels and martyrdom. No more burning the candle at both ends to avoid looking at the pain, no more poison down our throats because we’ve bought into a dangerous lie. But real self-care. Which allows us to be able to give to those around us from a place of fullness and not from an empty well.

Carry on, friends.

A cold wind

” A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”– George R.R. Martin

Winter snapshots from my past:

I sat on a log on the shore, my numb fingers feeling oddly separate from me as I watched them lacing up my skates.  My breath rose like smoke in front of my eyes, as I peered over the top of my scratchy scarf. In the moonlight, the lake glistened and stretched ahead into the dark for miles. The frozen ripples of waves near the shore were bumpy under my skates as I headed out towards the smooth center, pulling my thick mittens back onto my cold fingers.  There was no sound except the scraping of my skate blades, the occasional rustle of trees in the circling darkness around the glow of the lake. Now and again I would hear the groaning echoes of the ice as it would shift and sing and moan beneath me, reminding me of ancient whales singing somewhere in another frozen place.  The moon shifting slowly overhead, my leg muscles burning as I skated, racing ever onward to the darkened shore of the other side. I spent countless weekend hours like this. I never thought to complain about the cold. My thoughts focused only on the smooth gleaming ice beneath me, the speed, the way the air moved in and out of my lungs, stinging wind on my face. I was temporarily invisible, in a lonely place of cold and dark but still buoyed up by the magic of the moon, the music of the ice.

And another…

My boots crunched in the frozen deep snow along a half-mile perimeter of barbed wire. I had my M-16 at the ready, my black Army-issued balaclava scratching my face where my breath froze into crystals. The temperature hovered right around 2 degrees. My Tyvek jacket and fleece socks were fighting a losing battle against the bone-chilling cold.   The icy darkness stretched out along the wire, yet strangely lit from beneath by the deep snow. My voice sounded small, speaking into my hand-held radio, “Tower 6 moving right”.  I could hear a few other staticky voices checking in as re-assurance we were not all out there alone in the frozen bleak. I reached the outer limits of the wire,  then crunched the other direction for another half a mile.  I repeated this trek every two hours as part of Guard Duty on Comanche Base in the middle of Bosnia-Herzegovina long ago.  I thought of fellow soldiers sleeping warm and safely in their bunks as I trudged along for a 12-hour shift in the inky darkness of night. The long hours of walking, freezing then re-thawing in my tower, lost in thoughts and lulled into some kind of other-world with my isolation and the frozen dark and the hypnotizing white all around.  Until one night there was someone on the other side of the wire. He appeared suddenly, like a phantom out from between snow-laden pine boughs, his dog at his knee, his shotgun held over his arm.  I froze.  Breathless.  And so did he.  Our eyes met and held for a full count of ten. Then he raised his hand and saluted me, turned and walked back into the white pines, the branches swaying slightly in the cold wind. I rubbed my eyes wondering if I’d somehow been dreaming.

I can think of a thousand stories of winter, and I could wax poetic forever about my love of snow, the way it covers and muffles everything, the beauty of it, the incredible wonder of little footprints, yet for as long as I can remember I have always hated this time of year. The space after Christmas when hard winter settles in for real, when spring and the promise of bursting green buds and life and hope seem endlessly far away. It’s the winter blahs, when it’s bleak and mud or bleak and dirty snow and the magic seems to have drained out of me and it’s all cabin fever and dry skin and sniffly noses and no number of candles I light or hot cups of tea I drink seem to be able to penetrate the cold gloom that arises from deep within me. I hate it. Seasonal affective disorder. Such a dumb name for something so hard to describe. Joy Vampire? Fleece and angst-itis?

This last half of my second sober year has been rough.  I told someone the other day that it’s basically kicking my ass. Since right before the holidays, I’ve been dealing with a sudden identity crisis due to a major cut back of my hours at work, (as in zero hours).  A major source of my sense of self, and also the source of a lot of trauma has basically been ripped away.  I feel almost like I’m in a second adolescence where I get to decide who or what I want to be, minus the old labels. Of course, this crisis occurs at the time when my usual high energy almost always seasonally ebbs, leaving me bone tired, in a place where no amount of sleep seems to put a dent in my heavy weariness. It also comes at the worst possible time from a realistic, financial standpoint as I struggle not to panic and visions of ramen noodles and malnourished kids and burly car repo types dance in my head.

These days self-care is summed up by actually changing out of my flannel cat jammie pants and making the effort to shower, going to the closet to get a clean fluffy white towel instead of just grabbing my daughter’s hooded duck towel that is hanging on the back of our bathroom door. I put on jeans and a plain sweatshirt, feeling like some kind of colorless bird. I swipe a brush through my hair and put on some tinted moisturizer to cover my dark eye circles, and I try to smile while all the while that voice is there. The constant underlying voice that maybe all people who struggle with depression or addiction fight against. It whispers underneath it all as I pour cereal into bowls, brew coffee, drive kids places and read them stories, struggle through math homework, matching socks, wiping fingerprints off mirrors. It’s there at the end of the day when I crumble into bed, and pull the duvet over my head and feel the comforting weight of a cat curl up in the place behind my knees and pray for oblivion and sweet sleep.  Its there when I answer the thousandth question of the day, through the endless litany of Mom, Mama, Mom, Mommy, the clearing up of yet another mess, the cycle of emptying and loading the dishwasher, the trudging up and down the stairs with the endlessly reproducing loads of laundry. It stalks me down the crowded aisle of the supermarket as I pick up bananas and whole grain bread and feel my eyes stinging in the cold as I load the plastic carrier bags into the back of my sensible minivan. It is there as I scroll social media and try not to compare my rumply insides with the perfect shiny outsides of countless “friends.” It fades a little when I head out the door with a warm hat on and music in my ears, trying to move my body in search of those endorphins I am so sorely lacking.  It’s there as I take my meds, drink another glass of water and remind myself that this too shall pass.

It’s a terrible voice, the voice of depression.  I used to drink to drown it out, if not temporarily, for it always returned with more fuel every time I couldn’t drink “successfully”. The endless loop of old tapes. what did you think would happen when you always settle?  you are nothing special. you never have been. foolish girl thinking you deserve anything at all. everyone would be better off without you.  you’re a fraud. everyone would walk away if they knew how stupid you really are. you are just taking up space. what is the point of you? it’s so easy to think maybe I’m an illness or your “addiction” but what if I’m the only one telling you the truth? people tell you that you have a gift but really, being a storyteller is just a fancy way of saying you are a good liar. keep moving, because the emptiness is so staggering that you will fall apart if you truly looked at it. there is something wrong with you. what have you ever done that is worth anything? nothing would change if you disappeared. who are you without all your stories and lies? you are weak. you don’t deserve better. your children really deserve better than you.

It’s sickening. I want to run from that voice, scared to believe it might be right. It feels like it may be right. But it isn’t.

I heard the phrase “emotional sherpa” the other day and found it to be the perfect description for what I’m feeling lately about the past, my role as recorder and storyteller and the repository of all the memories for my family, for myself.   The roles and labels I have clung to that need to be re-thought in light of this new me, the sober me. The baggage that I drag, the memories and the old worn-out narratives about me, my life, my mistakes. It falls in on me when I slow down and things are dark and quiet.  It’s time to drop the baggage.  I only want to move forward carrying what serves me.  But I’m a slow learner. For me, it tends to be relinquishing inch by inch.  I’m internalizing how to talk back to that voice, how to replace those old tapes with new ones. To remember that feelings are just that. They aren’t facts. I will get through this winter. And the next and the next.  Because underneath all of my stories, there is a core of steel that has never bent.  It’s the part of me that has survived things I never should have. In recovery, I’m making a new me, forged around that central core, that spark of truth.  But I’m not doing it alone.

Camus said it so well: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.  And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger–something better, pushing right back.”

So, if you are struggling with your own winter of discontent, with deep sadness or shifting of roles, or wanting to isolate, or even somehow deeply mourning that old carefree you with pint in hand, the you of BEFORE, I want to remind you that you aren’t alone.  The community of friends in recovery who drag us out of ourselves, challenge our assumptions, call us on our dramatic, overwrought bullshit.. they are part of the invincible summer. One of the gifts of surrender. A roadmap for when we get lost in our own heads and thoughts. So I challenge you: even if you are in an enforced hibernation due to mother nature being off her meds… if like me, some days it all feels dull and muffled and endlessly blah. Reach out. Talk about it. Tell the truth about where you are. You may be overwhelmed by the number of “me toos”.  Because you are NOT the only one. Addiction wants you to believe that you are terminally unique, the only one suffering as you are. But you aren’t. We recover.  We move on. We learn new things, and even if we slip down the slope a little and even fall off entirely, that’s not the end of the story.  Not by a longshot. 

Spring is coming.