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.

Upside Down with Admiral Byrd

For most of my adult life, there has been a stack of books next to my bed. It has changed shape and grown and shrunk and been added to and subtracted from, and knocked down by curious cats, kids and labrador tails, then painstakingly restacked with a sigh and thoughts of “someday”.  It’s an eclectic stack; memoirs, fiction, recovery and self help, cook books, poetry, botanical guides and graphic novels.  In my iPhone notes there is another virtual “pile”– list of articles, books, movies, ideas to research, artists to explore.  And in the bustle of life, with the unending and ponderous responsibility of being a solo parent to three growing kids while juggling career and pets and a home and the thousand details and everyone’s minutiae, too often all of that frenetic “doing” ends up being all there is.  I lose sight of what I’m actually doing in the mire of surviving life with depression/anxiety and new sobriety.  I long for a time out of sorts, or an airplane where I can go up and gain some altitude and look down at the patchwork of my life and see some sort of pattern or meaning.

In the past, I’ve set a million reminders on my phone, hung post-its for even mundane things like “don’t forget to drink water”, wished away the very parts of me that make me me. The overactive brain and attention deficits and life long battle with depression have meant that I’ve tried to fight the very essence of myself.  Instead of seeing these things as just part of me, I falsely believed that they defined me as “other” or “broken” (as part of my growth these last two years, I’ve learned to visualize myself as the sky and the feelings of depression or anxiety as clouds that move across and then leave. They are not me, they are outside of me and I can observe them). Before, when I had a particularly tough week or month I would chastise myself for curling up with a blanket and taking a nap or doing something that wasn’t “productive”. I would double down on appearing to have it all together and actually cared less for myself as if somehow in not feeding into it or recognizing it, it would go away.  And we all know how well that works.   In recovery, I’ve learned a lot of about self-care and how it’s not indulgent or a waste of time but vitally important to my health and well-being.

In January, as a bout of restless depression rolled in and hung out, it became clear that I was going to need to rethink my usual MO of dealing with winter and low moods if I was going to continue my self-care goals. My hours at work were almost non-existent so I was staring down the barrel of a long dark winter and wondering if I might just tip over into an abyss.   I’m a person who loves solitude, but am living a life that rarely allows it.  So, taking inspiration from Admiral Byrd, I decided to just embrace my winter and give myself permission to embark on my own mini discovery in the hours that I suddenly found. If you haven’t had a chance to read his memoir Alone, written after spending five months you guessed it, ALONE at a meteorological station in Antarctica in 1934, then might I suggest you add it to your own list of things to read.  It’s fabulous.  He was an adventurer, a highly decorated military pilot, polar explorer, the third person to fly non-stop over the Atlantic and had the distinction of having three ticker tape parades thrown in his honor, but in spite of his successes and accomplishments, he wrote about what he called “a certain aimlessness”.. a nagging feeling that “centered on small but increasingly lamentable omissions”.  Though written in the 30s, I feel that’s a sentiment that feels true for many of us in our modern lives.

One passage in particlar about books and life hit home for me: “For example, books. There’s no end to the books that I was forever promising myself to read; but when it came to reading them, I seemed never to have the time or the patience.  With music, too, it was the same way; the love for it–and I suppose the indefinable need–was also there, but not the will or opportunity to interrupt the routine which most of us come to cherish as existence.  This was true of other matters; new ideas, new concepts, and new developments about which I knew little or nothing.  It seemed a restricted way to live.”

His rather extreme solution was to literally spend a winter in darkness, in the coldest place on earth with not a living soul nearby. Once the sun sets during the Antarctic winter, it won’t rise again until the spring.  He describes it as a “long night as black as that on the dark side of the moon.” And yet he chose that. Embraced it as a rigorous challenge. Solitude as a way to sort the wheat from the chaff. I wondered if perhaps this winter I could use the hours that I hadn’t wanted or expected as a way to do my own mini-version of Admiral Byrds’ experiment.

So instead of fighting it and making myself “do more”, I’ve dived into the books and podcasts and music listed in those cryptic notes to myself …  I’ve read long articles in Outside magazine and books that I might not have tackled before.  But the best thing by far has been time to check out some of the things that my tween daughter has been telling me about, and finally reading the DogMan comic series that my son has read multiple times.  He struggles with reading and yet the silliness of the books have made him persevere. They were great.   I’ve listened to music my tween has on her playlists (who knew Marshmello was so relatable and great to blast while tackling domestic goddess duties?) and have finally made good on my promise to watch a few of her beloved shows.  In my normal day to day I’m not much of a tv or binge watcher.  I more of a movie person.  I’ve always loved the “willing suspension of disbelief” and the experience of seeing them on the big screen while smuggling snacks and sodas into the theatre in my “ghetto bag.” But since becoming a Mom it’s difficult to find hours to devote to getting into long tv series. Maybe it’s my fear of commitment, but I seem to get behind and then never catch up.

So, a few weeks ago I set out to watch the Netflix series “Stranger Things”. I may be the only human over the age of 12 in North America who hasn’t seen it, and I admit I was skeptical and prepared to be unimpressed. I literally knew nothing about the show other than the name and that my tween was obsessed. So color me surprised when I started the first episode and lo and behold, it takes place in 1984 with a bunch of 12 year olds. And guess who was 12 in 1984? Yours truly.

Apart from the obvious appeal of the nostalgia factor (I had the exact same horrible glasses and haircut as one of the characters and the details of the show (music, pop culture references) have me grinning in remembrance), I found it cleverly written and the characters very relatable. It becomes clear very early on that the show’s mystery could never take place in the world of today with our smartphones, GPS and helicopter parenting. But that is part of its genius.

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it as a way to pass some very entertaining time. To oversimplify, a group of tweens embark on an adventure where very odd things begin happening in their hometown, and a conspiracy involving a mysterious scientific lab and a parallel universe unfolds.  One of the characters, Will, is lost in a dark, shadowy dimension.  But the world where he has become trapped is a strange mirror of ours.  It is cold and decaying, with unspeakable monsters stalking him.  He attempts to break back through to our world, and his friends and family try to rescue him, without understanding fully where he has gone.  He is often seen huddling in this place of emptiness, despair, and decay. It’s a whole boatload of trauma and suffering and all of the characters are irrevocably changed in their quest to save him from this place. And it’s scary and funny and well, just go watch it… Then come back and we can chat.

About three episodes in, it struck me that the Upside Down (what the characters call this dimension) is almost a perfect metaphor for depression.  It’s like living in a parallel universe.  You may look fine.  But in your mind, things are distorted, and thinking is disturbed. It looks and feels utterly real. And if you are a person who has ever experienced a deep depression, you are aware that it is a very real monster and you can feel trapped in its world. It’s hard to tell others.  Much like in the show, where Will tries to communicate by flashing lights to reach his friends and family, it can be hard to communicate what it is like. Many of us have difficulty with expressing what depression is.  So we rely on metaphors. “Low, dark, like everything is colorless and muffled.  Like I see your lips moving but can’t hear what you are saying. It feels cold and like all the joy in the world has gone.”

Depression can affect just about anyone, regardless of external circumstances.  And it’s an invisible illness (hence the very popular hashtag #whatyoudontsee).  Those of us who have dealt with it in our lives aren’t necessarily the emo types you might imagine.  Some of the shiniest, brightest people may harbor a very deep darkness.  They literally feel emotionally upside down.  They may keep it well-hidden, and never let on until the day when they perhaps stop fighting. And then you hear all the comments of how no one “ever suspected anything was wrong. They seemed fine.”  The active, involved, soulful, sensitive, funny, positive person you know may fight anger, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide almost daily. The bravest people are the ones who can be honest about their struggles.

The largest theme of the show is how a group of people come together to solve a mystery and to help someone they love. The young characters are often seeing playing Dungeons and Dragons, and they identify themselves as a “party”; a group of diverse people with specific skills and roles, ultimately working for the good of the group. I can’t help think that people who struggle with mental illness and addiction need a party. A group committed to supporting the person, unconditionally.  We don’t survive alone. We sometimes just need someone to sit with us in our dark places and let us know that we are seen and heard and accepted as we are. Someone who believes us.

In the end, even those of us who consider ourselves lone wolves or lovers of solitude, are designed for connection.  Connection has proven to be a key component to overcoming any traumatic experience, and some would even say may be the key to preventing much of the addiction and violence we see ravaging our world.

Admiral Byrd did what he set out to do– he discovered how little “stuff” he needed to survive (in a total badass -70 degree kind of way), he found how vital physical exercise is to mental health, (I cracked up at one of his journal entries about coming back from an hour walk; ” it’s only 41 below zero today at noon.” So much for my reluctance to get out and run on cold days!), he discovered peace and power in routines or rituals, that beauty often comes of struggle, that nature heals, and ultimately he concluded that the most important thing was family and community (sounds a lot like recovery to me!)

So, my own winter continues, where I have some days of solitude where I deliberately think about the deeper things and read the words of other storytellers, and then days where I eat cheetos and watch TV shows about alternate dimensions or dance mop the floor listening to techno.  But I think that ultimately, though I may have set out to discover a different latitude of my soul, I will just rediscover again and again how we are all on the same journey.  How we get there is different.  Some of us only arrive at the starting point after years of pain and struggle. Some of us have to pack it up and go to Antarctica. Some of us fight a daily battle against monsters. But in the end, we can tell our stories, listen to others tell theirs, and find that we aren’t as alone as we think we are.