Saturday 31 January 2015

Other people

I'm starting to think I'm in a second stage of getting sober, or of being sober. The first year, it was all about how to live with myself. I was pretty big on acceptance all year long. And that's going to be an ongoing process, but I tell you, I'm doing a lot better now on that score than I was a year ago. But these past few weeks, there's something new going on, and I think it's a different kind of acceptance: accepting other people. Lately, I'm paying more attention to learning how to live with others, something it seems I don't know all that much about.

People have said that things shift once you get a little sober time. And they do. I'm less reactive than I was. I feel myself getting caught in problems, but it's slower, and I have some time to pull away and think. But a few months ago, I got kind of swamped by the emotional tensions in a group situation that weren't all that much of my own making, and I didn't see it clearly until well after the fact. I tried to talk to a counsellor about this, but I felt like I talking wasn't going to be the answer on this one. The thing is, I think I don't much know how to be with other people. There are exceptions, of course. My partner and I have a great relationship, and I get on well very with his family, and I have some friends who I genuinely feel close to. But these all seem like exceptions to me. In the general run of things, when I am in a group of people, I often feel as though I am somehow a little off to one side, as though I'm somehow not really there. Classes are usually an exception to this, because then I'm engaging intellectually, and I'm very comfortable in that realm, as long as it stays there. But when the situation is more social or emotional, I don't quite know how it's supposed to go. I used to call this doing "people as a second language," and I have probably written about that here before. Like lots of people working in a second language, I can do it, but I'm not completely fluent. I don't always know the idioms. What happens next?

None of this is new to me. But now, I've been sober just over a year. (And that only came after kicking against the fears and the wisdom of other people on the folly of drinking again and then realizing, after drinking, that it didn't much matter what they said. Booze was sucking the life out of me. The very life.) Now, sober, I'm feeling that my sense of alienation is a restriction I don't much need anymore. I don't quite know how to get rid of it, but I do think that's the next thing I need to work on.

Blogging has been amazing for me. It's let me learn from others and figure things out for myself and get to know some amazing people online. Still, when I'm here, I am sitting alone in a room, typing. I have laughed and cried and felt real warmth from people online. But that's not the same thing as being in the same room as other people and feeling that. It's not bad, and it's not fake. It's just one step removed, somehow. When sober bloggers have met face to face, and talked about how amazing the experience has been, I've felt envious. And when people who attend meetings talk about fellowship, I have felt a longing for something like that.

Anyway, I decided to do something about this, something more direct than thinking about it or talking about it. So I went to a meeting. And it was all right. Yes, I was nervous. But it felt pretty good to sit in a room full of people, all in different stages of dealing with pretty much the same problem. People had all different kinds of ways of listening to the speaker. Some were entranced. Some fidgeted. Some smiled in recognition at different bits that were said, and some looked at each other significantly. As it happens, I liked the main speaker, and felt a kind of connection to her story. She was talking about living in her head for so long, and how she has had to learn to live in her body, too. Now that doesn't sound like much when I repeat it. But it was powerful, sitting in the same room, feeling connected. There were a lot of people and I was nearly late, so I sat near the back and off to one side. I could barely see the front of the room, as there were maybe a hundred people there! (So many alcoholics! Who knew?) At one point, someone in front of me shifted how she was sitting, and I had a direct view of the speaker. And I had one of those moments I sometimes have, where the world seems to break open for a moment, and everything feels different. It's hard to describe, but it happens to me sometimes, moments like this. I have come to think of them as grace, maybe. Time slows down, and everything sounds different, clearer, and the world seems to glow. Or maybe vibrate. Anyway, at the meeting, I had one of those moments, and in that moment, I felt like the woman at the table in the front of the room was speaking directly to me. And I was listening.

Of course, she was speaking to everyone. Soon the crowd shifted slightly and I couldn't see anymore, and the room settled back to normal. Then some guy talked, and he was annoying, the way people sometimes are, and that was fine, too. Afterward, I didn't stay and chat with anyone. This was enough for me for one day. I think I will go back though. There is something here for me to learn. And I think it's a kind of physical learning, something I just can't get from reading or writing, as good as those things are.  I know we are a social species, and there's a lot about the non-verbal ways we communicate that's not so well understood. Of course, I would like to understand it. But the most important thing might be for me to actually experience being with others, being a part of something they are also a part of, and not trying all that much to figure out how it works.

I've been reading a little of the Belgian philosopher, Isabelle Stengers, and in one interview she talks about the "care of the possible," something she takes from William James. I like that a lot. Her point, as I understand it, is that we pass over so much experience, but a different approach might be to consider the possibilities that our actual experience opens for us, rather than only acknowledging what we accept as the facts. (I have not at all done justice to Stengers' wonderful work here, but I am making sense of the world with it as best I can, and I'm OK with that.) I used to care a lot about what was called addiction and what wasn't, and whether I was an alcoholic or not. When I thought about those things, I thought about them as if they were somehow real categories, things that either applied to me, in truth, or did not. I think this is the way we are taught to think. Now I am trying something different. It seems to me that "alcoholic" is a pretty good concept, in that it opens the door to a new way of life, once you accept it. If you don't like it, don't worry. Find a concept that works for you. And in going to a meeting, I'm not worrying too much about any single version of the truth. I expect the truth is more in the practice, in the experience of getting together with people and listening to them (and yes, one day maybe even talking to someone there!) What I need to learn from it is more in the experience of being with the others, and feeling a glimmer of belonging. The experience of that, not the objective proof of it's efficacy.

I'll see how it all goes. This feels like a new kind of acceptance to me, one that includes other people: their wisdom and their follies, yes, but mostly their very presence.

This was a bit more complicated to write about than I had thought it might be, and I'm not sure it's all clear, even to me. I'm just figuring this out. So if you're still here, thanks for reading! Peace and joy to you. xo

Wednesday 7 January 2015

One year sober!!!

Yesterday was my 365th day in a row without booze. By now it's a habit, of course, just as drinking far too much was a habit for so long. A year ago yesterday,  I woke up early and planned to quit that day. But I had a day off, and instead I went for a long walk and bought wine, and came home and drank some. Nothing dramatic happened. I'd quit the previous summer, and then tried drinking again after four months away, and it was obvious to me that it mostly wasn't working. Nothing terrible was happening to me. Still, I was miserable. And I knew I'd felt better when I wasn't drinking, before that siren song called me back yet again. The next day, I woke up with the same idea. And that day, a year ago, I really did quit. It stared out as a modest plan: one week, no booze. But I'm still here and I'm staying.

These days booze has no appeal for me. I can't stand the smell any more. I have no interest in the fuzzy mind I know I'd have if I drank. I've figured out how to make interesting drinks that are so good, sometimes the drinkers wan to try one instead of having wine or beer. At this point, no one could convince me that drinking was a good idea. No matter what.

When I was thinking about quitting, I strongly resisted the idea that I had been somehow escaping from life by drinking. Now I see that I was. And I resisted the received wisdom that I would find myself changing once I quit, that without booze, I would change emotionally. But I did. I wasn't interested in most of what people had to say about recovery, and I was always ready to rail against talk about "alcoholism" or "addiction." But I've found that some of it applies to me, and some of it is helpful, and the rest just doesn't bother me any more.

I used to do too much of my thinking about quitting in the abstract, impersonal mode. Eventually, I found that didn't help me much. Instead, this time, I paid attention to myself--what worked for me, what didn't, how I felt, what I thought might help me get through the next minute or hour or day. Mostly I read lots and wrote lots and walked in the park and rode my bike and talked to my partner way, way too much about how it was all going. I fulfilled my school and work obligations, but for the first few months, I wasn't exactly a star in either domain. It didn't matter. When I started to feel stronger, I was able to do more, but I took my time.

A lot of the advice people gave didn't work for me. I tried the whole "treats" thing that gets talked about, but I never did get the hang of it. I did buy myself a lot of books, but only when I saw one I thought I might read, never as a reward for anything. I developed a fondness for the gluten-free carrot cake at the local bakery, and had to put myself on rations on that score. (Once a week is fine. Twice if I'm on a big deadline. Any more than that, I figure I'm just escaping into cake instead of booze, and I eat some yoghurt with honey instead. Which isn't so bad, you know!)

This was supposed to be a big happy celebratory post about how happy I am to be sober, and here I am writing about what didn't work for me! What gives? The thing is, I am happy. I feel a whole lot better without booze in my life. My mental health is better (and it was really pretty darn bad a year ago). I avoid doctors, but I think I'm physically healthier. (I hardly ever get colds now, and I didn't get my annual December bronchitis, but winter isn't done yet!) I used to be pretty twisted up with anxiety, but these days I feel so much more clear and calm, and even when I do get anxious, I work it out without spiralling into the Pit of Despair. It's not all perfect all of a sudden, and it's been a lot of work. But I am figuring out how to live in the world, and I sometimes even feel at home here. That's new to me, and I'm holding onto it.

I guess what I wanted to say was that most of what I thought about getting sober was wrong, and a lot of what I believed about it when I started didn't much matter. But I was able to figure it out as I went, day to day, by being attentive to myself, and listening to others, and by leaning very hard on the support of the fine folks online who read and comment and write their own stories about getting sober, or trying to get sober. We're all in this together, and what a beautiful thing that is. Just a whole lot of people who used to drink too much, finding a better way to live without booze. Thanks for all your help and support and humour and friendship. I'm deeply grateful for it all, and for my life. It's been a great year. Tough, but worthwhile, and often wonderful.

Peace and joy to you. And many thanks. xo