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.

The Legend of the Lost Ironing Board

There is a strange contraption that lives in my basement.  It has only been unearthed from the storage room/laundry room/ the “don’t try to shift any boxes or you may be crushed in an avalanche” room/ the “oh please, let there not be any wolf spiders lurking in the dark space behind the washer” room a handful of times this year.

It’s called an ironing board. It’s a symbol of my former life.  A relic from a time when I used to actually iron clothes before appearing in public.  Back when I used to iron the scrubs I wear to work, rather than grabbing them out of the clean clothes pile and looking at the wrinkles and telling myself maybe no one will notice.

It creaks and squeaks and protests when I unfold it, probably because it rarely gets unfolded anymore. I dragged it out the other day to touch up the kid’s back to school outfits and they all ran screaming from the hideous screech it made. They came back to investigate, only to back away in wide-eyed horror at the clouds of steam rising from the snout of the iron as it sat there puffing like an ancient dragon.  “WHAT IS THAT THING??” they cried. 

I took a moment to pause since that sound triggered a whole big swirling whirlpool of memory and shame. I hadn’t ironed since I got sober.  That board and I have had a complicated history. When my drinking got really bad the last few years, I would wildly overcompensate to prove to myself how “high functioning” I was.  I would often set up the ironing board after the kids were in bed and drink while I tackled a huge amount of ironing. It was one of those misguided, wine-fueled attempts at proving that I was still a good mother. And it was something that I stopped doing at all when my drinking started taking me down to my rock bottom day.

During this summer of learning to say no to some things and a lot of new “yeses”/safeguarding my sobriety as my first priority, there was zero ironing. It was one of those things I decided really didn’t matter.  I’d rather give kids my time and thoughtful words instead perfectly coordinated outfits and fake “put-togetherness”.

There was something I used to notice whenever I saw pictures my husband has taken of them when I was working.. He sent snapshots of them eating a yummy dinner or at the park and yes, they may not have worn wearing perfectly matched outfits and that was some left-over ketchup on someone’s face, but I would look at those cheeks, the sparkling eyes. The big scrunchy-faced smiles. They were so darn happy to be with their Dad, at the park or wherever.  They were completely un-self conscious about how they looked.  The were in the moment.  And they were gorgeous to me.  But I couldn’t let go of overcompensating when I was with them, as though my kids’ appearances were somehow a reflection of me. I could never relax completely, always feeling waves of guilt about being a drinking Mom washing over me. I perfected a fake cheerfulness, an over the top gritting my teeth creating perfect memories all while my brain was screaming for that next drink.

I’m still flawed and get it wrong a lot, but I don’t have that desperation to prove anything anymore.  That voice telling me I’m not good enough, not a good mother, a selfish person, a weak person still tries to creep in from time to time. But my brain is no longer pickled and so it can identify when my thoughts head that way and put a stop to it.  Its an amazing thing when your voice of reason is no longer gurgling at the bottom of a bottle of wine.

The lost ironing board is perhaps a symbol of me finally coming in to my own .  Because most of the time I still have no idea what I’m doing.  I still wait for somebody to show up and say “ok, we know you are just faking this whole Responsible Mom of Three thing.  Please stand here against the wall with your hands behind your back until a real grown up shows up to take over.” I think that struggle; that feeling like a fraud was one of the things that really fueled my drinking. But as in so many other areas of life in new sobriety, I’m just trying to float in it gently, and stop reacting so much. Give myself the grace I would give a friend who is struggling with motherhood.

I will never do this perfectly.  Every day brings its’ challenges, triumphs and crushing moments.   Things that worked yesterday suddenly don’t work today. I mull, stew, think and plot.  Some days I feel like I’m on some long, long, long version of Survivor where all I need to do is just  OUTWIT, OUTLAST, OUTPLAY.  And the stakes are high, but I’m tired of being driven by fear, worries about appearances and expectations. So I’m letting go of them.

Because ultimately, no matter what is going on, whatever mind-numbing repetitious “wash your hands, stop hitting, use your words, where are your shoes, say sorry, forgotten lunch, playground drama, phantom stomach ache three calls from the school nurse” kind of day I am faced with, sobriety is forcing me to prioritize.  I must choose what will and won’t matter.  And I’m growing in confidence about those decisions as a sober, fully present mother. I honestly have no idea how I managed any of it all the years I was drinking.  And I’m so grateful to be done with it. Because life has plenty of challenges in and of itself.  The massive amounts of energy I used obsessing over drinking, recovering from drinking and feeling awful about drinking is mine again to use for living.  And life is less frantic when you aren’t constantly overcompensating and hiding a huge secret.

So going forward, there may days when we look like we climbed out of the laundry basket. And that’s fine by me. There may be other things that will fall by the wayside as we continue on this journey.. but maybe don’t hold your breath for the Legend of the Lost Steam Mop.

Because with two big dogs who sneak slobbery tennis balls into the house, a husband who sometimes forgets he’s wearing muddy boots and kids with questionable snack-wrangling skills, I really need that thing.