18 Months Sober and Still Not Happy?!

I’ve been questioned about my lack of happiness. Shouldn’t I, after 18 months without a drink, be experiencing some of the joys of recovery?

Eschewing a postmodern deconstruction of the definition of “happiness” – feel free to radically, relatively and tediously define it as you will – here are the reasons I think I’m not happy.

Bamboo continues to happenIt’s a time thing. A friend told me that she doesn’t want to relapse, not because she doesn’t want to do year 1 over again, but because she doesn’t want to do year 2 again. Dan Smith refers to 18 months sober as a “dangerous time.” A mentor says, “Time takes time.” I haven’t done year 2 before and I would describe it, generally, as hellish, a different kind of hell from year 1. I’m probably as far along as I can get. At this time.

It’s a brain thing. I’ve messed up my mind. Anhedonia - the inability to feel pleasure – happens to abstinent alcohol and drug users. Anhedonia + relapse happens. How to treat a decreased ability to feel pleasure (happiness?) remains uncertain. Time will heal some of it. And I can think and regulate my way to accelerated improvement. But I can’t will myself to be happy any more than I could will myself to stop drinking.

It’s a human thing. I can’t say alcohol made me happy, but it gave me a complex experience of relief, release and comfort. It ceased my distress. I am never, ever to have that again. What alcohol did for me is now not being done. I am not the self I was. And addiction makes me long for what I used to have. I have to handle distress, loss, grief, longing, all at once. That’s just humanly hard. And it’s hard to feel humanly happy when one has to work that desperately hard.

It’s a life thing. Life happens. My divorce – my second – will be final this month. My mother died three years ago next month. Bamboo invades the foundations of my townhouse. Will it give me a surprise through the toilet next? Eh, life.

However…

I’m trying. I think trying will eventually work. I’m not sure how to define “work,” but I expect to be happier in the future than I am now.

I’m trying different things. A gift of being in recovery and working against addiction with other people is their help becoming more aware more quickly of when I am doing the same things over and over again and getting the same unwanted results.

Recovery from addiction requires a person to to his or her own treatment team leader, working 24/7/365, to create and execute a customized, individualized treatment plan. I live in a small town with limited resources for addictions recovery.  I’ve done my best to create days filled with treatment. Members of my recovery community give me feedback on my progress and create an intimate, expert Google. I can make queries and receive – given generously and plentifully without scolding or shaming – ways that have worked for others.

I am shoulder to shoulder with others. As a member of a recovery community and as a counselor working with other alcoholics and addicts, I spend my days sharing, working, talking, and listening with people who are also trying to be happier. Stopping drinking was too much for me alone; staying stopped feels like too much for me.  And happiness?! Some seconds, minutes, hours, days, months – happiness is impossible. I’m not the only one on the job, though. Being a member of a community that intentionally seeks insights and understandings, and who gives and receives to each other intentionally, soothes, warms and inspires me.

I am doing my best to use my gifts. I have a sense that addiction to alcohol worked on me like an inner solvent. Parts of my self, my mind, my essence got dissolved forever. I am trying to exercise what’s left, however, and build it. I am trying to open my half heart to loving more, to feeling more compassion. In my work, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to know closely, not dozens or even a hundred people, but thousands. Hence, I know a lot about people. I approach learning as a scholar, not as a hobbyist, and I know a lot about a lot. I remember having a passion to delve, then distill. I can still read and study and synthesize large quantities of complex information into little blog posts and stick figure cartoons - a former student remembers and terms them “stickies” which is balm for my sore heart - even into processes for apps.

Yeah, so maybe I’m not as happy as I would like or others would like me to be. But, sheesh, I haven’t had a drink for 18 months. I think I’m doing all right.

Why I’m Telling My Addictions Story

Here’s my current working outline:

  • Chapter I. What happened before I started drinking heavily.
  • Chapter II. What happened as I began to drink heavily.
  • Chapter III. When I stopped drinking.
  • Chapter IV. What it’s like to stay stopped.
  • Chapter V. How it’s better to have stopped.

At 18 months abstinent from alcohol, I’m living and writing Chapter IV.

As a writer who observed silence during her first 16 months of sobriety, I am catching up and writing in and around Chapters I-III.

As someone who discovered that 5 years and 10 months of floating with relief while drinking was really falling down into the deep wet hole of addiction, after 1 year and 6 months of not drinking and straining and despairing of ever climbing out of that hole, I cannot see light above me.

I function well. Our company just published a new app.

When asked if he stands by the stories he wrote while on crack, [Ruben] Castaneda replies, “It’s hard to tell how much better I might have been as a reporter, as a journalist, if I hadn’t been using crack, if I hadn’t been drinking large amounts of alcohol. But I tried really hard, and I worked really hard as a journalist. And I think I did some good work, until I couldn’t.” - NPR interview 7/4/14

My life is not better without alcohol.

Chapter V, how it’s better to have stopped drinking? I can’t even pen the first sentence in that chapter.

That’s the problem with writing this story. As I’ve shared before, addiction memoirs are written after many years of sobriety. The person has time to make it to Chapter V, to discover and live awhile then report from the clean and sober, happy ending.

So far, with not even 2 years of sobriety, my story is the same as most who have fallen: distress before and distress after, with no end in sight.

I’ve been asked why I’m writing my story, why I’m choosing to share so personally and vulnerably about it, why it has to be miserable after miserable episode, why I’m choosing to write now, during year 2, during one of the riskiest years for relapse.

I am a writer. I write.

Writing helps keep me sober. Or, more specifically, not writing makes me want to drink. Keeping silent, not writing, makes me crazy. When I drink, I don’t feel crazy. Better to write.

And I want people to know some things.

The nicest people can become addicts. Even well-educated Miss White Bread Goody Two Shoes – with her coiffured hair, Clinique make-up, Chamber of Commerce membership, and regular check-ups paid for by her health insurance plan – can go down. I’m appalled that I became addicted to alcohol. Do you know I earned a master’s degree in counseling, focusing on addictions, before I began drinking? I knew better, should have been able to do better, and yet…

If you’re starting to have a daily drink or two or three, or are finding yourself taking an extra Lortab or two or three, or something like that… O, if my story could help spare you any moment of what might be ahead!

I did not spontaneously combust into alcoholism. I believe there are reasons. I will share.

I feel terrible about myself. Addicts and alcoholics in early recovery feel terrible themselves. I have the ability to articulate that. I wish for those with addicts and alcoholics in their lives, or for those who are treating them for addiction, to know this. In relating to me, in working with me, in treating me for this substance use disorder, it’s the place to begin.

Abstinence does not equal happiness. I, like most addicts, have other problems that alcohol and drugs make better. Without alcohol, my other problems aren’t made better. In fact, they now howl, open-jawed, full force into my face. A part of my mind thinks not drinking is insane. Why have I put myself in such pain when just a few glasses of wine would quiet the beast, provide a relief, a respite, a break? What, I have to fight the power of the addiction, the urge to drink, and I have to fight the power of my other problems, all at the same time? It’s too much.

Addictions recovery has no poster children. Going down is suffering. Pulling oneself up is suffering. A huge percentage (40-60%) relapse. My story is laughable compared to most and I’m struggling, writhing, thrashing. I will never get a celebrity endorsement. “Buy Product X and you can be like Anne!” Now that’s laughable.

Silence: Part One. If I worked for a corporation, I would not be writing my story. My bosses and co-workers would think that I was weak and flawed to become addicted to alcohol and they would think having me around would reflect negatively on them and on the company. The stigma is that great. We’re all very open-minded about addiction until it might impact the bottom line. And though I run companies and manage projects, some of the posts in my story sound like I’m about to shatter. Capitalism and fragility? Too risky. I’ve cobbled together enough financial support that I can write pretty much with impunity. If I were just starting a career or had a family to feed? No way.

And what’s the worst thing that could happen from me sharing my story? It’s already happened: my mind used to be free to think about truth and love and beauty. Now much, sometimes most, of my mind is incarcerated with thoughts of drinking or of thinking how now to drink. My mind is no longer my own.

I’ve only been writing my story since April 28. I have countless emails and messages from people like I am who hear their stories in mine and feel less alone.

“please keep it up”

Count on it.

Silence: Part Two. If I make it to Chapter V, if I have some tolerably persistent happiness, I will become political. Silence enrages me. Something happened in this town. Something is happening to women in this country. Something is happening nationally and globally. If I make it, I will have something to say.

You didn’t know, did you? I drank at home at 5:00 PM. If you saw me drink in public, you saw me have 2-4 glasses. In our small town, you may have thought it was just one of my quirks to get a cab the few miles from my house to and from an event. You thought I was just fine, didn’t you?

The nicest people can become addicts.

That you didn’t know was my fault. I didn’t tell you and I didn’t ask you for help. I kept silent.

No more silence.

I’m an Addict. I Need You.

I’m an addict. I need you.

That’s the essential premise of Philip J. Flores in Addiction as an Attachment Disorder.

Flores posits that we’re all born with the ability to feel really strong feelings. We learn from our caretakers how to ease the highs and the lows of those feelings into a range of intensity that works for the health of our own neurophysiology and for the sake of our social relationships.

A screaming infant left untended stresses itself and others. That same infant comforted learns that distress isn’t forever, that responsiveness happens, that hope of relief exists. The people around it can relax in its company rather than run from it.

It is so hard to reach out to you

Infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents need “good enough” care. They need to be consistently comforted often enough, and not be too stressed too often from neglect or emotional or physical abuse. Sh*t happens but people are generally resilient enough to handle a reasonable amount, even from birth. In attachment theory, that’s termed a secure attachment. As a result of having a secure attachment, people learn that they can handle their own highs and lows and can turn to others for help with what they can’t handle. In attachment theory, being able to manage one’s feelings is termed “regulation.”

“Think of love,” Philip J. Flores writes, “…simply as simultaneous mutual regulation.” (59)

According to Flores, when the ability to self-regulate is missing or inadequate, “a person will be compelled to turn to substances for this regulatory function.” (219)

For a variety of reasons, I ended up with an insecure attachment style and the resultant trouble with self-regulation, with shifting those highs down and those lows up to a range that works for me and for others. I’ve heard often enough, painfully, TMA – Too Much Anne. Flores argues that we can’t regulate our emotions on our own, that we need help from others. Given some scenarios I’ve encountered, I have trouble trusting others to help me without harming me. I have trouble thinking it’s all going to be okay.

But I was doing okay in mid-2006. I had worked hard in counseling and with various support groups and spiritual communities and had developed a pretty good method for managing my feelings and for opening myself to conscious, mutual, reciprocal relationships with others.

A whole lot of life happened at the end of 2006 and in 2007. My nascent okayness was too nascent. I felt too much to handle on my own and lost pretty much any trust in others to help me. The fundamental self-regulation skill of self-soothing was too unskilled in me. I felt soothed by a glass of wine. Then two. Unlike others, wine responded. Always.

Given where I started and what happened, that I developed a drinking history and an addiction to alcohol makes sense.

And that I had to attend a support group to get sober makes sense, too.

“Close interpersonal contact can provide an effective alternative to drugs as a means of altering and stabilizing one’s neurophysiology.” (59) - Philip J. Flores

While I have trouble feeling safe with individual people, I feel generally safe within a group of people who are intentional about what they’re doing and why. Sitting in the group’s circle in some ways mimics sitting in the encircling arms of a caregiver, regulating my emotions, soothing me, and coaching me to regulate my own. I can feel attached to the larger whole in a way that I experience as comforting and calming, but distant enough from individuals to not feel what Flores terms the “hunger, dependency and hostility” that come from attachment issues. (233)

So let me see if I’ve got this, Dr. Flores. I feel most safe when I’m alone. When I’m alone and attempting to use only my own under-developed self-regulation skills, I can experience such strong emotional states, usually distress created by my own unconscious self-talk, that I can hardly bear it. I want to drink, I want it to go away, I want to feel better.

The antidote to being unable to soothe myself is to reach out to others for help with calming myself. My history with others is that they hurt you, they shoot up your town, they threaten to shoot you. I’m supposed to reach out to them?!

What I believe has caused me the most disfigurement in my life – others – is the means to my transformation?

What I most fear I most need?!

Recovery feels like insanity to me sometimes.

What I Say to Myself

What you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.
- Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty

Good or bad, it can grow on you.Bamboo lurks in my backyard, running its rhizomes greedily into the very foundation of my home. It is welcome to live its linear life, just not to undermine mine. I hack and hack at its roots.

I am hacking at the roots of my self-loathing. The roots are deep, damply, insidiously interwoven.

I have on-going conversations in my head. I talk to and with myself, others in my present, others from my past, people and beings (cats and a dog) living and dead, and the blank writer’s page.

Some of my conversations are what is termed self-talk, what I say to myself about myself.

In counseling sessions with Dr. H., I’ve talked endlessly about the whys of addiction but not about the ending of my second marriage. Dr. H. told me no one is “exempt from the extended low” that comes from the finality of the end of a marriage, no matter how long the husband and wife have been separated. As my marriage approaches its formal close, Dr. H. suggested I might want to jot down what comes up for me and bring those notes into our next session. What, feel feelings instead of talk about thoughts?!

In some programs of addictions recovery, we’re asked to inventory our feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and to make lists of incidents and events in our lives that continue to trouble, even plague us, ones we did or ones done to us. We’re asked to look at our part in what happened, or our part in how we have handled what happened.

I inventoried my marriage. I wrote, “My standards and expectations and demands were unceasing.”

What must it have been like to live with me?

I am so sorry, my husband.

. . . . .

I know what it is like to live with someone who constantly analyzes, constantly evaluates, constantly judges and speaks endless words to me of how I am lacking, falling short, flawed at the very deepest levels, in need of correction, reprimand, scolding, who points out incessantly what I could do differently and better. Shame on me for being that way and for doing that thing.

That voice and those words are mine. I live with me and my negative self-talk, the dark and twisted words that grow from the roots of my self-loathing.

In spite of how much I might love, appreciate and value someone else, if my self-talk, my daily word practice, is full of demands, criticisms and condemnations, I train myself daily in personal fault-finding. How could that negative perspective not run its roots into my words and actions with others, even with my most beloved?

“What we need for the building of a self is also precisely what we need for happiness in our adult relationships.”
- David Richo

Richo writes, “We feel loved when we receive attention, acceptance, appreciation, and affection, and when we are allowed the freedom to live in accord with our own deepest needs and wishes.”

Is this what I’m to grow then, tall and fast and deep as bamboo, a new self-talk, a new daily word practice: self-attention, self-acceptance, self-appreciation, self-affection, self-allowing?

The self-loathing uses its roots as lashes against those words of self-love.

A friend suggested a journal exercise with this question: “If you would listen to it, what would your intuition tell you right now?”

“You want to love your life,” my intuition answered.

I have to grow.

Where’s Your Passion?

“Come on, Anne! Where’s your passion?!” a long-time friend asked me. We hadn’t seen each other since 2006.

Visiting neighbor cat responds to existential questionsI can understand the question. When she last saw me, I was leaving Tampa for Blacksburg, definitely passionate, feeling physically and emotionally strong, determined to make a new life for myself in my old hometown.

A lot happened in 8 years. And in the past 18 months, I’ve struggled to stay abstinent from alcohol.

I remember my 2006 self. I envision her as whole. I drew stick figures to show that I experience addiction to alcohol as being some kind of black intrusion that adhered to my very self. Abstinence neutralized addiction. But it dissolved me away beneath it.

“The ‘whole self’ is the one that got in trouble with addiction in the first place,” Dan Smith comments on this post. He posits the existence of a “recovering self.”

I am open to these ideas about the self and assume that my conception of the-self-having-become-addicted will evolve over time.

But right here, right now, at 18 months sober, when I heard, “Where’s your passion?” I felt bereft. When I compare how I saw myself and how I felt about myself, 2006 vs. 2014, I feel faded, wisp-like, as if I have fewer particles.

I am not what I was. I am less.

And when I feel bereft, I want a drink.

. . . . .

If I read this post by a friend or acquaintance, even by a stranger, I might think, “Uh-oh, uh-oh, she’s in trouble! She’s going to relapse!”

I have written that the trouble with recovery from addictions is handling how one feels and what one thinks when not drinking or using or acting compulsively. It’s hell. This is just another news report from my private recovery hell.

And blog posts are problematic. A blog post is a stand-alone entity, like a poem. But I am writing the story of my recovery as it unfolds. So the last post is the end of the story until I write the next post. For someone reading a book, if the content of a page is distressing, the reader simply turns the page and is relieved immediately. If someone is reading a blog, and the post is distressing, there’s no relief. The reader has to handle what he or she feels and thinks until the next post comes.

Kind of like wanting a drink.