Monday 16 May 2016

Round 3, Day 243: Finding my way back to joy

I quit drinking (again) eight months ago today. This is my third major stint of sober time, and I'm starting to realize how much I've changed.

Recently I wrote that I have realized I've been going through a bit of a depression lately. I have a lot of uncertainty about what I'm doing with my academic work, which means a lot of my life has been uncertain, as it meant I didn't know where I'd be living or what I'd be doing a year from now. It felt like my whole life was up in the air, and that's a pretty unsettling place to be.

Somehow, over the past year or so, I’ve lost the joy in what I’m studying. When I returned to school a few years ago, it was such fun to encounter so many new ideas! I earned a degree and am most of the way through another, and I’ve learned a lot. But without actively sharing what I’ve learned, something essential is missing. In my area (and  probably in a lot of academic work) learning is such a solitary exercise. I always have spent a lot of time alone, reading and writing, and I love that. But I also need to interact with people. I realized that I don't want to do work that means I'm mostly alone in an office, struggling with something that I can't quite connect to any real person or worthwhile purpose.

This has been the central struggle for me over the past year. Surprisingly, no one I've spoken to in my academic life seems to have understood me on this, which may just be that I haven't expressed it all that well. But more recently, I've been reading stories of people who have left the academic world--people who quit their PhD programs before they completed them, people who finished and then worked outside academia, and people who worked as tenured faculty but left to work in what academics sometimes call "the real world." Many of their stories resonated with me. I see that, for now at least, leaving is for me. I'll finish my thesis and get my MA. But I'm already withdrawing from many things that are not directly connected with that project, and I won't continue on with the PhD as I'd planned. It's just not for me right now.

Part of what's happening here is that I am starting to have a better sense of who I am. A lot of what I have been experiencing as alienation over the past year is, I now see, a great thing! (Though if you'd told me that last September, I'd have bit your head off!) I don't have a clear direction yet regarding what I will do. But clearing a lot of this out of the way has helped me gain clarity on what I might want, and on what I definitely don't want.

I know enough about how depression works in me. I go into a kind of system shutdown, a deep winter of the soul. I become unable to do things that are not good for me. And if I accept that, and wait and watch carefully, and force nothing, I know I will find the tendrils that connect me back to joy again. This isn’t a quick process. I’ve learned to trust myself on this. I’m not generally patient. But there is no other way. I know that if I don’t do this, things so very badly indeed. 

That's where I've been lately, following those tendrils. Spending lots of time alone, doing whatever I want, which is often a whole lot of nothing. I've been reading a lot of mysteries, and running sometimes, and doing a few hikes. Lot's of cooking-- the spring vegetables are starting to show up at the farmers markets, and there's so much that's fresh and green right now! And the rhubarb is out, so there's that tart sweet pleasure to enjoy. I've been working library shifts, which is one of the ways I earn enough to go to school, and it's a way of being in the thick of people in the right sort of way. (Spoiler alert: I'm actually applying to train as a librarian, which seems like such a better fit for me and how I want to live. I won't hear for a month or so whether I'm accepted, and I won't start until January, but it's a tentative plan that has a lot of joy and hope and openness in it, and I'm very pleased with that.)  I've been doing enough of the academic work to keep things ticking, but not a whole lot. I've been hanging out with my lovely husband, walking and eating and going to some great concerts. 

All of that is starting to feel pretty good. There really is a lot of joy here in my life, right now. 

What does this have to do with being sober? Well, everything, I think. For me, the first two times  I quit drinking, I didn't feel a need to reevaluate everything in my life. But sooner or later, the tensions in my life pulled me back to the drink. (No need to get into too much detail here, but I will say that the busyness and stress and alienation of my academic work was part of that.) Now I am committed to not drinking. It has no appeal anymore, and if it ever did bring me fun and connection and some of what I'd longed for, that had stopped working for me ages ago anyway. And along with living without alcohol, I'm committed to finding a way to live that suits the person I am. Some of what I find seems obvious (after 14 years of working in libraries, I find I like libraries!) But it wasn't obvious to me earlier. This process of becoming more myself is a slow one, and it's not so easy, but I'm liking it. I think a lot of the pain and angst that I have felt (and that I've inflicted on people kind enough to read along here) has been the result of me not fitting too well in my life and not being able to see that. People talk about laying down the big burden that they don't need to carry anymore. That's exactly what this all feels like to me. 

So that's me these days. I'm still a little low, but I also have a lot of moments of hope and joy, and that's what always gets me through these low spells. And I have a new appreciation for who I am, which means making some major life changes and avoiding others. I feel like I'm figuring this out, and I'm so very glad to be sober and finding my way.

Thanks as always for your company and support. Peace and joy to you, and a good dollop of hope, too!

Sunday 1 May 2016

Round 3, Day 228: A little bit lost

When I first realized I needed to get sober, it didn't start out as me thinking I needed to quit drinking. I knew I drank too much, and I knew I'd need to "cut down on the drinking." (Quick side note: cutting back wasn't the answer for me, but I gave it a few good runs, and now no one would be able to convince me that it's an option.)

The bigger problem was a deep sense that I didn't know how to know what I felt. This is something I've written about on the blog here and there, and in some short fiction I've written as well. It's sometimes an obsession. I find myself easily swamped by the world, and when I am swamped, I don't know how to separate my own voice from the voice of the world.

There's plenty of advice kicking around about this, except I don't find much of it all that helpful. People will say, "Listen to your inner voice," or "Don't give in to social pressure," as though it were clear to them which voices were the voices of others and which were their own. Maybe it is clear to them. It's not clear to me though. Sometimes I think my inner voice is a ventriloquist. I have read an enormous amount of fiction and memoir over the years, and I have an easy time imagining myself into the heart of a character. Recently, I was talking to an advisor about the direction I am taking (or not taking) with my academic work, and he said that I should only follow such and such a path if I "could absolutely not imagine doing anything else in the world." That doesn't help me much. I can imagine just about anything! That's the root of the problem. I can picture me in many possible lives. I just don't know how to know which one is the one I want to do. Not being able to imagine otherwise just sounds dim to me.

When I started to get sober, I quickly thought that getting the drink out of the way would address this issue. I figured if I didn't drink anymore, all the ability to feel and connect and know would somehow bubble up naturally. That's a sweet idea. But it doesn't seem to work that way for me.

For me, this is really the pressing issue. I guess I have been somewhat depressed lately. I felt some blessed relief when I withdrew from the various "shake up my life" academic applications. I'm not setting my husband and me up to move cities, countries, careers, or at least not in the next few months. OK. But I don't know what I am doing either.

Being as uncertain as this leaves me swinging wildly between raging doubt and brief, temporary certainties about various possible paths. It's hard to even write about, as I can just hear the platitudes about taking things one day at a time, and they make me want to scream! If I am going to continue with school, I have to find a way to do it--some combination of a program, a supervisor, or an institution that will support my study. That's a long term plan that involves a series of steps, not just a single day focus. Long term planning requires a kind of muscular vision, an ability to see at least the thread of a possible path, along with the flexibility to take the better step along that path when that step is available. And having a vision is something I can do, but it all seems so wildly speculative, and it falls back to nothing so easily. Even if I were not going to continue with school, I'd need to find my way in the working world, and all the same things would be needed there.

Somehow I see that, to get through this, I need a better sense of who I am and what I want. And I'm not sure how to get it. I'm middle aged, I'm reasonably smart and sociable and I've done lots of interesting things in my life. But in some important ways, I feel like a blank slate. Sure, not 100% blank. There are some things I'm sure I like, and some I don't. I despise the taste of turnip. I'm scared of barking dogs. I'm easily startled. Sometimes I get rattled in noisy, chaotic environments, but I worked in one for eight years and often thrived in it. I love the buzz of the city, and fast-paced, witty conversation. I also love sitting alone reading, and getting away from the buzzy city. I remember the glaring certainty of hating the taste of turnip as a two-year-old, spitting it across the kitchen table form my seat in the high-chair, and I remember quickly learning, with a different certainty, that spitting out food you don't like wasn't what people did. But most things aren't that certain. And I'm not two anymore.

I have no answers today, and not much comfort to offer myself or anyone. At between 7 and 8 months sober, I don't feel I have much sense of myself and what I want in the world. The giant blank of it all frightens me. But this is where I am right now. I'm not at all tempted to drink, but the problems that the drink covered up are more glaring. And the escape drink provided is lost to me for good. I guess I wanted to write this because writing sometimes brings me closer to a real knowing. Maybe in time I'll know more. For now though, I'm just a little bit lost.

Thanks for keeping me company in this somewhat bleak post. Wishing you peace and joy, and some knowing.