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.

 

 

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.