You Just Don’t Understand

I was so lonely when I adopted my soft, fluffy, little black cat. I had never had a cat and that first night when I got in bed and began my nightly struggle with sleep, I felt a tiny movement, then a tiny weight on my chest. I put my arms around her, then let go quickly, not trusting the miracle of being wanted.

My catSuch a few short years later, she became ill and began to suffer. I put my face in her face when she was on the vet’s table and said I love you I love you I love you because I didn’t want her to have a single moment when she was going down without any possible comfort my love and presence could give her.

I sobbed when I wrote that. I put my cat down almost five years ago. I have never gotten over it.

I have never before written the sentence, “I have never gotten over it,” but it’s true. I’m guessing others might say I took it too hard, I shouldn’t dwell on the past, and I should get on with my life.

You just don’t understand.

Let me try to explain.

When I was driving my mother to one of her radiation treatments about six months before she died, she looked out the window and said, “I was never really a very maternal mother.”

So that’s my mother. I was unable to have a child. I was divorced. And I adopted a cat.

I felt like I had a hole in my heart the shape of a cat-sized puzzle piece. And there she was.

Can you understand a bit better what that cat meant to me? And having to decide to end her life? When I discovered she was ill, I took her to the vet, was told of treatment options that would be miserable for her, found her not sleeping on my chest but watchful on a blanket in her own urine –  which she would have hated if she had been well – and that was it.

Some might argue I ended her life too early. My poor little cat, not getting to be her whole and true self? No.

I’m an alcoholic.

You just don’t understand.

Let me try to explain.

When I gave up alcohol, I killed my solace. Always, always I will live with the emptiness and desolation and finality of never again.

Regardless of why and how I became addicted to alcohol, whether I quit too early or not early enough, whether I’m to blame or not, what it did to me, my mind, my body, my brain, whatever terms or explanations one wants to use for the phenomenon of my unstopped drinking, when I gave up alcohol 28 months ago, I entered a state of perpetual grief.

Whether my mother was maternal or not, I loved her with my whole, however perforated, heart. I would do a deal with the devil just to see her again. I’m not greedy. I just want to see her. And my cat, my darling cat. I wouldn’t want her to see me because I think it would distress her to have glimpse and no more but, oh, to see her beautiful, perfect self again.

I have to do stuff all day, every day not to make a deal with the devil to drink again.

“Just stop,” alcoholics and addicts are told by loved ones, by neighbors, by bosses and co-workers, by society.

Maybe you understand a little bit better what that asks of me, of people like I am.

It’s lonely out here with my holely little heart and you not understanding.

Dear You, Still Drinking, Using and Doing

Dear You,

You know who you are.

Your job, your only job, is to do whatever it takes to not.

Not take the first drink, not take the first hit, not make the first move toward food, keyboard, razor blade, whatever ails you.

Because for you, not for all, the first necessitates the second. Then the third. And so on.

I hear you that you absolutely understand that now. And it will be different this time. Just a few sips or hits or lines to calm you down. Nothing more than that. Now that you know what’s up with you, you really understand it, you can just do a little then stop yourself this time.

I hear the logic in it.  It makes sense.

What is illogical and senseless is not you. It’s the different hold that this thing has on you than it does on others.

Woman Rising by Jackie Harder

Once started, you think you can stop, they think they can stop. They stop, you don’t. It’s that simple.

What is wanted to be done cannot be done.

My heart goes out to you. I’ve got it, too.

It feels impossible to me that my own mind cannot make me do what I want to do.

When I awaken having lain my head on my arm for too long, I can use my mind and will my arm to rise, but it won’t. It’s asleep and no longer works as it did. Wine is like that for me. It’s just a beverage within arm’s reach. But when I drink it, no matter how I concentrate and will it to drink it as I once did, it no longer works the same way. Unlike my arm which wakes up in a few minutes, my mind’s relationship with alcohol stays numb. I tried for years to not lift my arm for a drink. The evidence is in. Once I start drinking, my mind can’t stop me. So I have to not start.

I hear you wishing you didn’t have this, that you could go back to the way it was, or, better, have it the way you want it to be – drink, use, do as you specify. Just right for you, no problems for you, no problems for others.

Sorry. In this way, you’re not like others who can set standards and meet them. You set them with heartfelt altruism and rational logic. And then you don’t meet them. Over and over and over again. In this way at least, you are different from others.

And this is the heartbreaker of not being able to stop once started – let’s call this condition “addiction” for lack of a better term: it makes you different. Humans are born desperate for connection – our survival depends upon it. And, now, here we are, disconnectedly different from others. It feels like we have to live on the edge of the village, taking whatever scraps the “real” villagers will throw us.

I hear you. Yes. It sucks.

That we’re having this conversation at all, though, speaks volumes about the hold this has on us. Real villagers don’t have extensive conversations about substances and processes they can’t stop using or can’t stop doing. I was a real villager once and I remember talking with people about what we were using and doing to build lives, relationships, businesses, communities. We aren’t talking in those terms, are we?

Today, I’ve been without a glass of wine – or any other alcoholic beverage – for 842 days. I can tell you that, if you can hang in there, it does get better. I feel better, and I’ve seen others feel better, as each day passes without the thing that we can’t not do.

And, this has taken awhile, but I don’t feel so different anymore. I’m still me. And there are a bunch of village edge dwellers just like I am and I am not floating in disconnected chaos, but hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder with them, building bridges back to the village and to spectacularly new places, too.

To keep me, though, and to keep connected with everyone, I have to not take the first drink. If I take it, then I’ll have to take the second. And the third. And that thing that has more power over me than I would ever have thought or wished could be possible will take me over again.

Join me. Do absolutely whatever it takes, no matter how upset you feel, no matter how crazy-feeling you get, to not. Reach out your hand for my hand and for all the hands reaching out to you to hold you, to comfort you, to pat you on the back while you go through the very hardest part – not, then not again, then getting used to not.

Reach out your hand.

Photo by Jackie Harder of Anne painting.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.




What Is Self-Care for Me Right Now?

The question I am starting to encourage people newly in recovery from addictions to ask themselves as soon as they stop drinking, drugging or engaging in other problem behaviors – and every moment thereafter – is the same one I’m finding hugely helpful for my own sobriety: “What is self-care for me right now?”

Self-care can be a self-hugWhat people with addictions do destructively – drinking, drugging or other behaviors – paradoxically feels like self-care. If I do this thing, I feel better. If I do this thing, I stop feeling bad. If I abstain, I feel distressed and stupid. Why in the world would I stop doing something that cares for me?! I begin to wail within. I simply must care for myself.

This is the abstaining addict’s dilemma. I need self-care immediately. This way works instantly. How do I not do it?

If I can ask myself, “What is self-care for me right now?” before I drink, drug or do, I can substitute in something that truly is self-care rather than feels like self-care.

The problem for me is that one moment of self-care is a snippet compared to the confetti parade a glass of wine would give me.

I have to settle for less. I can trust accumulation. I know from experience that when distress accumulates, I drink. If I practice self-care, moment after moment, I can fill myself with enough care to not drink. It’s not the totality of care I perceive wine can give me. But it’s enough to comfort me in this moment to not drink.

What blocks this simple process – replacing the perceived self-care of my substance use with real self-care – is self-loathing. At essence, I don’t believe I deserve care. Addiction is an illness, but my society – and I as a member of it – we can secretly believe addiction is a perversity. “Why don’t you just stop, Anne? Humans can stop. There’s something sick and inhuman in you that you don’t just stop.”

I have to catch these thoughts in a butterfly net of awareness. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. I have to capture them and let them go simply through mercy: these thoughts hurt and don’t help.

It is a Herculean task to pause, ask myself, “What is self-care for me right now?”, become aware enough to identify, catch, and release self-condemning thoughts, become aware enough to answer the question, and accept that whatever I answer will be less than what I know is possible.

I do that task over and over and over again to not drink.

“You look tired, Anne.”

Yes. I am tired. Early recovery from addiction takes intense consciousness, concentration, and effort.

And it requires compassion. Sometimes I think of myself as a guest in the home of my life. What would be care for this guest? What would be self-care for me right now?

  • Ice in my water glass or no ice?
  • A little more toothpaste on my toothbrush or is this enough?
  • A hot cup of tea or a steaming mug of coffee?
  • Sitting here right now, one leg crossed over another or both feet on the floor?
  • Stop and rest for a moment? Or keep going?

Such small things. But little self-kindnesses like these, moment after moment, help me not drink right now. I believe the space of loss and longing left by abstinence where jagged “don’ts” and “nots” ricochet will fill slowly and softly with small bits of tender, warm self-care.

Think I Have a Drinking Problem, Anne?

“I need a drink!”

I remember my surprise and unease when I first uttered that sentence. I knew, even at the time, that I was making a statement in conflict with my values. Needs were food, shelter and clothing. Not drinks.

Tough questionsIf any good could come from my struggle with addiction to alcohol, being asked, “Do you think I have a drinking problem, Anne?” would be it. I feel so trusted and honored to be asked.

One can very privately research one’s own answer to the question. has a comprehensive list of questionnaires about drinking. My therapist mentioned a report on women and drinking in 2012 which led me to click around, find this questionnaire, and feel a wave of dread as I recognized the secret way I drank wine described for the world to see.

A lot of the do-you-have-a-problem questions focus on evaluating the evidence of external consequences – people telling you you have a problem, people asking you to quit, trouble with work or the law, etc. I didn’t have those problems and have questioned the motivating power of consequences anyway. No, drinking for me was an inside job.

Caveat: If you have any physical sensations when you delay or do without alcohol, read no further. You have a problem. See a health care provider ASAP.

If you don’t have physical symptoms when you do without alcohol, but still wonder if drinking is problematic for you, I suggest a two-part process.

Before beginning, I invite you to become aware of what you’re feeling right now. Continue to become aware of what you’re feeling as you read the rest of this post. Feelings are data. I’ll ask you about them at the end.

Part I. Answer questions about your drinking.

Here we go. I offer these questions from a personal, insider’s view:

  1. Have you ever said or thought, even in seeming jest, “I need a drink!”?
  2. Have you ever wanted to feel different or better – more relaxed, more in the swing of things, more in the mood, less bored, less worried, less lonely, less stressed, less obsessed, for example – and poured or ordered yourself a drink?
  3. Have you ever thought, “This is too much!” or “I can’t take it!” and reached for a drink?
  4. Have you ever thought during the day, “Soon, I can have a drink.”

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’ve turned away from what you’re feeling. And that, I think, is where drinking* problems begin.

“[A]ddiction is nothing but a miscarried and often tragic attempt on the part of an individual who does not feel good to feel better.”
– Floyd P. Garrett, M.D., The Addict’s Dilemma

Developing a cause-and-effect relationship between wanting to feel better and doing that with alcohol is a problem. When I have feelings that unsettle me and I don’t directly help myself with those feelings – talking about them foremost – but turn away from them and turn toward something that helps me suppress, avoid, or distract myself from those feelings, I’ve actually got a feelings problem and I’m setting myself up for a drinking* problem.

Part II. Go without.

Part II in answering the “Do I have a problem?” question has two interdependent pieces. One, set an amount of time to go without and go without. Two, be acutely conscious of what you’re feeling and thinking during this time.

[How do you feel right now as you think about going without? Feelings are data. No judging, no shaming, just become aware.]

I love milk and I have it every day with cereal, after meals, and with smoothies in the evenings. If I went without milk, I would miss it. But I wouldn’t have a problem with troubling feelings or thoughts about milk. I’d be too busy living my life.

If you can go without alcohol and find it’s the equivalent of going without a pleasant food or beverage – chocolate can be a test food for some** – that’s good to know. If, at the end of the set time, you find yourself having had feelings in a pretty stable and manageable range and can’t remember if you thought about drinking or not, that’s a reasonable sign that drinking may not be an issue for you.

If you go without and find your feelings in the jagged range during abstinence and find yourself thinking frequently and longingly of a drink, that’s probably a problem.

If you can’t go without – which is my story: no matter how many times I tried to quit, no matter how much I wanted to stop, I always drank on the third day…or the second day, or the same day – that’s a problem.

So, what data have you collected from your feelings? What did you feel while you were reading this post? What are you feeling right now? The “big four feelings” are “mad,” “sad,” “glad,” “afraid.” Of which did you become aware?

If you feel glad and relieved, whew, I am, too! I wouldn’t wish a drinking problem on anyone.

If you feel mad, sad, afraid, worried, panicked, ashamed, that’s okay. I’m guessing you’re thinking you have a drinking problem. The good news is that you’re feeling feelings which is the beginning of the solution to the problem. I know all too well, though, that feelings feel unbearable without a drink. Handling feelings without drinking takes help from others. More good news, also from my personal experience: there’s a world full of others who can help.

. . . . .

If I could do my own recovery from addiction to alcohol over again, I would have asked for help on day one from my doctor. I was ashamed to tell her that her patient was in trouble. Fear of stigma kept me silent. My suggestion is to tell your doctor you’re worried. Your doctor will help you with your individual situation and will very likely send you to a support group. Here’s why and how support groups can be of huge help.

*Drinking alcohol, smoking pot, swallowing an extra Lortab, swallowing too much food, swallowing not enough food, gambling, spending, having sex, cutting, on and on – any substance or process can be used to not feel feelings or to manage or control them.

**For the 10-15% of Americans estimated to have an eating disorder, compare doing without alcohol to doing without a daily, personal practice such as reading or journaling.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Thank you, Mr. Carlson

Dear Mr. Carlson,

Woo-hoo, what a fine book you have written! I listened to Kiff VandenHeuvel read it to me in an Audible version in a voice not unlike yours – a wonderful mix of “Can you believe this?!” and “Get this!” – and had the proverbial can’t-put-it-down-experience.

Nicholas Carlson, author of  Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save YahooI was so absolutely touched and awed that you sent me a personal copy of Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!, inscribed it, and, heavens, mentioned me in the Acknowledgements! I admit I was puzzled why you thanked me for teaching you “the five-paragraph essay.”

Wow, to quote David Letterman, did you ever “blow the roof off the dump” of the five-paragraph essay! But I get what you meant – you introduced this topic with an uppercut, then extended the essay, point after compelling point, selecting just the right points in just the right order to build anticipation and suspense. Nothing clever is coming to me with which to replace “page-turner” for listening to an audiobook, but I was completely absorbed and engaged the entire ride, literally cringing as the conclusion was heading my way. Sheesh! What an experience!

Interestingly enough, I took a sabbatical from teaching from 1999 to 2001 to write a novel, didn’t complete it, but got involved in the dot-com economy in Tampa, started a small business – showing up in the top ten Yahoo! search results for “web site development,” believe it or not – joined and left a startup. Crazy times.

I read and studied publications to which you referred, followed the careers of the Internet economy leaders you mentioned, and puzzled and puzzled over how Yahoo! made money. They were hot, they were sexy, but who was paying them to do what? It was mysterious. But it was a young man’s time to be hot and sexy, and I experienced my early-40s female questions dismissed with, “You just don’t get it,” and I believed them.

I appreciated this TechCrunch reporter noticing that your book has messages for startups. I thought the same, but in the other direction. I founded two more startups, one in 2008, one with partners in 2012. On page 319, you write, “The company hasn’t found its purpose since – the thing it can do that no one else can.” You mention in several places Yahoo!’s declining user base. You cite Marissa Mayer’s contempt for 700 users of a mobile app.

I think if an aspiring startup founder read Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! now, she might realize she needed to give herself a fixed time, then ask, “Does your number of users tell you that your idea solves a problem no one else can?” If the answer is “no,” she should bail. I did not know to ask that question, or was too desperately or arrogantly blind to its existence. Your book tells the story of losses in the millions and billions. Mine is in the tens of thousands for me, for my former husband, for my family. Embarrassing and sad.

And that’s the hallmark of fine writing – we both love and learn. I was completely “in” the story, occasionally coming “out,” to think, “Ooh, nice,” with a teacher’s praise for a student’s fine phrasing, then I was back “in,” deliciously groaning as the plot thickened. But I also began to groan, not so deliciously, as I had insights about my own story.

Ooh, and the risk with sources! Daring! Iconoclastic! I love it!

What’s it like for a former middle school writing teacher to have her student write a book? FANTASTIC! WOW!

And I’m giggling. I remember your father telling me when you were still in middle school, only semi-facetiously, that he was sending his sons to our school to learn to be doctors and lawyers, not writers!

And the dedication of the book to your mother makes perfect sense to me. Such an exciting, incisive mind!

And now I’m choking up. How you honor me, our school, your family with such deep thinking, hard synthesis, and masterful expression. I am so proud of you.

I have wonderful memories of you as a young man – bright, earnest, questing. I was always amazed and awed by the regard you and your brothers have for each other. Unprecedented. As the middle son, you had lots of choices about which way to go.  I saw you choose the courageous path – honesty, integrity, kindness. I haven’t seen you in years, but I still see these honorable traits in you in your book.

Thank you, Mr. Carlson.

. . . . .

Nicholas Carlson is the author of  Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! I had the joy and privilege of being his middle school teacher at Tampa Preparatory School. My tenth grade history teacher, Mrs. Charlotte Pauley Sellers, called us by our last names and I felt so seen and valued as “Miss Giles” that I passed that practice forward as a teacher. The author has always been “Mr. Carlson” to me. I stole the image from his Facebook page without permission. I’m guessing it’s okay. I’ll take it down if it’s not. I wish I were still a teacher. But not having to attempt to do the right thing all the time is pretty nice.

Hi, Dimity! Hi, Mark! Hi, Mr. Carlson and Mr. Carlson! He did great, didn’t he?!