If I Relapsed Today

If I relapsed today it would be because my terrorizing, brutalizing inner narrative, red hot like a stove burner, made me reflexively jerk my tender inner self away from even another moment of searing pain from that demonic eye.

Pausing to hold that thought to my heartThose who’ve had a glass of wine after a long day know warmth spreads down the throat and through the tight shoulders, then into the knotted stomach, easing, easing, easing.

Wine doesn’t ease me. It takes me to a special place just for the two of us and joins with me in oneness. My fragile little inner self is enfolded and encircled and protected in perfect safety. I can’t be hurt when I am drinking.

As I child, I watched on TV as the monks self-immolated in Vietnam. I saw people can be quietly present even when they are on fire. But one has to train against the human reflex to rescue the self from pain.

Three times since I have been abstinent from alcohol, I entered what I am seeing as the moment-before-the-moment of taking a drink. In those seconds before I might have put the wine to my lips, I was unconscious, without thought. I was in a state of complete, acute, overwhelming, excruciating despair, of such helpless, hopeless, inconsolable desolation. And then, without warning, I was shifted to a state of no-self, all-reflex.  Another second and I would have done what instinct, what being human makes me do – rescue myself from pain.

I aspire to being fully present for all of life, and I exercise relentlessly to be fit for life’s pain, especially now I see its potentially ruthless power over me. But I have no holy, sacred, saintly powers. I am plain, earthy Anne. If I’m on fire, I’ll be drinking.

So that’s my job in recovery from addiction. I have to keep myself from getting to that moment-before-the-moment. At the first hint of even a warm ash of discomfort, I’ve got to take action. I need to hold still if I can, run if I have to, even lash myself to the dining room table, anything not to get even one step closer to that kitchen of emotional pain with its hot stove where choice is absent and reflex becomes predictable and inevitable.

Life happens. Pain happens. Three years ago, when I realized I had become addicted to alcohol and began to abstain from it, I wasn’t aware that an inner narrative begins automatically when I feel even the tiniest firing of human distress. “What’s the matter with me that I’m feeling anything whatsoever?! I should be perfectly able to do everything perfectly and handle all situations perfectly without having any needs or wants or emotions at all. I’ve failed! I’m bad, I’m wrong, I should be abandoned by the side of the road, unloved, deservedly dejected! It’s going to happen any moment now! I’ll be banned from all love and all human connection forever! What can I do?! There’s nothing I can do! How could I have let it come to this?!”

Chokes me up to just write that. And this is the tame version, bowdlerized for blogdom. Life happens. Pain happens. Add these sentences that batter me, alarm me, panic me? With my thoughts, I set myself on fire.

It’s not what would happen that would make me drink again. It is what I would tell myself about myself in relation to what happened that would bring me to the point of such suffering that I would have to drink out of mercy for myself.

I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.
David Ignatow

I believe I haven’t relapsed yet because:

1) I got lucky those three times I separated from my self in that moment-before-the-moment dissociated state because someone or something interrupted me.

2) With the professional help of Dr. H., I became able to a) identify the recurrent dark spells of trauma episodes – when they were happening – that took not just my hand but my face, my very identity, to that terrible burner of self-immolation, and b) learn ways to free myself from the trauma spell, however much the effort left me spent and shaking.

3) With the help of professional counselors, teachers such as Kristen Lenz and Lynn Theodose, and writers such as Matthew McKay et al., I have practiced becoming more quielty present for more of life more of the time.

4) With the help of thousands* I have learned to a) become aware of the earliest, tiniest self-talk that is any way unkind to me, b) pause to catch the thought like a hard ball in a catcher’s mitt, c) examine that captured thought and deliberate upon what to do with it, ranging from beating it with a 2′ x 4′ to holding it to my heart as I did fierce Viva, my second husband’s cat, who cowered and panted during thunderstorms, and d) execute. Do it. Do whatever it takes to wrestle, embrace, release the thought – whatever will quench its flames – so that it doesn’t scorch me.

I no longer let any thought in, not a one, that hurts me. I never let down my guard. I scramble, I scrabble, I scrape, I leap, I push, I square off and wait. Never, ever again.

A woman at The Weight Club asked me wistfully the other day, “So, are you at the gym every day?” I think she wanted to know if fitness were an arbitrary gift from arbitrary gods. I said yeah, pretty much every day, except for the days I swim.

“Oh,” she said with relief. “You work at it.”

Oh, my dear. You have no idea.

I do not intend to relapse today.

*I was unable to stop drinking on my own and am supported in staying stopped by thousands in the recovery community, physicians, psychologists, counselors, personal trainers, nutrition consultants, friends, family, colleagues and random strangers, including the Kroger employee who held me like a child when I began to sob uncontrollably from my inability to find the aisle with the recovery-supporting oatmeal.

Photo credit: Tabitha Brown

Constant vigilance

How Did You Do It?

“How did you do it?”

I have been asked this question increasingly often since my name and phone number were published in the local newspaper and online as a contact for a local community addictions recovery support group. I am thrilled that people I know and don’t know are calling and emailing and asking about addictions recovery. The specific question about how I have remained abstinent from alcohol for three years surprised me. As did my answer, which I wrote about in this post: “I don’t know.”

It is imperative to me that I figure out the answer. For myself, I need to know how to duplicate today what worked yesterday to stay sober. For the sake of others, as an addictions recovery counselor, I need to know how to help people get abstinent, stay abstinent, or practice what’s termed harm reduction.

While individuals are welcome to be fans of particular treatments or methods that worked for them, for large numbers of people, i.e. most of the people most of the time, no consensus exists on what effectively treats addiction. Add the common presence of mental illnesses with addiction and what any of us does with this wicked problem is guesswork, pure and simple. I am a relentless student of addictions research and attempt for my guesses to be as educated as possible.

I can start answering, “How did you do it?” with how I didn’t do it:

I didn’t rest.

I didn’t take a single break from round-the-clock vigilance. I didn’t let up doing the 1000 things I tried each day, day after day, to find something, anything that would keep me from drinking.

How in the world is “Expend energy, all day, every day, on unproven methods with unknown outcomes,”a formula for abstinence? It’s ridiculous.

And it barely worked for me. In spite of my exhaustive efforts, three times in the past three years, I entered that place of no-self – perhaps a dissociative fugue state – known well by people with addictions where there is no choice because no conscious identity exists to make it. That’s why relapse rates are so high.

Addiction is an illness of incomparable cruelty. It costs me what separates me as a human from an animal. Sometimes with warning, sometimes without, I am unable to engage reason over instinct. All three times I was inches away from a drink, I was simply interrupted. While I appreciate my determination, my will power, my can-do, I can’t attribute not drinking to anything admirable about me. I got lucky.

I know behind the question, “How did you do it?” is the question, “How can I do it?” I would ask the same. What in me and about me can I use to help myself get over this?

I have no namby-pamby answer to that. “You can do it if you want it enough.” “You can do it if you choose to.” “If you’re desperate enough, you can do this.” “If sobriety is your top priority, you can make this happen.”

I dunno. None of those rallies me, motivates me, and, more importantly, is causal. None of those beliefs, by itself, makes me not drink.

I have shared elsewhere that I believe I was born electric, that the presence of nicotine, caffeine, cortisol and adrenalin while my nervous system was forming expelled me into the universe pulsing. If a primary requirement for addictions recovery is energy, then of course I would do okay at it. To quote Lady Gaga, I was born this way.

I currently have no conscious awareness of wanting to drink. I also have no conscious awareness that I will never drink again. I don’t want to drink again and I will continue with the 1000 things I do that may or may not be keeping me from drinking. But I can sense no certitude. I am certain I will never choose to train to do an Ironman. I am certain I will never choose to travel to see the Pyramids. My preferences give me a sense of certainty and the power to choose.

Given the odds that at three years sober I have about a 40% chance of relapsing, and given the possibility that there’s the 1001th way that I have missed and I get into such a state of distress that I become a no-self, or given the wrongly right circumstances, i.e. a glass of wine poured right here, right now, while I’m alone – I will drink.

O, alcohol. I wish I had never met you.

I Think Differently, Therefore I Am Different

“Cogito ergo sum.”
– René Descartes

I was asked the other day, “How did you do it?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.

I do not know how I have stayed abstinent from alcohol for three years, having been unable to abstain for about seven years. I do not know how I got addicted to alcohol, how I stopped drinking, or how I’ve stayed stopped.

My inability to know nearly nullifies me.

Good enough writing

When Dr. Leslie Mellichamp at Virginia Tech taught us René Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum,” I felt the rapture of recognition. I toss my thoughts into the air like fall leaves, let them tickle my skin as they stream around me, lean back surely, delightedly, into their thick, crispy heaps.

I think, therefore I am.

When I started drinking, something began to decay. I remember writing a poem in honor of a former student’s graduation in 2008, feeling deeply, but straining to find words, baffled at the struggle to follow Coleridge’s guidance – “the best words in their best order.” It’s the last poem I ever wrote.

I cannot think, therefore I am not.

I have been in therapy with Dr. H. since just after my mother died in 2011. She astutely, indirectly, oh-so-carefully, oh-so-occasionally, brought up drinking. I remember her telling me in January, 2012, she had heard an NPR story about the CDC’s report on women and drinking. I Googled it. I took tests for problem drinking. I qualified. It would be almost a year, however, before I stopped drinking. That was three years and one month ago today.

I have chronicled my three years of abstinence as pretty much unrelenting suffering.

I cannot think, therefore I am not.

To counter that belief, the only thing I know to do is to do.

If I work, and, through my work I help, therefore I am, if only a little bit.

The work that came my way in the third year of my sobriety was helping people struggling with addiction. No matter what I did, I could not help.

I cannot help. Therefore I am not.

Suffering threatened a bonfire.

Between sessions in October, I shared this thinking with Dr. H. in a piece of writing. She speaks eloquently and, of course, grammatically, but this is what I remember she said at our next session:

“You think wrong. Here’s how you think wrong. Here’s why you think wrong. Here’s how to think differently. If you don’t think differently, you will continue to suffer.”

I was aghast. Confrontation withdraws heavily from a relationship’s bank account. Her years of oh-so-carefully, however, had built a bountiful trust deposit.

Hmm. I think, therefore I am. If I think wrong and can right my thinking, might I exist again? Might I save myself from the flames?

She essentially said I had to accept it all. Everything that had ever been said or done to me, everything that I had ever said or done, I had to swallow the ocean of it into my own gut. And keep it down.

I’ve been at it since. I spit mouthfuls of acceptance at anything that’s even hot.

Then I glug it back in.

I don’t know how to get or stay sober. I do know how to accept that my ability to think – what I cherish most about being me – is lessened by alcoholism, perhaps forever.

I think well enough, therefore I am enough.

I’m not a fan of that. But if I accept it, I simply feel better.

I think, therefore I write. Even if it’s only good enough writing.

This post began on a lovely leaf of lined, white paper.

The Best Year Ever to Get Sober

In rural Southwest Virginia in December of 2012, the only addictions treatment for the likes of me – someone who had not had addictions-related contact with emergency medical services or the criminal justice system – was shame.

Shame was a fair and just treatment, I thought, for what I believed I had done and allowed to have happen. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop drinking wine. By December of 2012, I was drinking a bottle of wine a night, hugely past recommended limits of any country.

Near the end of December that year, I vowed surely for the last time never to drink again and found myself, on the third day of attempted abstinence, driving home from Kroger with two bottles of wine in my car, not remembering having bought them. I can pen no metaphor for the terror, anguish and grief I felt. I had lost my very self.

Something that the rest of us take for grantedI was in counseling at the time and saw my physician for regular check-ups but no way I was telling them I was an alcoholic. Confess that the time and care they were giving to my mind and body were wasted because the person inside was corrupt and depraved?! What kind of a person can’t stop herself from taking an action that’s a choice? Only the sick-souled. If they knew, they would tell me to never come back.

That’s how shame talks. It tells us we are bad and wrong and deserve to be cut off and cut out.

So, in 2012, I went cold turkey and took myself to a support group.

I think there are, to my knowledge, no addiction recovery memoirs published from the early years of sobriety because a) most writers relapse while they’re writing them, and b) the story is one of woe. If you’ve read my blog or my Kindle book since I acknowledged addiction to alcohol at 16 months abstinent, there’s no plot line but, instead, a flat line of lament.

I have been abstinent 3 years, but I unknowingly opened myself to a world of hurt when I treated addiction – a known medical illness – by simply stopping drinking and turning for treatment to volunteer survivors, no matter how resolute and well-meaning they might be.

Ah, but that was 2012. This is 2016!

If I recognized today that I had a drinking or drugging problem, this is what I would do:

I would make an appointment to see my primary care physician before I stopped.

I would read the 12-page Medication for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder: Pocket Guide (link to .pdf) or SAMHSA’s medication-assisted treatment guides and print out the related copy to take with me to my doctor. Most primary care physicians are jam-packed seeing patients, scramble to keep current, and may not have seen the latest on medication-assisted treatment (MAT). The Pocket Guide, for example, was just released in October, 2015. For some, starting medication before stopping can significantly increase the likelihood of maintaining abstinence.

Before I began Googling – as most of us will do to ease anxiety about health conditions – I would read this article published on 12/31/15. I would discover the flabbergastingly tragic truth that while “2015 may well be remembered as a turning point in our country’s approach to addiction,” there is no consensus on what addiction is, what treats it, and how to measure progress. I will be both horrified and comforted to learn that I don’t know what went wrong with me and how to fix it, and nobody else does either. I will be one of the test subjects in humankind’s eons-old experiments to halt themselves and loved ones from drinking and using. Ah, well.

Given that no one really knows what they’re doing, I’d still read this 76-page booklet, Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide, (link to .pdf), a 2012 publication from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s one of the most brief, expert, up-to-date, humane overviews of addictions treatment I’ve read. Through exhaustive and exhausting literature reviews to try to help myself and others, I’ve compiled a one-pager on addictions treatment options that might be of service.

My eyes would pop learning that not only do I, personally, have to shoulder the challenges of treatment, but I will be my primary treatment provider and coordinator as well. It’s too much, but it’s the way it is – even in 2016 – and knowing from the outset is better than finding out when I am vulnerably undergoing treatment.

I would learn that the top treatments considered effective for addiction are medication-assisted treatment, individual counseling, group counseling, and support group attendance.

  • In my small town, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is available. MAT may or may not be a fit and requires consultation with a physician. Because of the shame thing and lack of access, some people buy medications off the street and dose themselves. Dangerous, dangerous.
  • In my small town, no counselors specialize in addiction so I would take the recommendation of my physician and ask friends and start calling to see which counselors are open to taking clients with addiction issues. Waiting lists for individual counseling are long in my town. Of those, I’d ask to be put in their queues.
  • In my small town, group counseling is available through agencies, but not through private practitioners. It’s the shame thing. Everyone in my small town knows each other and no wants to be known as someone who’s struggling. Group therapy is the piece of my addictions recovery treatment plan that is still missing. I keep seeking and hopefully 2016 will be the year for me that this much-needed help arrives.
  • Support groups meet daily in my town. Here’s a list of support groups in the New River Valley, here’s why to attend them, and here are suggestions on how to make 12-step meetings work for you.
  • Once I had consulted with my physician and had the rudiments of a harm reduction or abstinence plan, if I could do this all over again, I would have paused a moment, and made a list – not of the people who loved me or cared for me most, although these people may be one and the same – but of the people in my life who are the absolute best strategists, live within a few miles, that I could trust and wanted the best for me. Recovery from addiction is a problem to solve, not a tragedy to grieve or a shame to hide. It is a dire problem, however, and it takes a team. I would start with the top 3 people on the list. I would email them a link to this post with this message: “Would you fucking help me with this fucking thing?!”

That’s what I would do today if today were the day I realized I had a drinking or drug problem. My email message might have different content. But I have cataloged 3 years of misery and just here as year 4 of abstinence begins, I’ve had a turn for the better. And looking back? Oh, my, it so did not have to be that hard. In my personal and professional opinion, I was under-treated, even mal-treated. But given the state of addictions treatment in general? We all did the best we could. Still, I consider my 6 years of drinking and my 3 years of suffering in abstinence a lost decade. I write this in hopes that others have a faster turn for the better. And in the history of addictions recovery, absolutely no better year for that to happen has existed than this one.

Image by Laurel Sindewald

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.

When I’m Back from Staycation

The benefits of taking a vacation seemed to begin as soon as I understood I could take a vacation while staying at home – a “staycation.”

I walked around my house and asked myself what would soothe and delight me if I were renting it for a week. I felt moved to tears by all the possibilities: sitting with a cup of tea regarding Woman Rising; sipping a nourishing smoothie made in an all-white kitchen with linoleum checkered black and white like the tile floors of Versailles; writing and drawing in the light and space of the sun room designed by previous owner Paula Markham; watching a movie in a TV room arranged just for me, recliner foot rest just inches away from the screen so I can pretend I’m in the front row at a movie theater; strolling the small yard transformed into an edible garden by Paula with a meditation labyrinth designed by musician and gardener Caleb Flood in its beginning stages.

Beginnings of a backyard meditation labyrinth

Quirky! Surprising! Remarkable!

So even beginning to plan a staycation has begun what a vacation invites –  to see anew.

To do anew will be more of a challenge.

I use the upstairs of my two-story house as a studio apartment. On my standard day, I awaken early, descend the stairs to make tea, tend the cats, ascend again, and write. I take a break, descend, make two fried eggs, and eat them out of a bowl while walking to get the newspaper for myself and my neighbors. A few hours more of writing, then I have a small bowl of muesli, drive to do a workout at the gym or swimming pool, get a Subway egg sandwich, and eat it in the car driving home. I take a nap, have a cup of coffee, do corporate paperwork or house chores, eat a Lara Bar, do more work, eat some veggie corndogs, go to a support group meeting, come home, eat some oatmeal, listen to an audiobook while playing with the cats, go to bed.

Nothing wrong with my standard day. Let’s just see what happens if I shake it up a little.

To protect my mental health and sobriety, I will continue to eat pretty healthily, exercise, attend counseling, and attend support groups. Otherwise, I have intentionally scheduled an out-of-my-ordinary activity each day that respects my personal constraints but intentionally challenges my patterns. With the rest of each day, I can do whatever I want – except what I usually do. A wish list from which I might choose is at the bottom of this post.

Here’s the message on my email autoresponder:

Handshake Media, Incorporated will be closed for a creative sabbatical from Monday, January 4, through Friday, January 8, 2016. We will take a connectivity holiday as well and not be available through email, social media, text or phone, except by latter in emergencies. If you have an emergency, please call 540-808-6334 and leave a message. We look forward to being in touch with you when we return!

The only technology I intend to use will be an iPod for audiobooks and for music while working out, and a television for movies. No laptop for typing, no Internet, no Facebook, no email, no text, and phone on silent. I’ll check occasionally for calls from my father, sister, and expert painter Jeff Proco who is doing work on my father’s house before he starts again on mine after my staycation. I may listen to voice mails if I sense an emergency. Otherwise, I’m disconnecting, just for a bit.

In my audiobook queue:

Risa's homemade fizzy bath bombFriends made wonderful suggestions via Facebook for films to watch, Laurel Sindewald compiled the list for me, and Lara Hayward starred her suggestions. I’ll share which movies I watch after I “return.” From friends, I also received wonderful ideas for home spa treatments and tourist attractions in Blacksburg. Risa Pesapane sent me a homemade bath bomb! Kelly Queijo gave me an Orange Bandana gift basket! Greg Kiebuzinski brought me staycation flowers for the sun room! I’m set!

Using Debra Bass’s outline as a guide, here are my staycation plans:

Sunday, 1/3 – last day before staycation

Monday, 1/4

  • Awaken, descend, make tea, and, instead of ascending to write, stay on the ground floor and go into the sun room. There, I have pushed together the two banquet tables we use for women’s gatherings to made a roomy work space. As my mother did for us when my sister and I were children, I have supplied myself with a bounty of creative materials – magazines, scissors, crayons, construction paper, glue. (She also made sure we had a box of gummed shiny stars which I couldn’t find.)
  • Plug in the sparkle lights bequeathed by previous owner Paula.
  • Draw, color, cut, make stuff, see what happens.

Sun room stocked for creativity

Tuesday, 1/5

  • Go to a support group I’ve never been to before in an unexpected place.

Wednesday, 1/6

  • 10:30 AM Core workout with personal trainer Laurie Maddox at The Weight Club. I do the same workout every time I go solo to The Weight Club – run like a maniac, or as maniacally as a 57-year-old woman can run, lift, stretch, go to Subway. On Saturdays, I run like a maniac and lift during interval training with Don Belote. I’ve watched and admired Laurie’s intentional personal workouts and work with clients but I’ve never worked with her. To hold still? To move slowly and specifically without weights or equipment? Radical.
  • 4:15 PM Solo spa meditation session with Lynn Theodose. Every single mediation session with Lynn is paradoxically mind-blowing and mind-healing. Weekly sessions with her are unique and extraordinary and if I were truly on vacation in another place, I would probably figure out a way to get in and out of Blacksburg not to miss this.

Thursday, 1/7

Friday, 1/8

Saturday, 1/9

  • 12:00 AM – Staycation ends while I sleep.
  • 4:30 AM – When I’m back from staycation, I’ll awaken early as usual, and start my standard day.

But maybe not.

What I will be after staycation is back in touch with you!

. . . . .

Wish list of staycation to-dos in no particular order

Time to think, write, draw, create, read
Spa visit for facial and hand wax
Geology museum visit
Barnes & Noble visit
Library visit
Shop for clothes at Bonomo’s
Pedicure – walk-in at Top Nails
Session with Paula Wilder (Got lucky! Scheduled for me!)
Collage session with __________ (Made luck happen! Scheduled it myself!)
Drawing lesson (Fantastic lesson with Haley Bechtel before staycation!)
Afternoon coffee at ODB with pad of paper
Afternoon coffee at Starbucks with pad of paper
Audiobooks
Matinees
Movies at home
Get flowers delivered
Catering of mid-day meals
Mellow Mushroom early dinner – Holy Shitake (recommended by friend Lavinia Touchton!)
Sliced cucumbers in pitcher of ice water
Pandora – Yoga Radio / Urban Meditation
Neck roll – heated in microwave
Create and photograph still lifes
Dance lesson