Never judge a run by the first mile

My 10 and 11 month marks have come and gone. The days came and went and I didn’t even realize it was a “soberversary” until friends texted me with congratulations.  And it hit me that I am getting comfortable. And then of course I immediately became uncomfortable. Because I don’t want to take it for granted.

Next week I will be sober a year.

It’s been a ride. The last few months have seen the election, my first sober holidays, the collective grief and hysteria of the nation, some health scares and the disintegration and attempted resurrection of my marriage, job struggles and through all of it I’ve been 100% present. Life is gradually less and less about just not drinking and more about building a life I don’t need to escape from.  And handling things that would have dropped me to my knees and made me chug huge quantities of alcohol now roll off me like raindrops. That’s the miracle of it all.

So the trickiest thing about being a blogger chronicling the early days of sobriety is that you actually need a functioning computer. Something I didn’t have for 5 months. Which means that I have little scraps of paper that accumulate. When I open my purse, or grab my journal, little papers fall out and fall to the ground like flurries. Snippets of thoughts, quotes, ideas, mostly in my favorite green felt tip pen in my little scratchy handwriting. I lose them.  None of it was coherently gathered as I had imagined in the beginning when I set out to write about getting sober.  Nothing has gone to plan. And that has also been a blessing.

In hindsight, not trying to “unpack” or analyze those moments and instead just live them was the best thing for me as I learned to be present.  Even writing creates distance from what you are writing about. You become an observer, a reporter of your own experience. In striving to find the perfect phrase, choosing the right words to bring an idea to life in a way that someone else can possibly understand or experience it, the writer becomes a creator. In putting it into words, the idea or story becomes something separate from you. So in holding tight to my experiences and just soaking in them instead of trying to record them, I have for the first time become my own storykeeper.  I have had to trust my own heart and mind to remember.  Which is frightening for someone like me who has huge gaps in memory and the memories that do jump out from the past few years are often painful and full of shame.

But, in not trying to capture or label them, these months that have passed are truly mine. Authentically, not blurred around the edges, not fading into gray. Sometimes they still feel too sharp, too clear. There is part of me that still wants to change my state; to escape or hide. And yet, my life is no longer about “taking the edge off”, but finding my edge, coming back to myself.  To do that I have to be in it. All in. Otherwise I am all fuzzy middles and I spent too many years doing that.

So, I’m back. Thanks to the generosity of a beautiful sober friend, my computer has been resurrected and I’m able to write again.  I’m mulling over how to possibly share all the things I’ve learned over almost a year of continuous days of sobriety strung together, like a necklace with beads and trinkets. Some days are a shiny pearl and other days are a battered old button but they are all there, in a row. And the changes that have been wrought in those continuous days are astonishing.

Many times in the past year as I have been healing, and coming back into my “right mind”, I’ve equated this journey to running.  And the classic phrase that all runners know is to never judge a run by the first mile.  And I think about that as it applies to sobriety, as I see people struggling to get and stay sober.  The back-sweaty fear we have when we are on day one, week one, month one.  Wondering if this is all there is.. just this constant state of having your nerve endings screaming, of feeling so uncomfortable and having your brain be a loud, messy tangle of jangled nerves and cravings. When you go to bed at 7pm and feel like a freak and wonder if you will ever be comfortable in your skin again and what about all the feelings and where the heck do those go and on and on… And to that I say… KEEP GOING.  With running, the good stuff; those moments where you hit your stride and your breathing is almost imperceptible and you feel the air flowing over you and in and out of your lungs and you feel like you can run forever.. only happen after you have gone through the first mile or even the second when you feel herky-jerky and your muscles aren’t warm yet and each step feels like a slog and all you want to do is stop and sit down.  But if you stop, you miss the miracle. And believe me, the miracle of sobriety isn’t one you want to miss. But its going to hurt. Often.  But I promise it will be worth it.  Because the alternative is constantly being stuck on mile one. And that hurts beyond words.

There is no way around, no shortcuts, no “magic pill” you can take.  There is only through.  Each day, one foot in front of the other. Until you look back and you see how far you have come and you only want to dig deeper and find the strength to go higher up and on and on…

Sorry, Ernest

So I blew past ninety days this week. And sometimes it shocks me that just three months ago my internal landscape was all post-nuclear holocaust in its’ bleakness and despair. I was all rubble, sickness, shame, head noise. I had no words anymore.

I’ve been thinking about language and writing as it relates to this journey. I used to take Hemingway’s advice “write drunk, edit sober” and applied it with an extreme amount of enthusiasm. Most of my writing the past twenty years was done that way. Now, I’m exploring how to write sober, edit sober and finding my raw truth without a buffer, without anesthesia. It’s more pure and much more scary to write without that armor.

But language, vocabulary… I’ve spent my life learning “insider” lingo. First in the Army with all of its’ acronyms and abbreviations “Copy, NLT, Hoo-ah, FUBAR, BOHICA, OPFOR, etc.”  And then, with my career in medicine when phrases like “45 yo M presents with h/o of COPD, sob, dyspnea, CP x3 days, BBS c exp wheezes, prn albuterol q4 hours ineffective, r/o PNA/ COPD exacerbation, recommend CTA chest” make absolute sense. I speak the language.

Sobriety has a language of it’s own. There’s a whole new lingo to learn. We hear a lot of it in recovery. “Cognitive restructuring, surrender, willingness, NA drinks, gratitude, Normies, one day at a time.” Slowly, these terms become part of a new vocabulary.

When I think about the word “SOBER”, its’ definition seems incomplete and lacking oomph for something so life-changing and explosive.

sober
adjective| so-ber

1. not drunk
2. having or showing a very serious attitude or quality
3. plain in color

Well, I’m definitely not drunk. I am dead serious about this journey. But there is nothing plain or dull or staid about this trip. There is belly laughter. Joy that is burbling up like an underground stream.  I am laughing at how ridiculous I can be,  finding my sense of humor again and rejoicing with friends in recovery as we discover how full of miracles and COLOR life is now that we are no longer letting ourselves be abused by alcohol.  I run every night in my reflective orange vest and I’m sure I look like a deranged crossing guard who is lost but I can laugh at how silly some of what I’m doing to stay sober might seem.  But I’m all in…. Doing whatever it takes. Scratching notes to myself in a lovely journal, eating dark chocolate caramels with sea salt. Going for runs more than twice a day some days. Coloring with my kids. Eating a whole bag of cheesy poofs with a vitamin chaser. Getting choked up over a post rainstorm sky. Performing the heck outta the “corpse” pose in yoga because my middle aged muscles are protesting all the exercise I’m putting them through. Having to laugh when my earbuds unplug while I’m in the checkout at Lowes buying plants and suddenly hearing my sober podcast echoing all over the perennials/getting the hairy eyeball from stoic sensible sandaled/sunhatted gardener-types.  Letting random strangers ahead of me in the checkout line because I’m teaching myself not to rush. Leaving the dishes in the sink and going with my kids to jump off the dock into the river. Playing sober anthems and singing along. Practicing self care like it’s my job.  Finding the elusive beach blue glass on the beach and seeing it as a sign.

I know it’s not the pink cloud because that sucker sunk a few weeks ago. This is an uphill hike where I just keep pushing, and am still shocked at just how much energy it takes to get sober. Some days are unspeakably hard and I have no words. Many moments sting like a bucket of ice water dumped on my head, regrets still float around and surface from time to time, old traumas creep into my dreams and remind me they are still there. In those times, my recovery community surrounds me, encourages and reminds me to keep my eye fixed on the things that are invisible. They remind me that healing results when we do the hard work. They shout reminders to me, cheer me on, help me find the words to speak to myself. And I’m learning to do the same for them.

I don’t know if other diseases have a voice. Maybe diverticulitis sounds like a guy talking with a mouthful of nachos, saying “Anybody want a peanut?” and emphysema sounds like a wheezy old broad with 3 pack a day smoker voice saying “Light up, honey.” I’m not sure. But I do know that my alkie voice starts out all smooth and velvety like Tom Hiddleston reciting Shakespeare, all posh precise, rich, round tones. It whispers. “You are doing so well, just look at how much better you feel. Why not celebrate with just one? You don’t have to tell anyone. It would just be between us. Go on, darling.”

I picture my sober self  as a wise earth-mother type with a flowy skirt, serene face and a halo made of daisies (a girl can dream, right?) ; “No, I’m enjoying this lovely glass of La Croix coconut water. Plus, I could never just drink one, remember?” 

The tone of my alcoholic voice changes the more I talk back to it, reminding it that I don’t drink anymore. It gets more whiny, more petulant, more bratty. ” But you deserrrve it. Look how hard you are working. No one knows how HARD this is. You never get a break, wouldn’t a nice crisp glass just taste so nice.”

When I continue to refuse, it gets nasty, in a Loki, “kneel before me, you mewling quim, I must have a drink!” way.

My sober self answers: ” Well, sure, if I want to end up dead on my bedroom floor. That’s not on today’s agenda, thanks.” And then I give myself a mental high five and get on with my day.

So that’s the new normal. No more waking with a splitting headache, dizzy, looking for a place to throw up. Actually, I haven’t thrown up once in the past 90 days. Not once. No more pounding antacids with my shots of whiskey. No more checking my rearview mirror obsessively because I’m driving buzzed for the thousandth time. No more feeling alone, no more secret keeping from even myself. No more energy wasted on denial, procrastination and lies: “I’ll quit tomorrow.”  There were always a thousand tomorrows.

I’m living in today. Writing sober. Living sober.  I am finding my new voice.

I wish Hemingway could have found his.