soberfire

The Other Scarlet Letter “A”

“Yeah, but am I REALLY an alcoholic?” “MUST I take on this label?” Those are the questions we wrestle with, especially the “high-functioning” types among us, right? I just read a great blog post from one such newly sober woman. Also, I just saw this video. I wish I’d seen it at the beginning of my two-year moderation odyssey–it would have been a lot shorter, I think. I identified myself as an alcoholic in my first post. That’s only because I wrote it several months into sobriety. Here’s what I wrote to my friend Joe when I first I reached out to him on day two:

“…Mostly I’m afraid of taking on the big “A” word as part of my identity. I may very well fit the clinical definition, but still, I’d rather just say to myself and others, that I’m not drinking because I was starting to drink more than is healthy and quitting altogether is the best way for me, you know? That is a true story, if not the whole entire story in vivid detail.”

Why didn’t I want to identify as an alcoholic, even as I knew I needed to quit drinking?   The stigma, obviously.  Not wanting to be mistaken, at some unknown future point by unidentified people, for someone who was physically dependent, which I never was. (Not that anyone gives a shit about the semantics of my drinking problem, but you know what they say–we alcoholics are a self-absorbed lot!).

Plus, let’s face it, it’s confusing. The line is fuzzy between “problem drinker” and “alcoholic.” Some definitions draw that line at physical dependence, but most seem to define anyone with addictive behavior around alcohol as an alcoholic, whether or not they must drink daily to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It seems even the clinicians can’t figure out what to call whom. Although maybe they finally have—the American Psychiatric Association has revised their definition in the DSM-5. They put it all on a continuum called Alcohol Abuse Disorder with mild, moderate, and severe categories.  So my type A brain can now be happy that I can give myself a clinical diagnosis that makes sense to me—I’m in recovery from a mild-to-moderate alcohol abuse disorder. But I doubt the new terminology is going to make it into the recovery lexicon anytime soon, at least not outside clinical circles. So I still have to deal with the word “alcoholic.”

There was another reason for my resistance. I was under the impression that people who embraced the label took it on as the primary thing that defined them, and the recovery program became just about all their lives are about. I have heard people say things like, “I made AA my life.”  I was shocked to find out that even after many years of sobriety, a lot of people go to meetings most days or every day. That scared the crap out of me. I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to go to meetings at all, never mind every day—not now, and certainly not years from now.  It seemed that accepting the label meant throwing myself whole hog into this subculture.   That’s great for people who want to do that, or people who must in order to stay sober. But I knew it wasn’t my path.

Then I found my sponsor, “Susie.” I worked with her on a project years ago and she’s one of the sparkliest people I’ve ever met. I ran into her a few times over the years, and each time I thought, “Now there’s someone I’d like to get to know better.” When I had about three weeks of sobriety, I remembered her telling me she had been in recovery for a number of years, so I contacted her. She enthusiastically assured me that sobriety is “PURE FREEDOM!” and we made plans to meet for a walk. She told me her story and how she has stayed sober for 23 years. She did the 12 steps with a sponsor “military style,” exactly as prescribed in the program. We talked a lot about my discomfort with the program and the insistence in the AA community that people who find a different path are doing it wrong and will surely drink again. She said that while she loves the steps and did them in the traditional way, her one issue with the program is the insistence that one size fits all. This scares people away from recovery, she said.   She also rejects the notion that all alcoholics must attend meetings often and forever in order to stay sober, and in fact only goes a few times a year herself at this point. What IS critical to sobriety, she said, is continuing to work on yourself either through the 12 steps or some other path to spiritual growth, and to keep sobriety “always in the forefront, never in the background.”

Now here was a woman I could relate to. Here was someone who DID have what I wanted. Long-term sobriety, a happy, productive life and a recovery program that supported her but didn’t define and overtake her whole existence. Yes, I’ll take that. She offered to be my sponsor and said she would be happy to take me through the steps formally as she had done them, or just be there to support me if I chose to go about my recovery in another way. She also did not insist that I ADMIT RIGHT NOW THAT I’M AN ALCOHOLIC. She said I was the only one who could decide that, and if I would rather just call myself a problem drinker, that was fine with her, too. I am so grateful to her and to Joe for their light touch, and for supporting me in finding my own way to a recovery approach that makes sense to me and feels right.

© soberfire, 2015

Your drinking is RUINED.

See if you can guess how my first day of sobriety started. With a horrible hangover, of course! I’m still not sure what was so different this time. There was nothing remarkable about the night before. I stopped and got a bottle of wine on the way home after a stressful workday. I kissed everyone hello, said I wasn’t hungry, and had a couple glasses out on the patio while my husband and the kids ate dinner. I remember how good it felt, sitting there with the warm sun on my face, sipping my Pinot Grigio, how the stress of the day melted away. Only for part of me, though–the other part knew this was bad news. I was breaking my own moderation rules (again) and not caring. I was checking out on my family after not seeing them all day.  I knew my husband would be upset with me, and I won’t say I didn’t care about that, but clearly the desire to drink trumped that concern. I hung out in my own little world for a while, then came in to do the kids’ bedtime routine.  After they were asleep, I drank the rest, except for that little bit just to be able to put the bottle back in the fridge. I remember being vaguely annoyed about forcing myself to stop there since I would have much preferred to finish the bottle and open another one.

The next morning, as I sat on the couch with my coffee waiting for the worst of the hangover to pass, I thought, this is ridiculous and such a waste. It’s a beautiful summer day, nobody has to go to work, and I am going to be completely unable to enjoy the day with my family because I have made myself sick. This wasn’t supposed to be happening anymore, ever. This was not an acceptable scenario in any of my moderation plans.

So the jig was up, and I knew it in my bones. Still, I thought, let’s see if I’m still thinking this way later today or tomorrow when the hangover is gone. I had been through the short-lived “never again” reaction to the hangover enough times. But for whatever reason, this time felt different. I spent much of that weekend researching alcoholism online. I am a person who researches everything, especially health related things. Despite that, do you think I had ever allowed myself to delve into this particular health topic before? Nope. But I was ready now. I took all the quizzes. Check, check, check!   Oh, boy.  I found some sober blogs and recognized myself, big time. But there was one, nagging question left. If this was a predictably progressive condition, why didn’t my story seem to reflect that? I had been a problem drinker for 30 years and my life was still under control, at least outwardly. If I were really an alcoholic, wouldn’t I be in the gutter by now? I wanted to resolve that question in my mind, so I googled specifically “progression of alcoholism” and came up with this list. Something about seeing the behaviors in the timeline format made it all click. I could check off almost all the things in the early stage category (all except blackouts—I never had those). Worse, I could check off many of the things in the middle stage category. I looked at those things and realized they had not been true a few years ago. My problem WAS progressing, slowly but surely. I looked at the things on the bottom of that list. I realized in that moment that I could quit now, while I was still in the early-to-middle stage, or I could quit in the late stage, after some really bad stuff happens.  So by that Sunday night, I had my decision. It would be now.

So what next? I needed to talk to a real, live person I could trust who understood this problem. The first person I thought of was an old friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years whom I knew had been sober for longer than that. Let’s call him Joe. We had kept in touch via Facebook only, so I messaged him that night, my second day of sobriety. I told him I had decided I needed to quit drinking and I was a little excited and a lot afraid, mostly of taking on the “A” word as part of my identity. I asked him to please tell me that the sober life is great. He responded immediately, with simplicity and kindness. It was perfect–absolutely the exact words I needed in that moment. “Don’t worry, there is a solution. You can have a fun, happy life without drinking if that’s what you want. Usually, if you think you have a drinking problem, you probably do. Let’s get together ASAP. Call me.” I did, and we had a long talk. I said “I don’t want to go to any meetings. I have 2 kids and a job—I don’t have time for that. I can barely get to one yoga class a week and I’m going to need THAT if I’m going to quit drinking. Plus, I don’t want to adopt AA as a lifestyle the way people do. I just want to quit drinking and move on with my life.” He said, “That’s OK, you don’t HAVE to go to meetings. Just keep an open mind.” We met for coffee and he told me his story about being a “low bottom” drunk, cocaine and heroin addict and going into detox, then rehab, then a halfway house at age 25. He never looked back and never relapsed. He had 30 years of sobriety when he realized he was sober but miserable. It was then that he went through the AA steps formally with a sponsor for the first time, and it was life changing for him. I had a lot of reservations about going that route, and thankfully he honored that and didn’t pressure me or try to scare me into thinking that was the only possible way. He encouraged me to keep an open mind and keep in touch.

Those first couple of weeks, I was fragile and raw and weepy.   I grieved hard for the loss of my beloved booze. I was either crying or on the verge of tears just about all the time. I can tell you that I cried real tears triggered by break-up songs on the car radio, thinking of my wine in place of the lost lover. As cracked up and cheesy as that sounds, it’s the truth.  Thankfully, here was a bright spot amidst the pain.  I felt immediate relief from the agony of debating each day what I was going to do about this stupid fucking thing when 5:00 rolled around.  And I knew that as hard as this felt and how much I would miss my wine sometimes, a sober life was going to be better.  I felt excited about the blessings I knew I would soon discover.

At first, though, it was all so disorienting!  I felt the proverbial rug had been pulled right out from under me. I had become so attached to my way of thinking about my relationship with alcohol—that it was an issue, but one that I was going to be able to manage without quitting. Now I felt like I had dropped into some kind of parallel universe, which I suppose I had.

And then came the flood of memories. I kept remembering things that happened in the past related to my drinking, some recent, some from decades ago that I hadn’t thought about in years. Seeing those events through this strange new lens, I felt so incredibly stupid. How could I not have known a long time ago?

I beat myself up about that for a while, but I decided that won’t serve my recovery, so I stopped. Now I give myself a break about how long it took me to see the truth. I started drinking at age 13. From the get-go and all through the years, I had plenty of people around me doing the same and more, so it was easy to think all was normal. When I started to realize something was amiss, moderation was a worthwhile effort. I had no way of knowing at the outset that I would fail so splendidly. For all I knew, I could have found out that I just had some bad habits, and I could learn, through some trial and error, to have a normal relationship with alcohol.   It would have been nice to discover that I could change my habits and have a drink or two a couple times a week and be satisfied with that. It would have been nice to discover that I would, in fact, have the luxury of celebrating special occasions with the same rituals most people happily and safely enjoy. In my three decades of drinking, I had never undertaken any moderation efforts in earnest until the last couple years. I had to try. I had to try a bunch of different ways and fail a bunch of times. I had to prove to myself many times over that moderation is not a happening thing for me. So now I don’t ever need to try it again.

I waited almost a week to tell my husband I was quitting. I had to be sure I really meant it. “I’m done” was a brand new story. The “I’m working on it” story was the old and tired one, and that one left plenty of room for fuck-ups. “I’m done” has no margin of error, so it was scary to say it. He was cautiously relieved, and a bit confused by what was suddenly different. Because there was no dramatic event or story–just me flunking the last chance I gave myself to drink like a normal person, and finally getting that I can’t do it. He had told me months before that he was so done discussing it with me. But he was willing and able to talk with me about it now, I guess because I was finally seeing and telling the truth.

A couple weeks in, I was talking with my friend Joe again and he said the most awesome thing to me. He said, “You know what? Your drinking is RUINED.” I literally gasped and thought, oh my God, that’s exactly right, it IS ruined. How awful.  How terribly, horribly sad and tragic. And also, thank God! Because that means there’s really no point in wondering if I could ever go back. If I did, it would never be the same anyway. Because now I know.

© soberfire, 2015

My Red Flags

The author of Unpickled, one of the first sober blogs I found, listed the “red flags” that told her it was time to stop drinking.  I wrote mine to my friend the first week I was sober. Quitting drinking before my life fell apart was obviously a blessing, but with one downside—when the dust settles, it could be too easy to think it was all a big mistake. I wrote my red flags list so that at some future point, if I start thinking maybe it wasn’t all that bad, I can read my list and remember that it was bad enough.

  • The incessant, exhausting, daily internal debate about whether or not I would drink that night. And if so, how much could I have? And would this be a day I would actually keep to that limit?  Having to focus on it so much of the time, drinking or not drinking. Having this take so much energy away from important things.  And still breaking my moderation rules despite all this EFFORTING.
  • Even during the brief times (a couple weeks at a time, maybe a month, tops) that I could achieve something resembling moderation, having to FORCE myself not to have another drink.  Keeping an eye on other people’s drinks to make sure I was keeping pace with the normal people, and feeling irritated because they were never going fast enough to suit me–all the while smiling and chatting and looking “normal.”
  • Inviting friends over for dinner to spend time with them, sure, but honestly…primarily…to set up an occasion to drink that wouldn’t rattle my husband. Being a good friend has always been so important to me. I felt awful realizing I was basically using my friends in this way.
  • Topping off my glass when hubby was out of the kitchen and quickly drinking it back to the level it was.
  • As it became harder not to drink the whole bottle of wine, I would leave just a tiny bit so the bottle would still be there to try and make it look good.   And I knew that if it weren’t for having to worry about my husband being upset, I would absolutely be finishing that bottle and having a couple more drinks besides.
  • Many times, knowing if I drink tonight, hubby is going to be upset because this will be the 3rd night in a row or whatever, and I am causing him pain, and it’s against my own rules besides! But going ahead and doing it anyway.
  • Skipping social events outside the house because I knew I could no longer trust myself to stop while I was still “OK to drive.”
  • I never acted on it (yet?), but I had started eyeing the vodka nips at the register, thinking that would be a quick and easy way to get more on the sly.  Yikes.
  • And last but not least, I did ALL these things while making active and ongoing efforts to moderate, and wanting desperately to succeed…why? You guessed it–so I could keep drinking!

The growing awareness of all this was brewing and stewing during the last few months of my drinking.  Then the panic attacks appeared. I thought, “Oh, spectacular—this is new. Despite my history of periodic bouts of depression/anxiety, I managed to get well into my 40’s without ever having panic attacks. But here they are. Great.” When I quit drinking a week or so after the last one, I thought about those panic attacks and what they were about (I haven’t had one since, by the way). I chalked them up to the semi-conscious, growing knowledge that I would soon be saying goodbye to my beloved wine. That is partially true, but later I saw they were a reaction to something more specific. My drinking problem had reached a peak level of tension that couldn’t be maintained—a tipping point of sorts. Something had to shift, one way or the other. My sponsor/friend put it succinctly—it was “shit or get off the pot” time. I could quit. Or, I could take it to the next level, scrap the feeble moderation attempts, get myself a nice hidden stash, and surrender to drinking in secret to supplement the acceptable amounts I would drink in front of others. That was a line that I knew I couldn’t cross for my family’s sake especially, and yes, even for my own. I believe coming right up to that edge was the source of the panic attacks. I only put my finger on it in retrospect though, after having a couple months of sobriety under my belt. Those first couple weeks, I was too raw, grief-stricken and disoriented to make sense of it.

© soberfire, 2015

The end and the beginning.

I got sober 6 months ago at age 43. How strange to write that. I am still amazed that this is how it’s turning out. I wasn’t going to be “one of those people,” those I deemed to be rigid and a bit simple-minded, unable to figure it all out. Sure, I drank too much, and had for my entire adolescence and most of my adult life. I knew all about my longstanding tendency to “overdo it”. But that was just because I was a screwed up kid, then later I was a party girl like so many others in their 20’s. And these days, now that I was a grown-up married lady with kids, I just needed to think my way through some emotional issues, or meditate more, or do more yoga, or remove this, that, or the other stressor, or exercise more to stabilize my mood. Quitting completely was for losers who couldn’t learn to dance with the nuance and complexities of life. I was going to be different.

I saw my alcohol abuse purely as a symptom of other problems. It was that, of course, but not only that.   I failed to recognize that my relationship with alcohol was also a problem in and of itself–its own animal. I thought if I could just take care of the underlying issues, I would quite naturally become a person who could drink normally, because then I would have no need to use it in a self-medicating way. Sounds logical, right? I also presumed to believe this was true of any problem drinker other than perhaps the most severe, physically dependent breakfast drunk. Those poor souls aside, people who quit were taking the dumbed down way out of the problem. Such arrogance, to think I knew all about the psychological issues of millions of complete strangers!   Now I am being humbled.

I am an alcoholic of the “high functioning” variety. The bottom I hit was internal and private with no big disastrous incident or dramatic flair. I must never forget that that makes me lucky, not better. It’s easy for me to compare myself to other alcoholics, and if I’m honest, at times I have felt more than a little smug about being “not THAT bad.” Who knows all the reasons why some travel farther down the rabbit hole than others?   No doubt socioeconomics, general mental health, family and social support or lack thereof play huge roles. I’ve thought a lot about why my story is unfolding the way it is, knowing that I could have been writing a very different story from a hospital or a jail, or not at all due to being dead.

First, I am grateful for my half-assed but long-standing yoga and meditation practices. For years, I used my yoga and meditation as strategies to try and become a normal drinker. As futile as that exercise was, those practices gave me the tool of self-observation from a distance.   A small part of me was able to step back and watch my own behavior and twisted thought processes. Finally, I saw my drinking behavior, rationalizations and denial for what they were—the classic workings of an addict’s mind. I saw flickers at first. I pushed those away. My mindfulness practices had created just enough “mindsight” that one day I was able to SEE my mind actively pushing away thoughts that contained the truth, and then grabbing onto more rationalizations. That seeing is what scared me the most, and woke me up.

I also thank my husband for the fact that I got out when I did. The last couple of years, he wouldn’t let me off the hook. Because of him, the problem was on my radar sooner and stronger than it would have been if left to my own devices. If I had a husband who was a couple of beers every night kinda guy instead of a very occasional, purely social drinker, who knows where I’d be? He went from giving me gentle reminders to “take it easy” to flat refusal to ever drink with me.   I would do better for a while, and he would relax that rule, especially if it was a special occasion or a rare dinner out. But then I would start overdoing it again and he would reinstate his rules.   I love my husband beyond words and care about the health of our marriage. As much as his lines in the sand pissed me off, I had to recognize that my behavior was causing him pain, and at least try and alleviate that situation.

So I looked at how much I was drinking compared with NIH guidelines for low-risk drinking. For the first time in my then 28-year history of alcohol abuse, I had a moderation plan involving number of days and number of drinks.   When I failed, there would be moments when a small part of my brain knew what was really going on, and I would quickly push those thoughts away. I would try again, this time with a slightly different approach, a tweaked set of rules. And then fail again. The anxiety created by the trying and failing began to build. And the building anxiety created stronger cravings for more alcohol. The dawning awareness of the true nature of my problem created yet more anxiety. During the last two weeks of my drinking, I had two panic attacks. I’ve had bouts of depression and anxiety most of my life, but full-on panic attacks were a new thing. I also had two horrible hangovers during the final week. The second one was my first day of sobriety. I woke up and I knew. This had been my last chance and the jig was up.   A couple months before, I had written in my journal that if I couldn’t follow my own moderation rules this time, I would have to quit. Altogether. Forever. FUCK.

What kept me deluded for so long?

  • My addiction hadn’t progressed in the way I had read was predictable. I was the crazy party girl in my teens and twenties. In my 30’s, I settled down quite a bit, got married, had a couple kids. I still drank too much on occasion, but for a while there it looked like I was growing out of it, growing up.
  • I abstained completely during my pregnancies with no difficulty. When people said “Oh, you can have ONE small glass of wine once in awhile, that’s fine.” I would say, “Ha ha, who wants one?” At the time, I didn’t think about that too much, because it all fit together and made sense.   I was a purist. I ate all organic food, I didn’t so much as take a Tylenol, and I didn’t drink alcohol. I even gave up caffeine entirely with the first one. And it was all easy. Later, when I really started to question if I was in trouble with alcohol, I would think, but how can I be an alcoholic if that was so EASY?   If I were, maybe I would have still been able to quit for the sake of my babies by sheer force of will, but wouldn’t it have at least been HARD? Now I know it’s because I was abstaining completely. Abstinence, for me, is very doable (so far)—moderating is what is hard (read: impossible). That, and I didn’t have the FOREVER part to contend with during my pregnancies. Big difference.
  • I was never even close to the stereotypical concept of “hitting bottom.” I was holding down the fort. I put myself through college and got straight A’s while drinking. I got a master’s degree with high honors while drinking. I was a professional, and my drinking never interfered with my work. I had a strong marriage and two beautiful, happy children. I was a mostly good, involved and committed mom. I usually started drinking while making dinner, but no more than a couple while the kids were awake. Binging was a rare thing these days—much more rare than in my “party girl” days. My life was not in shambles, not even close. In many ways it just kept getting better. So how could I possibly be an alcoholic?

And yet…I was. Am. During the last few years, I felt more needful around it than I had in the past, even more so than during times in my life when I drank more. It wasn’t so much the actual amount and frequency, although both were unhealthy most of the time. It was more that my drinking had taken on a different quality–from “this is fun!” to “I need this.”

I am now learning that the mental gyrations and endless variations of “See? I’m not THAT bad.” are so typical of the active alcoholic. Between that and the serial failed moderation attempts, I was a walking AA cliché (how embarrassing!). And boy did I want to succeed at moderation, because I really, really didn’t want to have to stop.   I wanted to moderate for lots of really good reasons—to be physically healthier and lose some weight, to have more energy, to make my husband happy, to not be cranky with my kids due to low-grade hangovers. But guess what? While I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, my NUMBER ONE reason for wanting desperately to succeed at moderation was license to continue drinking. And still I failed. Many times. Round and round I went for two years.

I’m starting this blog to help me through this process and hopefully help others along the way. Sober blogs were the first resources I used to get sober.   In those first days and weeks, the blog posts I read helped me recognize myself and confirm what I was coming to know to be true. And they gave me hope that maybe I would gain more than I was giving up.   In the weeks and months that have followed, when I read or hear parts of my own story being told by someone else almost verbatim, two things happen. First, shame is lifted because I see I am not alone in my feelings and experiences. Second, the reality of my situation is confirmed–I am, in fact, a part of this club, lest I begin having any doubts. The former is good for my mental health, and the latter is good for my sobriety.

So my hope is that others will read this and say, like I did, “Oh my God, that is JUST like me!” and find help or comfort in that. I am starting late, and part of me wishes I had documented everything from the very beginning. But part of this journey is accepting what is, so starting now is OK, too.

© soberfire, 2015

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