Saturday 26 April 2014

Tea, loneliness, wonder

I just had a perfect cup of tea. Darjeeling. With a lunch of dried chorizo and manchego cheese, a sliced orange bell pepper, a small local apple--not wizened yet, even though it's months out of season--and some strained yoghurt. The spice of the chorizo brings out an underlying smokiness that I don't otherwise taste in the tea. Noticing that, and savouring it, that's a real pleasure. I was going to write about the rough week I'm having, but after that lovely tea I went back at work where I had warm, interesting conversations with several library patrons. Yes, I'm ignoring some of the work I have to get to, but it will still be there in an hour, or in the morning. In the meantime, I'll take having real connections with people over having all my tasks completed.

It's been a rough couple of weeks. I'm not drinking. And I'm not going to drink. Still, more and more I'm feeling the big emotional mess I'd kept tucked away for the past too many years. Without wine to escape into, there's nowhere to go but me. On my birthday, I wrote that I was making a commitment to myself to sit with my discomfort, and I'm doing that. But holy, there's a lot of it to sit with! You know? At times--and there have been a lot of those times these past few days-- my entire being is wanting. The other day, after a particularly bad spell of this, I realized that, at the bottom of wanting a glass of wine or a coffee or a sweet, what I really feel is this: I'm lonely. I didn't know this at the time. But after I went for a run in the rain (hooray for rain!) and got a hot shower, my partner came home and I told him about my day, and I couldn't stop crying. And it came to me that, sometimes, in a way that runs deeper than I'm able to express very well, that's what I'm feeling.

Now, I'm not absolutely alone in the world. I have a loving partner, and people who care about me. But this isn't a rational thing. It's something deep and odd, and I don't think it will get cured by meeting some new friends for coffee once a week, or more dinner parties, or anything like that. When I am wracked with wanting, what it seems I really want is just plain not to be the isolated, separate me that I feel I am right there and then.

But we're not so separate as we feel we are, right? Last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Living With a Wild God, and I think she's onto some of what might look like answers. She's a committed athiest, in that she doesn't go in for the big g "God" or organized religion, but she's had what can only be called mystical experiences since she was a child, and her explorations bring her to accepting that there is something wild and connected at the heart of life, the big mystery. She's just pointing at answers, not trying to answer all the questions. I'm not going to try to do a mini-review of the book here--just read it if you're interested in that sort of thing. It's fantastic.

I think Ehrenreich's wild god is what connects us all, and it might well be what saves me. Somehow, getting outdoors and feeling part of the pulsing life that's everywhere, the waterfalls in the park and all those perfect tulips in bloom on so many lawns and cherry blossom petals falling on the street in the rain, ravens making strange raven sounds while the crows chase them away from the good food scraps they've found, some stranger smiling and saying hello when I'm bright pink and sweaty from my run, and me just throwing myself out the door into this big life that's everywhere and realizing I'm just another animal and I'm a part of it the same as the tulips and the raven and the smiling stranger--that's the answer, or it's on the way to the answer, anyway.

I'm doing this. And I'm fine, except when I'm not. I'm reading and walking and running, drinking tea and talking with my partner, watching movies, smiling at strangers, admiring the flowers, showing up for my library shifts. I'm living. I know drinking isn't the answer, and neither is eating too much chocolate or developing a new fixation on blueberry frangipane (though the piece I had yesterday was pretty marvellous). I really didn't know how much I had been hiding from life with all that drinking. It's shocking to me. Life is a bit scary, for sure, and I'm finding it hard these days, sober. But it's where the wonder is, and I'm sticking with that.

Peace and joy to you all, and a big dose of wonder. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Round 2, day 100: Facing the longing, thinking about numbers

So many numbers today: 100! 200! 1001.06! 48!

It's been 100 days on this second round of not drinking alcohol. (200, if you add this round to my first 100-day round of not drinking, which I count because it's all me walking the same road.) And I did what I set out to so, putting $10/day into a separate I-didn't-drink account, so that now has $1001.06. And it's my birthday: I'm 48 years old today.

That's a whole lot of numbers. They matter, but they don't begin to count or measure everything that matters. When I quit drinking last summer, I didn't plan for it to be forever, and I fell into the 100 day challenge, but somehow I expected something special would happen once 100 days came and went, and then all the problems of this cursed drinking thing would be resolved. Of course, that didn't happen. The challenge is great, but 100 is just a nice round number. I think that, last fall, in expecting some big change, I unthinkingly nurtured the seeds of being irritated with the whole sober gig. This time, I think I know better. So I'm pleased with this 100 day accomplishment, but there will be hundreds more, and they all matter. Now I think celebrating anniversaries isn't as much focusing on this one day as it is acknowledging all the days. So here's to sober days, every one of them, mine and yours!

I'm also pleased with my new bank account. I decided to keep it going until the summer and then, depending what my income is for the fall, see if I can do one full year. I have vague, distant plans for a longer trip related to school, and a year of daily tenners would be a big help there. Money isn't very important to me, but putting the bit I have to better use, rather than drinking it, seems like a way of underlining that this is a good way to live.

Then there's this birthday: hooray for having been born! I don't do much that looks like big celebrating on my birthday, but I do set aside some time to reflect on life, and I find that celebratory. A year ago, I was diagnosed with pneumonia on my birthday, and I was very concerned that the horse-tranquilizer antibiotics I had to take might interact badly with alcohol. (In case anyone is wondering: yes they did.) This year, I'm pleased that I've put so much effort into dealing with this drink problem: admitting the problem, quitting drinking, accepting that it's an addiction. The acceptance part has been the biggest struggle, but I've made my peace with it. Yes, this is addiction, and no, addiction does not play nicely with moderation. Lesson learned. This coming year, I won't drink, and that feels like an enormous gift to myself.

Beyond just not drinking, I am making a commitment to face this giant longing that consumes me sometimes, the gaping hole behind my addiction. It's getting better, except when it isn't, if you know what I mean. The past couple of weeks have been harder, and I know that's partly because I was too busy for a few weeks, and I set aside the deep caring routines I've put in place over this rough winter. I need to keep doing all that work to support myself as I go along here. For me, it's not going to be enough to just not drink. I need to learn to sit with that enormous, deeply uncomfortable longing, and look into it with an equally enormous love. I know sometimes, like this week, I have a post-stress hangover reads as, "Give me wine! Give me sugar! Give me something goddammit but get me out of here now!!!" When I finally get a break, the break looks suspiciously like The Void. It's scary as hell and I want out of it. This year, I promise myself to sit with that discomfort and the gaping hole behind it. I know I have a hunger I can only feed with love and acceptance, and all those things I think I crave are just pacifiers that don't really get to the heart of anything at all. This coming year, I'm putting my energies into this. Accepting the hunger, and feeling the love.

OK, that's all pretty serious for a celebratory day. But I'm celebrating, too. I slept in and ate a delicious slow breakfast. (Potato, mushroom and chard with garlic, hot peppers and shallots, cooked in cream with poached eggs on top, a dollop of creme fraiche, and some free range bacon on the side. I really do love good food!). I'm enjoying taking my time, reading, writing, and thinking, with a run thrown in just because it's raining and I love running in the rain. Later I'm meeting my partner and a good friend for dinner and a movie. It all feels pretty darn good. A happy birthday indeed.

Thanks as always for reading. Your company along the way is such a huge support to me, and I'm grateful for that. Wishing you peace and joy, and much love in your lives.

Monday 14 April 2014

Round 2, Day 98: Magnolias, mysteries, and carrillada feasts

I am loving this mid-April sunshine. They grey drear of winter is gone, and the trees are lined with cherry blossoms in frothy bloom, toothy pink and white magnolias pointing tat the sun, and tree after tree with tiny green shoots that promise summer, soon. It's sunny today and I am heading out for a long walk in those trees. But I realized I hadn't written in over a week, so I'm jotting a few notes before I go outdoors.

The past couple of weeks have been very up and down, filled with joy as well as some serious difficulty. I finished my classes and successfully defended my thesis, so hooray for that! Now I have some unscheduled time to read and walk and think a bit, and that's sure welcome. The semester was a hard one for me, and I don't really know whether that nasty pit of depression was because I quit drinking or whether it would have happened anyway, It doesn't matter. It happened, and it's done, and I know I had best be careful with not running myself into the ground in the future. OK, got it. On that score, I feel a lot better now.

But the not drinking thing continues to be difficult. Not all the time. But when it is, it's grisly. Last week after my defence, I was so tired, just hollowed out. I came home and sat in my living room trying to read, because reading is my great escape when I can't cope, but I could hardly even do that. I wanted to toast my success with a glass of wine, and I wasn't having one, and yes I know all the reasons but getting through those periods of wanting is just plain hard to do. Last night was another roller-coaster: I was very tired after two rough days at work, and I wanted some wine, and I knew I wasn't getting any and that was my choice and all that, but I still wanted some and getting through those few hours was tough. Last week we went to a play that was filled with film noir style, all great suits and hats and snappy dialogue and straight double shots of whisky, and afterwards I very much wanted to sit with a glass of brandy and sip it very slowly. That's all I mean by hard: nothing in particular, but lots of that sort of thing. I'm not going to drink. (Should I put that in all caps? No. I don't think I need to yell it now. It's a calm statement. No drama there.) But there is no easy answer to getting through some of those times when having a drink seemed the perfect thing to do. In those moments, there is a big difference between knowing what I am planning to do and why, and getting past the strong emotional pull of that want. Joan at The Wren wrote a great post today about embracing discomfort. I'm not embracing it yet, but I know it will come and come and come and I will have to ride it out when it does. I'm doing that, but holy mother of god, is it ever hard to do sometimes.

I'm not writing about this to romanticize drinking. But I can be inclined to minimize difficulty--once something is over, all I remember is, "It wasn't that hard" or "It was mostly fun and interesting." Once (on a psych ward, no less!) a psychiatrist told me I was the most optimistic depressed person he'd ever met. It confused him, and it confuses me. What I learned, eventually, is I need to be accurate, to remember the hard as well as the beautiful moments. Being accurate helps me keep reality pinned down. As long as it stays still, I can deal. It's only when things start slipping around that I get into serious trouble over here. So here's to all those hard and beautiful moments, to looking them straight in the eye and accepting them all as they come.

And there have been lots of beautiful moments. Those magnolias! Oh my god, they are my favourite, and I'm not especially given to having favourites. They're just so improbable, huge pointy flowers on grey branches that don't even look like they plan to grow leaves any time soon. There are flowers everywhere, on lawns and street gardens and in parks and window boxes and all over the trees, they're just shooting up all over the place whispering spring spring spring, and I can't walk or bike a block without breaking into a huge grin at the wonder of it all.

And I have some time. Usually, as soon as classes are done I book myself into full-time work, just to catch up on finances for the next semester. That leaves me trying to squeeze all the postponed housecleaning and relaxation and social engagements into a few evenings and scattered days off, all while also trying to catch up on some academic reading I've been looking forward to. This time I'm taking time off. Today is the first of five days unscheduled time, and I'm welcoming that. I need to burrow into some meditative space, walk around under those blossoms and make sure I'm OK all the way through. I'm planning lots of walking and bike riding and reading reading reading! And eating some good, slow meals.

One of the slow foods I've discovered is carrillada! It's just a Spanish word for braised cheeks (I think), but it sounds a bit more gourmet in the Spanish, doesn't it? I've made braised sumac-coated beef cheeks with beets and celeriac, so tender the meat cuts like butter. (Mmmmm! butter!!!) Then I tried pork cheeks with apples, using some jerk spices (a made-up combination of anise, nutmeg, hot chile pepper, ginger, paprika, coriander, and thyme). The key seems to be using stock, cooking wine, and several hours of low heat. Very tasty stuff! It sounds like winter cooking, not spring, but I don't actually care. There's something about the big hit of yumminess that comes from a good slow meal that I find deeply satisfying. It's better than wine, but it replaces it somehow too, giving me the sensual pleasure of great big taste that I used to enjoy without the stuff that goes wrong when that taste comes from wine. (I did halibut cheeks in tomato garlic sauce to round out the week. I'm not sure they count as carrillada, but they sure were tasty!)

Other than that, I've been reading mysteries. Lots and lots of mysteries. One recent favourite author is Charles Todd, a mother and son writing team who write mysteries set just after WWI. I abhor war books, so I avoided these for a long time, but the characters are complex and the social upheaval of after-war Britain is an interesting context. For all the great advice I've head about not trying to escape from myself, I think reading mysteries allows me to do just that. It's like travelling, and that's the kind of escape that allows me to step outside of myself for a while and then come back with new perspectives. I think that's healthy, and a welcome relief.

OK, now for a different escape: a walk in the park! Through all the ups and downs, I'm doing well here. Fourteen weeks today without drinking, and it's a good way to live. I'm sticking with it-- partly because I know it's better, partly, when I'm not sure, because I can look to those who are doing it too and showing it's better, and I'm letting their belief carry me until mine comes back, as it does, sooner or later. Thanks for reading and commenting and being sober or trying to be along with me here. Here's wishing you peace and joy, and sunshine and flowers, too!

Saturday 5 April 2014

Round 2, Day 89: I'm still here.

Yesterday I was immersed in my last big writing deadline of the semester. I spent the day alternately writing (obviously!), walking around the block to calm down, and trying to get around that terrible angst that kicks in when you wish you had another week but you really need to wrap the project up and send it in. And man did I ever want a drink! I know, I know, it does't work for me, not anymore, not in the long run. But all the things I do to calm myself take time, and I just didn't have much time, so I was tense and uncomfortable all day, and I didn't get anywhere nearly enough sleep. This morning I was up at six for a final proofread before submitting the paper. It won't be my best work, but it is done, and I met my deadline, and now I can sleep for a couple of hours before I head to work.

Anyway, I didn't drink. (I knew I wouldn't, because I'm not going to drink! But not drinking is still work sometimes, and I get that you don't always really know for sure, even when you're sure. Does that makes sense?) Every time I get through some difficult time without drinking is a little accomplishment. It reminds me of long bike rides I've done, especially the part of every long ride when I think I can't go on, and I start to imagine myself just getting off the bike and lying down by the side of the road, hoping that if I play dead, some nice driver in a pickup truck might rescue me from the self-imposed torture of biking. But I love biking. I wouldn't do it if I didn't. And later, I'm always so proud of myself that I finished. Some of these school deadlines seem the same. For all my whinging here, I really love the work, and though this semester has been really hard--as I was killer depressed for half of the term so I had to do 13 weeks worth of work in about six weeks--I still love it. And I did it! I didn't die. I didn't drink. I didn't have to drop my courses and defer for a year, which I was prepared to do if things got any worse for me a couple of months ago. Now I just have my thesis defence this coming week, and then I have a little time to recuperate before the short intercession begins.

In exciting news, I was accepted for grad school and granted a good-sized fellowship to fund the school, so next year I can keep on with the studies without having to spend half the week at my day job. Hooray for that! I really do love this work, and I know I'm lucky to get a chance to do it here in this middle age. I can't credit my success so far with being sober, as I was drinking (with on and off periods of quitting) all the while I was working on this degree and applying for the next one. But I knew I could neither cope with the workload if I kept drinking at the pace I was going, nor could I afford to cut down my work hours and live on student funding if I was drinking as much as I had been.

This semester was a whole lot harder without drinking. I almost feel like I shouldn't say that, because it might sound discouraging to some people, but it's true. It was easier for me to do the massive work of writing and deadlines on my old wine-as-reward system. I need a new way of working, and I haven't quite figured it out yet. But the old way wasn't sustainable anyway. I will figure it out, I know. Time helps. The main thing for me (and that's why I'm writing this) is not to pretend that it's all good or always better or that it's suddenly easier without drinking. I just wanted to remind myself that, even though it's been hard, not drinking is worth it. I'm committed, and I see from other people that it gets better, even though it's not a smooth and steady ascent. (One of my sober blogging pals decided to end his sober spell yesterday, which made me sad. It also made me question what I was doing. There's no point pretending we're not all in this together, what we do effects the rest of us here. We're social creatures all the way through, we people. So my main point in writing this, even though I'm really dead tired here, is to do a little reconnaissance mission and remind myself what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. It's moral support for myself, though if you're reading this, you're party of that support.)

OK, I need some more sleep before I head to work for the day. If you're still here too, thanks for reading. I really appreciate your company along this getting sober way. Peace and joy and happy Saturdays to you, and a nap if you need one!

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Round 2, Day 86: Cutting the crap, feeling pretty good.

I'm just 5 days away from the 13-week goal I set myself back in January. After that, I guess I'll stop counting days again. I'm not really counting now, but when I post I look it up. The numbers are starting to matter a lot less. Initially it mattered a lot, though. I wanted to know where I was in the process compared to last time around, and when it was really tough, somehow it helped me a lot to see that I'd already done this once before. Now, at 12 weeks and a couple of days, I feel good. This not drinking thing has been a bit of work, but it's worth it!

This past week, I decided to make some changes in my eating. For the past couple of years, I've been eating mostly whole foods without much wheat or sugar, and it works for me. Last time when I quit drinking, I stayed pretty firm on this, and I was really healthy. I occasionally had a sweet, or ate a bit too much dark chocolate, but nothing too serious. This time, I fell into thinking that having sweets as "treats" was the way to go. What bollocks! I feel like crap when I eat a big wodge of cake or lots of sugar. Really, really crap. That's why I changed how I ate in the first place. So telling myself I deserve something that's going to make me feel awful, just because I'm avoiding something else that would make me feel awful, it's just nonsense. (Disclaimer: I'm not the wheat and sugar police. Eat what you want! I'm just saying I don't feel good when I eat it, and I shouldn't be doing that. Some people seem able to eat loads, and they do OK. If that's you, good for you, It's not me, that's all I'm saying.)

Anyway, about a week ago, I realized I'd had enough. I had a little talk with myself, the way I have to, and said, that's it, no second cup of coffee as soon as the first one is done, because my one cup is actually a 4 ounce espresso, and 2 of those means I'm vibrating. And no more mainlining honey, or heading out for that giant slice of carrot cake that puts me in a coma, just because it's the afternoon and I'm on a big deadline and it's hard to cope. Sometimes I do crave a sweet. But a crisp apple, cut into little chunks sprinkled with cinnamon and crumbled walnuts and topped with a couple of tablespoons of strained plain yoghurt, that's real food. I can eat that, get a little hit of sweet, without the icky belly or the jittery sugar high and subsequent crash. Also, because it's real food, I'm not hungry later, and the sweet craving goes. In the evening, after dinner, I have a cup of herbal tea and two or three squares of dark chocolate, the 75% or 85% kind. No one's deprived over here! It tastes good, I eat it very, very slowly, and if I want more, I can have it the next night after dinner.

Also, I started moving again. Again, though I'm usually super active, lately I have a strange schedule, and for a few weeks I'd got out of both running and biking. So if the sugar wasn't making me feel awful, being stuck indoors sitting on a chair sure was. Jeepers! Friday afternoon I went for a run in the driving rain, and I was so happy I was giddy! Why was I not doing this? I don't know. Somehow, I'd started to get caught in some very poor thinking, and I lost the focus on what makes me feel well. I was using deadlines as an excuse, but really, I'm going to be on deadlines for the next six years (six years!) or more, so if I have to wait till that's over before I take better care, I'm done for. I'm in this for the long haul, and it will only work if I find a way to live that I can keep doing.

It's just been a few days, but I feel a lot better already. There is something about going into the kitchen and having a sweet when I know it's not great for me that's so much like drinking. When I do that, I'm on a kind of autopilot, and everything I've learned about what works best for me exists in some numb other-self while I head for the sugar. It's such a strange feeling. And it's easy to start excusing it, because the ex-drinkers are mostly a sugar-happy lot, and will say that the sugar isn't the worst you can do, and you have to be careful not to do too much at once, so eat up. Fair enough. You can't start a whole bunch of new habits at the same time, and for the first few weeks after quitting the drink, there is some serious sweet craving going on. But I'm past that part now. Dropping all my healthy habits can't be good either. If exercise and good eating sustains me, then avoiding it as a reward just isn't on.

In other news: I'm not too concerned about booze these days. I don't miss it often, and when I do, it's pretty easy to get around. Two days ago, I submitted the final draft of my thesis (hooray!!!) and when I hit "send" on my email, I yelled, "Someone please remind me why I don't drink any more, because this right now would be a good time to drink!" My partner was in the kitchen, and he poured us sparkling glasses of something (not booze!) so we could raise a toast. All in all, I wanted a drink for about ten seconds. Surely I can resist the occasional ten-second impulse!

At the dinner party I attended the other night, it wasn't awkward not drinking and, except for a moment when we arrived and I saw the pretty bottles and glasses lined up on the counter, I didn't want wine. Yes, those moments are work to get through. But my point (reminding myself here) is, they are only moments, and then there's the whole evening to enjoy, not staying stuck in those moments.

Three more days on deadlines and I have a little reprieve. Time to get back to work here. It's sunny and warm outdoors, so if I get a few pages done, I can go for a long walk in the afternoon, then come back and write a bit more. So enough lolly-gagging here.

Wishing you all peace and joy and sunny afternoons!