Tuesday 15 December 2015

Round 3, Day 90: Joy. (And a great book!)

I'm no humbug, but I have not generally loved the festive season the way some seem to do. My family is very far away, and when I've visited at Christmas it's always been a fraught sort of affair. I stopped trying to make that work a long time ago. I've attended my fair share of orphan Christmas events, and I've been invited to join many people's family festivities over the years, but I find myself filled with sadness at many such events. For a number of years, I worked in a community centre and I usually took many of the holiday shifts, which was a good way to escape a certain part of the festive season, and at the same time a sway to participate in something that was usually mostly fun. Along with this, I've been with my husband for the past five Christmases, and we have developed our own very quiet Christmas tradition, which usually means a good meal by ourselves and a long walk or bike ride. A few days after Christmas we visit his parents, and that's always lovely.

I know that might sound sad, but the fact is, I have managed to find a peaceful enough way to get through Christmas, ducking a lot of obligatory cheer that would otherwise have rendered me feeling lonely and blue. And I have liked the pause that happens, when a lot of the world stops doing the usual thing, and there is actually time to slow down and enjoy the company of people I love.

So the other evening, we went to an early solstice concert. The music was beautiful: contemporary arrangements of viola, harp, piano, and vocals, and short pieces were interspersed with poetry readings, all somehow celebrating the sadness and beauty of this dark time of year. Such a wonderful, beautiful show! The last piece was a solstice carol performed by the whole ensemble (which included the composer) and the audience was invited to join in on the chorus, which we sang in a round. By the end, my face was streaming with tears and I felt filled with love for the composers, performers, poets, readers, and everyone in the room who had come together for what seemed to me a perfect way to acknowledge the season. At the end of the show, the organizer came across the room to give me a great large hug. He said part way through the show, he saw me wiping my eyes, and he was wiping his eyes, and seeing me weep made him weep even harder, and as the show ended and we all sang together and my face streamed with tears, his did too, and he told me he sang that carol directly to me. And then we hugged and cried about how beautiful it all was.

Throughout all this, I was sober. This event is part of a music series at which wine is served, and it has been one of the hardest places for me to resist drinking. Everyone always looks elegant and relaxed, and the music is always wonderful, and joining in on all this seemed always to involve joining the drinking. The fact that afterward I would go home and drink too much wine was always invisible in the moment. The past few years I have attended many of these events, and I have learned to sip a Perrier and enjoy the music and accept feeling a little teeny bit left out by not being able to drink. So the other evening, when I felt overcome with the beauty of the evening and my own joy in being fully part of it, it was only later that I realized that wine (or lack of wine) had nothing to do with the experience for me. I had only briefly missed having some, and once the show started I was absolutely swept away into the experience, and no drink would have made that any better. And though I was weeping publicly, I wasn't worried about being drunk and embarrassed! I was just happy to be part of it all. Sober.

Other than that, this past week I have attended several holiday functions, and I have enjoyed myself. I get the occasional pang, but I don't feel a steady longing to drink, and I'm greatly relieved about that. When I get these pangs though, I'm pretty honest about them. I don't pretend that booze is nothing, or that there's no pleasure in drinking, or that there is no camaraderie that's brought about by drinking with people, because I think I would be lying to myself to say any of these things. Instead I sometimes wail or cry and I acknowledge that I may be missing out somewhat. But I also remember the darkness that comes over me when I drink too much, and how hard it has been to shake that darkness yet again. And I think about how happy I have been these days--a little too busy and in uncomfortable flux in part of my life and insanely stressed in some ways, yes. Still, I'm happy. And I don't think I have ever felt this kind of happiness when I've been drinking. I've certainly never been able to live in feeling something like this, something that I think is probably what people talk about when they use the word "joy."

So that's where I am on day 90 of my third serious go at not drinking. In many ways the actual not drinking is mostly easy now, as it's been a habit most for the past 2 1/2 years. But I'm still trying to find my way with how I keep on with it. Despite my recent post about struggling at meetings sometimes, I have been attending once a week, and I get something there. I started reading a great book, Sobering Wisdom: Philosophical Explorations of Twelve Step Spirituality, an edited volume of philosophy essays on aspects of the twelve steps, compiled by philosophers Jerome A. Miller and Nicholas Plants. I know many people find a great deal of solace in the twelve steps, and in the AA program. I know that I need a spiritual way ahead if I am going to keep on this sober path, and I know that this is the right path for me, though I can so easily lose my way here. But I'm kind of an egghead, and I like to think about things, and sometimes in the AA and twelve step world (in person and online) intellectual curiosity about how the whole thing works isn't welcomed. I get that for some people thinking can stand in for doing, and coming up with reasons why something is wrong can prevent one from trying something. You've probably seen me do that, and maybe you do it too. So I figured the book would be a fine companion to my own explorations. And as it's written by a bunch or philosophers, it's not going to tell me that my problem is I think too much! I'm going to read it slowly and give it a proper review in January, but I thought I'd mention it now in case any other sober egghead types want to get themselves a thoughtful take on thinking through these ideas. (Maybe as an early sober Christmas gift for yourself? That's what I did.)

That's about all I have for now. Thanks for walking along with me here as we live through these long dark nights and wait for the light to come round again. Wishing you all peace and joy.

Monday 7 December 2015

Round 3, Day 82: I don't know my way about, but I know I'm here.

Almost 12 weeks into this round of quitting drinking, and I'm still here and still sober. Maybe I shouldn't be calling it a "round", as though I'm planning to start up drinking again at the end of it. I'm not. When I count my days like that, what I'm really doing is acknowledging to myself (and to anyone who wants to know, I guess) that I was sober for four months and then 16 months, and that I only drank for two months and then four months in between there. So while I've been sober now for 82 days in a row, I don't disavow the fact that I have been sober for 23 of the past 29 months. To me, that's pretty darn good, and I'm reminding myself to take full credit for that.

Why all this counting? Well, I think it's because getting sober is so influenced by a certain kind of day-counting, and people sometimes talk about where they are as though all the back and forth of sorting things out isn't part of the process, as if only the most recent stretch of sober days in a row counts, somehow. That hasn't been my experience. For me, the back and forth of trying to quit have been a real, important part of quitting. I sometimes date events by "that time in 2010 I quit drinking for a month" or "back when I was taking a heavy course-load and quit drinking for three months" or even "that time I biked 25 km back and forth to work and got down to one glass of wine a day most days." I have been increasingly aware that drink was a problem, and I have been trying (sometimes on and off) to address that problem since 2002. For me, drinking got tangled up with deep depressions, but for years I didn't even know the drink thing might be a problem, or related to depression in any serious way. OK, so now I know. It is related. When I drink, sooner or later I drink too much, and sooner or later I get depressed. And my friends, let me tell you, that sucks!

I used to be what is sometimes non-technically called "crazy." (No disrespect intended, to me or anyone else. I'm drawing on a way of talking adopted by some people who reject a lot of the diagnostic language and all that goes with it. Irit Shimrat's great book, Call Me Crazy, is a good source on this refreshing way of thinking, and a great read besides.) For a few years I went through several serious psychiatric crises, and I live with what I think is a healthy small amount of terror that I may go crazy again. Putting my life back together after each crisis was a lot of work, and each time there are some things (friends, jobs, apartments, furniture, favourite red pants, time) that are gone for good. These days I'm not so crazy. I am not medicated, as drugs don't work solve anything for me, and most of what gets called help doesn't seem to help me much either. But I have learned how to live with however it is that I am, and I live pretty darn OK. Among what counts as "normal," I pass. And I don't give away my details unless I see someone else struggling. There's a certain amount of feeling left out that happens with passing as normal in a world that pays close attention to the normal and the diagnostic categories. (I study psychology, so I'm kind of in the thick of this worldview. Here's to resistance, I say!) I'm mostly used to that. But I don't need to accentuate it further. Moving towards belonging, not towards alienation, that's important to me. Doesn't come easy, but it matters.

Now that I see clearly that the drink is linked to a bad state of mind for me, and I see that, when I return to drinking, I have tons of fun for a while but then I fall into the pit again, I have decided that it makes sense for me not to drink. To support my decision, I've been trying to go to AA, but it hasn't felt like a good fit for me. I know I wrote a few weeks ago that I was trying it, and I was being patient. I have been, and I am. But I have trouble there. I react badly to the often implicit sexism, and the group dynamics often remind me of the worst parts of being a teenager. I don't identify as "alcoholic," any more than I identify as "major depressive" or "insert-diagnosis-here-ic." I know that in mental health, recovery communities are moving away from that kind of language, aiming to see the full person and not just the problem, disease, or diagnosis, whatever it is. (Makes me think of a poem I love, Ginsberg's Sunflower Sutra, in which the speaker calls out, "We're not our skin of grime!" Oh how much I love that poem!) I'm trying to figure out how to live well, and how to keep this resolve not to drink alive enough that it's supportive of who I want to be, but not so front and centre that it defines or consumes me. Attending AA meetings makes me feel, simultaneously, that the drink problem defines me, and that my version of the problem isn't bad enough anyway. So it's just another group to which I don't quite belong. Frankly, I'm not sure that's doing me much good.

This morning, I read a great post at NoMoreSally about getting sober as a kind of being an adult and getting on with life. She speaks to a lot of what I'm talking about here. It's food for thought, that's for sure.

In his wonderful though often impenetrable Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein said, "a philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don't know my way about'" (PI 123). That seems to be a good take on my problem. OK, now I don't drink. But how do I live? 

This isn't a post with answers. I'm finding my way, and I have more questions than anything else. I am often lost. At the same time, I continue to feel a fierce aversion to certainties about any of this. Some people will say, "Just don't drink," and the longer you are sober, the better life gets. That hasn't quite been true for me in the past. Sober was and is a good start, but it remains only a start. I need something else. I don't quite know what that something else is, and I suppose my gut feeling is that it's no one thing. I have a better sense of what I am doing in my academic work, and that's helpful. My husband is fantastic. I spend too much time on my own, but so does every grad student I know, and I'm working on changing that. I'm doing lots of other stuff too, but by now this post is long enough. Maybe all this is just to say I am here, trudging along like everyone else: sober, living, confused, but here. And that's just fine.

If you're still here, thanks for reading and walking along with me! Wishing you peace and joy on this rainy grey December west coast day. 

(* Post edited to add: something wacky is happening to the font here and I have to keep resetting it to "normal," but it keeps reverting to several typefaces and font sizes. Which I know is funny. But sorry if it makes the rambling post even harder to read!)