Monday 3 November 2014

300 days sober. I'm not always OK, but I'm not going back.

Something strange has been happening these past few weeks. I'll have a hard day--just being tired and busy and trying to work out how to do all these things that are new to me, which I know many people have worked out years ago and yes, trying to figure out how to do well in grad school is a first world problem, but this is my life and this is my problem and it's real, and sometimes it's really bloody hard.

OK. So I'll have a hard day, and I'll come home and think, "I would love a drink." Or, "Man, a glass of wine would be just the thing right now." Or, if I can slow it down enough to get hold of the thought, I'll think, "This is exactly the kind of time I would have looked to wine for comfort."

What's in those moments? I find it hard to describe. Usually, I feel sad and lonely and empty. I'm not sure if I'm enough for the world, or if the world is enough for me, and maybe those two feelings are the same thing anyway. I feel hollowed out, disappointed and disappointing, and lonely. The loneliness is curious, because I'm not actually alone. These moments hit me when I'm just through the door, just come home to my partner, and he's wonderful, and in all those times I've been talking about, he's in the middle of making some yummy dinner for us, and he stops that to welcome me and make me something nice to drink. So it's got something to do with closing the door against the parts of the world that I find difficult. And it seems like having a glass of wine is part of that, part of closing off the hard old world.

Some of this comes from being tired. I don't cope well without enough sleep, and I have had some short sleeps while I've been meeting some of my weekly deadlines. My sister was in town for a short visit, and although I love my sister and I was very pleased to see her, my family throws me into a tailspin of not being good enough, and even though I know that and I can feel it happening, I can't always make it stop when it is happening.

Last year, when I was about three months into my first serious spell of quitting drinking, I noticed something that amazed me: I was, sometimes, easy with people.

To know how big a deal this is, you need some back story. In my day to day, no one would ever call me shy. I'm not talking about being shy. But I have a kind of background assumption that people hate me and don't want to talk to me. I (mostly) know that's not true. It's just an old story left lying around from some old ways of being. It runs pretty deep, though. And it hurts. Usually, what I do is make a kind of triangle around it. I accept that I am feeling something awful based on something that probably isn't true. I can't convince myself it's for sure not true. Maybe some of the people do hate me. And I know that denying my feelings altogether is a bad road for me to go down, so there's no point pretending I don't feel what I feel, or telling myself feelings aren't real. They may be misguided, but they are real. So I decide to go agnostic: maybe people hate me, maybe they don't. Who knows? And then I try to work out, if people didn't hate me, how would I feel? How would I act? And  then, even while I have something that's a bit like screaming voices telling me that all the people think I'm an idiot/loser/jerk/pick-your-insult, I can (partly) act as if things were fine, and that often gets me through the worst of it. It works, mostly. But that stuff is hard. Right?

So last year, I found that quitting drinking quelled a lot of that trouble for me. (Then I drank again. But then I stopped again, this time for good.) That particular kind of trouble isn't  gone, but it settled down a lot. Except lately, it's back. Because I've been in what for me is a bit of a pressure cooker of new situations, and I've been tired, and feeling the stress. And I am a bit intense. I'm really serious about this school stuff, so I would prefer to debate a point to figure it out rather than take the easy way out and agree with what seems obvious to many people but seems wrong to me. If I didn't want to be a critical thinker, I wouldn't be in grad school. And in that, all the old, "Everybody in the room hates me," voices some back.

And they are partly true. When you disagree with a widely held point of view, there is real tension in the discussion. And some people probably wish you would just get with the program. Groups have their dynamics, and even in discussions that aren't obviously personal, often people don't like disagreement. It doesn't mean the people actually hate me personally. But in those moments, they think I'm wrong, and maybe a bit of an idiot, and they wish I would shut up. The thing is, I won't shut up.

So here's what I realized. Not drinking gives me a huge amount of help with this stuff. But it doesn't solve it. And when I get that awful feeling, that's one of the times I am really and truly back to longing for a drink. Because alcohol will make me feel different. It will, for a while, restore  the disconnect, and let me wrap myself in a safe place where the world can't get me.

Instead, I've been trying something else. In those just-in-through-the-door moments, I say, "Oh shit, I really want a glass of wine, and I can't have one but I want one." And I cry and hug my partner and sit and sip whatever he hands me--it will be cold and fizzy, and it won't have booze in it, that's all that matters here. And I just feel bad for a while. Really bad. But only for a while.

But also, I've been talking more with people about this sort of thing. The other day, I had a conversation with student whose feelings had been hurt in a class discussion--not anything to do with me, except that I'd heard something said to her that she didn't, so she asked me about it. And when we talked, I said, "Sometimes I get my feelings hurt because of some mishearing or misunderstanding, and then I feel like everyone in the room hates me, and it's really hard to get past that and stay with the discussion." I don't even know her, we've only spoken once before, but we had a really great chat about being sensitive, and how that's not always bad because it does mean you notice a lot of things that other people miss, but it can make for some terrible moments. We both felt better after our talk, I could tell. A few days later, sipping soda water at the pub with some students after a school meeting, I had another conversation with a student I'd never met about the same sort of thing. These hyper-sensitive folk are everywhere, apparently. And I can talk to them.

It does me no good to tell me I'm not chronically unique, or that I need to kill my enormous ego, or whatever. That just feels like being berated, like some mean coach is yelling at me to get over myself, telling me I don't matter. And I need to matter to me.

What does seem to work is talking with people, trying to be open and connected enough that I don't feel hated (or not for long), but I don't deny either that there is some tension in the room and it's directed at me sometimes, and I can stay with the conversation despite that tension. And other people feel that too, sometimes.  I don't have to go make up a wine-cocoon for myself to hide in. I just have to keep on going out into the world, even when it doesn't seem friendly. As I write that, the rain is whipping against my living room window and I can feel for a moment what it's like to be out walking by the sea in the roaring wind and driving rain, and my face stinging from the cold. I love being out walking in a lashing storm. It makes me feel like I'm alive. And maybe, I'm starting to think, that the pain of that particular loneliness that I feel when I'm in a group and it's not going well, I can take that like the feel of cold wind and rain on my face in a storm, something fierce and wonderful, proof that I'm alive and life is a grand, glorious, and sometimes painful mystery. That's the joy of it, right there in the pain.

Yesterday was my 300th day without drinking. Hooray for that!!! Sometimes it gets easier, this sober gig, but it's hard some days, too, that's for sure. But I am NOT going back to drinking. I have not been blogging much but I think I might be staying a bit closer to the sober hearth now that the days are grey and the rain is lashing again. It will be a nice place to come into after I've been out walking in the blustery world.

Wishing you all a peaceful and happy November. xo