I groped in the dark for my cup. Reaching out from under the warm comforter, damp with sweat and tears, my shaking hand grazed the container holding my sweet relief, my liquid sanity. I heard a sickening thunk and a splash as the nearly full vessel fell to the floor, my salvation painting the walls and bedside table. I became instantly choked with an overwhelming dread as the familiar panic set in.
Fix-it mode was first to the scene. I left the mess on the floor, along with the sticky remains of past forgotten accidents, and hauled myself out from under the dank tangle of blankets. Launching forward, I navigated the darkness around the bed, side-swiping the door frame with my hip as I lurched toward the kitchen. I was single-minded. I opened the refrigerator, and the hole in my stomach widened in foreboding when I found it empty of my ultimate objective. Squinting, I searched with a rising desperation for anything there that might help ease the pounding terror trickling through every cell in my body. Gone. It was all gone.
I had dropped my last drink.
I made my way to the living room and sat on the couch in the pulsating silence, panting. I was exhausted. What little sleep I had won had been speckled with debilitating nightmares, and I had awoken several times in order to take small sips off the lamented lost cocktail, trying to keep the pain and terror away. I didn’t remember making it, but I knew it had been a well planned fail-safe for what was doomed from the start to be a hellish night.
What was not long ago a stiff 1:3 ratio of vodka to iced tea, my mixed drinks had more recently concentrated to a noxious firebrand of about 80% booze, and I had just sprayed the last of it all over my bedroom. It was supposed to get me through the night until I could get more when the store opened.
The anxiety was coming back. I couldn’t cry. It was too taxing. I was fully consumed with focusing on my breath to keep the vortex of hysterical thoughts from pulling me apart. I didn’t shift from my uncomfortable position, because any movement exacerbated the pain that was mounting within me with each passing second. As my vision swam, I stared at the clock on the DVR, the brightest stationary object in my unlit prison. 3:33. My breaths came and went, and I stayed with them.
The pounding was deafening, now. Every thought that spun through my head, no matter how mundane or trivial, heightened my panic. I didn’t dare expend the energy to moan, let alone do the screaming in agony that I yearned to do. I didn’t dare wake my sweet daughter.
Naia. The tsunami of guilt and shame washed up in a torrent, threatening to drown me, and my panic spiraled up to the heights of anguish that surpassed any human need for oxygen. Naia. Naia. She mustn’t see me like this. There was no way I was going to let her see this.
A frenzied search. The piggy bank was long ago pilfered, the coins spent. Debit card, useless: the checking account was in the negative again. Finally, a sign of hope: a maxed out credit card- surely there must be a few dollars left of the $500 limit. The others are surely over, but this one? This may just work.
I resumed my watch in front of the DVR clock, clutching the plastic card as the first grays of dawn began to lighten the walls of the living room. All that was left was to wait until the store opened, where I could finally touch my panacea. The remedy, the medicine. The cure.
I sat with my breaths.
I've moved over 30 times in my life. I spent a good solid chunk of my childhood in one place, but as soon as I turned 18, I was off on an intrepid quest of misled wanderlust of such passion that it took17 years to settle back down again. Dustin, being an army brat and nomad in his own right, can add another 30 of his own moves on top of my list, making us a veritable power couple of rootlessness.
I was always a self-dubbed Routinophobe. The thought of doing the same thing every day with any consistency terrified me, resulting in a spotty work history, but an impressive world map of places visited. I would quickly become dissatisfied with any home or workplace based on a variety of reasons (too many of which were directly or indirectly related to my alcohol abuse), and I would move on to seemingly greener pastures like a serial monogamist.
All this made for fascinating stories, but a total lack of self-discipline was an unintended side effect of my flightiness, due to a tendency to flee when any measure of discomfort would arise. All this whimsical flitting around kept me from developing any solid experience with working through the difficulties inherent to long term professional and social relations, and this deeply affected my alcoholism.
They say addiction thrives on isolation. Living in Vermont is a beautiful experience, but we happened to be 40 minutes away from the nearest affordable grocery store, and hours away from most friends and family. When Dustin suggested early in my sobriety that we move closer to my hometown in New Hampshire, I was exhausted. I was raw, worn down, and world weary, and the thought of yet another move made me nauseous. I was worried that it was too much upheaval too soon.
Of course, it turns out to have been the best move we've ever made. We found the perfect apartment in a small town with access to a million hiking trails, amazing schools, a tight knit community, and all within 30 minutes of large cities/friends/family. I almost immediately landed an amazing job that pays more than I've ever made (by a long shot), and I actually like it!
The difference is, well, everything. Everything changed- my perspective, my physiology, my neural pathways- everything has changed since I became sober. That rawness that was so pervasive and overwhelming in early sobriety has now become a clear awareness that I rarely experienced during my years of drinking. The saying in AA is "people, places and things". I changed them all, the most dramatic of which was my home, and it was the healthiest change I've ever made.
I'm still struggling to nail down a routine, but I'm no longer deathly afraid of consistency. I feel like I have purged that fear, along with the other poisons, out of my system. If it wasn't for an increased predictability throughout my days, getting and staying sober would have been a lot harder.
All these changes have been astonishingly powerful in the most positive ways. I am developing a stronger sense of self worth, and a confidence in my own abilities to do things right is beginning to grow within me. I know there are a lot of hurdles ahead, but I'm not afraid to do the work now. I'm not running anymore. I'm going to dig my toes into the soil here, and grow some roots. No more wandering. I've found what I've always been searching for, and it was with me the whole time.
I’ve been a faster for years. Not strictly water- I have a masticating juicer that I create nutritional powerhouse juices with, mostly veggies with some fruit for palatability. It provides me with all my necessary vitamins and micronutrients (hey, a vegan diet doesn’t kill you- this just takes it a step further for a short period of time), while I abstain from all unsoluble fiber to shut down my digestion. This energy otherwise used in digestion is redirected into all sorts of interesting bodily functions that yield fascinating and useful side effects, like incredible mental clarity and the healing of old injuries.
I lost 50 pounds in 90 days last year, in time for Dustins and my wedding. It was a deeply introspective and enlightening period of my life. I had attempted shorter fasts in the past, but never more than 18 days or so. This was a total shift in consciousness for me. Unfortunately, the supremely beneficial physical and mental results only lasted as long as the wedding, where booze was reintroduced with dramatic and fantastical results that lasted for 6 harrowing and destructive months.
I’ve been sober for 112 days today, and the biggest crutch I found in early sobriety to help with cravings was chocolate. Ohhhh, chocolate. Pastries, cookies, cereal, candy bars, baked goods, M&M’s, ice cream. It was all fair game. I shouldn’t be surprised that I gained 30 pounds back already. But dang, that stings! So much effort in the weight loss, and again in the abstinence from alcohol, only to look in the mirror and be horrified at the physical results. Not only that, but I feel very sluggish, unmotivated, and need greater and greater quantities of coffee just to get basic things done. My back is also bothering me again, a malady that went into remission while fasting.
Now that life is relatively settled, it’s time to go back to that place of heightened clarity and health. I’m doing another 90 days, starting today, Memorial Day. How very fitting for this memorializer. The first 3-5 days are typically the hardest for me- there’s a lot of consistent disappointment mentally at first, like realizing halfway toward reaching into the bowl of chips, or finding myself thinking, “What do we have to ea… oh wait, nothing for me (sad face).” The hunger, really, isn’t that big of an obstacle- it’s just another sensation. There’s no actual pain there. The whole thing is really more of a mental game. Once you take the option of eating off the table, if you are able to realize that the voice in your brain screaming at you (“Oh my god!! You’re not eating!! You will die! Die! Die!!!”) is actually a big, fat liar, you’re destined for a successful fast.
I’m very curious to see how this process will be different now after several months of total sobriety. My spirtitual life is much more prevalent now than it has been in a very long time, as it tends to be with a lot of newly sober alcoholics, and I bet the increased meditation time in my life will be very beneficial in my self-discovery during this fast.
I’ll be sure to check in as this journey continues.
In a game of tag, you are either pursuing your scattering prey, or fleeing a menacing child predator. Remember that? The rush of adrenaline when you’d just barely skirt by your pursuer, narrowly escaping what surely felt like certain doom? The sinking feeling of being “it” because (not AGAIN) you have the responsibility of chasing someone down so you don’t have to be “it” anymore?
In hindsight, were either of those roles really fun?
Kids are amazing. They can take the most harrowing or dull aspects of adult life, and turn them into joyful games. As adults, there is a new player in this game that was absent in our carefree innocence: pain.
Like most kids, I’d hover around the rock or pole or patch of grass we’d all designate as the “safe zone”- occasionally venturing out to tease whomever was “it” but always within a reachable distance from it. As an adult, I learned that there are similar safe zones when confronted with pain, and I came to lean on them more and more over the years.
In his approach to raising me, my father realized later that he went too far in the opposite direction of his own childhood. His own father had used a belt as a disciplinarian tool, and from what he told me, there was a good bit of emotional neglect in that relationship. In order to save me from the suffering he experienced growing up, he took a very hands-off, open-minded and understanding approach. We had a very loving and communicative father/daughter relationship, and I shared all my thoughts and feelings with him, but I was mostly left to my own devices after mom left home when I was 15. I managed to snag a DWI at 16 on top of a couple other arrests later, only attended enough classes in order to graduate after being accepted to colleges, slept through my art school finals... this list actually continues for a freakishly long time. My freedom allowed me plenty of space for experimentation, which to a point is healthy, but having that space became normal to me, and didn’t force me to develop any tools of self-discipline. So giving myself permission became habit.
Dad died in 2004 of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had chronic anxiety as I do- he helped me when I first experienced it as a teenager. He was good with fixing things as only the chronically anxiety ridden are capable of- he had many solutions for many ailments. Those were often easy solutions to swallow, quite literally. He had been prescribed benzodiazepines for decades, and when my anxiety attacks began shaking me to the core at the age of 14, he occasionally gave me one when other methods failed. But when he tried to teach me the real tools, the ones that were harder, they required turning the mirror on myself and doing the self-investigation I had been avoiding. By then it was too late. I had found my own safe zone- escape, and it worked. For the moment.
I recently found a note from him to me from 2002. I was twenty one that year, and had just had an emotional breakdown- my living situation was in complete chaos. I didn’t know where to go or what I was doing. I had begun visiting bars nightly, and alcohol was beginning to fill that void of belonging. Dad’s note filled with important bits of wisdom regarding my tendency to run from pain that I’m only now learning and really taking in, fourteen years later.
If we perceive life like a game of tag, always chasing or being chased, addiction is the agreed upon safe zone. The bottle was my safety. “I feel uncomfortable in social situations.” Drink! Safe! “This is too much, I can’t handle it.” Drink! Safe! “I’m so depressed.” Drink! Safe!
My self imposed freedoms ultimately led me to a life of perpetual crisis. It started off with giving myself permission to roam and experience all of life, but further down the line permission became a lifestyle. Eventually booze was deeply involved in that lifestyle, and I ultimately couldn’t break out of it. In my avoidance of suffering, I never learned how to deal with it in any helpful way. I never did the hard work that was necessary.
I didn’t have the chance to do that work because I was almost constantly numbing, avoiding, running from pain- playing the game of tag. There’s a fine line between the pursuit of pleasure and the fleeing from pain. One is clinging, the other avoidance. Both are destructive. But in stopping the game, turning around and finally facing pain, I am only now realizing this act alone begins to shine a light on the monster in the closet. It begins to lessen the fear, the potency, the intensity of suffering. Being able to sit with pain has made it somehow less daunting, and my confidence in being able to live with it grows daily.
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said, “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Our avoidance is a cause of our suffering. My father was trying to protect me from the emotional and physical abuse of his childhood, but I ended up experiencing an entirely different kind of suffering because of my insistence on running from pain. I often wonder if it would have been any different for me in a stricter household. I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have sneaked out either way; found ways around it. I wonder how much is environmental, and how much is simply my stubborn ass. Either way, lesson learned. Fourteen years of escaping pain and hard work finally caught up to me, and it was finally time to turn toward it. To let it in.
In a game of tag, you are either pursuing or fleeing- what is healthy is to remove yourself from the chase.
I’ve known my internal compass is busted for decades. That little thing inside you that influences your decisions and general direction in life? Yeah, mine has the navigational power of a toddler. Historically, it has manically swung around in nauseating circles as I’d rush off to passionately investigate the next shiny thing that crossed my path, leaving me seasick and irritated with myself. Even though my screwy internal GPS has always led me on completely wild tangents into swampy depressive quagmires and hailstorms of blinding panic, I still follow the stupid thing.
Case in point- I stumbled across an old blog post today from 2011, almost exactly five years ago. I had written it during a 50-ish day period of sobriety, when the extent of my self-awareness pretty much maxed out at, “Hey, I’ve been drinking almost every day for like, a decade. Maybe I should attempt slowing this down.” At that point, I decided to give sobriety a small and vaguely pathetic attempt; sort of like a new kitten experimenting at walking, graceless and clumsy. After some time, I found I was actually enjoying it- I felt inspired again, and my passion for all things non-booze related was rekindling, making me motivated and productive. Then, on the evening of my husbands 32nd birthday, we determined it would be a fine idea to “reintroduce alcohol back into our lives”.
Brilliant! Let’s bust through all the tried and true testaments involving recovery from addiction, and call only occasional excessive drinking “achieving balance”! Lets dangle that carrot, and choose to only have a nibble once a week as a testament to our ability to make skillful, mindful decisions!
I was looking for any way to continue to have booze in my life, and I was good at finding fresh excuses to drink. I am a master at self-deception. My brain is tremendously talented at concocting believable justifications, and I just gobble up all the BS my mind will formulate. The decision to start drinking again was not exactly an outlier of senselessness- my life has been peppered with similarly hilarious little life decisions. Dropping acid in ninth grade science class? Awesome! Crowd surfing and moshing at a punk show packed with huge, angry dudes wearing spiked gauntlets? Sweet! Moving alone to New Orleans only to end up pan handling on Bourbon street in order to pay for another night at the hostel and buy more cheap vodka while my father is 1,000 miles away dying of a wasting disease? Let’s do it! And I’m not kidding when I say that each one of these little gems I believed was best for me at the time. If it wasn’t about determination to live as fully as possible before I die, it was about learning valuable lessons from each absurd, irrational notion I fancied at the time.
“If I am an unfurling flower, opening to the sun of clarity, then alcohol is the closing of my petals when night falls. It achieves the opposite of opening myself up, but that is an important learning tool in itself.” Yeah, like that. A quote from young Erin, delirious with self-made vindication. I prattled out my stream of consciousness defense of drinking in this blog post, fulling believing myself capable of dissolving my alcoholism into normal, acceptable parameters by sheer power of will. Admittedly, that would have been pretty amazing if I could have disciplined myself into sobriety, but “moderation” is not a word that those with addictions really jive with. It’s not an ability we possess in spades. I gave myself permission to drink when I deemed “appropriate”, which opened the door to bargaining, rationalization, and thus, unnecessary suffering. I attempted to “achieve balance” with alcohol as part of my life. This was probably a noble cause, but in the end, the state of inebriation is the polar opposite of mindfulness. Obviously, this was another brilliant plan doomed to fail.
Today I am 50 days sober, again. This was as long as I had made it before. Right now I don’t feel the desire to drink, because in my mind, that option is no longer even on the table. This may change as the days ebb and flow, but I see myself a little more clearly this time around. I have a lot of work to do on myself, a lot of proving to myself that I am capable of self-trust. I really betrayed myself. But I’m learning greater confidence with each obstacle faced.
I can’t bring myself to wholly regret this stupefying path through alcoholic idiocy, because after all, if the irresponsible, undisciplined actions weren’t very wise, at least the reasons for self justifications were. I was learning valuable lessons. I was coming to understand my limitations and values with each mind-numbing decision. Through trial, error, horror, and humiliation I have found myself turning inward more deeply than I ever have, and the clarity that comes with each revelation is worth all the pain and heartache. I can say with complete confidence that I cannot justify drinking any more, because I absolutely exhausted every avenue of rationalization to be had.
I tried that. It’s time to walk another path.
I’ll close with a fabulous poem by Portia Nelson that I received in early recovery:
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn't my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
-Portia Nelson, There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery