Remembering

I recently passed the date where a year ago I relapsed after rehab. I felt strange about it all day, just kind of uneasy. Not that I was worried that I would relapse again. Just that all the memories were coming back to me.

It’s easy these days to go a long time without having to think about what happened to me. I’m able to push it out of my mind and forget about it. And when it resurfaces, even just for a moment, I have feelings of sadness.

It was a hard day for me that day. My husband had been in a serious accident. I was only home for about three weeks at that time. The experience was just too much for me. And instead of employing the safe coping strategies I had been taught at rehab, I fell back to my old ways. It was almost too easy to drift back to that place. I justified it to myself by saying, I’ve been to rehab, I’m good. One drink to take the edge off will be fine.

Well, I know full well now that one drink will never be fine. I can’t ever go there again. It simply doesn’t work for me anymore.

I recalled how sad and scared I was that day, both about my husband and also about stepping over the line again and drinking. There was so much uncertainty in my mind. Remembering myself in those scared, lost moments makes me very sad. I’m sad that I was ever that person. And I’m scared of someday becoming that person again.

Not drinking is much easier these days. I hardly ever think of it at all, even when I’m having a particularly stressful day. I’ve got a lot of other things I can do to get past it, and I do that instead. But sometimes the memory of being so deep in alcoholism that I knew no way out, and the memory of sad, stressful times in my life, they get the best of me. I try to talk it out, but I can’t quite find the words for exactly how I feel.

People in my life are worried I will relapse when I talk about feeling sad or stressed. I don’t worry about that, but I do wish away the bad feelings. I have been taught to sit with the feelings, analyze them, really let myself feel them. And also remind myself that the bad feelings will eventually pass, and things will feel ok again. That can be more difficult to do in practice than it seems in theory. I still struggle with this.

If you find yourself on the brink of relapse, I urge you to reach out to someone, anyone. A counselor, a friend, your spouse. There’s no feeling so big that someone won’t be willing to help you with it. And once you talk it out, it’s likely you won’t feel such an urge to drink. Once you let out all the feelings, and talk them out with someone, they seem less heavy, more manageable.

You can always find another way out. Going backwards doesn’t get you out, it sinks you further down. You need to keep moving forward, and moving on.

Surviving and Thriving

I haven’t written in ages! I’m so sorry. Part of the reason is that this time of year is so incredibly busy, with parties, and dinners, and gifts to wrap, and gifts to send, and a big pile of cards to address.

The other reason is that I just had my third foot surgery. The bone structure in my feet leaves a lot to be desired. I had both feet operated on, but was warned I might need to have the left one operated on again sometime. It had started causing me some pain again, and we met our insurance deductible for the year, so I went for it.

The whole premise of surgery worried me. Not just being put under anesthesia and being cut open and being in pain and recovering from it forever. But also, I was going to be prescribed a narcotic pain killer. Would I take it? What would happen if I did? What did this mean for me, a recovering alcoholic?

I was afraid it would trigger something inside of me. The Reality-is-Best-Dealt-With-Under-the-Influence side of me I had fought so hard to get rid of. I was also afraid that all the sitting around and boredom would also trigger something inside of me.

I took the medication. I was in an incredible amount of pain the first few days, and I didn’t know how else to deal with it.

And it was fine. I didn’t at all like how the medication made me feel. It made it hard for me to eat and sleep, two things I need desperately to do right now. And when I did sleep, it gave me insane nightmares. And during the day, I felt dizzy, loopy, spacey, just uncomfortable. I was relieved when I could take Aleve and get by. And it still took a few days for the loopiness to subside.

One of my counselors in rehab said generally people my age don’t give up one addiction and find another. Young people often do, they are willing to try a variety of different things. But by the time you’re in your 30s or 40s, you have found your “substance of choice” and are unlikely to turn to something else. I’m so glad this is the case for me, and it’s a weight off my mind to know.

Though I would urge you to tread very carefully if you’re put in the same situation. Because there is always that chance when you are an addict to become addicted to just about anything. So, it’s important to be aware of that and mindful of how you feel on any substance. And if prescription medications are your substance of choice, then obviously you need to be even more careful, and avoid them completely if possible.

I find through this experience that I’ve come a very long way from the person I used to be. Back in the day, this might have been a huge issue for me. But, not only do I not want alcohol at all anymore, but I’m still mindful enough of my addiction to be careful what I put in my body. I learned many things about myself and about addiction through my experience in rehab, and I have seen that I can put that knowledge to use in my everyday life.

I feel stronger now than ever. I can make the right choices. I’m happier being sober. This happiness can be the rest of my life, instead of the misery I was feeling this time last year. And that feels amazing.

Lizard Brain

The “lizard brain” or limbic cortex of our brain is the oldest part of the brain. It is responsible for many of our subconscious behaviors, and our emotions. It is also the source of our “fight or flight” response to trauma.

Impulse control is in another part of the brain, which doesn’t fully form until we are in our mid-20s. This is why small children have a hard time regulating impulses, including hurting their peers and blurting out exactly what they’re thinking, appropriate or not. They also have a hard time being able to understand reason and logic.

For addicts, the lizard brain is mostly responsible for your addiction. It stores information about how good using feels, and how your body “needs” a substance. It’s very difficult, almost impossible, to change how the lizard brain feels about addiction, which is why cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to treat addiction: changing the way we act in order to eventually change the way we think.

It’s important to remember that our loved ones that watched us in the throes of our addiction, and helping us through recovery and also in a sort of recovery of their own. And their lizard brain is programmed to detect lapses on our part.

Overnight last night, someone left an empty wine bottle and some empty beer bottles in a paper bag on the ground next to our recycling bin, which was on the curb for today’s collection. My husband’s first reaction was that it was mine. His lizard brain went back to a place where he would find bottles, or in some other way find out I’d been drinking again.

The bottles weren’t mine, and I deeply resent the person who left them there. Why not throw them in a trash can? In their own trash bin? Leave it on the curb if you must? Or even throw it in the damn recycling bin that was right there? I’ll never understand why some people do the things that they do.

Since they weren’t mine, I was tasked with trying to convince my husband they weren’t mine. But all the words I could think of, everything that was coming out of my mouth, was some excuse or cover up that I had used in the past. So it obviously triggered old memories in his lizard brain. With the exception of the fact that I am taking Antabuse, all signs pointed to a relapse. My husband didn’t see any other way.

The point of me telling you this story is for you to remember that you’re not the only one in recovery. Your addiction was drugs, alcohol, etc. Your loved one’s addiction was you. Taking care of you. Worrying about you. Watching you closely. It can be just as hard for them to give that up as it was for you to give up using. If this kind of situation arises in your relationships, be as patient as you can. And remember that you are still earning back trust. You are still under suspicion. They are still on guard. It’s one of the difficult truths of being in recovery. Just because you’re clean doesn’t mean the past has been magically erased, and everyone feels as great and accomplished as you do.

But don’t let it set you back either. You know the truth about your addiction and your recovery, and nothing will change reality, not even a little distrust. Stay strong and stay on the path to recovery, despite what others think. There’s a tendency amongst addicts to think, “Well, if they think I’m using even when I’m not, then why am I not just doing it anyway?” But, of course you know why you’re not doing it. It was ruining your life, it was ruining your health and it was making you miserable. A little bump in the road like this should not take all of that away from you.

Reward Yourself

I have blogged about this topic before. About rewarding yourself for things you do right, and treating yourself, because you deserve it.

Today I am 181 days sober, which makes 6 month! I think about how I felt when I was in rehab, and after my relapse, and how 6 months seemed impossible. How could I possibly stay sober for that long? These days it feels easy. Not effortless, by any means. I’m still being propped up by counseling and medication, and I’m still taking life one day at a time. But being and staying sober is not the chore it used to be.

I’m here to tell you that you can do it too, no matter how hard or scary it feels. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and the days will pass before you know it.

This week’s safe coping strategy is:

Reward yourself. Find a healthy way to celebrate anything you do right.

For my six month anniversary, I got a pedicure. And tonight I’m going out for a fancy dinner with my husband. Six months sober is an amazing accomplishment, and I’m going to reward myself for it.

I used to down play my accomplishments. It’s only six months. I’m still an addict. Stuff like that. But, I’ve learned over time to own my accomplishments, and to be proud of myself. It’s better to focus on the positive than to get down on myself for the negative or to look to the future with fear. I’d love to be able to say the next six months will be a breeze, but that’s not true. But, I don’t think about that. I think about here, now, today. Today I have been sober for 6 months, and that’s a great thing.

Reward yourself for one day, one week, one month, three months, all of it. The work you’re doing is difficult, and anyone doing it successfully is an amazing individual. Pat yourself on the back and give yourself a treat.

But please, do not fall into the trap of thinking things are “safe” again, as in, that you could use again. This is dangerous thinking, and almost every single person falls right back into the old self. They cannot recreationally use anymore. It will only lead to a disastrous relapse. Which is why the coping strategy says to find a healthy way to celebrate.

Take yourself on a date, spend a day doing things that make you happy. Take the day off of work. Go on a little trip. Do whatever it is that feels like a reward to you. Because you deserve it.

The Role of Trauma

This week’s safe coping strategy is:

Link PTSD and substance abuse. Recognize substances as an attempt to self-medicate.

I don’t know if I qualify as having full-blown PTSD or not, but I don’t think that’s the point here. All I know is that my drinking picked up speed very quickly following my miscarriage in 2011. Then, it improved a bit. I went a long time without drinking, as I was pregnant with my second son from January to September 2012, and breastfeeding him after that. When I was diagnosed with melanoma in March of 2013, it started back up again, and was about 10 times worse than before.

These were two traumas I experienced, and I went into a sort of anxious shock after each. Though, I didn’t recognize it for what it was, either time. I didn’t recognize that I was in a pit of depression, and I didn’t realize that I was having full-blown anxiety attacks pretty much all the time. And I certainly didn’t recognize that I was using alcohol to numb myself to the anxiety and the pain. But looking back, I can see that’s exactly what was happening. I’m like a textbook case for self-medication.

Some people endure massive trauma: complicated military service, sexual abuse, death of a spouse, severe illness, loss of money or property, losing an important job. And these people often become addicts too, in response to their tragedy. But, “smaller” tragedies can have the same effect on us.

It can be easy to miss the signs as an addict. All you know is when you drink or use, you feel better. And at first, you think it’s no big deal, because you’re not really doing that often. But it soon begins to take over your life, before you’ve even realized it. In AA, they call addiction a “cunning and baffling disease” because it seems to creep in slowly and sneakily, and wreaks havoc before you even know there’s a problem. The people in your life can often see the problem right away, but unless they confront you, you rarely see it for yourself.

Ask yourself now if there is any trauma in your life you might have been numbing yourself to. It can often make you feel a little less shame and guilt to realize your response to your trauma was completely normal. And if you’re getting the help you need, and staying sober, then you’re doing the right thing and you’re on the rig

Paranoia

Have you ever been so paranoid, that you thought someone could see you, from across a city, through walls and buildings, and miles away? Well, I have.

There came a point with my drinking, when my husband asked me to cut back. And when that didn’t exactly work, we decided together that I would stop completely.

But, as a fellow addict, I’m sure you know how hard that was. I stumbled a lot along the way. A LOT. There were times I was drinking a lot, all day long on occasions. And every swig I took, I thought he could see me. He was miles away at work, but I was sure he could see me somehow.

Half my brain knew that was impossible, but the other half was convinced he would know, somehow. Did he hide cameras in the house? Did he never actually leave for work that day, and was lurking outside, watching me from the street? Was he going to come home early, and walk in the door, and catch me drinking, redhanded?

I also thought he could see all bottles I had hidden around the house. They were well hidden, and I rotated hiding spots to throw him off the trail. But the neurotic paranoid side of me was sure that he could see them. Like, there were bright, glowing orbs of light around each of them. Blinking on and off, like those arrow signs directing people to a rest stop. “Here they are. All her secrets and lies. Yours for the finding.”

When I was drinking, I felt free. Like I could do anything. And in that state, I figured other people could do anything too. Like seeing through walls and just knowing I was up to something. And of course, when you are up to something, you act funny. Suspicious. So, I always did get caught at some point. No matter how careful I was. At a SMART meeting once, the leader of the group said, “The longer you do something, the more likely it is that someone will notice.” And it was never more true than hiding my drinking from my husband. I was never successful, always got caught. It didn’t help that I was trying to be so sneaky and deceptive while I was drunk. Have you ever done anything like that successfully while under the influence?

Drinking also exacerbates paranoia. Especially the morning after, when you’re in recovery mode. Drinking heightens anxiety, and any paranoia and anxiety you were already feeling are magnified intensely.

When I stopped drinking for good, I felt so carefree and relaxed, and after a few weeks it dawned on me that it was because I wasn’t hiding things around the house anymore. And I wasn’t doing anything wrong, or suspicious, or deceptive. It was amazingly freeing to not have to lie, and lie to cover up the lie, and then lie some more. There were no hidden bottles to make me feel like Lady MacBeth with the burn that wouldn’t heal, that reminded her of the crime she had committed.

Think of how tied down, how bound you feel when you’re drinking or using in secret. How the bright, hot redness of fear and paranoia follow you wherever you go. And then imagine if those feelings could suddenly be lifted from your life, and how great that would feel.

Giving up your addiction of choice, getting the help you need to kick the habit and then sticking to it will do wonders for this. I still have bouts of paranoia now and again, even though I’m not drinking anymore. I think it’s an old habit. But certainly one that I can break. The longer I go without drinking, the better my chances are of getting rid of those feelings altogether.

 

Meetings

My counselor asked me to write about meetings and how helpful I have found them to be, for people who may be thinking of attending 12-step or other meetings, and are wondering what they are like. This week’s safe coping strategy:

Go to a meeting. Feet first; just get there and let the rest happen.

I think what the wording here is trying to say is just go. Even if you’re doubting the process and are nervous and aren’t sure if it’s for you, just try it at least once.

I went to my first AA meeting about a year ago, when I was first attempting to get sober, on my own. My husband urged me to join AA, and found meetings near us that were convenient for me to attend. He drove me to my first meeting, and waited outside for me while I was there. I was so nervous, I was visibly shaking and I felt dizzy. I didn’t know what to expect. My hugest fear was that I’d be forced to speak. And I didn’t know what kind of crowd awaited me.

When I walked in, I was only the third person to arrive. The secretary was there, setting up, and there was also an older gentleman there, dressed nicely, wearing a fedora. When he saw me, he said to me in an East Coast Italian accent, “Well, you don’t look like a drunk.” It made me laugh, and he introduced himself, and I felt a little more at ease.

When the meeting started, we all went around the room and said the line you know from TV and movies, “Hello, my name is … and I’m an alcoholic.” Other than that, I was not expected to speak at all. And I didn’t, not for my first two or three meetings.

It got easier, and I always found the meetings helpful. The topics of discussion were always relevant to me and there was a sort of kinship, being in a room full of people that are in the same boat as you–just trying to recover and feel better.

I went to meetings off and on for the next few months. After attending rehab and other recovery meetings, I have found that while AA is incredibly supportive and helpful, it’s not my favorite group. Mainly, they say in their literature that the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking.” We all have the desire, but not necessarily the action. I have been to many a meeting where an attendee is obviously under the influence of something. And I myself went to some meetings having had a drink before I went. This seemed counterproductive, to allow this to happen.

I have gone to what are called SMART recovery meetings. SMART stands for Self Management and Recovery Training. They help with the recovery from anything, from prescription drugs to behavioral addictions, such as gambling and sex. There, they do not allow you to attend if they can tell you’ve been using. People are not allowed to wear attire that advertises drugs or alcohol. And they do exercises, similar to the worksheets I did in rehab. This kind of environment was much better for my recovery and I found a higher level of success.

There are far fewer SMART meetings to attend than AA meetings, which is one of the downsides. And one of the reasons I keep going to AA, even though it’s not my “favorite.” AA is still useful, and much more readily available. It’s a good starting off point, if you are in early recovery.

Your first meeting will be scary. You will be nervous. But rest assured you won’t have to talk any more than you want to. And the people will be friendly. And you will belong. It will make you feel good to have attended a meeting, and that you have made progress in your recovery. And they call them meetings. So, if someone asks you where you’re going or why you’re busy, you just say, “I have a meeting.” Who can argue with or judge that?

I urge you to find a meeting close to you, and go. Even if just the once. It’s a great tool to have in your arsenal, and it will make you feel good. I know this, because even when I truly did not want to go, and I dragged my feet all the way in, I always left feeling good about the experience.

I once broke down and cried listening to another AA member share at a meeting I attended while in rehab. His story touched me to the bone, and I just couldn’t help but let it out. Afterward, several people approached me to find out if I was ok. They were truly concerned by my reaction and wanted to help in any way they could.

Meetings are the most supportive thing you can do for yourself. It will open you up to a whole community of people in recovery. People who have been where you are. People who are where you were before, that you can help with your experience. It’s amazing what human interaction can do for your sanity and your recovery.

Trinkets and Treasures

This week’s safe coping strategy:

Inspire yourself. Carry something positive.

I carry around two things from my time in rehab that are symbols of my sobriety.

The first is my 30-day AA chip. It is red and made of some lightweight metal. It is nothing overly special. But it reminds me of a time when I only had 30 days under my belt, and how scary and empowering that felt, all at the same time. It also reminds me of my relapse, and how I gave the chip to my husband and told him to give it back to me when I “earned it.” And I did. And now I have 160 days and it’s amazing to look back and see the progress I’ve made.

I also carry a small, smooth, light green rock. Towards the end of my first stay in rehab, a counselor put a pile of pretty little stones on the table, in all colors, shapes and sizes. She told us to choose one to represent our time there, and to carry it with us wherever we went. And that’s what I do. Every time I see it, I’m reminded of all the times I smiled in rehab, and all the positive things we did there. I’m reminded of the bonding I did with the other woman who stayed there at the time. We remain friends.

I carry both with me in my wallet, and see them nearly every day. And each time I see them, I am filled with positive thoughts and feelings, about me, my choice to attend rehab, my recovery, my future.

Choose something for yourself, something small you can carry with you to remind you of your recovery. Why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for. It can be anything as long as it means something to you. A poem, a ticket stub, a pebble, a ring or necklace, a button.

Sometimes it takes something physical and visceral to remind us of what’s important. Something we can reach out and touch, rather than the abstract “recovery” or “sobriety”, or our feelings. This little trinket will serve this purpose for you. And it will also help you stay positive and focused. Positivity is extremely important in recovery, so why not take all the help you can get?

Do you already have a special memento you carry? Or do you have one in mind you’d like to use?

Honesty

A huge part of my recovery has been owning up to my own mistakes and being fully honest with myself, my husband and my children. Once you get rid of the lies and the secrets, you feel free, and you can truly relax and be yourself. For this week, I have chosen the safe coping strategy:

Honesty. Secrets and lying are at the core of PTSD and substance abuse; honesty heals them.

No doubt, at some point during the development of your addiction, you began to tell lies, hold secrets and hide things from your partner or other loved ones, from coworkers and from friends. And you also told yourself lies to justify your addiction.

At some point, you were caught in a lie, which is usually the first thing that leads an addict to get help and enter the life of recovery. It might be a very long time between that first time getting caught and a life of sobriety, but it’s usually what gets the ball rolling.

As an addict it’s painful to wake up every day, participating in your addiction and wanting to stop, but not knowing how to stop. Knowing you’re causing yourself harm, but continuing anyway. But what can be even more painful is the guilt and shame you carry around from all the lies you’ve told to your loved ones, and all the things you’re hiding and keeping secret. Carrying all of that around is exhausting. Keeping up with your enormous web of lies, finding hiding places for those things you’re physically hiding, seeing the love and trust in your loved ones’ eyes as you tell them a lie, it’s a terrible feeling.

I hid alcohol all around the house. And I told my husband I hadn’t drank, even though I had. And I really thought I was getting away with something. But, eventually the guilt and shame caught up with me. And I was so paranoid, all of the time. It exacerbated my already serious anxiety issues to have to constantly be looking over my shoulder and making sure I covered my tracks.

When I went to rehab, and I put all my cards on table with my husband, I felt such a sense of relief. Feelings of guilt and shame lingered, but at least he knew everything now. I could just breathe, and be myself again, and not have to constantly fear being found out.

And over time I learned to be honest with myself. In SMART Recovery, we do an exercise called Refutations. You take one of your old excuses, one of the lies you told yourself to justify your using, and you come up with all the reasons that it’s wrong. For example, I used to tell myself, “I’ll just have one drink.” Knowing full well that it never ended with just one drink. Or, “No one will know.” But the truth is, everyone knew. It’s pretty hard to hide being drunk.

Being able to examine your thoughts, and to be honest with yourself about what you’re thinking is a big part of recovery. Knowing that you need to avoid your substance of choice at all costs, and stop that little voice full of excuses dead in its tracks when it starts up in your head.

The honesty doesn’t stop there though. It continues throughout your daily life from here on out. Be honest with yourself about how it felt to be in a group of people who were drinking. Be honest with yourself about how it feels to see that aisle in the grocery store. Be honest with yourself about how you’re doing day-to-day, are you having a good day or a bad day? Can you pinpoint why? Staying in touch with your feelings and opening yourself up to discussing these feelings with your partner or a counselor will help you a lot as you struggle through those first days in recovery.

Being honest with your partner will help you earn back all the lost trust too. Those wounds take enormous amounts of time to fully heal, but full, true honesty, and lots of talking things out, will help the process along. Think of honesty as a medicine that’s helping to heal all the pain and suffering your addiction caused.

But above all else, it really is an amazing feeling to be able to be truly open and honest with yourself and your loved ones. You will feel free once again, and relieved of the burden of guilt, shame, and lies. No more will they hold you down. Living a open and honest life can only lead to good things.

Confidence

“Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

–Helen Keller

I’m not known for my confidence. As a child, I was known for basically the opposite: my shyness. I was highly anxious, even as a kid, and lived in constant fear of saying the wrong thing, or saying something that someone would deem stupid. As I matured, I also began to fear saying something that might make someone angry, or stir up controversy.

When I knew the answer in class, I never raised my hand. Every time a teacher asked a question I knew the answer to, and I sat there in silence until the teacher finally revealed the answer, my answer, I wanted to slap myself in the back of the head. Just raise your hand! What are you afraid of?

It’s silly to look back on, now that I’m much older and have matured and could go back and reassure my teenage self that everything would be fine. But, the fear back then was real. I would sit in classes where the teacher called on people randomly, and have silent panic attacks. Heart racing, body shaking, palms sweating, and just pray I wouldn’t have to say anything.

I had no confidence back then. No one had ever really instilled in me a sense of confidence. For reasons unbeknownst to me, that it will probably take a licensed professional years to dig up, I am not a fan of myself, generally speaking. I am not confident enough to take risks and try new things, because I am afraid of failing. I am not confident enough to speak my mind or express myself, because I am afraid of criticism. And I am not confident enough to fully open up to other people, because I am afraid of the vulnerability and shame.

When it finally became clear to me that I needed to choose the path to sobriety, I wasn’t confident about that either. It seemed impossible for me to do it. It promised to be painful, scary, difficult and uncomfortable. It took weeks of having my self-esteem re-inflated by the counselors at rehab before I had a shred of belief that I could manage life without alcohol.

And then I finally realized that I was going to have to muster some semblance of self-confidence if I was going to have any chance at succeeding. This is why they have me listening to and repeating so many affirmations, I realized. Because they were rebuilding my confidence. My hope. My belief that I could do it.

In the end, the only thing stopping you from doing anything is a lack of confidence. It’s the last road block that’s left at the end of a plan or a dream. You have to break through all the messages coming at you that you’re not worthy, you’re not able to, you can’t, you shouldn’t, you won’t, you never will, you aren’t going to.

You need to move past all of that. Or through it. Over it, under it, whatever it takes. And then you’re there. And then you can look back at your struggle. And here’s the best part about confidence: once you get a little bit of it in you, it grows, and grows and grows. And pretty soon, you’re unstoppable. And your confidence spreads to those around you, and they believe in you too.

I’m 96 days sober. And I never could have done it without self-confidence. And now, I feel like I can accomplish so much more. I look forward to the next 96 days, instead of dreading them. And the days and months and years after that. I am excited to see what I can do.

In your struggle to be sober, you must believe in yourself, above all else.