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.

Dispatch from the laundry room

Summer has been busy, finding me home with my three kids and trying to balance life while working nights in the ER. I’ve had this blog post bobbing around in my mind the last few weeks, like an iceberg gradually adding mass underneath the calm surface. And so today is the day I’m giving it life. Or trying to.

I remember waking up, not all that long ago, sitting on the side of my bed and wondering if I was actively dying.  Chest tight, hard to catch my breath, waves of nausea. Dry mouth and bloodshot eyes. My soul hurt. All I could think about was when it was going to be time to drink again. My future only went that far. It hurt too much to think farther than that and if I could just get that first sip, the rest would fade away. Or I hoped it would.

Now, I wake up and sit on the side of my bed in the early hours and take an inventory. Weird twinge in my back from sleeping like a rock for eight consecutive hours, slightly sore muscles from yesterday’s run.  Notice my hungry belly; anticipate the first sip of dark, rich coffee. I think ahead to the next few weeks of being able to wake up lazy this way instead of to the clamoring alarm that shouts at me to get up and get going, move move move, in school-year mode.

With the end of summer looming, I have a million things I could be doing to be getting ready for back to school. Errands to run, projects around the house, weeds to pull.  Actual school supply shopping. New sneakers for feet that have undoubtedly grown but are still enjoying being barefoot and filthy. But I’m not doing any of those things.  Mostly, I’m just being a mom.  And doing a ton of laundry.

Which brings me to the haiku I composed last night at 1 am while folding another giant load as I stayed up ridiculously late watching the Olympics:

The pile grows higher
Forget, restart endlessly
Wash, fold forever.

I’m not sure if it is the fact that my kids spend a lot of time outdoors or if they are just extra grubby or can’t eat a meal without half of it landing in their laps, but I have been doing a ton of laundry this summer.  And while I sit there watching it spinning in the last few minutes before I transfer it to the dryer, I appreciate the fact that I’m actually getting time to myself in the cool basement (with some kind of uncool wolf spiders but lets forget that for now) and I can take a moment to reflect on sobriety. Today marks 161 days of continuous non-drinking. Consecutive days where I have been retraining my brain to realize that just because an emotion surfaces, that’s not a cue to drink.  I’ve done this thousands of times in the last five months.  And you know what? My slobbery brain is learning that an emotion is just that: not a ringing bell telling me to go pour a drink and numb out.  Honestly, when confronted with tough things lately, I actually think how to handle it, which is probably what people have been doing for thousands of years without having to blog about it but oh well, I’m a slow learner.  These days a drink is about 29th on my list of things that will “fix” or get me through the next few minutes, hours, days… And that is the miracle of sobriety in a nutshell. I couldn’t have imagined even five seconds at the beginning where I wasn’t constantly thinking about drinking.  And now some whole entire days pass where I haven’t thought once about drinking. I’m busy living. And folding laundry.

But, all this laundry has me thinking about how early sobriety is a lot like a heavy duty wash cycle. You dive in, not knowing what to expect, and the water starts rising and you think “ok. I can do this. I’m a little damp but I’m floating.” Then the agitating part starts; you spin and churn and can’t tell what side is up and start getting water up your nose and you are being blinded by soapsuds that sting and burn and it just all feels like too much and all you can think about is just climbing the hell out of the washer and getting back to your regular dirty, smelly and worn state. It doesn’t seem worth it when you keep spinning and getting pushed down over and over and you aren’t sure when it will end.

Well, I can tell you that eventually it stops. The spinning dies down, the motor cools and you are lying there, wet and wrung out… but clean.  It’s quiet. You made it. For me that phase was right at about 80 days without alcohol.  At that point, I thought, hmm… maybe I’m ready to try the dryer now,  (the real work of sobriety) and you begin to feel warm on the inside. You start glowing literally and metaphorically.  Your healing brain starts to smooth out the rumpled and wrinkly parts. And then, almost without realizing it, you start thinking about what it might be like to really go the distance and withstand the heat of the iron and get your soul and body in tip top shape.  And some days this seems like a lot of work and other days it comes easily. Depends on the day.

Still with me on this metaphor? Well, if you drink during the early period where you are sloshing around… It’s like you open the lid on the washer mid-cycle and dump a gallon of mud in.  Add a few greasy wrenches, some musty sneakers and a bag of rocks and then close the lid and let the cycle finish.  Not only are you not clean at the end, but you are beat up and filthy and think you never want to go through that again because you feel worse than when you started. There is nothing appealing about even thinking about climbing back in for a do-over.  That was me for years.

Consecutive days.  That’s the key to allowing your brain time to reset and heal.  Not three days here, eleven days there, drink and then start over.  That’s just some kind of awful torture where you leave your brain more confused than when it started.  It takes full commitment to putting as much distance between the drinking and the new you. And that can be done even when you have kids climbing all over you, a job, a nutty husband and a busy life. It just means taking each decision as it comes. Being all in. Declaring deep down with complete conviction that booze just isn’t an option anymore. Eventually your brain gets the message. And when it does, it’s pretty great.

I had a moment at work the other week when a patient came in with a dislocated jaw.  We were kind enough to put it back and I was giving her discharge instructions and noticing how uncomfortable she was and she sadly told me she was disappointed because the next day was her birthday.  And I said “well, looks like a smoothie with a candle in it for you.”  And she snorted and said through her giant ice pack: ” More like a bucket of margaritas with a straw.”  And BLAM. That was it, the moment I realized that I would have said the same thing five months ago and it hadn’t even crossed my mind that drinking was an option in that scenario.  And I got kind of ridiculously giddy and had to share it with some sober friends.  Perhaps that’s how normies feel. I will never know because I’m not one. But still, it goes to show that the brain CAN be re-wired. We can move from our obsession with booze to being at peace. And that was something I could not have even imagined when I first quit.

My early attempts at re-training my brain made me feel about as competent as the Filipino Olympic diving team.  (If you are early to sobriety and suffering from insomnia like I did, I highly recommend you google this. Just because. You’re welcome)  The beginning days of sobriety where you are being forced to feel your actual feelings, sit with your unfiltered, raw thoughts is excruciating.  It’s like being stuck in permanent fight or flight, jangly nerves and overload when you are forced to plug in for the first time, possibly ever.  I read a research study where subjects chose to be subjected to ten minutes of electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts for ten minutes.  That’s our numb-out, tune-out, check out world for you.  And for alcoholics, it’s probably worse since we were the masters at not feeling anything.  But adding day after day, moment after moment, where drinking isn’t an option, my synapses are stretching and re-wiring. I can sit in a feeling and then it passes.  I can examine an unpleasant memory and not fall to pieces.  And that is so encouraging.  I am finally becoming one of those people I used to look up to… the ones further up the mountains who kept shouting down through the clouds: “It gets better! Keep going! The view up here is incredible.” Because it really is.

So, we have two weeks left before my minions return to school.  Everywhere I go, I get “the look” (which is half bemusement and half relief it’s not them) as people survey my three spirited kids and say “I bet you are really ready for them to go back.”  And I kind of smile wistfully and say “not really.”  Because part of me is.  It’s been a long summer of sobriety and motherhood.  Ups and downs and false starts.  But I’ve also been fully engaged for the first time in years and so I’m not quite ready to let go of them, and go back to only seeing them in the afternoons when they’ve given their best to their teacher and friends and have only dregs of crankiness and homework resistance left for me. Which is ok. I am working to accept that I wasted so many years either giving them my dregs, or wildly overcompensating.  I still have a lot of guilt about that. But, I want to squeeze out every last ounce of summer time we have… Which doesn’t mean that they don’t drive me absolutely nuts some days with the squabbling and messes and filthy sneakers and tween drama and ludicrous battles over Minecraft and groans of “I’m borrred.”  I have had plenty of moments where all the noise is just overwhelming and I want to yell ” Stop being ungrateful little jerks, I’m trying to cherish you for crying out loud!!”

Last week we got a tough diagnosis for my five year old daughter.  Life as we know it is probably going to change in ways we can’t even imagine.  And it’s scary and unknown and I kiss my daughter’s head and thank God that I’m sober and can be there for her as we navigate this new world of tests and needles and procedures. My first thought when we got the call wasn’t that I needed a drink. I cried and felt honest, real sadness. Which I let flow over me, and then I got on with formulating a plan for how we would support and hold her up and walk into this new chapter.  This would have been impossible five months ago.

So, for you newbies who are in the first days of trying sobriety on for size.  You know your time drinking needs to be done. And maybe you are having some false starts. I think we all did. But  let me be yet another voice in the invisible army that is doing this with you: Be encouraged. It does in fact get better.  So much better that I won’t even spoil it for you.  Because you will get to that place and you will notice one day that your heart isn’t in a crumpled ball of pain, your breath comes easy, you actually feel GOOD.  And quite possibly, nothing “tangible” will have changed.  You will still have an asshole boss, money troubles, a painful marriage, maybe health problems or a lack of support.  But everything will feel different. Because you will be different.

And so, that’s all for now. I’m going to keep on plugging.

Yours with love, signing out from the top of Mount Laundry.