Paradise Found

I’m on vacation with my dearest friends and our husbands. Four couples, tropical island, waterfront cottage and the most beautiful, soft air and skies and colors imaginable.

It is impossible to count the shades of blue here.

While it is a far cry from the bleak,  mid-winter weather we left back on the East Coast, our tropical weather has been quite chilly and windy. Unable to snorkel and swim, my friends and husband are spending lazy afternoons with rum drinks and wandering, light-hearted conversations.

It is fun to watch. Until the third or fourth round. Then it is just silly and slightly irritating. So I go for walks and try to count the shades of blue.

Alcohol is ever present in my life and I continue to learn to live around it.

Back at home, my family and I have been preparing an intervention for my sister, the “real alcoholic.” (You will remember that I just dabbled in alcoholism with my one bottle of unoaked Chardonnay a night and daily hangovers. My sister is the real deal.) We are working with a fantastic counselor who recommend Debra Jay‘s books on alcoholism and interventions. Debra is not interested in waiting around for an alcoholic to hit her bottom. She believes we can truly intervene and stop the destruction before it takes its natural course.

What I love about Debra’s approach is that it is so honest. Yes, it is true that you cannot change someone. But you can hold them accountable for their behavior and you can hold yourself to meaningful standards. You can surround yourself with like-minded people who want to see life as it truly is, not filtered through the fuzzy lens of enabling behavior and fear. But instead relishing in the clarity of vision and purpose that truly loving another human being demands of you.

One of the biggest surprises of the process has been just how many people -smart, talented, successful people – do not want to take off the fuzzy lenses. It took two years of persistent pushing before my parents would even look at my sister’s careening life for the shitshow that it is, let alone plan an intervention to address it.

As we put together the intervention team, it was challenging to come up with the right people. We needed a handful of friends and relatives who truly love my sister, even though she is a piece of shit addict.

This means you 1) have to admit that she is an addict (very difficult for lots of people, as my sister is “functioning” outside of her home); and 2) see past the abandoned or false relationships we all currently have with her to who is really is/was, before the alcohol and drugs took over (this is also very challenging, as there are so many legitimate hurts and grievances to nurture).

Another surprise of the counseling process has been the awareness of hurts and grievances that don’t have anything to do directly with my sister, but instead are family-of-origin issues that are long gone, but apparently not forgotten. My father spent 30+  years in Al-Anon, which resulted in his raising his children with a “Let It Go/Live and Let Live” parenting style. At times this seemed the perfect “learn by failing” approach and at other times bordered on neglect.

I will save my “Growing up Al-Anon” thoughts for another day/post, as my friends are all awake now, nursing their hangovers and planning another day in windy and beautiful paradise.

There truly is nothing better than waking up without a hangover. It is paradise every day. No matter my geographic location.

 

One Year

I reached the One Year mark last week. December 23rd.

I quit drinking because I wanted to see what I am capable of. I wanted an answer to this question: If I quit drinking, would I finally be able to do it ALL (mom, wife, friend, sister, engaged citizen, professional)?

After 12 months of sobriety, my answer to this question is to decline to engage this question. You see, it turns out that I have no desire to do it ALL. In fact, on any give day, I only have a small desire to do one or two things. And I most certainly do not want to do more than one thing at a time.

“Courage requires that we learn to accept our limitations and to live within our boundaries. We are not everything we would like to be. We are not who we would like to be.” –Joan Chittister

I am not who I would like to be. Instead, I like who I am.

In my sobriety, I am still a mother/sister/wife/friend/engaged citizen/professional. But I do not strive for 100 percent perfection in each of these roles. Instead, these roles add up to 100 percent of me.

It is hard to be a woman in today’s culture. There are so many individual struggles and not nearly enough community support. But no matter how often I looked, I never found answers to my loneliness at the bottom of a glass of wine. Just more misery.

 

 

It’s about Sobriety, but really it’s about Adulting

You may have seen this on social media. It about sums up where i am these days:

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 9.59.59 AM

I’m coming up on one year of no drinking. Remember this post? (Sorry about the sickeningly cheery tone.) Well, 2015 has had its way with me as often as I have had my way with 2015. Turns out I’m not exactly Rhonda Rousey or Holly Holm. And I’m not a fantastically prolific, ultra-encouraging blogger who has turned her sobriety into a lifestyle.

About the only thing I am knocking out of the park these days is the “active lifestyle/leggings” look.

I do love spandex so much. Almost as much as I love my non-drinking life.

A few months ago, after about 10 months of weekly attendance, I gave up AA completely. By its very nature, of course, AA insists on focusing on alcohol. And, for me, that conversation started to become redundant. When I gave up alcohol, I knew I wanted to “stay” sober, but what I really wanted was to “move on” from alcohol and find better tools/truths that can provide me with a strong foundation to weather the storms in this Crazy Ass World. The conversation at AA meetings was too much on the “staying” part of sobriety and not enough on the “moving on” part.

Having said that, AA gave me two invaluable tools for which I am very grateful: traction in my early days of sobriety and a glimpse of how to attain peace of mind.

I think one reason so many of us in post-alcohol lives find ourselves studying yoga, mediation and Buddhism is their emphasis on unflinching clarity and love to achieve that ever-elusive peace. A few weeks after giving up AA, I visited the local Modern Buddhist center and attended a workshop on living a stress, worry and anxiety-free life. After the session I bought one of their displayed books, “Transform You LIfe: A Blissful Journey.”

Since I am seeking to live life with unflinching clarity and truth, let me just say that “Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey” is anything but blissful. There is a lot of disturbing talk of unfortunate rebirths, hungry ghosts and unending suffering. Selling Buddhism as “blissful” requires a leap into suspended disbelief. As someone who used to love over serving herself, I know exactly how to have a blissful time, and this little tome ain’t it.

But, I am no longer interested in good times as much as I want some fucking truths to live by that won’t leave me anxious, nauseous and strung out.

So, while I have no intention of donning gold robes and shaving my head, I am hungry for helpful perspectives and “Transform Your Life” has them in droves. The concepts of self cherishing, self grasping and attachment, all of which are touched on in AA , are given proper billing by the Buddhists. I attended a second workshop last week. The lessons and guided mediations during the sessions left me feeling fuller and calmer. I’m intrigued. It’s as though I have been wandering the grocery store looking for something good to eat and have stumbled upon an entirely new aisle of healthy, affordable foods.  I’m not sure if I will like all of the items, but there are bound to be a few that will work.

Meanwhile the beer/wine aisle remains off limits. Most of the time I think of it as a silly aisle full of silly people. And I am adulting. As we all know, when you’re trying to build a house of brick rather than straw, it requires some serious adult focus.

But there remains a part of me that thinks someday I can walk down that other aisle again and rejoin the silly people. And it would be ok because I am just visiting, rather than taking up permanent residence.

But, for now at least, I don’t want to. I have traded silly for blissful. And happiness.

And spandex.

 

 

One Malfunction Away

Last week we dropped off my boys at summer camp. It is a three week camp. They had never been to a sleep away camp – so this was a huge leap of faith and hope and money(!).

They love it. We’ve received two letters and it sounds as though they are having a blast.

From the moment we dropped them off – and I mean the very first moment, we weren’t even off the camp property yet – my Drunk Nancy voice started clamoring for some wine. She started screaming: “We are on VACATION! Let’s celebrate!”

Drunk Nancy has been screaming for seven days now, and she sort of has a valid point.

You know the feeling you get when you have just begun a much-anticipated vacation and you’ve made it to the airport: Work is behind you and the automatic email response is now in charge; the house is clean and ready for your return; you’ve checked your travel bags and made it through airport security. Responsibility and work are behind you. Fun and freedom await. You take a deep breath, giddy with excitement.

And we all know the perfect way to mark this occasion and kick off the vacation: A DRINK.

That’s how it’s been for a week now. Drunk Nancy screams for her drink and the other voices shut her up by telling her she’s stupid and sloppy and no one wants to be with her, so just go away already.

Each day has not gotten easier, but it hasn’t gotten harder either. Drunk Nancy screams and the other voices scream louder.

I talked to my therapist about it and he said: “Everybody white knuckles it sometimes.”

This was exactly what I needed to hear. Sometimes it is just like this. Life is good, and I want to drink. Life is shitty, and I want to drink.

So I stay sober and stick with the good life and try to make it better. Because if I drink, life will definitely be shitty. And there is no need to start from zero again.

Yesterday, my husband and I were reminiscing about the time we took a sailing class. I never finished the class because once I got out on the water in a teeny tiny sailboat and felt the vastness of the ocean beneath me, I was overwhelmed with my own insignificance and decided dry/firm land was more my style.

He felt the vastness too, but he liked it. To him, the vastness was a peaceful challenge – a reminder of his rightful place.

“You’re just one malfunction away from going SPLAT,” he said. “And nature doesn’t care.”

His comment helped me quiet Drunk Nancy for the first time in a week. Using compassion, rather than berating her. She’s just afraid. Of course she is.

No matter who we are, drunk/sober/perfect/fuck up, we are all just white knuckling it, trying not to go SPLAT.

My Lifeboat Has Limited Space

I recently watched Titanic with my 11-year-old son. It really is a magnificent movie.

Famously, the Titanic did not have enough lifeboats. And once the evacuation started, many of the lifeboats launched only half full. As they drifted away from the doomed vessel, those in the lifeboats could hear the cries of drowning passengers. But they did not turn back because they were afraid the drowning victims would swamp their small lifeboat and kill everyone.

It’s a moral dilemma: Do you save yourself and leave others behind? Or do you take on as many other victims as you can and possibly capsize yourself?

If there is a middle-of-the-road solution, it is easily lost in the chaos of the event.

In sobriety, my lifeboat is sturdier than its ever been. And smaller than its ever been. I’m learning not to take on a lot of other “victims” because most people are not “victims” – they are adults making their own choices to drown in alcohol or self-pity or whatever their chosen self-destructive woobie is. As my priest-friend Cynthia once told me, if someone is in the gutter, it’s usually their choice to be there and they need to work that shit out with Jesus.

Still, I feel I need to find a doable middle-of-the-road solution. The problem is that I am really only familiar with 2 options. I know better than to put self-destructing adults in my lifeboat (Option #1) because it will capsize. But offering them an empathy sandwich (Option #2) seems heartless. These folks don’t want empathy, anyway. They want someone to feel sorry for them, or do their job for them, or just not hold them accountable for their decisions.

So, I am working on expanding my options to help those in need. I am hoping that I can come up some middle-of-the-road solutions that I could not see before because I was drowning, too.

Any suggestions?

Two Reasons I Am Staying Sober

I’m shocked I’ve neglected this blog for two months. It doesn’t seem that long since I’ve written.

There was indeed a change in the job situation I wrote about last. The incremental change is that I have gone part-time, which means I am spending half the time in that toxic environment and more time with myself and my family. It’s financially stressful, but emotionally healthy – so it’s ideal.

I thought that once this change of job status took place, my anxiety and stress problems would be resolved. This is a ridiculous notion and I should have known better, as I have fallen into this trap before. But there you have it: I thought once I got the job thing sorted out, I would be walking around in a state of bliss and harmony. (Spoiler alert: this did not occur.)

A new truth to me is this: I can have my entire life sorted out and I am still going to be anxious and fearful. I can be sober and activley engaged as a parent/partner/friend/daughter/sister/employee/citizen and still feel anxious and fearful.

I can have all my shit in a pile and still be rocked by uncertainty.

This is true because, it turns out, I am human and I live with other humans.  And no matter what sober and thoughtful tools I develop, I will always be human and live with other humans.

And humans are messy. The level of mess varies – but we are always messy. And it is the mess of being human that makes me anxious and fearful. That mess is FREE WILL. And free will is the reason we can drink and sabotage our relationships, or choose not to. We can beat up our animals or rescue them.  We can treat the Earth like an ashtray or pick up after ourselves.

Free will is the way the system works. It does not matter how I feel about the system. The rules of the system don’t change because I did.

And so this brings me to the Two Reasons I Am Staying Sober:

1. Drinking brings more anxiety and fear into my life. While I cannot be free of these demons entirely, I can mitigate my circumstances to give myself a fighting chance. I used to think drinking could help soften the blow of being human and help me tolerate the mess of life. Sometimes I still think this. But more often I think, No. So, while I am not leaning into the mess and breathing it in (like certain Buddhist nuns recommend), I am at least living parallel with the mess. I’m not looking at it full frontal, but I am not hiding from it either. That’s about all I can stomach right now.

2. My sister. My sister is a fully-blossmed alcoholic. To compare our drinking is to compare apples to oranges. I just dabbled in alcoholism with my silly jelly jars and hangovers, but my sister is the real deal: two bottles a night and the domestic wreckage to prove it. Many, many times I compare myself to my sister and think: 1) I don’t really have a problem with alcohol and 2) I don’t want to be anything like her.

And here is where I bring it home to you, sober blog reader. Because I bet you’ve thought this, too. I bet you’ve compared yourself to other drinkers and thought “nope, I don’t have a problem like they do. And I don’t want to be anything like them.”

I’ve not only thought this about my sister, but I have also thought it about the dozens and dozens of alcoholics I’ve listened to at AA meetings.  And those alcoholics are a gift to me: a glimpse of a possible future that I wouldn’t want for all the jelly jars in the world.

I dodged a bullet last December when I quit drinking my measly one bottle of wine a night and went to an AA meeting. And instead of spending time wondering how much damage that bullet really could have done to me, I just need to go to another meeting and hear another story and then make my grateful way home to my house – full of messy humans.

The Company You Keep

Instead of binging on Grey’s Anatomy and jelly jars of Chardonnay, I spend my nights reading.

(I’ll spare you the part where I talk about how I used to love reading and how I got away from it and how, now that I’m sober and have some time on my hands, I’ve taken it up again. You know all of this already.)

Unless I’ve come across a really special book, such as Vincent Deary’s “How We Are,” I don’t limit myself to reading one book at a time. (Again, sparing you commentary on my dislike of moderation.) Instead, I have a little book buffet on my nightstand and each night I choose a book based on my mood, how tired I am, stage of the moon, whathaveyou.

After a few weeks of humming right along in my sober reading ways, this week I found myself thinking about jelly jars and how are effective they are at helping me Zone Out. On Wednesday night, instead of pursuing my book buffet, I was instead in my kitchen eating a brick of cheese and feeling very sorry for myself.

Why? Why now?

I could just toss it up to the notion that “these things happen” but really, no, there is something going on here. So instead of picking up a jelly jar, I went back to my books and found a nice little Overlap. (Overlaps are, quite simply, my favorite. They offer some meaning in the chaos. A once-hidden pattern now brought into bold relief. In my experience, you cannot find Overlaps if you’re hung over all the time and just trying to get through the day so you can trash yourself again that night. Overlaps require some attention and quietness – two things lacking in a life of overindulgence and self-loathing.)

In her fantastic essay “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” Roxanne Gay provides 13 suggestions for success. Item number 13: “My mother’s favorite saying is “Qui se resemble s’asseble.” Whenever she didn’t approve of who I was spending time with, she’d say this ominously. It means, essentially, you are whom you surround yourself with.”

In her book “Stitches,” Anne Lamott writes: “If we’re pressed for an answer, most of us would say that most of the time we find plenty of significance in life as it unfurls in front of us like a carpet runner – at least when it goes as expected, day by day, with our families and a few close friends.”

And finally, at the AA meeting I drug myself to on Thursday afternoon, there was Isaac, a weathered and optimistic black man, sharing on his seventh sober anniversary, talking about “my drinking associates” and chuckling at his own dismay when those “associates” ended up drifting away after he got sober.

The overlap: it’s the company you keep.

The company I keep, the company I work for, is coming apart. A chronic lack of leadership has a left us adrift and directionless.

We are a charity. Charities attract a certain kind of employee. We love the underdog and want to help her. By seeking and accepting a job at a charity you have to be, in some ways, attracted to brokenness.

When the company, as well as the company’s clients, are both broken – well, that is a lot of suffering. My coworkers are smart and tired and all done. A malaise has taken over. It’s not an actively toxic environment. It’s more like Stepford Wives in Haiti. We’re going through the motions, but our hearts aren’t in it. And this kind of work is all about heart.

For me, newly sober, this environment is actively toxic. The malaise seeps into my thinking, which starts to go something like: “This is stupid. This isn’t working. Being sober is stupid. Being sober isn’t working. Why try so hard? Just forget it. Let’s get the fuck out of here and fire up a jelly jar.”

Hence Wednesday night and a brick of cheese.

Here is where I want to write that, armed with this powerful insight, I am quitting tomorrow or that, better yet, I will single-handedly rally the troops and set the ship back on course.

Alas, no. Extremes no longer suit me. Armed with this powerful insight, I am going to begin to make some small, incremental changes to get me to a better place, in better company. I want my next destination to be somewhere specific, not just somewhere else. I want my next company to be worth keeping and worthy of me.