Sunday 17 January 2016

Round 3, day 123: Trusting life

Recently I've noticed some big changes in how I approach the world. I have begun to trust. For me, that's life changing!

I've always been a little bit paranoid. It's not that I think people are out to get me, exactly. It's just that in my basic, felt but unstated assumptions about life, I haven't felt that the world is a good place for me. I've felt this mostly in my dealings with people. Small negatives have often kicked off big reactions. If I am talking to someone important to me who's having a bad day, it's not a stretch for me to think that that person has taken against me. Either they have changed their mind about me or, worse, they have come to realize that all the esteem they had previously held me in was mistaken, and that I am some version of useless/worthless/disappointing. Now, that sounds worse than it is, because for years I have known that I have this tendency, and I know that most reasonable people don't suddenly take against people. But at best I've had to engage in a massive workaround, in which I feel like the person hates me but intellectually I know that they probably don't, so I try to imagine how I might behave if the relationship were not tainted by this new hatred or disappointment on behalf of the other person, and I do my best to act that way. This paranoia doesn't apply to everyone, but if I don't see you for a few weeks, I am likely to start to assume that you hate me or something like that. And then I realize I'm doing that, and I do the workaround. Or I just ignore it all, and fall out of contact. You can imagine how exhausting that is.

Now I know some people will say that's "imposter syndrome." Sure, maybe it is, but naming it doesn't solve it for me. And some will say (or have said) all I have to do is change my thoughts! But you know, I have been working on this for years. I have had over a decade of therapy (though I was pretty messed up at the beginning of that, so I don't want to sound like I'm knocking therapists for being slow to help!) I don't find my own thoughts to be something that can be erased and rewritten. They are tangled up with feelings. And this paranoid kind of feeling has been real, and persistent, and it's been a source of extreme pain for me for many years. The best I've been able do is the kind of "act as if" approach I've described above.

So the change I'm talking about here is huge. These days, I'm starting to trust people. Seriously. For example, instead of assuming that my supervisor is losing interest in my work, for example, I have assumed he's got a lot going on himself, and I've thought about what I need from him as a supervisor and how I can make that work. I've noticed that lately I just don't start with the assumption that someone has taken against me, or is disappointed in me. What I'm doing doesn't look all that different from the outside. But it feels different.

Since I started writing about getting sober, I've talked about participating in the world. I know I can hold myself a little apart, and I also know that the full greenness of life isn't achievable if you separate from others. If you do that, you dry up. At times, I've returned to drinking because aspects of the social were more easily available when I drank, and though this stopped working, I didn't know what else to do. These days I'm sober, and I feel like I am starting to step into the world and participate more fully. I am connecting.

Because I noticed this new (and amazing) way of being, I wanted to write it down so I don't forget about it! I can have these great realizations and then just lose them again once things get busy, and that's come back to bite my sorry ass when I've forgotten all that's grounded me and kept me sane and sober. I lose my way so easily. So I'm writing this to slow down and notice the change, and hopefully hold onto it. I've been thinking about what I'm doing differently, and though I'm no great fan of lists, I think there are three things:

First, I'm sober. That clears away some of the mental dross that makes it hard to sort out feelings. I know when I quit drinking a couple of years ago, I had moments of this, the sense that I could walk up to a group of people and talk to them without the usual feelings of unease that would usually swamp me. I know alcohol does some strange things to feeling, and it feeds the paranoia. That's gone, and that's a huge help.

Second, I have been working on the cognitive part of all this. I know how to examine my feelings and thoughts and work out which feelings are based on my old habits rather than anything that's in the situation. My husband is a great sounding board here. He accepts my feelings as real and valid, even when they are a little crazy, and within that safely I am able to start to sort out what's really happening and what I am imagining, or even what I'm bringing about by what I imagine. I'm getting better at this, and it works better without drinking.

Third--and I never, ever, ever thought I'd say this but here goes--I have been praying. All my life, whenever anything went wrong or when I was waiting for news or struggling with something, my mother would tell me, "Say a little prayer now." As happens to many people, as a teenager I wasn't able to start developing a more mature faith, and the simple faith of my childhood started to ring hollow. For most of my adult life, I wasn't able to pray, or I didn't know how. I tried, but the closest I could come to anything that felt authentic was calling my mother and asking her to pray for me. Which I did, many times. We often didn't get along, and we sure didn't have any kind of ideal mother-daughter relationship, but when I needed to, I would call her and she would pray. Even after I lost faith in pretty much everything a few times, I usually held onto believing in my mother's prayers.

For the past several years, my mother has had severe dementia. She's doing as well as one can with that, but if you know dementia at all, you know talking to someone with dementia is a different kind of conversation. My mother can be present in moments, and she is very funny. She's even lovely and sweet, which she wasn't always when she had her wits about her! But her days of praying for me are long gone. So four months ago, when I knew I needed to quit drinking again and I knew I needed a deeper commitment to life to keep me sober, I started to pray. Every night, before I go to sleep, I say the three prayers that I said every night as a child. Then I thank god for everything I have, and I ask god to help me know what it is I need to do, and to give me strength to do it. Sometimes this is in words, sometimes it's more like opening myself to something. I'm not going to try to describe it in much detail, as I don't think I can. What matters is I have started to do my own praying. Somehow, this has brought me closer to my mother. And I think it's central to this trust in life I'm developing.

Now don't get me wrong. It's not that I think god is looking out for me so I don't have to do anything myself. It's much more subtle than that. It's more that I trust that things will be OK, even if they don't work out the way I want, or if there are big disasters along the way. I trust that I can act, and others can act, and we can try to work things out. I'm not suddenly sanguine about the world--there are serious problems with the environment, and we need to be working for economic and social justice. These things are not OK as they are. The best way to put it is maybe this: I trust life, and I trust that I can get on in my life.

Well, I don't know if I've made any sense to anyone here. This has been a huge shift for me, and it's important to me. I'll probably come back to writing about it again, as it's still a little beyond words. But I am grateful for what feels like a wonderful opening in my life. And yes, being sober is a big part of this.

Anyway, if you're still here, thanks for reading and keeping me company. Peace and joy to you.

(PS I edited the title after posting because I'd written "day 122" but I'm actually 123 days sober, not 122. Sure the numbers don't matter but still I want to claim them all! And 1-2-3 has such a nice ring to it.)

Monday 4 January 2016

Round 3, Day 110: Connecting, waiting

I'm back from a lovely, sober few days away visiting my husband's family. Not drinking is so much easier these days. Once in a while over the holidays I had a little pang of wanting a drink. But I am getting much better at talking myself down from these pangs when they happen, or distracting myself until they pass. Really though, that longing for drink isn't all that intense any more. It's more like a tired, half-hearted part of me still chimes in once in a while with "maybe a drink?" but it isn't all that compelling. I know people say that when you revert to drinking again, it doesn't take long to pick up where you left off. Well, that seems to be my experience with quitting drinking for me this time around. I feel I've already reverted the habit of not drinking that I established over the past couple of years. I've already been through over a full year of not drinking, so I don't have all that many "firsts" to contend with. And having gone back to drinking twice after long spells without booze, only to find that drinking wasn't going to work any more as either an escape or a refuge, I simply can't kid myself that there's any point in it for me. That romance is dead and gone, it seems.

Because I start these posts with a tongue-in-cheek "Round 3," I thought I might make a note of what's been different this time compared to the last two rounds of getting sober. The first time I quit, over two years ago, I thought the world would open up and shake in congratulations at my having accomplished 100 days without drinking. In fact, no one cared much. Feeling like I was part of something bigger than me in this sober blog world was so important to me, but I was way too over-invested in needing connection with others, without really knowing how to connect, or who I might connect with. So when 100 days came and went and people who I thought were cheering me on missed what was, to me, an enormous milestone, I was devastated. I'd been feeling like I didn't belong after all, and I know that was a part of me moving away from the blog world, and the letdown was huge. Right now I feel so far from how sad and hurt I was at the time that it's almost hard to take it seriously, but I want to honour that feeling here. Recently, Laura McKowen wrote about the incredible loneliness of early sobriety, and I found great comfort in that. Every trace of friendship and connection in those early days was a lifeline, and every small hurt was amplified as a result. Now I'm relieved to know that many people feel like that when they first stop drinking. And because I know that, I'm more aware that I need to pay attention to taking care of myself and not let myself be too hurt by small slights online or in my day-to-day life. My first response to small personal slights is still, "She probably hates me," but I have got much better at setting those thoughts aside, accepting the feelings that come with them but not getting knocked too far off course as a result.

After drinking for a few months and then quitting again, the next time I made it to 100 days was my birthday. That time I was way more careful about the letdown that can come with sober milestones. I had been in the online sober community longer, so I felt I was developing some real friendships here. I was better at knowing what I needed and working at setting it up for myself. But I was feeling what I called at the time a "giant hole of longing," and it was tough coping with that.

This time, I don't feel so much longing or sadness or alienation. I think I am more mature about what it might mean emotionally to live as an adult. I still often feel disconnected from people, but I am working on making better connections and realizing that the feeling of disconnect is more an old habit than a reflection of how I really am in relation to those around me. My 100 days sober coincided with Christmas Day. My husband and I spent a wonderful day together--we slept late, ate a yummy brunch, went for a long walk that ended at the cinema, where we watched the lovely movie, Brooklyn. (Go see it! It's a beautiful film, one that lives up to the novel in a way that few films do.) I acknowledged my accomplishment with my husband, but we are both used to me being sober now, and we both prefer it. I didn't need to make much fuss over the number of days, nor did I want to spend time online talking about myself that day. The online sober world is an important support for me, but I often get as much support reading and commenting on other blogs as I do writing about my own celebrations and struggles. Still, I am proud of myself for getting hold of the drinking and returning to being sober, and for making it to 100 (now 110!) sober days. Sober suits me, and I am very much planning to stay that way.

Just the same, I'm in a kind of holding pattern about some things, and that means I'm on the edge of enormous stress that I can't even let myself feel right now. Based on some soul searching abut what I'm doing with my life, I've put in applications for a few school programs that would mean a change in direction for me academically. Being accepted into any of them would also mean making a big move geographically. The application process for these programs is insanely competitive, so the next few weeks will be filled with regular email checking to see whether I have been invited to an in-person interview, which will mean plane tickets and massive preparation and a couple of days being on while investigating whether a program and supervisor is right for me, followed by more waiting to see what's been decided. Or I may not make the first cut of interviews at any program, which means a couple of months of waiting and wondering, all the while working on my thesis and engaging with students in my TA duties, and trying to see if I can fill in some shifts from my old job here and there because flying to interviews will be expensive and I will need the cash. I'm excited about it all, but I'm crazy-nervous, too.

All that is just to say it's not going to be an easy month ahead. Getting sober is a good practice in dealing with trouble, though, and I am trying to use what I've learned from the sober stuff to deal with all this other stress. Today I let myself take an extra day off from all I have to do, and I spent the day reading a mystery by a new favourite writer. I think I'll just go back to that now for the day, and then tomorrow I will try to come up with a plan that will help me get things done and take care of myself. I feel a little numb, and I know that's a response to the worry and uncertainty about what will happen in all this. But I also know that many intense feelings will come and go over the next while, and none of them matter all that much. I'm happy to be where I am in my life in 2016, sober and trying to make some big life changes. I don't expect it will all magically work out, but I know I will deal with what happens as it happens. I can't tell if what I feel is calm or numb, or maybe it's flashes of that elusive thing I've heard about, patience? Either way, I have some work to do, and a whole lot of waiting. And for now, I'll read for a while longer, and have some dinner, and forget about the work and the waiting for one evening.

Thanks for keeping me company as I figure out how to live sober. I hope you're figuring it out, too. Peace and joy to you all in this new year.