Monday 26 September 2016

One year sober, second time around: belonging, healing

It's a week or so late for me to celebrate on the blog but I am here now and I'm celebrating anyway! Today is day 376 of the third round of committed sober living for me, which means it's 10 days past my second time reaching a full year sober. Today I want to reflect on what's different this time, what's working for me, and what I'm learning now that I didn't know before.

First, some numbers: Because one thing I've learned is that cumulative sober time matters. Since July 2013, I've had three stretches of living sober. Over the past 3 years and 2 months, I've been sober for 2 years and 8 months. During that time, over two periods that totalled almost 6 months, I drank. For me, both times when I returned to drinking, stepping back into that world meant I quickly lost the day-to-day gains I had gleaned from being sober. The first time I came back to sober again around 2 months later. Last summer I drank -- lightly, then eventually at times heavily -- for just over 3 months before I decided that I genuinely enjoyed sober living more. Both times, drinking initially seemed to allow me to reconnect with the world I missed, the late night camaraderie and raucous humour of drinkers, the softer edged glow of wine filled evenings. Both times, it didn't work for long. Being sober worked its magic on me even when I tried to leave it behind. The longer I'd been sober, the more I felt drawn to the living with a clear mind and enjoying the quieter pleasures of sober living. After long stretches sober, late night boozy conversations (that no one could completely remember afterwards) and the warm glow of drinking with others seemed a poor substitute for the kind of real connection with others I longed for.

Getting sober again didn't entirely bring me that connection. I still only have tendrils that I am starting to see are growing into real connections. But I see that I do need to feel connection, I need to feel a sense of belonging to the world. And I see that alcohol gave me just an occasional, fleeting taste of that. Not one I could rely on. And eventually, not one that I could continue to substitute for the real thing.

This past weekend, I attended a conference, one I've attended now for three years. It's a very small group, about 16 people, and we spend three days living together, sharing meals and walks, listening to papers and discussing them. Three years ago, I was newly sober (3 months), and I was excited to spend days talking with people about ideas. Nights I sat up with the drinkers and sipped fizzy water, happy to be part of the group. It was all new and exciting, and I think that newness substituted some of the buzz that drinking used to bring. The second year, I led a discussion that went very well, and I felt like a contributing member of the group. I was newly sober, again, (one week!) and suffering a very bad flu, so at night I went to bed at nine and ignored the festive part of things. This year, I was, for the third time, sober at the conference. But this time I was solidly sober, and the newness of the event had worn off. And this time, I felt strongly the damage drinking does at these events, and how central it is to the social thing that's happening there as it's currently structured. People spend nights sitting up late drinking together, where they knit together a sense of belonging that's an important counterpoint to the solitude of of academic life. Evenings people knit themselves into the group via the social, and if during the day the conversation gets heated and even mean, the sense of belonging to the group helps heal the rifts. It's all ritual, and all the parts matter.

But it doesn't work. Some people don't sit up drinking. This year, I didn't. The first night, when I said goodnight early, one of the hard drinkers made a joke that all that San Pellegrino had done me in and I'd have been better off joining them in the wine so I could stay up. I said, "I'd rather go to sleep." And this was the tone of the evenings this year. The next night, I went to a yoga class after the days talks. I ate dinner with the group but by then many were already well into the drink, and as a group they were rude and boring. I noticed that only about a third of the group were hard drinkers. Among the others, some slipped in and out, seemingly enjoying the fun but not completely merging with the group. But that hard drinking group was a core of the event, so that belonging to it conferred a kind of glow that changed how what people said was taken up in conversation during the days, and there were many unexplained references like "as we were talking about last night" as though the whole group had been there, or at least anyone who mattered had been.

As you can tell from this description, I found the event quite alienating. At times, I didn't belong, nor did I want to belong to a group who would carry on in that manner. There's a lot to say about his that I'll skip here, because I really am talking about my changing relationship to alcohol, and my deepened awareness of the social role it plays. I see that alcohol is used to replace the hard work of finding ways to communicate with each other. Drinking was the route to instant membership in the group, and members were relieved from having to take responsibility for their statements. Rudeness and stupid comments were accepted from people because they were "good guys" and "you can't take him seriously." People who didn't join in during the evenings, (not just me) had to work harder to be heard during the day. So alcohol divided the group even as it knit a smaller one together.

It makes me feel sad to see that this kind of belonging is what used to feel meaningful to me. I'm happy to say that it's not what matters to me any more. After this full year sober, and three years of working on figuring out this drinking thing, I feel I see more clearly the great lie that alcohol offers. We all need to belong. But belonging means real sharing of yourself, making yourself vulnerable and being open to opposing perspectives and finding common sources of meaning through the real, hard work of communicating and authentic being with each other. That's what matters to me now. Ephemeral feelings of belonging that are built through conversations no one can remember and the camaraderie of shared hangovers is a sad substitute.

Of everything I've learned in my three years working on this, and especially over this past year living sober, that's been my most powerful lesson. These days, I don't have the kind of belonging that I know I want, and probably need. I am very happy with my husband, but in the wider world I'm still lonely, still on the outside a lot of the time. That may have been why this weekend was, for me, so very painful. But I do know that we all need to belong. And if alcohol offers a false way into that, in a world that doesn't offer much in the way of real belonging, I can see why it had such power over me for so long, and why it still has power over so many. I feel a deep compassion for the me of several years ago, and for anyone who needs alcohol for the glimmer of belonging it offers.

This time, at one full year sober, I feel like I am finding my way to bigger life changes. One is my shift away from the academic world, as I've found that it can't be the source of meaning and intellectual companionship I had hoped it to be. I have to look elsewhere for that, but I think I'm better equipped to find it now. Also, I am finally beginning to understand what people talk about when they talk about the wisdom of the body. I am loving this yoga thing I've started! (Imagine, me, loving yoga! It's like saying I finally realized turnips are delicious (still not likely) or that sleep is overrated (equally unlikely!)) And through it, I am starting to be able to know my own reactions. Yesterday, driving back to the airport after the final meeting of the conference, I realized I felt very sad, and that I wasn't quite breathing. I couldn't. I stopped at a little health food cafe to buy myself something to eat on the plane, but as I sat there, I realized what I really wanted was to sit in what felt like a healing space. Later, once my flight had landed back in Vancouver and I was walking home from the Skytrain, still not quite breathing, I noticed the red leaves still on the trees, and I felt lifted up by the beauty, surrounded by the flashes of that quick fall red and by the dark, constant green of the tall firs that line the road to my apartment. Walking along, I acknowledged to myself, "I really hated a lot of what went on this weekend," and with that I felt as though a metal band around my chest had fallen away and I took a deep, healing breath. (And that same deep, healing breath just breathed me again as I typed about it.) This is something that the yoga is bringing me, and it's what I have needed, though I wasn't open to it before now.

At this celebration of one year sober, I am confronting some big questions: Who am I? What makes me happy? What do I love? Where do I belong? I don't have answers. But I feel I'm on the road to some answers, and some joyful exploration of these meaningful questions. That's the next stage of sober living for me. And I feel blessed to be here.

Thanks as always, fellow travellers, for reading, for your fine company and your supportive comments. This sober blog space is one place of belonging for me. I hope it's one for you, too. Peace and joy to you.

Monday 12 September 2016

Round 3, day 362: Language, people, bodies

I think the biggest thing I'm learning as I find my way through sober living is how much I have let other people influence me. I mentioned this in my last post, and I've been thinking about it since then. One thing I need to learn as I head into another sober year is how to live respectfully with others without being overly influenced by them.

I am sometimes complimented on being so intuitive about other people. I sense people's moods and interactions, I notice small reactions and upsets, and I find quickly ways of acting to soothe and care for these small upsets. Which would be fine if I did the same thing for myself.

Now don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying I'm so unselfish and kind that I care too much about others and too little about myself! What I mean is that I don't know how to know my own reaction to many situations without first taking in the reactions of others, and even then it can be hard to find what part of it all is me.

Here's an example: I have started doing this yoga thing. And I'm liking it! Hooray! But I have a very hard time understanding word descriptions of physical actions. It's like I'm hearing a second language that I don't speak fluently. Someone says, "move your right foot to the left," and I think "foot, OK, right foot is that one, left is that way, so I move this part that way," but then I wonder how my weight is supposed to shift while I'm doing that, and I see that here are quite a few ways one could move the right foot to the left. It's really only when I see someone else doing the action that I think, "Oh, OK, something like that," and then I try it. I can copy actions well enough, and I'm not a perfectionist about getting that kind of thing right. I just find the language-body links are not very clear for me. I used to be a potter and when I first started taking classes, I was much the same. I loved working with clay, but I found the descriptions of what we were supposed to do incomprehensible, and it wasn't until I found a teacher I trusted enough to ask her, "Please stop talking when you're showing me and just show me," that I could get the most out of instruction. In many ways I'm all about words. But words get in the way of my body. And when I am trying to be grounded in my own body, I seem to operate best when I step outside of language.

So in my yoga class, I often don't know what I'm supposed to do. Sometimes that's frustrating. But if I'm left to figure it out on my own, and I have someone to watch, I'm kind of OK. I'm very surprised to find I like it a lot, despite so much not knowing. But this morning was rough. The instructor was extremely verbal, and I had more trouble than usual following what he was saying. And he wanted to be attentive. So he rattled off instruction after instruction and noticed when I stopped moving and just watched people. Once he brought me blocks and showed me an alternate to what the others were doing, and I felt I had to do this alternate thing, which left me balancing pretty awkwardly, holding myself up by my arms, instead of just watching to see what the others were doing. Another time he came up to ask me to see him after class if I needed help with a pose. Another time he suggested I drop my left hip, and I had to stand up to face him, figure out which was the left hip, then figure out what "drop" meant. I completely lost what I was doing, when I know he was trying to give just a slight correction. Later again he asked if I wanted him to go over a certain set of moves with me, and I just shook my head without even making eye contact. There were breath instructions that seemed to go too fast for me, so I would be exhaling when people were being asked to inhale and then I'd try to shift myself to the breath instruction but that just left me short of breath. Eventually I was so frustrated I was in tears. It was the exact feeling I'd experienced years before when I took a yoga class, which I called "Yoga rage." I could hardly catch my breath, and I felt trapped in the room with what felt like an endless list of action instructions I couldn't understand and an instructor who was taking much more notice of me than I was comfortable with, and who I felt I has to placate somehow, though I had no way to do that.

All that might make it sound like the guy was a poor instructor, but that's not where I'm going here. It's that there were just too many things going on at the same time for me. The language-body thing is already a very challenging translation effort for me. And then when the instructor started to interact with me, I really just wanted to do whatever he wanted so he would leave me alone. I get that he was trying to help me. That's his job, and he's likely good at it. But talking to him while I was trying to do the moves meant all my focus was on him, and making sure he was OK (not frustrated with me, not distracted by me from what the class needed, etc). So it was just about impossible for me to engage in any conversation with him and stay in my body.

In the first class, I think I started to understand this, and I remembered this moment after the class today. A different instructor was showing me a pose I wasn't understanding, and he asked whether I could feel the movement in my hip. I answered, "When I'm talking to you, I'm just talking. I don't feel my body at all." And I think that's the crux of the problem I'm trying to talk about here. It's not an issue of yoga, or good teachers, though those things likely matter. It's that when I'm talking to someone else, I am (often) so out of body that I have little or no physical feeling. It's not that I go numb. It's more that I shift to living in language, and when I'm there, there's not a lot of body going on.

I think this is what I mean when I say I am overly influenced by others. I mean that I lose touch with my own physical being when I talk with people. And that means I am caught in noticing everything that's happening in the emotional world of the other person, and in the language, but there's not much me there. I come back to me when I'm biking or walking or running, and that's probably why these things are so good for me. When I'm with one of the (few) people I'm close to,  I'm less cut off. But it still happens.

I know this has something do with my drinking. I used to love that moment of bringing a glass to my lips, and I think some of what I loved about that was the sheer physicality of it. I'm never, never going back to that. And I don't need to. These days I get some of that same pleasure with coffee, or ice cream, or fresh peaches in season, or a whole host of good tastes. So it's not that I'm always only in my head.

But what I want to learn is how to stay in myself so that I can talk to people without shifting so much into a "being in my head" mode that I lose touch with my physical being. I think this is the beginning of how I might start to know my own reactions. I'll be less influenced by others if I have a reaction that's separate from theirs, and I know what it is!

This is a little convoluted in my description, but maybe at least some people will know what I mean. Anyway, for now that's enough tangled words. Thanks as always for keeping me company while I figure this out. Peace and joy to you.

Monday 5 September 2016

Round 3, day 355: rambly post about NOT crashing headlong into crisis!

Hi blog world. Sorry I've been silent for such a long time. I've been in an odd patch, hunkered down thinking things through, and I seem to have needed to do that thinking away from talking with others.

First, don't worry, I'm not drinking. I say that just in case anyone is following and reads into a long silence that I might have slipped back to that. And I have no plan to drink, no desire to. Before when I drank again after long stretches sober, I spent some time thinking about how I was deluded about being sober, or hating the whole sober thing, that kind of thing. If you've been sober for a while or if you follow sober blogs, you know that lots of people go through that once in a while and drinking isn't the answer. But that's not what 's going on here.

Instead, I think I'm getting to the part of being sober where I realize I need to make some changes, and I need to do some more of what is probably called "working on myself," or anyway, taking care of myself. It's been a rough summer. My mother died -- and thanks for kind comments about this on my last post, which I very much appreciated but couldn't bring myself to answer. Mom's death was expected, and I'm doing OK with coping. Still, it's the end of a long, difficult process, losing my mom to dementia after a lifetime of dealing with the vibrant, intelligent, difficult person she was. So there's that.

Also, I've been struggling to figure out what I'm doing with my life, in particular with my academic work. I've talked about this here so many times I'm sure it's getting dull, and I still don't feel all that coherent about it, though I'm getting there. As it stands now, I've decided not to continue with pursuing a PhD in what I've been studying once my MA is complete, though preparing for a PhD is very much the main purpose of my MA program. Instead, I've been accepted into a library science program that starts in January, and I've decided to do that. So after more than 15 years of working in libraries/bookstores/publishing in one way or another, I've decided to train as a librarian. Now I feel compelled to say it's not the calm and peaceful quiet job people think when they think of the cardigan-wearing, glasses and hair-in-a-bun lady they remember from childhood libraries. I think there are lots of dynamic, interesting things I might be able to do with the degree. I think I wrote about this a while back, but since then I've done a fair amount of waffling (PhD? librarian? quit everything and move to a small town? just quit everything?) Now I've made a commitment to the program. Hooray for commitment! It means I have to finish my thesis and get it defended some time in the next few months. But it feels good to have made a decision I can stick with.

The even bigger issue, in which all this is nested, is that I see how important it is to find ways to stay connected to myself. Since I've started this blog (three years ago!) I've written over and over about finding my own way and finding my own voice. It's something that plagues me. On the one hand, in my life I come off as a strong, independent-minded woman who has no trouble speaking her own mind. And that's true, in part. But I find myself susceptible to losing my way, getting swallowed up by trying to figure out how the world works, and in doing so losing touch with what is matters most to me in that process. I think the academic world in which I've been immersed isn't so good at supporting people. In that world, I'm good at academics, and that's what counts. But though I started out keeping myself firmly planted in a healthy, day-to-day life, as I've got busier I've lost track of doing the things that support me as me. I don't cycle as often (in part because my husband's accident last summer means he can't cycle as much, but it's not just that.) I don't walk outdoors as often. I don't revel in the small moments of silence that keep me going. But more importantly, I've lost tough with how to connect what I'm doing day to day with a deeper source of meaning in my life. Starting last summer, I've been trying to speak with my supervisor about this, but those have been tough conversations. He ends up thinking I'm being critical of the work he's done, or even the way he's lived, and then the focus of the conversation shifts to me reassuring him that that's not what I'm saying instead of exploring how to stay connected to a world of meaning. I just end of feeling bad about needing to find meaning in my work, and then feeling like I'm alienating someone I've had a good connection with on top of all that. That's no fun, and it hasn't served me very well. I see that now.

In a way, I've been here before. Over the years, I have been swallowed up by the world, and eventually crashed into massive depressions. Once that happens, the world lets you go. If all you can do is sleep and cry, no one asks too much of you. At that point, you have all the time in the world you need to find your way to yourself, except you have no strength to do that with for quite some time. When I got sober (each of the THREE times I've done that! ack!) I did it by retreating into a quieter, more nurturing world. I slept well and ate well and walked/ran/cycled plenty. I treated myself like I was a living thing that needed care in order to stay alive, like I would treat a major depression. I know what works for me in that kind of crisis. After a while though, I felt better, and I got myself back to getting schoolwork done, writing papers and going to conferences and all that stuff. And I like that world. At the risk of outing myself as an even bigger nerd than you all know I am, I find academic conferences exciting! People getting together, stepping away from their day to day lives to talk about what they are thinking about and working on. But I have not been able to find a way to make the academic project sustaining for me. I feel like my studies have morphed into an area that's critical of some things that need to be criticized, but what I want to do is be part of the active world of living, not the stepping back world of criticism. I think people can do both. But I have not found a way to do so. And without being immersed in the active world of living, with all the messy hopes and sorrows that that world entails, I just dry up.

I think that's the best way of describing what's been happening to me over the past year or so. In my personal life, I'm happy. I love my husband, and I love our life together. But to follow this academic path, we've been considering moving to a bigger city in a less hospitable climate, farther away from his family and the ocean and mountains we love. And I've been feeling quite torn by it all. At the same time, I've been getting sick more often, and having spells of depression that are getting worse and closer together. I know what I might be heading into if I don't make some life changes, and it's been scaring me, but I haven't known what to do, what changes to make.

I don't think life has to be so hard. If everything looks super difficult, maybe there's another way. I've figured that out before. So recently, I've been trying to see what the easier way is. One thing I've been doing is noticing what I like doing and what I don't. What brings me joy, what doesn't. And trying to imagine a life that has more joy in it, without trying to ignore the inevitable pain and suffering that's in the world.

My answers have surprised me, though they might not surprise people close to me. I want to stay where I am. Same city, same apartment, for now. Same field I worked in before returning to university, though I'll be changed by what I've learned there. I want to write more. Blog more. Maybe take up a different kind of writing project again, rather than the academic writing I've been doing (or avoiding doing this summer.) I want to go outside more. Walk in the evenings with my husband. Do more hot yoga! (Ok that one's a big surprise to me, but I just started it and I love it. Oh, the joy of the hot room, and sweating!) I want to read novels, read mysteries, read poetry. I want to reread Rebecca Solnit and Thich Nhat Hanh and all those people who inspire me, and  figure out how to live an engaged life, one that engages me with the world, one that sustains me and contributes to the world.

So I'm going to write a serviceable thesis and defend it, pronto. And in January, I start a different kind of school program, the MLIS, which is geared to working with projects and people in a way that I can connect to differently than my academic work has allowed. I'm almost one year sober this time around, and I think I'm looking at the kind of personal life changes that I need to make to sustain being sober. No, that's not quite it. I'm seeing that there are things I can do to help myself live more fully and joyfully, and being sober helps me see that way. Avoiding seeing them is easier when you drink, but that's something I don't do any more, and I never plan to do again.

I'm a bit under the weather this week with yet another of the mild illnesses that have been knocking me sideways as I've struggled with  all this. But I feel filled with hope, and I think I am onto a solid way out of what I believe would otherwise end of in another of the kind of crash I never want to see again.  I expect I'll have more to say on this later, but for now I think I'll get out of my big yellow chair and go outdoors for a walk.

If you're still around after the long gap between my posts and then this long and possibly tortured post, thanks very much. As always, I am grateful for your company as we all figure out how to live. Peace and joy to you.