Wednesday 26 February 2014

Round 2, Day 51: Big changes (and a little book review)

Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk in the park with my partner, and we talked about how this time, quitting drinking is different for me than it was when I quit last summer. I wanted to write about this now so I remember it later, when I will need it.

First, I am taking quitting the drink more seriously, or maybe more personally is a better way to say it. Last time, I started out quitting for a few days, and then a few more, and then I found the 100 Day Challenge. That was great because it gave me a longer stretch of time without drinking. But I was so focused on the challenge part that all my attention honed in on getting to that day, as though something magical were going to happen at the end of 100 days. Of course, nothing did, and by the time I got there, I had stopped focusing on why I was quitting, and stopped doing all the little things I needed to do to stay sober. (I'm not denigrating the challenge here! Not at all! It's a great thing to do. I just didn't realize how much else I had to do besides make it to 100 days.) In a way, I think I was so set to prove I could do it--though I don't know who I was proving it to--I forgot why I even cared about setting sober.

This time, I'm taking a lot more downtime, and much better care of myself along the way. So in a way, that nasty depressive spell that flattened me in January and February was a gift (but no repeats, thanks!) because it forced me to slow way down. No superhero awards for me this month, or last month, or next month either. I am still sleeping like a sleep-demon, walking outdoors lots, reading about meditation and self-care, seeing a counsellor, paying attention to my feelings, all the things I'm going to have to keep doing. I'm shedding that competitive, muscular get-'er-done attitude that I didn't even know I had and, without that carapace of tough-me, I'm doing what I can only call real healing.

Dropping that persona means I have become much more aware of the denial that went along with my drinking. I just read a great novel, The Good House, by Ann Leary. In the book, the main character is Hildy Good, a sharp, funny 60-year-old New England realtor whose daughters sent her to rehab and who has, at the start of the book, resumed her drinking, though she restricts herself to drinking alone. I highly recommend the book. Ann Leary does a great job of showing what it's like to be an alcoholic, both the insane attraction to drinking despite consequences, and the enormous denial that the drinker feels. (My only reservation is that, early on, she makes drinking look so darn good that it could make someone want to drink. I read the whole book in a day so I moved through that part quickly, but it might be hard to read the book slowly and spend days and days in the narrator's "born three drinks short of comfortable" headspace. It's a good line, though.) As I read the book, I identified so much with Hildy. Like her, I have had that insane sense of being drawn in by booze, the feeling that I was only happy and myself when I was drinking, and the sense that keeping away from other people in order to drink alone was the route to my own personal happiness. As Hildy's life starts to fall apart (I'm not giving the plot away to tell you it did--she's an alcoholic and she started drinking again. File under, "Will end in pain," right?) I was horrified by her drinking. With my whole body, I did not want her to do what she was continuing to do. Like in those horror movies where you want to scream at the main character, "Don't go down that hallway!" I wanted to shout at her, "Put down that bottle!" It wouldn't have worked, of course, and that's the genius of the book. No one can tell Hildy what to do. She is an alcoholic, she's in denial, and the reader can feel what it's like to be her while also seeing the tragedy of what she's doing. It really is a beautiful book.

But I was talking about me, and denial. What's that have to do with Hildy Good? Well, she is an alcoholic in denial, and all through the book, I was reading along, seeing myself in her, over and over again. I had to admit that I was, I am, very much like her. Hello. Me, in denial? I hate those bloody recovery keywords. I am so utterly different than other people. I'm not going to let some generic description of an affliction--alcoholism--describe me.

In the novel, Hildy has a talent for what people think is a kind of psychic reading, but she explains that she's just a good observer. Here's what she thinks about it:

"Nobody wants to believe the obvious and visible reality that we are all quite the same. Most would rather believe in the invisible and the improbable--that fate is determined by the alignment of the stars, that there is a spiritual entity rooting for them, for unique and wonderful them, that humans can read minds, that their destiny can be foretold and possible altered. The simple truth is this: Most humans are very much alike. The simple and obvious truth is that there are very few variables to what a person might do, think, fear, or desire in any given situation" (p. 110).

That might sound hard and cold, but I find it oddly comforting. I am like Hildy. I am like you, maybe, and like a whole lot of other people. I am an alcoholic. Not a bad person, or a loser, or someone who just can't get her shit together. Not someone who will be OK at some future point when I will have fixed myself and started to do everything right, at long last. Just an alcoholic. There are lots of us. And now that I know that, there are lots of things I can do to live better. Some are obvious: don't drink; find out what works for other people, and try that out. Some are less obvious: don't worry about the future so much, or about much outside the next few minutes, if that's all I can manage. I'm telescoping it in real small here these days, and I'm OK with that, mostly.

And here's the really big change: it's all a huge relief. I feel so much different, so much better! That hard shell of tough-me I was talking about didn't do me much good, but it did stop me from connecting with people. Now I have never been much of a hugger, but good god in the past few days I have wanted to reach out and hug everyone in the world who is having troubles, who feels low, who is being hard on themselves, anyone who feels like they are not enough. I'm like a one-person giant love-in, sitting here on the couch, typing. I want to jump up and down and yell, "You are enough! I am enough! Right here and right now, with things exactly as they are, we are all enough!!!"

I have neighbours, so I'm holding off on the yelling. I'll go out for a walk instead while it's still sunny, and just smile at the world for a while. And yes, I know, these peaks are sometimes followed by more pits of despair. But I do feel a genuine change in myself. I'm not trying to prove anything to you or to me or to anyone else. I'm just here and alive and better able to see myself for the flawed but whole person I am, and I feel so much more connected to the world because of that.

Thanks for reading along with me here. I couldn't do any of this without my fellow sober bloggers and readers. Many many thanks for the company. Peace and joy to you.

Monday 24 February 2014

Round 2, Day 49: I love being here. Get me out of here.

This being sober is a strange business. I feel better overall. My skin is clearer. My eyes are clearer. I know I am emotionally starting to be more in tune with real life. My foggy thinking is getting a lot better. I don't want to go back to drinking again, because I know there's nothing there for me except oscillating between oblivion and pain, and I would much rather figure out how to live without having to numb myself out of any meaningful existence. (Does that all sound like I'm coughing up a big recovery-induced hairball? I don't know. It's true though, no matter what it sounds like.)

But last night, oh my god last night, I wanted to go to the wine store and buy a bottle of Joie Rose and drink it, and then go back and buy some red wine and drink that, too. Any thought of not wanting to be numb was, at that point, sheer nonsense. I was one giant prickly mess of "Get me out of here!" I can't tell you where "here" is, but I wanted to check out of it into fuzzy oblivion, pronto!

I didn't go to the store, or drink any booze. I pretty much knew I wouldn't. But it was very, very hard to ride it out. I told my partner that I was having a hard time of it and didn't want to talk for a bit, then sat on the couch and read blogs and wrote a bit until I got a grip. The moment (OK it was an hour) passed, and I felt a bit better later. Quiet and a bit knocked out, but better.

How is it that one person can, at the same time, know that drinking is a really bad idea, and really really really want to drink? This addiction thing really plays with your head, doesn't it? Because I know, of course, people are all riddled with contradictions. But those contradictions are so much more comfortable when they are happening to someone else, or when you see them from a safe distance, looking back at your formerly unenlightened self, as opposed to when they are happening to you right now. Last night, sitting on the couch, I felt like I was two people at once. I was me, the person who has committed to the not drinking plan, and who sees that it's a better way. And I was also me, the person who has, for years and years, drank, so much so often that it had become part of the fabric of who I am. I wanted to find a way out of living through the moments of painful contradiction, maybe not be either of the people for a while, but of course, there is no way out. Maybe it sounds like I'm over-dramatising here, but it doesn't feel that way.

So all that stuff I was saying a few days ago about not drinking not being that hard? Sure, that's true, except when it's freaking hard! Drinking won't solve anything, and I'm not going to do it. It won't get me out of anything, unless consciousness is what I'm trying to avoid, and if that's what I want to be clear of, then I can just go to sleep. But I can't stay asleep.

Not a lot of wisdom or answers here today. I am wondering whether I should consider going to an AA meeting. I went twice early last year, and I had what is probably a predictable reaction. The first week I thought, "I love these people!" The second week I was appalled, and I thought, "I have nothing in common with these people." Neither is true, of course. I would probably like some and have trouble with some, and I would have something more or less in common with all of them, but I wasn't ready to call alcohol the problem it really was at that time. Not yet. Now I know it is one. I would still like an easy way out, one where I can just put the drinking behind me and smile my way into a whole new better way of being me. The fact that reality doesn't work that way doesn't stop me from wanting it sometimes, any more than the fact that drinking really sucks doesn't stop me from wanting that sometimes, too.

Anyway, here I am, 49 days sober and holding on, feeling pretty darn good about that in the big picture if a bit uncomfortable in some of the moments. I'm not going anywhere. I won't drink, and I will figure this out.  For now I'll just sip my fizzy water and stare out the window at the snow that's been piling up all day. It's pretty. And I'm not out in it. I'm grateful for that, and that's a good moment to be in.

Thanks for reading. Peace and joy to us all.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Celebration without booze one day, "High on life" the next!

Thursday I had a long, busy day at school--a seminar class and two discussion meetings with professors--so I had to be on all day, able to talk about some complex ideas, and report in on where I am with my big project. But the day was marvellous. I had already admitted to both my professors that I was struggling with some heavy depression. And, in much the same way that admitting to myself that I really do have an addiction to alcohol was actually a huge relief, telling my professors about the struggle was an enormous weight off. So we had good discussions about the work I have to do and, maybe because I didn't feel I had to fake being OK, I was OK. For a while, I had felt like the me who went to school was a hollow, polished version of me. At times like this, I worry I become two people: one who gets through life and looks like she has it together, and one who walks in the park weeping, not sure how to go on. Admitting what's going on--at least to some degree--allows those two seemingly separate selves to get back together somehow, and I feel human again. I'm not sure I'm saying this in a way that makes sense and doesn't sound too whacked-out crazy. But this splitting into publicly doing well, privately depressed, it's something I've been through before, and I know it's got a big sign above it: "This way lies madness." It's exactly like being the closet addict who seems all good from a distance, and it's just as dangerous. It was good to be more honestly myself, admittedly having trouble with some things but still able to enjoy my studies. So hooray for that!

But feeling better blind-sided me in a way I didn't expect at all. While I was at school, I got advance notice of some good news that isn't yet official, and I was very pleased about it. For the past few days, the worst of the depression has really shifted, and I have been feeling like life is a whole lot of sunshine and blue skies after a long spell of crap weather. So on the way home, I caught myself thinking, "Maybe we can have some wine tonight to celebrate." No no no no no!!! What the hell is that? I've been under a crushing weight of bad feeling for a month or so, and as soon as it starts to lift, I think I'm going to drink again? Oh man! I gave myself a gentle talking-to, a bit of, "Oh love, you know that's not even what you want to do, you're just relieved to be out of the mire, that's all." It was all. But over and over, on the bus ride home, I would drift off from reading, or just stare out the window, and find myself planning to celebrate with some wine. Or maybe champagne. A nice dinner out, with wine of course. Did I mention the wine already? OK, so you get the idea. I was really surprised about how many times on that bus ride home I slipped into that old habit, thinking celebrate=wine. Over and over and over, I fell into that pit and then picked myself out of it. I was late arriving home, and my partner was even later. While I waited, I read blogs for a while, and kept reminding myself why drinking wine was a really bad idea. (REALLY BAD IDEA, repeat as needed.) When my partner arrived, I told him about my good day and good news and about me keeping on planning to drink wine. We decided to go out to our favourite fancy restaurant to celebrate. Not with wine. With dinner and dessert and the lovely walk through the city there and back. And it worked. The evening was lovely--we shared an endive salad and some lamb dish, and duck confit, and creme brule for dessert. I drank sparkling water, not wine. I really knew I didn't want to have wine anyway, I just wanted to have some sort of celebration, and that's what we did.

I think, maybe, instead of fighting down the thoughts, or instead of pretending they weren't there, it was good for me to pay attention to how I felt, how the change to feeling better after a month of feeling crap was another way I could slip into the old bad habit. By paying close attention I could remind myself what I really wanted. But it is amazing to me how strong that old habit-thinking can be. Now I know to look out for it. Happy=wine is a big one for me, and I have to slow down in the moment, feel the happiness, and disconnect it from my longstanding knee jerk reaction to happiness.

OK, that worked out well, but the next day I had another lovely small revelation, showing me how absolutely wrong I had been when, a few months ago, I wrote about alcohol bringing people together to relax. Hooray for me being wrong! Friday I had another school meeting--long discussion of some interesting ideas with students and professors--and afterward, people headed to the pub to continue talking. Back in November, I had written about noticing how, as soon as people planned to go for a drink, they started to relax. The ritual of leaving the school part of the day behind and going to socialize with some drinks is powerful. At the time, I saw this as a sign of how important alcohol is in our lives, and I didn't want to miss out on that. Yesterday I went along to the pub after the meeting, because the conversation was still going on and it was interesting, and I do like the people. I knew I wasn't going to drink. I had practiced quietly ordering a cranberry and soda (best option on a student pub), and when we arrived I discreetly placed my order. When a pitcher of beer was passed around, one young woman still didn't have anything, and a young man passed his beer glass to her and said he would wait for the next pitcher.

Here's where it get's astonishing, at least to me. The young woman threw her had back and laughed--I'm telling you, she really laughed out loud--and as she passed the beer back to the guy, she said, "I don't drink. How long have you known me, and you didn't know I don't drink?" This appeared all light-hearted and breezy for her. I swear she tossed her hair when she said it, like Mrs D talked about in her early blog posts when she imagined her future self just not drinking. It was late afternoon, so the pub was filled with the kind of slanting light that makes everything glow. You know those ads we all have in our minds, the one where everyone is lovely and the light is perfect and people are sitting at the pub, and in our minds that's the (false) image we associate with drinking? Well, it was like that, but instead the ad was remade, and it showed how the glorious moment is made up of the people taking the time to get together, just the sheer pleasure of that. No booze required, thanks anyway! The guy asked if she ever drank and, still smiling, the woman said, "Trust me, you don't want to see me drunk. Anyway, I don't need it." Another laugh. "I'm high on life!"

The subject was dropped. After I picked my jaw up from the table and sipped my soda, I was able to join in the conversation again, but I really was stunned. That's all you have to do? Just smile and be a bit glamorous, laugh even, and say, "Oh no, not for me. I don't drink." I felt like someone had reached into the world and straightened a few bits that had been bent. This was the woman who had convinced people to go to the pub the time I wrote about earlier, who I had been noticing closely when I talked about how planning to drink was, in itself, relaxing. And she doesn't even drink. What a delight this was for me, to be so beautifully wrong! I realized I have actually never-- never ever, not once in my life--seen a real, live, slightly glamorous young woman actually do that, just say she didn't drink, and laugh that people didn't already know such an obvious thing about her. I wanted to ask her a million questions, but I didn't. I just enjoyed sipping my soda while we all chatted, and then I went home, feeling light-hearted about how easy it might all be if I just let it be.

So that's my week. I'm feeling about a thousand times better than I was a while ago, and I'm grateful for that. I know I will have to be vigilant, because it seems when I'm relaxed and happy, that's one of the things that can make me think drinking is a great idea. I know it's not, but I will have to keep reminding myself until that's the new, ingrained habit. In the meantime, I might practice throwing my head back and laughing, and saying, "Not for me, thanks. I'm high on life."

Thanks for reading along here, keeping me company in the dark patch I just went through and now in this better time too. Peace and joy to you, and some real-people real-life highs!

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Round 2, Day 43: What I know (so far)

This morning I had a wonderful conversation with my counsellor, an exceptionally kind and insightful woman who I was lucky to find last summer when I really needed some help. I hadn't seen her for a while, so I had a bit to fill her in on. In a nutshell: quitting drinking had been good, and I had been doing really well; and then I started drinking again, which was OK until it wasn't; and somewhere in there I started to get pretty darn depressed, which is lifting but it's tough; and I'm a bit mixed up about where I'm going in my life; so here I am 6 weeks into the second time around quitting drinking, getting better in some ways but confused about lots of things. We have an hour. Go!

OK, so it didn't quite go like that. But we did talk about all those things, and I felt much better afterward. She reminded me that, while I do feel lost, I do also know quite a lot about what I need, and what works for me. Just to remind myself, I decided to write down what I know so far. Next time I'm feeling lost, I can refer to this. So here goes.
  1. I know drinking is no good for me. I've accepted that. I just can't do it anymore, and for the most part I don't want to. 
  2. It's mostly not hard to not drink. But that's because I am doing a whole lot of background work to keep myself going in the right direction. It's not one big task, just a whole lot of little things that I have to keep on doing. And I am doing them.
  3. I know I can't work flat out all the time. I need to spend a fair bit of time taking care of myself. I need more sleep than anyone I've ever met (except  for some of you, my fellow former boozers, who all seem to be big sleepers, too!) And I need to eat well, and go outdoors lots, and hang out with my partner, and read fiction and poetry as well as school stuff. And write this online thing, which seems to help me a lot, and read a whole bunch of other people's writing about the big ongoing heave-over-the-drink project. All this stuff takes time, and there really are no short-cuts. So there's a limit to how much else I can do. 
  4. I have to work at figuring out what's important to me. But I have a start on it. Despite my sometimes iffy emotional understanding--I don't always know what I feel, or what to make of what I feel--I have some pretty strong reactions to being shifted too far away from what I want to work on. I'm interested in the psychology of real people, in actual lived experience and practices, not research that purports to abstract into some non-existent theoretical every-person. I don't quite know how to find this, sometimes, but when I do, that stuff is golden! Following my nose in those directions will help me figure out the long term. For now, short term might be as far ahead as I need to think.
See? That's not so bad, is it? I really had been feeling lost and overwhelmed, and it was good to be reminded that, while I don't quite know where I'm going with all this, I'm not as lost as I feel.

One really practical recommendation my counsellor offered was to write down, actually write on a small card, an answer to each of those tormenting inner voices that have been plaguing me. So when I hear a niggling, "You don't know what you're doing here," I can pull out and read to myself a card that says, "I don't have to know everything all at once, but I know enough about what I'm doing to keep going for now." When a voice says, "You will never finish this enormous project," I can pull out a card that says, "I have already done lots of work and I am well able to finish the project. I just need to keep going but I'm getting there." And so on. I won't write them all out here, but that's the idea. Her thinking is, when those unhelpful inner voices start in--and man, are they unhelpful!--it's really difficult to think past them. It's just plain easier to read my own more rational, supportive thoughts if I've already written them out. I'm starting to get the idea that doing sometimes has to lead the thinking, so I'm going to try this.

So that's where I am today. It's been 43 days since I quit the drink this time around, and I really am starting to feel a lot better. It's both easier and harder than it was the first time around. Easier, because, having done it already, I know what to do and I know I can do it. But harder because, having done it before, there is no big euphoria of accomplishment, no big, "Wow, I can't believe it's been 43 days!" It's just life, and I'm living it, and you know what? It's worth living. At this point, even though I'm still a bit underneath the dregs of all that depression and confusion, I can honestly say that life without booze is way better. So there's a big hooray for me, after all!

As always, thanks for reading. Peace and joy to you.

Sunday 16 February 2014

I am not my brain. But who am I?

Last night I was rereading Brene Brown's great book, The Gifts of Imperfection. I don't think I'm all that hard on myself, but I have some inner voices that are tough as nails, so I thought I might try to get back to some of the insight I was getting onto last summer, seeing the value in being imperfect and vulnerable. I was especially interested in the part where she talks about "trading your authenticity for approval."

Now, I'm not sure what I think about the idea of authenticity. Yes, I know I can feel like a fake at times, but some of those times I know it's just a feeling, that impostor thing many people fall into over and over again. For me, being in school is a tangly mess of this stuff. I returned to school because I was interested in psychology, but a whole lot of the study of psychology leaves the actual living people out of the picture altogether. I've had to weed through lots of stuff that doesn't make sense--the idea that the brain works like a machine continues to be popular, despite lots of evidence that the workings of the brain are not very machine-like at all. In American philosopher Alva Noe's highly readable book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness, Noe argues cogently that the person you are is not reducible to the brain in your head. Movement, interacting in the physical world, cycling to the beach and slogging away at work, talking and laughing and getting madly frustrated with other people (((not hell, not hell, remember they are not always hell!))), all the things you do are a part of who you are. It's not clear where you end and the rest of the world starts.

Strangely, that makes a lot of sense to me. I know different places, actions, and people bring out different aspects of me. My work can bring out a real kindness in me, or it can usher in the cranky, impatient person I sometimes am.  When I'm around some of my family, or some older friends, I can revert to ways of being me that I was sure I'd moved away from. When I'm riding my bike on the trail I use to go to school, I recapture the magical feeling I've heard associated with childhood, though I didn't encounter it myself until I was in my mid twenties. When I'm riding in traffic and a car cuts me off, the rage I do my best to tamp down quickly (do NOT make that rude gesture at the driver!)  is just as much me.

So with all that, I get confused when I hear people talking about looking inward to find their "authentic selves." Somehow it seems like setting up a hierarchy, so that some parts of who a person is are accepted, but some parts are cast out as unworthy. I have a bit of a conflict with school right now. On the one hand, I am a strong student with good marks, and I like the practical reminder of being a good student that the marks and comments from professors bring. I use these things when I need to remind myself that I'm not just a hollow shell of a person faking my way through the school. But sometimes, yes, the approval feels too important, like some idealized God from my childhood reaches out, pats me on the head, and says, "Good girl." It would feel safer not to need that. But without it, without interacting with people who are studying the stuff I'm interested in studying, and without some good comments or marks or warmth or something from them, how would I know that I was getting any better at any of this? Or how would I know that this was the best way to go about it, being in school and subjecting myself to tuition and deadlines at this decidedly middle age? If it were just the personal satisfaction of reading and thinking that I wanted, I could just read and write and think, save myself stress and money, right?

That's what rereading Brene Brown got me thinking about. It's hard to know when you're performing for approval, and when it's the real you. I think that's because, despite a whole lot of ideas in our culture that tell us otherwise, there is no one, stable, magic, inner real you. You are what you do. John Dewey says points out the fallacy of thinking that there is a fixed self; instead he says, "We arrive at true conceptions of motivation and interest only by the recognition that selfhood (except as it has encased itself in a shell of routine) is in process of making, and that any self is capable of including within itself a number of inconsistent selves, of unharmonized dispositions" (from Human Nature and Conduct, p. 137). I like what Dewey has to say here. Living is a process of being a self, making it up as you go. It's not looking inward to see what inner treasure I can find. I've tried that already, and man is it ever dull! I think it's more about me living in the world, paying attention to what I'm doing and how I feel about life as I'm in it.

This might seem unconnected to the ongoing subject of heaving the drink problem over once and for all. But I think that's exactly what I'm talking about. I'm not good at knowing what I feel about much of anything, and I know the drink has been a big part of that. I hate hate hate feeling sad and low and uncomfortable about life. Oh how much I like feeling easy breezy and laughing at all the funny things. But I need both. I need to figure out how to feel all those feelings, because that's how I'm going to know what I think about this ongoing project of becoming the person I am, and only when I know what I feel, and what I think, will I know what to do.

I'm confused about school. I started out with some vague ideas about counselling, but after working in my current job as long as I have, I realized I do not want to become a counsellor, and no one else should want that from me either. (Don't tell ME your problems! You think you've got problems?) That was an emotional reaction before it was real knowledge, but it started as a feeling. I like research and writing, but I can't figure out how my studies and what I'm doing with them all fits together. Now that I've really quit drinking, I can think a bit more clearly, so I want to, all of a sudden, just plain know what to do already: what I want, and how to get there. Now, dammit! I think it doesn't work that way. I have to pay attention to Dewey: I am a person in progress, and I always will be. There will be no one great figuring out, after which we can all go home and sleep forever. And I have to pay attention to Brene Brown too, because what she is saying, I think, is that she felt ashamed, and that was how she knew that she was playing for the audience, not being authentic. So figuring out how I feel will help me find what authentic is and, like being a self, authentic is probably an ongoing project, not a fixed and final goal. One that's never finished, and surely never perfect. And I'll take from Alva Noe that I am the person who lives and thinks and acts and does, not a brain nor a mysterious inner essence. So of course there really is no answer to the "who am I?" question, and I just have to keep keeping on despite that.

That may sound convoluted. I've been trying to think my way through this for a while, and writing helps me think. I'm not clear yet, but I do feel a lot better than I have for a while. It's a big surprise to me that I expected there was some answer that everybody else knew but I didn't, somewhere on the other side of a wall I couldn't quite get through. Now I've set aside the drink and the elusive Big Answer, and it actually feels like a relief. There's lots of work to do, but it feels like good honest work, the kind a person can do.

If you have read all this, I really do deeply thank you. Peace and joy to you, and the strength to keep on.


Wednesday 12 February 2014

Round 2, Day 37: Some things are easy. Being afraid is not easy.

At this point in round 2 of my not drinking program, one thing is easy: just not drinking. I'm clear in my resolve, I've set up good habits to help me, and I'm paying attention to the suff I need to pay attention to. OK, so I might look longingly at the glasses of wine on the table in a New Yorker cartoon (I really did that today), but for the most part, I'm not beset with cravings or temptation. I'm not going to drink, so I'm not drinking. I think my coming to terms with this being an addiction (even if the word and I are not on friendly terms yet) helps a lot. It means I'm not thinking about when I can drink in the future. In the vaguest sense, I tell myself "probably never" but I don't waste a lot of mental energy chittering on about it. So far, so good.

But figuring out how to actually cope with life without drinking, man that part is tough! I have a big deadline that's inching closer, and for about a month I was in a severe brain fog, so I did very little work. I really couldn't. Now I'm mentally more clear, but I'm still not over this depression, and I'm having a a hard time getting real work done. Here's the problem: I am very much afraid. I'm afraid I won't be able to finish the project in this (still a bit precarious) mental state. I am afraid I'm studying all the wrong stuff. I really didn't think I was ever going to have to face one of these biggish depressions again, and I am afraid that in the face of this, I'm not able to do normal life stuff--go to school, write papers, meet deadlines, cope with STRESS. Throw in being afraid of being an asshole and a loser and someone who at middle age still can't get her life together, and you're starting to get the general idea of what I'm afraid if. This stuff sucks. It does not help that a Greek chorus has somehow got itself installed in my mind, incessantly chanting, "No one loves you! You never get it right!" over and over again. I'm not usually given to that kind of inner insulting, so it's jarring to hear it loud and clear in my own mind. I can work around it, to an extent. I do it in triangles: I think of something I do get right, or someone who does love me--real evidence that the chorus is wrong--and I hold that in mind for a moment, then try to move on with what I'm doing. Except that sitting at the computer, trying to write a paper, is when things go really bad. Getting up and going for a walk works, but that's kind of like procrastinating. I'm pretty sure I always have some massive anxiety with big writing projects, and I have always used wine to calm (drug) myself through it. With no wine, it's very hard to sit still and do the scary work.

There are no easy answers here. I know that. I need to keep on doing all the good stuff. Today I spent three hours walking in the sunshine, and that felt good. My next plan is to clear the towers of book clutter from my desk, and leave only the bits and pieces associated with this big looming project. After that, I'm scheduling chunks of what a writer friend calls ass-in-chair time. I'm going to have to learn to sit through the worst of the anxiety and write anyway. Ass in chair, words on paper. That's what's needed.

I was going to say, "I know I can do it," but that's not quite true. I'm not sure. But I do know there is no other way to get the work done but to find a way through the terror and do it. I've done scary stuff before. I used to be afraid of everything. But I've skied, skydived, sailed in big seas, swum in wild ocean waves, hiked alone in grizzly territory, and lived alone in a broken-down camper in a field one summer when I was broke, even though I was terrified of heights, big seas, grizzly bears, and being alone in the dark when I did those things. This can't be worse than any of those things. And they weren't all bad. Along with the terror, they were actually fun. (Oh yeah, I remember fun. But that's another post.) This is me, gearing myself up for finding a way to plough through. Wish me luck, or courage, or whatever it is I need. Maybe just wish me ass-in-chair, words on paper.

If you're still here, thanks for reading. Peace and joy to you, and sunny walks, and finding the way through whatever it is you're afraid of.

Friday 7 February 2014

Round 2, day 32: Coming to terms with this problem. Addiction.

I really hate the word addiction. It sounds like something that consumes you and leaves nothing left of your real life, with no power to make any decisions or live in any meaningful way. It's such a spectre, and I don't want anything to do with that image of life.

But the other day, I was emailing a friend, who now lives on another continent, about having quit drinking (again) and how I had been feeling completely flattened by it. I said I knew the flats would eventually go away, and then I remembered, and mentioned, that she had said something about that when she'd quit smoking, which she has done several times. She replied that yes, quitting flattened her every time, and it took about six weeks for it to lift, every time. That seems to match my experience from last summer, too: I felt a lot better somewhere between one and two months. After the email exchange, I went for a run in the park. (I am walking, running, biking, sleeping, eating like a heath freak who loves real food, reading good books, and doing every single thing I can think of to jolly some healthy feeling along. And when I still don't feel so good, I am accepting that I might have to stand still and look at the moss and the falls, or sleep three extra hours, or have a cup of tea and read some poetry or a beautiful passage from something I've already read, find some shred of wonder and wallow in it, instead of getting to work on soon-to-be-urgent work. I've even been meditating a bit, though what I am doing is the usual comic attempt of the newbie. Still, I'm trying!)

Anyway, I was running in the park, thinking about my friend and her experience with smoking, and how similar in some ways it is my experience quitting drinking. And I thought, in a loud, clear, completely unfamiliar thinking voice, "It might be time to come to terms with the word addiction. You know it's an addiction, this drinking thing. Don't you?" I spent an extra five minutes running, another loop around the small pond, just to let this settle in. "OK. It's an addiction," I answered that voice, running around the pond for the second time. "Addiction. Yes, I do know it's that." I have to accept that, and continue from there. And I am accepting it. It won't come all at once, I know. But I've started. I am fooling myself if I call this "a small problem" or "a bad habit." Yes, it's both, but that's minimizing something which I know is just too serious to minimize.

The truth is, quitting this time has kicked me in the guts. I've been flattened for the better part of a month. Yes, I'm getting through things, but it's hard, and the lows are bloody scary. I know I have some issues with depression, but I also know I would not be going through this mucky spell right now if I had not been drinking too much. Or if I hadn't, having quit for a bit last year, started again. That's not to say I'm beating myself up. It's the opposite. I'm admitting what it is, and realizing that I do not want to go through it again.

So, addiction. Hello, scary word. I have some big (HUGE) resentment about the addiction experts announcing how it's all going to go once someone is an addict. I don't want to make addiction the most important thing in my life, or put it first before everyone all the time, or bang on about my feelings and motives to a group of strangers (except to you, my fellow strangers, to whom I will bang on freely, thanks so much!) So I'm inconsistent. Most people are. But the received wisdom about addiction and recovery can feel like an enormous weight to me, one I just can't carry. That's a part of why I hate the word. I do not want to be told that this will be a permanent struggle, and that I might not make it. I felt the same when I was in one of my big depressions, the last one, over twelve years ago. At the time, my doctor told me I would have to take medication and deal with (he probably said "suffer from") depression my whole life, as it is a chronic, recurring condition. It is not polite to say what I thought when he told me this (@#$%%$#!!!) but I rejected his advice. It took me a while to figure out how to live, and it was hard work, but now I rarely think about depression, and I don't take medication. (It didn't work very well for me anyway, unless you call gaining 50 pounds and feeling like a zombie a roaring success.) For the most part, I have changed my life so that I have never again experienced that same level of deep, protracted low flat life. Yes, I get hit with it sometimes, usually when I forget to take better care of myself, but I do what I have to do before things get too bad, and I don't lose a year or two of my life. So far that's worked. Lots of people have something like that, and I don't feel especially cursed or singled out by disease. For the most part I am capable and confident (enough) and I like my life. (Yes, I drank too much, eventually, but my life didn't suck the whole time.)

I'm going to try to do the same with this addiction monster. I will have to do some things that work, and I'm trying them. (See list above, to start.) I admit that I can't drink again, and any thoughts that I will are just fleeting nonsense--nothing to be scared of in themselves, but something to be plucked out before they turn into action. I don't plan to take on an addiction narrative, and say that my life before was a waste and I was a lying, cheating, selfish mess who only thought of herself and her drinking, because that doesn't describe my life at all. I know I have lots of work to do to get through the next few months, and then I will have to be attentive to how I live. Like the depression (or anxiety, because who really knows how to know one of those evil twins from the other, anyway?), I will take the addiction seriously. But I don't want it to define me, either before now or after now.

OK, I guess that was another bit of a rant there. I didn't plan on my blog being somewhere I fumed at the world and told it just what I thought, but here we are. It's day 32 for me, and I am starting to feel a bit better. My partner is doing laundry and errands, and then we will go for a walk, and end up in our favourite cafe, where they might even still have one of my favourite lemon bars left. (It's become a favourite treat, though I limit it to once a week, and by the time I go they are sometimes sold out, so it really is an irregular thing. No obsessing now!) All in all, I'm doing kind of well. It seems strange to me, but this admission really has helped me in some way that I can't quite explain, as has writing about it here. I'm reading John Dewey, and I'm taking a page out of his book on this one: more about the doing, less worrying about the why. (That's what I think he's saying, anyway. But I'm still reading.)

If you're still here, thanks so much for reading. Let me know what you think of all this, if you like. Peace and joy and sunny weekends to you all.

Monday 3 February 2014

Round 2, Day 28: Building new habits, plucking out weeds.

No great angst or earth-shaking tremors here today. I'm just pleased that 4 weeks ago,  I walked through the park to the good wine store, not the one right around the corner, and everything except that walk in the park felt wrong, and then, despite the full bottle of one of my favourite wines still in the cupboard, the next morning I announced to my partner that I was starting another Spa Week. I knew at the time I was probably quitting for a lot longer than that, or for good, but starting with the week is just easier for me. I'm so glad I did that. The four weeks haven't been easy, but I think I'm heading in the right direction.

This time around, I'm noticing a strange contradiction in my experience. In any given instance, not drinking is, for me, not so difficult. I know how to do that. But theoretically, not drinking is a huge challenge. The reasons why I should drink, when I can again, why it's OK now, how in some circumstances it might be the best thing, all those bits of mental chatter carry on in the background a lot of the time. It's like living in a nice, quiet apartment right next door to party central. I want to bang on the door and yell, "Can't you just be quiet in there for a while?" but there is no door to bang on. There's just me, both sides of the imaginary door, and me yelling at me isn't going to quiet anything down. Some time early this morning, before I'd even got out of bed, I found myself calmly thinking that the language of addiction was just too draconian for me to accept, and I would probably go ahead and have a glass of champagne when I finish my degree. I mean, honestly. Anticipating celebrating the end of a degree that I haven't even finished yet, and putting distance between myself and what I know to be working for me at the same time, all before the day even starts!

The thing is, I'm paying attention to these thoughts. I'm trying to use the infamous zen advice about unwanted thoughts: weed early and weed often. Right now I'm reading a lot about the psychology of habit. Despite our emphasis on our bad habits here in the online sober (or-trying-to-be-sober) world, we are all built up out of our habits. Some are good and some not, and we can change them bit by bit, but habits are what we are to a large extent. So even though it's not that hard for me to not drink today, in one sense that's only the surface of the habit. The rest of it is all that submerged, semi-conscious way of living that associates booze with celebration, and that hates (hates! hates!) admitting that I have any kind of problem that I can't just wish away. I want so much to not have a problem with drinking, to be able to just will it away. I can spend far too much time living as if the mental were the world, but that's a false picture of life. I'm starting, learning, to have a healthy respect for the body. Maybe that's what the advice "just don't drink today" means. Just doing that, day after day, maybe that's the training camp for the new habit. Maybe, after a while, after I keep on not drinking day after day after day, and after I keep on offering a calm, "No, we don't do that anymore" to the chattering party-mind that's looking to the future champagne, the new habit will be more solid, and I'll have fewer of those thoughts. I'm pretty sure I can't will my problem away, no matter how strong-willed I am. But I can change what I do, and make room for the newer thoughts that support it. That's how I'm building a new habit, and that seems like good work to be doing.

I'm not at all sure that makes sense to anyone besides me. But this will: this time around, I decided to open a new bank account. For every day I didn't drink, I would put $10 in it--a modest estimate of what I would  have been spending on booze, but it's an easy number to calculate. I'm not sure what I will do with it, but I don't even get to decide until my first goal (3 months, or 13 weeks) is up. As of today, I really do have a growing little fund of $280 (and ten cents interest!), money taken away from something I know is certainly not good for me, to put toward some future thing that is. Hooray for that!

If you're still here, thanks for reading along. Good luck feeding your new habits and weeding out bits that remain of the ones you don't want anymore. Peace and joy and big Monday sunshine to you!