Enjoying the Festivities… or White Knuckling It? (Sobriety During the Holidays)

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The first year in recovery is often the most uncomfortable.  We are changing old, comfortable patterns and facing life in its rawness.  Many of us are completely identified with having a constant buzz, so the concept of being sober during the holidays is something like the idea of shaving your dog in the winter.  It doesn’t make much sense, and it really sucks for the dog.  If you come from a family who drinks, it can be even more difficult, and cumbersome watching the wine being passed around the table while you sit there stone cold sober, toasting with your glass of sparkling cider.  I dreaded the holidays in the beginning, but there are a few things that helped.

Halloween is one of those nights where things are supposed to get wild and crazy.  For me, I simply stay home now, watch a scary movie and pass out candy to the children.  There is no reason for me to put myself out in the middle of a costume party, where it’s too easy to snag a drink, or where I will feel completely out of place.  I tend to protect myself in my sobriety.  I’ve done the dance club thing, and been out in the middle of parties where everyone was getting freaky and drunk.  I remained sober, but it wasn’t easy.  Why would I even want that kind of temptation?  I’m not a partier anymore.  I have accepted this about myself, so staying home, or going to a meeting on Halloween, is more like a safe-haven for me.  It’s anything but boring.  I love myself enough to remain on safe turf.  There are also a lot of AA and NA festivities, and these can be a lot of fun.  I’ve done them in the past, and they helped immensely; giving me the feeling that I celebrated.  I am ok not celebrating like I used to, so I rarely go to these events any longer.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the bend, and many of us drink or use drugs to maintain sanity around our weird families.  I love my family, but there is always tension between people, and since I decided to “get sober,” a lot of the family dynamic has changed.  It’s not the same as it used to be, so this year I asked myself, what is the most healthy Christmas I can have?  Where will I feel most comfortable?  I don’t have to jump in my car and head to dinner at my family’s if I don’t want to.  If I’m uncomfortable, or if I feel too emotional about it, why would I obligate myself?  My sobriety and well-being takes precedence over my family’s desire to see me.  It really does.  I couldn’t care less if people get their feelings hurt when I place my well-being first.  This is not out of selfishness at all.  I spent many years trying to please everyone, and failing immensely.  These days, I let people know that it is uncomfortable for me, and painful, to face our family during the holidays.  I offer to have them over my house prior to their engagement.  If they want to see me, my door is wide open.

Some of you may opt to spend the first year or two, doing something completely different for the holidays, than you are accustomed.  Some may face the holidays head-on, which can be beneficial, because it’s a practice of not drinking in places you used to drink the most.  The more you practice not using, the easier it becomes. 

I highly recommend taking a sober friend, or sponsor with you to engagements where you may need support.  Many times during the holidays, I have a sober friend on stand-by.  I also take my own car, in case I feel uncomfortable and need to leave.  Sometimes I’m ok being around alcohol, while other times, I’m not.  I never know how things are going to affect me, so I play it really safe.

Essentially, you need to take care of yourself, and do what’s best for the person in recovery.  Many family members can be supportive, while others are not, or don’t know how to be; so it’s really up to you.  Instead of dreading the holidays, begin new traditions.  Start your life over by taking initiative and inventing your holidays the way that supports who you are now.  It’s ok to step out of the box and to be a little more organic rather than conventional.  Recovery is about discovering who the person is, that you ran away from. This person may not like Santa Claus or turkey at all. Who cares? Honor yourself.  Take care of yourself during these months, and find out what is best for your well-being.  In time, you will discover that you enjoy the holidays more than ever, because for once, you’re creating your own experience. 

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Managing Restlessness and Boredom in Sobriety

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Restlessness and boredom are my two top reasons to drink, but I don’t drink or use drugs anymore, so how do I manage these daunting experiences?  I remember my first month in sobriety; how miserable I felt.  Everyday seemed eternal; each minute like a piece of sand pushing through a clogged hourglass.  It was fricken brutal, but I knew it was going to pass because all the laid back AA people with smiles on their faces told me that they’d been through the same thing, and now they were all out flying kites and singing Mary Poppins songs together… or something.  They were happy, so I was pretty certain that I’d be happy too if I could just get through the beginner’s monotony.

I got through it alright, and I felt pretty amazing after it passed; relieved and excited that there was life beyond my foggy brain.  It’s been two and a half years and I certainly do not feel boredom like I used to.  I’ve come to a better place where I am really comfortable with myself, but this took a lot of time and patience.  I found myself bored a lot in the beginning, and my first impulse was to go out and have some fun.  I had a lot of sober friends at the time, so this is what we did.  We did karaoke, built campfires, went dancing, and watched movies together.  I even casually dated, not trying to get involved seriously, but just to fill the void of being alone.  This was all ok in the beginning, but there was a lot of discomfort with being sober while trying to have fun.  Dancing sober the first few times was nerve racking.  Sex was no better, and sometimes no matter what I was doing, I still felt like there was a piece of dingy glass between me and the rest of the world.  For the longest time, I couldn’t shake it, yet I trusted that there would come a time when I felt comfortable and connected.  I simply trusted this, because there was no way I was going to drink again.  I just had to plug through it no matter what.

I decided to sit with the boredom, and write a few books.  I found a lot of peace in going to meetings, hiking, writing, and just slowing down to figure out who I was in my sobriety.  I was certainly not the same high strung person with a need to party all the time.  Perhaps I just needed time to myself, to get to know this person who I ran away from many years prior.  After all, being bored was better than being hung over and full of shame.

As far as restlessness goes, it does pass.  In the beginning, I wanted to cause havoc just to rid myself of the restlessness, but I was luckily in treatment, so I had immediate consequences to face when I screwed with the rules.  After treatment, however, I found myself restless at times, and manic.  I made all these plans to run off to Hawaii with a guy I didn’t know, then talked it through with some of my peers and felt pretty embarrassed afterward.  I realized then, that anytime I made plans, I should always tell someone about them to see if they were a little strange, or self-destructive.  I was one of the ones in the group who took longer to “get a clue.”  I was still determined to self-destruct without a drink or a drug.  It was simply my habit.  It took a while to break, but after a few minor consequences, I finally “got a clue,” and stopped acting out whenever I felt restless.

Here it is a couple years later, and I rarely feel restless, but it does overcome me at times.  My addict mind still wants me to pour a drink in my body, or ease myself with drugs, but I tell it to shut the f*ck up.  I don’t buy into the lies anymore.  Like every other emotion, this too shall pass.  We aren’t stuck in any emotion, eternally.  Sometimes it takes a day, or two… maybe even three, but I hang in there.  Meetings help.  Talking to someone about it helps.  Being of service definitely helps.  Usually when the restlessness passes, I feel incredible; like the sun is shining on me after a long winter.  It is SO worth sitting still; even welcoming it into my experience so that it has no space to take over.  Resistance of these experiences only prolongs them.

People always ask me how long they should expect to feel this way, or how long did it take me to feel “normal?”  My answer is this… “How long are you going to resist your experiences in sobriety?”  Just be present and aware of what is taking place emotionally, and simply do not buy into it.  Don’t act on it.  Don’t be afraid of it.  Don’t listen to it.  Hang out with people in the rooms who have a few years or more in sobriety, and know that one day you will be out flying kites and singing Mary Poppins songs too (figuratively speaking of course)!

The other thing I highly recommend, is to ask your higher power for HELP. It used to take me until I was at the brinks of despair to ask for help from the universe, but now I find myself asking all of the time, because it works; often immediately. Don’t be afraid or too prideful to ask for help. And while you’re sitting with yourself in your boredom and restlessness, it’s a great time to reflect and get to know yourself a little better. Observe where your old behaviors would take you, or where your mind travels when you become restless, but do not act on it. The more you practice this, the stronger your habit will become to remain sober, no matter what!

Compassion For Yourself Before Extending it to Others

Compassion for Myself Extends Out to Others

If we think we can give to others, what we do not first give to ourselves, we are delusional.  Before recovery, I remember extending myself so far out, to make myself look good, or to impress someone, that I exhausted my energy.  Afterward, I’d reward myself with a tall drink (or five) and pat myself on the back for helping out a cause, or for being “unselfish.”  If I was kind to a homeless person, in my own perception, I was somehow a saint for the day.  Even in treatment, I was caring for people in Detox with empathy, yet looking back, I see myself as being more self-righteous than I was compassionate.  I had more sobriety time then they had.  It was a great way to feel like I had something over others, and this only fueled my addict mind.  It’s easy to help a cause, or to show compassion, but are we doing it from a genuine place, or does subtle arrogance play a role in this?

Have you stopped judging yourself yet, or do you still beat yourself up for making mistakes, or for relapsing, or for not being “normal?”  If the inner judge is still ruling your mind, then you have not even begun to understand where compassion is truly needed.

How about this week, you practice giving to yourself, what you believe you give to others?  How about practicing compassion for YOU?  In this practice, laughter should fill the shoes of inner ridicule.  Mistakes should be forgiven instead of replayed and harped upon.  Looking in the mirror should be an act of saying, “I love you, ______ (fill in the blank),” as opposed to, “God you need a haircut,” or “shit, I’m getting old…”  It’s time to change our inner dialog.  We beat ourselves up more than we realize.  If you don’t believe me, take a day to listen closely to your inner dialog.  Hear the judge in there?  Yeah, Judy’s got nothing on her/him!

Having compassion for ourselves takes a lot of practice and awareness, because we’ve spent our lives doing the exact opposite.  We self-sabotage.  We are not accustomed to extending love inward.  It’s even difficult to look in the mirror and tell ourselves we love the person staring back.  If you can accomplish this, then you are re-conditioning yourself from self-hate to self-love.  Once you truly love yourself, I guarantee you won’t want to sabotage your life.  Just like a mother wants the best for her children, you’ll want the best for yourself.  You’ve got to begin with number one.  Stop beating yourself up.  None of your mistakes have caused the world to end, and everyday is a new beginning.  Put things into perspective.

Recovery is a reconditioning of the addict mind.  It’s about doing everything opposite of what we did in our addiction; slowing down rather than racing through life; believing instead of dreading; caring for ourselves rather than neglecting ourselves.  In order to genuinely offer compassion to the friend in need, we should first offer it to ourselves.  After all, we are merely human.  We are all fallible, and we should be able to laugh in the face of our defaults of character.   You see, recovery isn’t about digging up old dirt and sorting through our disaster.  It’s really about being present and experiencing life through new eyes.  It’s about loving yourself, caring for yourself and wanting the best for yourself.  Sound unfamiliar?  Yeah, well just start today by giving yourself a little extra compassion.  I promise you, it’s a huge step in the right direction.

 

Why Do Some People Recover, While Others Do Not?

Willingness and Courage

I recall sitting in recovery groups, hearing that only two of us in the room, out of ten, were going to remain sober.  Whether this is accurate or not, I affirmed to myself, that I would be one of the two.  But what is the difference between those two people, and the remainder of the crowd?

Looking back at the seven years and several attempts I made to get sober, with countless relapses in between, I understand now, that I simply wasn’t willing or courageous enough to make the cut.  Back then, I was “attempting” to get sober.  Today, I’m pursuing recovery, just like I used to pursue a high.  There’s an enormous difference.  Knowing that I could easily pick up and drink and fall back into the hell of my addiction, motivates me to pursue recovery even more.  If I am feeling restless, irritable and discontent, I perk up and get myself into a meeting, or on the phone with recovery peers.  I do whatever it takes to get back into the flow of my life.  You see, back in the relapse madness days, I thought if I was off track a little, I had to fully self-destruct.  The difference now is; I long for harmony, and run from chaos.  This is a shift of the inner tides.  I used to thrive on chaos.

It’s simple, really.  A person who recovers, is willing to do the work, and courageous enough to face everything that comes his or her way, without using.  A person in recovery picks up on his emotional responses, rather than picking up a drug or a drink.  This is the difference between a recovering addict/alcoholic, and someone who struggles in recovery.  A person who recovers learns acceptance to the full degree.  It’s a leveling field with the recovering addict; like ground zero.  Everything has come crashing down, and we become very grounded.  We have fully surrendered.

We can speculate all day long on why some people make it, while others don’t, but the truth is always simple.  Willingness and courage.  These two driving forces will catapult any sufferer from their despair, into the grand awakening of recovery. 

And The Walls Are Finally Coming Down (Intimacy in Recovery)

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I wish they would have talked about relinquishing the chains of my heart, while I was in treatment.  I KNOW that I am not the only alcoholic in recovery who has built gigantic cinderblock walls around myself, complete and lavished with barbed wire.  We are guarded beings by nature (the alcoholic and addict), because we spent years perfecting the art of hiding out in our addiction, and keeping people away from the truth of who we are.  On top of that, I haven’t met an addict yet, who doesn’t have some sort of emotional trauma surrounding their addiction.  Many of us were never nurtured emotionally as children.  Many of us were abused, abandoned or ignored.  It goes with the territory.

The cinderblocks and barbed wire no longer serve me, yet while being in a loving and healthy relationship with a good man, I find myself trapped inside of the walls I spent so many years building.  Although he can clearly see my walls, I’ve been oblivious to them.  I’m so comfortable with my “independence” that I don’t even know how to call a spade a spade in this twisted arrangement of mine.  Luckily, I have a partner who adores the hell out of me, and is on a mission to break down the barrier to get to my heart.  He doesn’t let it get to him when I tell him I need space, or that I feel like I’m suffocating, or when I push him away with everything in me.  He won’t go away, because he sees what I am doing, and he’s not going to let me hide anymore.  I don’t know what it takes for other recovering addicts to overcome these barriers, but for me, it has been having a soul mate who sees beyond the limiting confines of the mind.  He ignores my ego and speaks directly to my heart, “I love you Jennifer.  I love you Jennifer.  I love you Jennifer, and I’m not going away.”

He made a breakthrough with me.  I feel myself opening up to him, and accepting his love, finally.  I BELIEVE him when he says he loves me.  It’s something I have a hard time believing, except when it comes from my children or my grandparents. 

I’m not trying to make this all about myself.  I wrote this because it’s something that wasn’t addressed while I was getting treatment.  And for goddsake, it’s a beast of a problem.  We are so accustomed to hiding, that we don’t even realize we do it, even in recovery.  I was so completely blind to my cinderblock wall, believing that my partner was the one with the problem.  “He’s too needy,” I told myself.  “He needs to get a hobby, and join a club, and maybe date other women…”  I didn’t think I had enough to give him, so I pushed and pushed and pushed, and he blew and blew and blew love back to me.  What if he didn’t do this?  Where would things end up?  I envisioned myself finally pushing him away, and me staying single for the rest of my life.  I simply didn’t have it in me to face the truth of myself, that I was guarded, and I certainly didn’t know how to break down the walls myself.  I was comfortable in there.

Intimacy is not impossible for a former abused, alcoholic/addict.  It simply needs to be acknowledged and addressed.  It’s something we all must overcome in recovery.  It’s scary as hell, and your mind will twist things up to make you think you’re ok and the other person is unhealthy.  But I don’t think it’s as difficult as we believe it is, to overcome. It takes a lot of trust in our partner, or friend.  It takes time and admittance that we have an issue.  We don’t need to hide anymore.  We can be ourselves, and we are worth loving.  We need to accept this about ourselves.  “I am worthy of love, and a healthy relationship…” Say it with me.  “I am capable of giving love to another human being.  I am capable of giving love to another human being.” You see, intimacy is not as elusive as we believe it is. Intimacy is simply acceptance of love. It’s just another form of surrender.

We are not like Humpty Dumpty.  Essentially, we are never broken.  Our minds may be fragmented, but the human heart is always a whole.  You are complete.  You are whole.  You are capable of giving love and also receiving love.  You are capable of true intimacy, even after the emotional wars you’ve endured.

  

Is Relapse a Part of Recovery?

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I met with one of my treatment peers this weekend for lunch.  He recently relapsed after having two years’ sober.  He’s back on track now, and something has definitely shifted for him.  There is a difference in his perspective, and I observed a sort of leveling out of his entire demeanor.  This friend of mine struggles with depression, and has a way of self-sabotaging, like all of us, but it goes a little deeper with him.  He is comfortable in his depression, and it’s difficult for him to see that there is any good in store for his life. 

I was with my friend throughout our treatment together, and witnessed the ongoing ebb and flow of his shifty moods.  It’s difficult enough to live life as an addict/alcoholic without the curse of a mood disorder, yet sadly, this isn’t uncommon.  I regard my friend as a strong, courageous Seeker.  He doesn’t give up, man.  He is on the search for some serious truth and meaning.  I think we tend to look outside ourselves for this, but I believe this relapse brought my friend right into the corner of his own heart.  He’s face to face with himself, for real this time, and the clarity is coming in strong.  What if this relapse was just what he needed?

You know, this recovery thing, is simply part of a life journey that we choose to take when we realize that “our way” is not working out for us.  Recovery is not a separate institution of our life.  It synchronizes with the all encompassing spiritual path.  There is no separation from the path.  In our stubborn self-will, we deliciously take detours, but from the time we are born, until our death, we are all on a unique spiritual journey, regardless of the several roads we travel.  Recovery brings us out of the detour of suffering, onto the path of freedom.  There are no dead ends, not even in death. 

My point is, we build walls around our recovery and institutionalize it, like everything else.  Humans tend to be comfortable creating regulations, rules, and fixating on wrongs and rights.  In actuality, we need merely be guided by intuition, and honoring our boundaries.  My friend relapsed on a urge.  There was no pre-arranged method to his relapse.  He simply decided to use one day because the urge was there, and his guard was down.  He came to the conclusion, during this relapse, that he was tired of hiding behind his depression, and he was going to take the initiative to do the work surrounding his deep-seeded issues.  He felt something he had never felt before; like a sort of cleansing or clearing of his clarity.  He saw himself with new eyes. During the shock of his “failure,” he became willing to face himself.  For him, this took a couple of years in recovery, and perhaps it took a relapse.

There is a lot of judgment that accompanies a relapse.  Mostly, self-judgment.  On top of this, we go to meetings and announce that we are starting our program all over again.  It’s a humbling place to be, and I don’t necessarily believe we are taught the right attitude in the AA and NA tradition when it comes to addressing a relapse.  They say we need to start our program all over again.  Ok, sure, but what about the overall picture and the spiritual growth happening with my friend, and so many others who come out of a relapse stronger than they were prior to the relapse?  I just have a problem with “programs” all together.  I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly follow suggestions of people who have been in recovery longer than I have, but there is something deeper happening with me since I came into recovery.  I actually trust myself today, and I listen to my own intuition.  I follow the path of my heart rather than the self-destructive road of my self-will.  The steps that are listed on the walls of the rooms, unfold for me naturally.  Shouldn’t the AA and NA tradition be a tool we use, as opposed to yet another institution?  Many of us get addicted to the rooms, and the program, which is just another crutch in life.  There is no freedom in this.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, when we fall in our recovery, and dust ourselves off, it shouldn’t feel like a failure; yet it does when we have to announce the amount of days we have sober.  I suppose they do this to keep us accountable for ourselves, and I know it’s a program that has worked for thousands of people over the years, perhaps millions, yet my understanding of my friend’s relapse went beyond the limited perspective of the program.

I’m just really fed up with judgment.  I want to have a heart of compassion and see beyond the physical.  There is no right and wrong here; it’s all simply an experience.  My friend’s growth in all of this was intense, profound and beautiful.  I just want to cheer on his spirit and shout, “KEEP ON GOING!!!!  YES!!! KEEP ON GOING!!!” 

And to answer my own question, “Is relapse a part of recovery?”… Recovery is part of the spiritual journey; and relapse does not fall short of this all-encompassing spiritual journey.

How I Overcome Depression

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I just came out of a three day fog; one that felt like a heavy veil obscuring every ounce of my joy.  These temporary depressions do not come often, but when they do, it feels like cobwebs take over my mind and emotional body. Negative thoughts overwhelm me.  I become so numb and uncomfortable, that I want to jump out of my skin.  The old addict voice whispers things to me like, “please just get me a drink this time.  No one has to know.  Maybe smoke some pot, or find another drug to take me out of this misery.”  I’m so familiar with the voice that I immediately tell it to shut up.  I don’t entertain the thought of getting drunk or high.  I know the depression is super temporary because I’ve sat with it before.  I’ve even welcomed it and told it to hang out as long as it needs to, but I remind it that it is only a guest (in the words of Rumi), and that it is not allowed to overstay it’s welcome.  Depression discovers boredom inside the house of acceptance.  It cannot sustain a presence in a place where one is not resisting.  I wrote a poem the last time I felt depression overcome me, which reminds me that these experiences are only temporary.  All things pass.  Here is the poem:

UPON DESPAIR ARISING

Dance with discord

Instead of shunning the imposter

We must be aware of its dark presence

Give it space to breathe and dissipate in its own casual time

Waltz within the cavern walls of depression

Mindfully recalling the light, even in faint memory

Interact with the intimidating beast as if it were a comrade

Place your hands gently into its claws

Willfully make its gluttonous acquaintance

Cease all judgment and plot of resolution

Summon the impending anguish without distain

Therein exists artistic expression

Twarted by your harmony, gloom will swiftly make its exit

Keep on dancing, no matter the tune

This sinister song is not eternal

 

This sinister song is not eternal.  We are so used to fighting in our addiction, that learning to sit with emotions and discomfort takes a lot of practice and diligence.  I am so glad I didn’t listen to the addict voice this weekend, because as I look out my window today and feel the fog has lifted, I’m elated.  I feel better than I have in a while.  I think sometimes I go through these depressions when I am shifting into a better place.  Shedding old skin can be so uncomfortable, but it is extremely temporary.  So is getting high and drunk.  All things pass, so it’s better to accept life as it comes than to resist the moment as it is.

Today, I have two and a half years sober.  Maybe my addict was acting up because it doesn’t like the scent of defeat.