A Shim for That Too-Far Feeling

I want to live my life for real. I used to want to feel all and think all at all times. I have realized that there’s a no-stop in me that takes me too-far. To handle too-farness, I began to drink wine each night. Without wine, too-farness still happens. I’ve learned that what I want – all – I can’t have. I can’t be completely open to all and stay abstinent and mentally healthy.

A shim of awareness helps with balanceI find abstinence primarily hell. But. With 21 months of seemingly infinite effort on my part and on the part of people who want me to stay sober and sane, something is starting to help me when too-farness happens.


Awareness helps. But it’s not enough. I need to be able to do something with that awareness. For example, how about me becoming aware I have homicidal thoughts or just want to do some damage with a 2′ x 4′ and my mighty little gym-trained biceps? A girl’s gotta have a process – something to do – before she gets into this awareness thing.

If I could just pry apart a gap between that too-far feeling and what I used to do, i.e. pick up glass after glass of wine instead of the 2′ x 4′, I’d have a chance to do something different.

A process is beginning to form.

I have started to become aware of when I am starting to feel a lot. Maybe the a lot that leads to too-far.

I am learning to quick, quick, slip that awareness – like a wooden shim under the foot of a too-far-forward-about-to-fall bookcase – in between what I’m feeling and what I used to do.

When I become aware, I pause.

Into the gap made by the pause, I wedge a new process.

Old process:
Feel > Act > Then think, “What was I thinking?!”

New process:
Feel > Pause > Think > Act

Within the space and time and balance offered by that shim of awareness, I think, “What am I feeling? What is the origin of this feeling? Is it helping me? Is it good for me?”

While I’m asking those questions, I calm and comfort myself. I reassure myself and think, “You have reasons for what you think. It’s okay to think what you’re thinking. Let’s take a look. Okay, yes, it makes sense you’re thinking that. It’s okay.”

While I was driving to have dinner with women friends a few days ago, I was listening to NPR about a man who volunteered to collect and cremate bodies of people who had died in Liberia from Ebola.

I started to feel. I felt the hint of too-farness. I quick, quick, stuck in the shim of awareness. I started the process. This is what I remember feeling and thinking:

  • On the way here, I passed the corner I used to drive up to the house where I lived with my former husband. I miss us. I feel sad.
  • I used to live with him and my cat and his cat. Both of those cats had to be put down. I miss my cat. I miss his cat. I feel so sad.
  • I know I have a push-pull relationship with attachment. Ah, hearing of the man witnessing losses in other lives is bringing up my own losses and my longing to be attached. It makes sense and it’s okay. I’ve done the best I can. I’m okay.
  • This man has to be traumatized from his experience. I should help him. How can I help him?
  • Ah, there I am feeling responsible for others again. It’s okay. He is responsible for himself and he is responsible for asking for the help he needs. As Dr. H. says, I’m not responsible for un-upsetting him. I’m responsible for un-upsetting me. His inner wisdom will guide him. If in the unlikely chance he asks me for help, I can decide whether or not I can – or am available to – help. I know from my own experience that there are lots of people available to help people with problems and I am not The Only One Who Must Help. So, I feel compassion for myself and for him and all who help others and turn my thinking back to being helpful to myself.
  • People in recovery are encouraged to think hard about the news. It can feel like added hardship over which we have no control. We’re allowed to choose whether or not we let in news. It would be okay for me to turn this off, to not listen to it.
  • Why am I not turning this off? Why am I listening? This probably isn’t good for me…
  • It’s okay that I am uncertain about the answer to that question. It’s okay that I don’t know.
  • And there it is, involuntarily: I want a drink.
  • It’s okay. I’m not going to choose that. I’m just about there. I’ll meet with women who understand. I can tell them I’m getting upset and they’ll be okay with it and they won’t upset me further by judging me or giving me advice. They’ll accept me and just be with me while I handle these current feelings and thoughts and make progress with the process of growing in my ability to manage no-stopness.
  • I feel kindness towards myself. I see how hard I try and how goodness is what I most want.

A lot of approaches to addiction recovery exhort self-exhortation. I’ve done self-exhortation for 55 years and I’m not a fan. It hurts. A girl could drink over it.

Kindness feels better.

I have heard often over the years that my exhaustive style of probing is exhausting. I get it. From that effort, though, I am deriving a way to not drink and maybe even to have a little peace, a little happiness, a little joy in my life. Towards my exhaustive and exhausting effort, I feel kindness.

I Control You Because I Can’t Control Me

One of the top triggers people with substance use disorders cite as threatening their abstinence or causing relapse is problems with relationships. Because of attachment issues, insufficient self-care and self-love, and other emotional challenges, some people suffering from addiction begin or stay in relationships that don’t help them with a fundamental of sobriety: feeling better about ourselves. Simply put, we need to leave, but don’t. Laurel Sindewald has done extensive research on the subject and synthesizes her findings for us and adds her own insights in this post. Thank you, Laurel!

– Anne

I Control You Because I Can’t Control Me
by Laurel Sindewald

“I put a spell on you… Because you’re MINE!” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins belts chillingly out from my speakers.

He is not the first to think of love as possession or as a permission slip to control another person. What makes me feel the need to control you, my love? It certainly isn’t something you’ve done, though I may have told you so when I was angry or scared.

controlabuse“People who can’t control themselves control the people around them. When you rely on someone for a positive reflected sense of self, you invariably try to control him or her.” says Dr. David Schnarch in his book Intimacy & Desire. Dr. Schnarch is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of several other books. He has found that the need to control others stems from a fundamental lack of ability to regulate one’s emotions.

The “control freak” is depending on others for a sense of self-worth and for emotional stability. In the face of uncontrollable depression or anxiety, it is unsurprising that she is constantly afraid to lose those she has come to need. She seeks to shape and determine their behaviors, their opinion of her, who they can see, and even how they feel. She is terrified that if her loved ones develop autonomy that they will not choose to be with her, perhaps because she would not choose herself.

People, like me, feel the need to control other people out of just such a desire for self-preservation. What began as an evolutionarily beneficial capacity to shape and control my environment for survival has become a coping mechanism for managing my unmanageable emotions.

I might self-deprecate and break down in tears, begging for your help. I might lose my temper and yell at the slightest scent of another argument. I lie and manipulate you, anything I can do to keep you here to keep me stable. I might not even be aware that my actions are trapping you, but my hyper-sensitivity becomes your prison nonetheless.

. . . . .

Control may be a deep human need, but it need not extend to the lives of the people around us. Whether you have a tendency to control, be controlled, or both, it’s important to be able to recognize when caring has tipped over into disrespectful restriction. This helpful list covers some of the many ways in which controlling behaviors can manifest. Other warning signs can be found here.

Examples of exerting control over others:

  • Micromanagement
  • Keeping a person from seeing or talking to loved ones or friends
  • Gaslighting
  • Dishonesty
  • Over-protective or helicopter parenting
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, bullying, or taunting

People who are subject to any of these, or other abusive and controlling behaviors, may not recognize the trap they’re in. Victims of abuse may come to believe they deserve such treatment or that this is as good as it gets. They may have, in turn, lost a sense of control over themselves, and may even begin to mirror some of the same controlling behaviors in an attempt to satisfy their own needs for control. The same vulnerable people who control others for a healthy self-image may be the people at risk for becoming the victim of someone who is abusive or controlling.

. . . . .

Ultimately the spell is a dance that takes two: a controller and someone who is willing to be controlled… or simply unable to leave.

In the face of cycles and spirals of control and abuse, it can be difficult to break the spell and leave if we need to. We feel lost, we victims and perpetrators of controlling behaviors. We struggle and shift our need for control from one person to the next, from one habit to the next, from one substance to the next. We look for any way to manage the unbearable sense of helplessness and terror at our cores.

Examples of controlling self or environment:

  • Disordered eating
  • Complusive exercising
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive arranging, tidying, or cleaning

Dr. Schnarch states that the only way for any person to have healthy relationships is to develop emotional autonomy. As he puts it,”one of the kindest things you can do for the people you love is to develop more emotional autonomy. Managing your own emotions, anxieties, and feelings of self-worth gives other people back their lives.”

. . . . .

This doesn’t leave us farther apart, as you might expect. If anything, emotional autonomy is the only way you and I can have enough stability together to develop healthy interdependence. “We might fall in love but we don’t fall towards each other – we choose to stand tall by each other,” Anne told me once.

Emotion regulation is the practice of moderating and modulating our emotions so that they don’t come to control our actions (or others!). Healthy emotion regulation techniques are ways of recognizing overpowering emotions and modulating them according to how we wish to live and behave. They all begin with higher awareness of emotions as they come.

Control freaks control others partly because they are unable to tolerate negative emotions such as shame, fear, or rejection. In order to change the controlling behaviors that follow from this they must learn to cope with or moderate these negative emotions.

I need to accept even that my worst fears might come true. My controlling behaviors may have destroyed whatever precious excitement, love, and attraction might have existed in our relationship. We both may need space to heal before we can pick up relationship our again. You may need to leave to find yourself again.

If I can become emotionally autonomous, I can learn to trust myself. There is no need to fear my loved one’s actions or even mistakes as long as I trust that I can manage my own self and my own emotions. My need to control vanishes. I can leave if I want to.

The spell that keeps us dancing, focused minutely on the other person’s slightest changes of mood, focused ever intently on whatever he wants us to be doing, is broken as soon as we turn our focus back inward.

Take a deep breath, dear self. You’re wounded and that’s okay. We need some time and space to heal, but this isn’t the last time we’ll find love.

Post and image by Laurel Sindewald

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Don’t Tell

If you’re in recovery from addiction to alcohol or other drugs, don’t share that publicly.

That’s my advice to people in recovery who are not super models backed by fans or public officials backed by The White House.

Few have the backs of those in recovery from addiction.

Mums the word on recovery from addictions and alcoholism

It’s not because we’re bad or wrong or because they are. It’s because we’re all uncertain.

“[S]ociety seems not to know whether to regard substance abuse as a treatable medical condition akin to diabetes or heart disease, or as a personal failing to be overcome,” Stephanie Desmon and Susan Morrow write for The Hub.

About a Johns Hopkins study published in October, 2014, Desmon and Morrow write that researchers found, “Only 22 percent of respondents said they would be willing to work closely on a job with a person with drug addiction…”

I feel empathy and compassion for employers and employees who hesitate to hire or work with people in recovery from addiction. It’s dangerously difficult for a business to make money in a tough economy.

I started a company in 2008 and went 54 months without a paycheck. I needed to hire contractors who could crank out work with little supervision. If they had needed down time for the 24/7/365 condition of addictions recovery, or cost my company clients because of stigma, although my personal philosophy would have been to embrace and transcend such situations, the bottom line was my company simply wasn’t established or profitable enough. If my employee had done what I have done – shared publicly about being in recovery from addiction – I doubt, as a small startup company, we could have recovered.

So why did I tell that I am in recovery from addiction to alcohol?

People with addictions have deficits in self-care.

As the abstinent days began to accumulate to months, I realized self-care for me would be to tell.

. . . . .

I agonized over the decision.

Business-wise, it’s a bad move for me and, to a limited extent, for our business community in which I have been active. And for my company’s clients. In an ideal world, if we Golden Rule it, that should be enough for everyone to think we’re okay. In the real world, what others think has power, especially market power. Social stigma about addiction is real and hard to change.

It could be considered risky now to shake hands with the founder of Handshake Media, Inc. in public. The handshaker could be judged to be tainted by stigma, too. Does the handshaker think Anne’s “personal failing” is okay? If you’re seen with Anne, are you “one of those,” too?! Being at business events is hard on me because of the drinking, and hard on others because I’m not drinking and for what being with me might mean. I just don’t go very often these days.

I’m still too weary from being in early recovery to try to seek new clients and customers. Selling others on doing business with me and my company will be tough, maybe impossible. What if the company founder relapses? It’s a legitimate question.

Me having a drinking problem taints my family, too, and I am deeply sorry for that.

Silence would have protected them.

Silence felt like it was killing me.

I am a writer. I yearn – I must – be free to be open, to tell the truth, to write what is most in my heart and on my mind. I ran my longing by my father and sister, my friends, my counselor, my mentor. I have my father’s and sister’s support. But I was told point blank by some not to do it because the stigma would ruin my future work career. I was told by others not to do it because I am too early in recovery and the repercussions from being open might drum my fragile sobriety into relapse.

But I feel called to words…

If I were in my 20s, 30s or 40s and still needed to pay for my children’s braces and their college tuition, I think a self-care balance sheet calculation would have resulted in silence. I would have let the part of me that writes die a little, hope perhaps I’d have my chance when my finances didn’t depend upon the goodwill of corporations or organizations and their markets, and handle silence the best I could.

But I am 55, divorced, childless, and financially supported by my company and my family. I live modestly and have health insurance thanks to Obamacare. I have a cat and a kitten. The kitten has never had to turn her face away from me whispering endearments to her with wine on my breath. I waited 16 months. If being openly in recovery from addiction to alcohol takes me down, it will be primarily me and only so far. I’ll have enough for cat food.

Super model and actress Amber Valletta shared in July, 2014 that she is in recovery from addiction. She said, “I’d like to have a walk with 10,000 people celebrating sobriety and recovery.”

We could host that walk. In my town and its environs, I am one of 15,000 people with drug and alcohol problems.

I appreciate Amber Valletta’s optimism and activism. Still, for the people I know who are holding tightly to their hard-won hourly wage jobs or seeking tenure at our local university, my two cents would be that until society knows what it really thinks about addiction, not to go on that walk quite yet.

It Didn’t Have to Be This Way?!

The hell I’ve been through for 21 months to remain abstinent from alcohol, struggling not to relapse, didn’t have to be?

Charles O’Brien, M.D., Ph.D., spoke on the Modern Treatment of Alcoholism last night at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (link is to video; no sound until 12:28).

Reaching out for helpI’ve reviewed some of O’Brien’s research this morning. If I understand his approach, this is what should have happened when I discovered I couldn’t stop drinking:

I would have contacted my physician. I would have been prescribed in-patient detoxification. In detox, I would have been cleansed of the substance and eased through withdrawal symptoms.

Because “protracted brain changes and the  [addiction-] associated personal and social difficulties put the former addict at great risk of relapse,” when I was released from detox, I would have been prescribed anti-craving medication and psychotherapy, i.e. traditional talk therapy.

I would have been given a DNA test (maybe “should” is a better word – the test has not yet been approved by the FDA) for the presence of the µ opioid receptor. If I had the mu-opioid receptor genotype, I would have been prescribed opioid receptor antagonist naltroxene hydrochloride for relapse prevention and ease of suffering during abstinence. With that genotype, I would be “expected to have a superior response to naltrexone.”

If I did not possess that genotype, my physician would have selected a medication that has “shown efficacy in combination with behavioural therapy” among them”agonists (including partial agonists), antagonists and anti-craving medications,” perhaps acamprosate. I possess protective factors in favor of compliance, i.e. I would have taken my meds as prescribed.

Added 10/4/2014: Or, if I had trouble remembering to take pills, I might have been given an injection of Vivitrol, a one-month extended release form of naltrexone.

“Modern neuroscience, informed by animal models and human brain imaging, shows that the addiction remains despite the absence of the drug, because addiction is a physical change in the brain, similar to an over-learned, long-term memory. We know some but not all of the circuits involved. When the detoxified patient is released from hospital or prison, even when months or years have passed since the last dose of the drug, the sights, sounds and smells previously associated with the drug environment activate reward circuits and evoke intense drug craving. The majority of patients relapse to compulsive drug taking soon after leaving the protected environment of the treatment program.”
Charles P. O’Brien, M.D., Ph.D.

I would have been cautioned to monitor people, places, things and internal states because they can trigger craving in brain substrates, straining the anti-craving effect of the medication I would have been taking.

My addiction to alcohol would be considered a chronic condition for which I would need long-term treatment.

That’s what could and should have happened for my addiction to alcohol? But this is all there was.

And the way to effectively treat addiction has been known since 1996?!

F*k, f*k, f*k.

I have spent almost two years in hell.

“It’s unethical not to use medications,” says Charles O’Brien, MD, PhD, Kenneth Appel Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s top clinical researchers in addiction treatment. “If you’re discouraging people from taking medications, you are behaving in an unethical way; you are depriving your patients of a way to turn themselves around. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you have to keep your patients away from it.”
Alison Knopf quoting O’Brien

. . . . .

I wept and raged this morning after learning of O’Brien’s work. It has taken almost two years of my one, precious little life to feel almost functional again after becoming abstinent. All that angst and deep inner probing for whys and hows. I have strained and struggled and thrashed to treat myself for addiction to alcohol. I have education and resources and support and it has been complete hell. I have torn my hair watching others, less lucky than I, struggle a thousand-fold. It should NOT have to be this hard. And according to O’Brien, it doesn’t have to be. All I can do is swear.

And doggedly suit up and show up again for one of my own self-prescribed addiction treatments – exercise, whose “efficacy may be related to its ability to normalize glutamatergic and dopaminergic signaling and reverse drug-induced changes in chromatin via epigenetic interactions with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the reward pathway.”

Are you f*king kidding me?! Do you SEE ME?! I am a PERSON. Help me. Help people like I am.

In My Town, What’s a Girl with a Drinking Problem to Do?

In an ideal world, Anne Fletcher’s statements about addictions treatment would be true: “[T]here are numerous…groups for recovery support” and “many pathways to recovery.” And Gabrielle Glaser’s:  “[T]here are many different tools, and there are many different options.”

Not in my town.

My town is in one of many rural areas experiencing increased levels of drug use and related consequences. In my town, those who think or know they have a problem with substance use have three options for treatment:

  1. a publicly supported social services agency
  2. 12-step groups
  3. detox

Treatment at the social services agency is primarily for those who do not have private insurance. Those with private insurance are welcome to use the services, but they would need to get in line with those without. Services include a treatment center with 6 beds. Wait times can be six months or more. A lot can happen in six months while drinking and using.

To my knowledge – which is pretty extensive on this subject – no counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist in my town specializes in addictions treatment.

And, according to Charles O’Brien, M.D., Ph.D., “Relapse after detoxification is a hallmark of addictive disorders.”

What’s a girl with a drinking problem to do? In my town? Today?

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
– John Donne

I went to a support group. According to Lance Dodes, I have a 1 in 15 chance of staying sober by doing that.

So be it. In a support group, I’m no longer the last woman standing on the 24-hour-a-day raging battlefield of trying to stay sane and sober. I can rest a minute. People who don’t have it just don’t get it: recovery from addiction is an all-day, every-day thing.

This town girl with a drinking problem has to do every single thing she can, all day, every day, to stay sober.

Photo: Risa Pesapane