Monday 26 May 2014

20 weeks, no answers

Sometimes I wish I weren't such a mess of complications.

Last week I had a few days of really (really really really a lot!!!) wanting to drink. I didn't drink, though. So that's the short version of this post.

Instead, I rode my bike, had coffee and tiramisu, and bought the perfect pair of summer walking sandals. Later I raged and cried and said--out loud, to my partner--that it wasn't fair, I didn't want to be an alcoholic or an addict or whatever the hell I called it, and if I was one I wasn't even really good at it because I'd never had big dramatic consequences because of drinking and now I don't have big dramatic life changes and maybe I'm just too self-absorbed and need to get over myself and get over all this sober bullshit. And I said I probably would have gone out and bought wine but I knew that I would not just drink a glass or so and sooner or later I would have too much too often and feel like crap and it just wouldn't work for me but dammit I just don't know what to do about it all. And then after a while I washed my face and pressed a cold cloth to my swollen red eyes, and I did the dishes because what a relief to do something practical after all that raging and crying. And then we had a cup of herbal tea and went to bed.

After a couple of days, I felt a bit better. Sort of. Saturday night after work, I rode my bike past the wine store and was amazed that I used to always stop for a bottle of rosé on the way home. I didn't want to do that anymore. I didn't see the appeal of spending the money and drinking too much and heading to work the next day with a headache and not enough sleep. But then the next day I had a headache anyway and a dull mind and I felt hungover, and I wondered what was so great about not having wine if I was already going to feel awful the next day.

The thing is, I don't really want wine anymore. But I don't know what it is I do want.

Sometimes I love reading all about how people feel better after getting sober, or looking at what they do to help themselves. But so much of it grates on me, and I just can't do a lot of the things these smart people seem able to do. I don't want to be told that I need to blow my ego to smithereens, because years ago I scraped myself back from a long depressive space and I had to build me an ego in order to cope with the world, and I have to pay attention somehow to what I feel and think, not just steamroller over that in taking up some collective wisdom, and trying to pay attention to that is what I mean by ego and I know it's no good for me to squash that down, despite the supposedly wise words of the addiction experts and meditation experts.

There are no answers.

Last week I read Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska. It's a good book. Bydlowska writes well, and I was brought into the whole spiral of drinking along with her. I admire her honesty, because she's part of the stuffy Toronto lit scene that wonders (out loud in printed book reviews in national media) whether such personal stories are best hidden, especially when they involve the less than perfect accounts of their own. Having read her story, I love her, and I wish her well. I actually read the book in a sitting, if you can call going to bed early and reading till 2AM a sitting. (A lying?) But afterwards, I thought I probably shouldn't have read it just now. I felt oddly left out. I don't have kids, and I didn't do the awful things she writes so well about having done, and a day or so later, I was left thinking that there are "real addicts" with real problems and my alcoholic-lite problems were too petty to pay any attention to. At the same time, in a class I'm taking, I read about a guy who, after a long spell of keeping sober, drank multiple 40 ounce bottles of whiskey, and again I thought, "I'm not like that. I couldn't do that if I tried." And I don't want anyone to come at me with what the AAers call the "not yets." I haven't done that, and I am reasonably sure I couldn't because I don't have the physical constitution for it. I would simply throw up or fall asleep before getting that far along.

I'm not saying I'm better than these people. It just feels like I'm dealing with a different problem. All I did was spend too much money on wine and drink too much wine and occasionally be a bit embarrassing. Sometimes I did things like hosting a dinner party and leaving at 11 or so to go to sleep because I'd had too much to drink and wanted to lie down, but I've been leaving parties early (or late) my whole life and no one cared and the cops weren't involved and even my partner took a lot of convincing that I really had a problem, and he's seen me through all this. What I'm saying is, sometimes all the information about where people got to with their drinking problems makes me feel like my problems are too small to matter. And then the people who say I would have got there eventually are relying on the accepted wisdom that alcoholism is a progressive brain disease, except that the people who study brains and diseases are far from convinced that this is a helpful way to describe whatever addiction is. If it works for you, it's a good story to tell, but I can't buy into it so there's no comfort in that story for me.

And I don't believe that there is some authentic, pure and lovely me hidden on the inside of all this dross, and that if only I do the right things I will chip away what Ginsberg calls my "skin of grime" and my radiant self will shine through. That's way too romantic for my take on life. I think the drinking person I was is just as much me as this not drinking person, and all this "old self" and "new self" talk seems like just another way of buying into the contemporary therapy culture that tells us to buff and shine up our souls like they are old wood floors that would gleam and even be admired if only we'd do the work. I don't know about all that. I don't trust this self-improvement stuff. It looks shallow. And I do not want to be shallow.

So what's left that's not shallow? Going outside. That's not shallow. Poetry isn't, though for some reason I'm not slowing down to read enough of it these days. (Jesus, please say I have't become one of those people who writes "read more poetry" on a sticky note in the hopes that sticky notes cause behavioural changes. Shoot me now.) OK, back to what's not shallow. Love. Real connection with people. Stories. Food. (Maybe eating good food is hedonistic, but I think it's not shallow, so I'll let that one in.)

The other day I was talking with a professor about some research I'm doing, and I said I love the confusion of doing qualitative research because I don't believe the pat answers that so many people come up with anyway, and other people's certainty just makes me poke holes in their arguments and then I'm left with nothing, but at least when I'm uncertain there's hope that I might learn something. It's a testament to this wonderful woman that she understood what I was saying and said encouraging things to me. Maybe I need to have the same take on this getting sober thing. I'm not planning to go back to drinking, because when I drank, I ended up a bit miserable, and I don't know how to do it any other way. So no drinking for me. But I don't really have any way of understanding what I'm doing that's clear to me. I'm accepting the confusion and inconsistencies of this big mess of stuff that is me, and I guess that's all I've got right now. I wish I could sign on to a program and get on some straight road to the truth and light, but I guess I don't think that's how it's going to go for me.

Maybe I'll just go for a walk instead. It's clouding over, but I think it's still sunny out there.

If you really did plough through all my confusion and ranting here, many thanks. It's a bit of a mess in here these days, but I appreciate your your company just the same. Peace and joy to you, and maybe some for me too.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Equanimity (and a barking dog)

The corner in front of my workplace is a strange kind of hangout. People buy and sell all manner of drugs, and it looks pretty sketchy. But not everyone there is buying or selling. Many people are just chatting with friends, having a smoke, or waiting for the bus. A couple of days ago, just as I arrived at work and was hopping off my bike, a woman careened through the intersection on a bike, flailing one arm and screaming wildly. I figured she was high, or drunk, or something, but of course I couldn't tell, and she didn't stick around*. The scream was chilling, and everyone looked to see what was going on. One guy on the corner, who appeared to be in the middle of a transaction of some sort, had a pit bull on a leash, and the dog went into a frenzy, straining at the leash, barking and growling. I like dogs, but I'm often nervous around them. With the woman screaming as she rode past on one side of me and the barking dog way too close on the other, I was terrified. I stood holding my bike, shaking all over. I had to keep walking to get to the door, but that meant walking past the dog, and I simply couldn't do it. After a moment, I saw a guy who comes into the library in the throng of people, so I managed to call out, "Hey man, can you stand between me and the dog so I can get to work?" The dog owner made the usual reassurances about the dog being friendly, but I'm never able to take any comfort in that just when I get dog-scared. Still, I quickly explained that I'm nervous around dogs, and he was OK with that. The other guy stood between me and the frenzied dog and started cracking jokes: "You think that monkey on your back is trouble? I got a pit bull on my leg? Now that's trouble!" We all laughed. The screaming woman was a block away by now, the dog was starting to calm down, and the joke broke enough tension that everyone went back to what they were doing. I stopped shaking enough to walk past the dog, and I thanked the guy and went to work.

I have this kind of big reaction to fear sometimes. I freeze and shake. Often I cry. It can happen when I break a dish, or drop anything that clangs or bangs. Loud sounds and sudden movements set me off. Usually, any kind of big fright stays with me for a long time. Once I'm shaken, it can take me days to get back to myself. But that morning, once I tucked my bike indoors are started work, I forgot all about it. I only noticed this a day later when I thought of telling my partner the funny line about the pit pull and I had to tell the whole story to make it make sense.

This is new to me. But it got me thinking. The other day, I was writing about rage. It's true. I've been feeling some penetrating anger, which is familiar and strange and unnerving, all at the same time. But here's the other side of it: these days, those things pass more quickly. I get sad, or frightened, or enraged, yes. But then I go on, genuinely not caught in those extreme moments. I've always been subject to big emotional ups and downs, though I've never been good at recognizing the nuance of feeling within them. I guess I've often been scared by the big fears and sadnesses, because they did seem to hang on tight once they showed up. Being sober and working on being more present has helped me let those feelings pass through. Of all the good things about being sober, this is probably the most amazing. No, I'm not always like this. Sometimes I still rail for days about small things and fret what looks like silly details, and I still sometimes want to hang onto happy moments as if there will never be another one in my life. But it's getting better. I'm more emotional, but I'm much less caught in it, and being less caught allows be to be more emotional, since no matter how good or bad it is, it's not going to last forever.

(*I want to add, I don't mean to sound insensitive to the plight of the woman who set off the dog in the first place. I don't know what happened to her, and I won't. I hope she's OK, but I doubt that she is. I work in a part of the city that has way too much poverty and addiction and trauma, though it also has a lot of warmth and community and humour. It's rough, but it's lovely there, too. Witnessing misery is hard for everyone. I'm neither sentimental about it nor immune to it. Sometimes the stories are so big that my own seems small, but I am living my life, not someone else's. When I can stay present, I am better able to help the people around me, and that's worth a lot to me. Trying to be aware of the world around me at work without getting dragged down by it is always a challenge, but that's a topic for a separate post, I think.)

Now I'm off to read a big chunk of text for class tomorrow, and if I skip the laundry for another day, I still have time for a sunny afternoon walk in the park. Thanks for reading. Peace and joy to you, and equanimity, too.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Acceptance and rage

I've been quiet for a couple of weeks over here. I've started classes again and I'm back to my regular work schedule. And I was avoiding writing, because I didn't know what to think about what's going on with me these days.

With this sober gig, I'm well into feeling things I haven't in a long time. And the lovely parts are fine. Watching the crow on the building outside my window, prancing back and forth cawing like a politician stumping for votes, makes me laugh. It makes me love the world. Or noticing the full soft canopy of green leaves, feeling the sun on my arms or the soft rain on my face when I'm biking to school or to work. That's all good stuff. I love being awake enough to be in that. But I have pockets of rage and despair that are all out of whack with whatever is going on in the situation, and I'm just sitting through those, sometimes trying to figure out what's up with all that and sometimes just sleeping off the exhausting after-effects. Rage. Man, I didn't have any idea how angry I am, or how often I'm angry.

The other day, I was in a school meeting with a group of women and the conversation turned to how people had spent the time between semesters. It quickly turned into what to me seemed a competition, in which a few of the women spoke of how they have trouble taking time off because they feel guilty, and how that guilt is good because you have to produce and the guilt will keep you working and keep up that production. I said that sounded ridiculously unhealthy, that no one could do good work without taking breaks, but my voice was drowned out in the chorus of supposedly amusing examples of obsession and guilt and reassurances all around that it was all part of the academic life. I tell you, I was angry. I had that awful feeling where, at the same time, I felt like crying, and I also felt like spinning around the room smashing glasses and computers and whatever smashable object I could get my hands on. It's disconcerting to sit quietly while feeling this smashing rage. It scares me a bit. I have never, not once in my life, actually trashed a room, and I've never been around anyone who does it, so the strength of it all is weird. But the feeling isn't unfamiliar, now that I recognize it.

At times like this, I don't quite know what I'm so angry about. Part of it is what seems like stupidity among really smart people who are at least sometimes critical thinkers, that they think running themselves into the ground "to produce" makes any sense at all. Or that it's amusing. Part is rage, because pandering to the guilt and production thing only feeds the beast, and makes that foolish busy-ness necessary in the first place, and that excludes people who are smart and have a lot to offer and whose voices need to be heard, but either don't have the physical stamina or they have kids or jobs or other real-life commitments and they can't afford the luxury of academic obsession. (Or worse, they do all that, and trying to do it all, all the time, is part of what's toxic in our achievement culture.) Part of what's going on is I'm angry because I was trying to say that's not the only way to do this, and there was no room for my voice in that slice of conversation, and I guess that feeling of having my experience paved over by people who know "the one true path" has always enraged me.

But you know what? I spoke with one person later (who hadn't said much at the time but who often does avoid sleep and other healthy habits in order to get work done) and she didn't even remember that part of the conversation until I prompted her. It certainly wasn't the point of the conversation. So at the same time, I know my rage is real and it's about something, but it's way (way way way) out of proportion to what's happening at the moment.

I'll give another example, because I think it might make it more clear how this furious anger I'm talking about is disproportionate to the situation, even if it's not entirely misguided. I have been reading Tara Brach's "Radical Acceptance," a book that combines some Buddhist ideas about acceptance and meditation with some standard Western self-psychology. A lot of the book is great, though I have some deep criticism of the author's uncritical adoption of some of Western psychology. But at times, I had that same feeling of utter rage at the author! I was somewhat floored by that, and kind of put it down to a mood at first, but I felt it over and over throughout the book, no matter how often I set the book aside and came back when I was calm and peaceful. Sometimes I hated her, or wanted to shout at her, with all her meditative wisdom and anecdotes about her own obsessions or her patients' problems. What's up with that?

I'm not sure. Yes, I'll admit, I have some inchoate anger going on. I'm paying attention to it, and I'm starting to know what it feels like in my body, so that's new to me and, after decades of not being able to connect body sensation with emotion, I'm grateful for getting to know that feeling, no matter how awful it is. Also, it's no coincidence that some of this rage, and both my examples, are brought on my women I admire who are uncritically adopting what to me seems the most toxic, dehumanizing achievement-orientation of our culture. I'm angry with them for seeming to see success as worth more than anything else, even though, they probably don't really think that way. And I'm angry at our culture for bringing us all to value that achievement above all when we should value the lives of these great women and find ways that they can do the good work they want without grinding themselves down, without seeing family and life and work as something you trade off, one against the other.

And yes, I know this has a whole lot to do with me personally. Probably its this: I'm afraid that I can't find a way to do good interesting work without grinding myself into the ground. I don't fare well without enough rest and sleep (see: those are two separate categories for me!) and time to read for pleasure and eat well and ride my bike and love my partner and do fun things and live in the world, the whole big world. I am a bit afraid of cracking up, because I've cracked up before when I tried to do interesting stuff. But opting out into the slow life doesn't seem to work for me either, because I'm interested, really bloody interested in the ideas I'm studying, and after years of my own private reading and writing, I found that I wanted to be around people who were also interested and reading that kind of thing and working on it, and doing it on my own wasn't going to be enough for me. For all our romantic ideals about the solitary scholar, thinking really is something that happens in a community of books and teachers and other thinkers and writers, past, present and future.

OK, that sounded like a bit of a rant, but maybe I'm getting at something here. I think this might be a longish post that reads more like therapy for me than anything worth saying to someone else. But this is the stuff I really need to figure out. I've spent years drinking when I was stressed or angry. It's more than a bit scary to find that, sober, I'm dealing with more of a bonfire than the occasional cosy campfire.

But there's some comfort in all this, too. A few years ago, the Dalai Lama was in town and someone got me a ticket to go hear him talk. I went, though up to that day I had actually strongly disliked the Dalai Lama. I thought he was just a kind of rock star royalty born into his position and treated like a god, privileged beyond anything a normal mortal could imagine. I thought he was all show. At the event, he was interviewed by Maria Shriver, and I have to say I came away from that event loving both of them! The Dalai Lama kept smiling and eluding her questions--exactly the kind of thing that I disliked--and Maria Shriver called him on that. She called out the Dalai Lama! Sitting in the audience that day, I was kind of stunned. She said something to the effect of this: look, you're sitting there smiling and talking about peace and you won't give me a straight answer about anything I'm asking, but I'm here to talk to you and these people came her to listen and what I want to know is, how can we just accept all this? How can we not be angry when there's so much wrong with the world and we can see what's wrong, and if we just accept it all peacefully we'll never change anything. And then the Dalai Lama took her question seriously. He answered, no, I don't think you must never be angry. It makes sense to be angry. If you look at the world, the way we live, how we treat each other and the planet and all of life, we must be angry. And he said anger is good! It can be the source of the energy we need to make the changes we need to make. He explained that his teachings meant not getting caught in the anger itself, because that's where the danger lies. But feeling angry is good, and necessary, and it can drive some much needed change.

I'm nowhere near as enlightened as all that. And I don't think all my rage is rational. But I think feeling a deep rage, even when it's out of proportion to the moment, might not be so crazy after all. I'm not all that sure yet what's up with it, but it's not completely irrational to me anymore. And that's a start. I'm a week or so past four months sober, and I know that for me, being sober has let me open up to feeling what's going on, and feeling is the only way through it. It's not always easy, this sober gig. But I think it's worth the work.

Now I'm off to ride my bike and meet some coworkers for a tea and cake sendoff. I think the rage will lay low for the afternoon. If you're still here, thanks for reading. Peace and joy to you, and I guess rage too if rage is what the situation brings you. Let's just try to feel it without staying stuck in it.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Bike trip, old friends, sunshine--sober!

My partner and I just took a bike trip to a pretty little island city I used to live in. We spent four sunny days away from work and school, biking and walking and eating in restaurants, hanging out in cafes and bookstores, visiting old friends. I'm back at work today, but I'm pretty darn relaxed.

This was my first sober vacation (other than a visit with my partner's family) since I quit drinking, and I'm amazed at how lovely it is to travel without drinking. I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but it's true! We went to some of my favourite restaurants, places I've gone for years and would never have imagined going without ordering wine, and I can honestly say the meals were better for not having wine with them. It's the same old story as other sober people tell, but it's still fresh and new to me: it's such a relief, not thinking about when we can have wine,obsessing about wine, wondering about having more wine.The only wine worry was remembering to reassure my partner to order some for himself! He's so considerate that he would probably just leave off if he thought it might bother me. I end up looking at wine menus with him, thinking about which wine would go with which food, and that's a big part of the fun anyway. I found myself really enjoying the meals, lingering over them just as we would have if we were drinking a bottle of wine. I ordered a bottle of sparkling water and a wine glass for the nice dinners, so I could keep refilling the glass, as the sipping and pouring seems to be part of the dining ritual I enjoy. After dinner we ordered espresso and dessert because it felt like a celebratory thing to do. I didn't used to be much of a dessert eater--I wonder whether desserts just don't taste as good when you're drinking--but I found myself enjoying the coffee and dessert as much as the main courses. And after dinner each night, we went for a long walk, enjoying the warm weather and clear nights.

I know none of  this sounds exciting. But the trip wasn't about excitement. I wanted a break for a few days--just eat, read, walk, and bike--and that's exactly what we did. On the last evening, when we went for a long walk along the ocean, I felt like an old world I'd forgotten was coming back to me. I don't know when I started drinking too much, but walking at night used to be one of my great pleasures, and it was glorious to reclaim it. I was trying to think what we would have been doing if I were drinking, and maybe much of it would have been the same, but I would have been fuzzier, less able to enjoy those lovely moments.

While we were there, I told two old friends I'd quit drinking for good. One I'd talked to in December, when I'd quit for a few months and then started again, so she was a bit surprised, but very curious. I explained that I felt a lot better not drinking, and that I preferred being sober. But then when we talked more, I realized I'd either misrepresented myself or she'd misinterpreted, because she was saying it was interesting that I had started to feel "the pull" of being sober more than "the pull" of drinking. That didn't sound quite right to me--it made it seem like I was just longing to be sober, or that it had all been easy of unconflicted or something, so I tried to be more clear: I had been drinking too much, and it wasn't good for me, and it was hard to quit but I did and I felt better and I was glad I had done it. She wondered what was better, and that's kind of hard to explain: I said I liked being more clear, feeling more and being in the world more, though I admitted that was also the hard part. Then she wanted to know whether I missed that feeling you get when you drink just the right amount of wine, when you feel relaxed and creative (and she went on about that feeling for a while, but I won't go on about it here) and I realized, and said, that I really don't miss it, because I didn't really have it much lately. Eventually it had been too fleeting, that moment when I'd had enough to drink, and it had come at too high a cost to me. She's an old and very dear friend, and it was helpful to talk this all through with someone I know so well. After a bit we went back to the main group conversation, but not before she hugged me and said she was very proud of me. I'm surprised how much that meant to me.

The other conversation was on the phone with another old friend, when we were trying to figure out where to meet. A pub seemed the best option, but I didn't want it to be awkward once we arrived and I ordered soda water. (We have enjoyed many long conversations over much wine and beer over the years.) He just said, "Good for you. I do that once in a while but I never manage it for very long," or something like that. We had a brief, amusing conversation about drinking versus not, and then, next day at the pub, it turned out he'd forgotten about it for a moment. There was nothing awkward, just good friends enjoying each other's company, some drinking, some not.

It's starting to feel normal, this not drinking. I do all the same things, but they don't involve alcohol. It seems to me I feel more feelings and see colours more brightly. I'm so much more present moment to moment. Just looking at the green of the new leaves blows me away sometimes. It's like that. And it's all a lot harder sometimes, too, I guess because so many things are more intense and that can be exhausting. But you know what? I'll take it, harder or not, and when I'm exhausted, that's OK. Everyone gets tired sometimes. Then you just rest, and you feel better. It's just normal.

That's me this week. No big insights or crises, just lots of outdoors and old friends and enjoying the good life, sober. Hooray for that!

If you're still reading, many thanks. I appreciate your company. Peace and joy to you. I hope you're enjoying some good, normal, sober life, too!