Maybe I’ll Start Using My Silverware

I think I’ve been running from a truth my whole life.

I only know this now because for the first time in my life, I didn’t turn from it. I took it on the chest.

On the morning of that day, I helped a friend head into the unknown. I did not hear from him the rest of the day and haven’t since. A few days earlier, growing increasingly uneasy about my continued abstinence, I had asked for a break from a romantic relationship to, well, have a chance of keeping it.

The rest of the day, to not feel, I used. I used exercise, I used cake and ice cream, I used work, I used grinding thoughts about others and what I could do for them and what they should  do. I even used the bitch who stole my husbands – TV.  I fantasized about walking, not driving, to a local restaurant with dark booths, ordering a steak and a Black Russian, eating a bite of steak, then sitting back and ordering a cold, chocolately vodka drink again and again. The bliss, the ecstasy, the separation of me from my anguish! Oh, yes, it is there. Just a walk down the hill.

When I stopped using the bitch, it was dark. I sat outside on the edge of my porch. My skin began to prickle then throb with longing. If only I could be held. Please. I promise not long. Just long enough to feel better.

. . . . .

On one of the last times I drove my mother to radiation treatment for lung cancer she sat in the passenger seat and turned her head away from me and looked out the window.

“I wasn’t a maternal mother, you know,” she said. “I didn’t really like babies.”

. . . . .

I sat on the step and thought: Who could hold me? Who could and would do it? Hold me today, right now?

I thought of my mother, my non-maternal mother. I do remember a time she held me and it did feel like what was wrong got righted. But she is gone.

I thought of my father, who would want to be able to hold me, but he’s got his own worries and concerns.

I thought of my sister who has a real life in another town.

Storyteller by Larry BechtelI thought of my beautiful former husbands and boyfriends, and knew they would, and should, begrudge me even the request.

I thought of my friends who would probably come if I called. But I could imagine their departure in their bodies even as they hugged me, their return already begun to their own lives.

I thought of my long-gone adopted cat-child, and my current two cats out hunting in the night. Kris Lenz says, “Cats are occasionally interactive art.” Cats aren’t for holding.

And I realized that there is no one to hold me. I will never be held in the way I need to be held. I probably never was. And it’s too late now.

I am all I get.

. . . . .

Since becoming an addictions counselor one year ago, I have worked creatively, intently, tirelessly on behalf of people struggling with addictions. When tireless drained to tired but the effort seemed to help, I remember saying aloud to someone, “I wish I had me in my life.”

. . . . .

I am it.

Childless, half-orphaned, divorced, half a century old, addicted to alcohol, I am it.

When I was sixteen and my grandmother took me on the bus to Buckingham-Flippin, the jewelry and fine china store  in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia to pick out a sterling silver flatware pattern and buy the first teaspoon for my hope chest, oh my did I have no idea I would end up here.

This is not what I would have wished for that young woman. This is not at all what my grandmothers who loved me would have wished for me.

What has happened has happened. And I am the one who feels it all. I am the one who has to have had it all happen, feel it all, and not shatter.

I’m uncertain of exactly how the next few hours went down. I sobbed into the night, into the air of the very neighborhood in which I was that sixteen year-old girl. And at some point, sitting on the edge of the porch, I put my muscled arms around myself and squeezed myself tight. I hugged myself as only a 56 year-old woman who works out hard and loves hard can hug.

. . . . .

I had no insights or epiphanies during those hours. All I can say is I took it, I didn’t run, I didn’t turn away, I made it. If I drank alcohol over and over again to avoid going through that? I should have. That was demonic, haunted, mythic, epic, dark.

That was Saturday night. This is Tuesday morning. My heart, held in my chest, hurts. Still, it’s not that bad being me, taking care of myself. I might have wished for more? But I am enough.

And I am not alone. My neighbor, sculptor Larry Bechtel, gave me a sack of beans from their garden last night. What a surprise, what a delight! And I was just home from a support group meeting where a woman I don’t know very well hugged me, didn’t let go, and kept holding me. I began to cry.

Not epic. Just kind.

I remember when I adopted my first cat ever, Helen, I knew that if she wanted piano lessons, I would work a second job so she would have them. I don’t know what I want. But when I decide, I know someone who works hard and loves hard and will do what she can to make it happen.

Image: Storyteller by Larry Bechtel

Would You Feel Ashamed If It Happened to You?

Would you feel ashamed of yourself if you discovered when you tried to quit drinking or drugging, you couldn’t stop? Would you feel ashamed of finding yourself with these thoughts: “I’m an alcoholic” or “I’m an addict”?

Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Would you believe that some flaw in you had led to your addiction, that it was something you had done or failed to do? That who you are and something about how you drank or used – even that you drank or used in the first place – was the result of personal flaws and failures? That somehow you’re to blame for your addiction and, if you seek help, for the course of your recovery?

Anne Giles

If you did feel ashamed of yourself – “unworthy of connection” – you would be thinking along the lines of the majority. Study after study on the public perception of people with substance use disorders shows that, no matter how well-intentioned people might wish to be, most of them believe that not only is first use voluntary, but continued use as well. The person would stop if he or she really wanted to. That the person doesn’t stop and claims “can’t” is a result of personal weakness, not illness. Or, worse, self-indulgent self-pleasuring. In public.

If they’ve sought help and still struggle, they’re not suffering from the continued effects of a disorder, but choosing to let “their addiction talk” to them. They’re still “selfish,” not willing or ready to let go of self-pleasuring.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

Stereotypes are generalizations by definition, and we would argue that in the case of alcoholism, even if they apply to some (under certain circumstances, for example, intoxication), they hurt many more, particularly those struggling to recover from their illness. Affected individuals have a right to be judged by their personal behaviour, not by the stereotypes attached to a diagnostic label.
Schomerus et al., 2011

I’ve included a photo of myself in this post. Whatever descriptor you want to use – I developed substance use disorder, am addicted to alcohol, am an alcoholic, am an addict – according to this 2011 study on the stigma of alcohol dependence and many others like it, if you knew I was an alcoholic, you would be hesitant to rent a room to me, work side-by-side with me, and be my friend.

Not that you shouldn’t hesitate. Over about 7 years, I drank alcohol at an increasingly heavy level, way beyond the limits for women or men. Near the end, I started to say things, loudly, angrily, that I regretted deeply later. And I was beginning to fall. A day or two more and you, the public, would have been helping foot the medical bills for my cracked skull. Or the medical and legal, possibly tragic consequences, of me driving under the influence.

If I start drinking again? Don’t rent a room to me. Don’t work with me. My thinking and behavior would be unpredictable, possibly threatening and dangerous. And if you are my friend? Please. Please get me help.

As of this writing, I’ve been 949 days without a glass of wine. Or a bottle. Or any other alcoholic beverage. I am intelligent, educated and self-aware and I absolutely cannot tell you when the shift happened from choosing to have a glass of wine to must. I was in my early-50s at the time. Certainly I had enough age on me and enough life experience to pinpoint when things were going badly and to do something about it? No. I did not.

I do not consider myself a weak-willed, public self-pleasurer. No verb works to describe what happened but I will try: I got mugged, ambushed, hijacked, enslaved, imprisoned, used against my will, overpowered and puppeteered by a force against which every iota of self I possess was worthless.

What I have done publicly is disclose that I am recovering from addiction to alcohol. I made a brutally conscious choice to do this and ran it by my family and advisors before I did so. Given the stereotypes and stigma associated with addiction, and the real threat and harm that those actively drinking and using can do, at this time, in 2015, I do not recommend to others also in recovery from addiction to disclose it. (If you want to reach out to me, I will protect your privacy to the best of my human capacity.)

If you feel ashamed of yourself for recognizing you have a drink or drug problem, give yourself a hug. Shame is at the heart of addiction and feeling ashamed worsens, not lessens, the possibility of recovery. What happened to you happened to me – with regard to substance use, we got robbed of choice. We can now choose self-care, self-calming, self-kindness, self-compassion. These are at the heart of recovery.

Johann Hari reports, “So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

So we can also choose connection with others who see us as we are – individuals with a problem whose management requires daily, sometimes moment-to-moment effort almost beyond bearing. I welcome judgment of my efforts to recover. I reject judgment as a person for having this problem.

And, for own sakes, we have to accept that what has happened to us most people believe we have done to ourselves.

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.

Announcing Publication of Phoenix Rising

I am delighted to announce the publication of Phoenix Rising:  A Journey of Self-Discovery through Addiction Recovery. The book is comprised of excerpts from my blog, edited by Laurel Sindewald. Phoenix Rising is available for the Kindle through Amazon.

Truly, I am indebted to thousands for help in writing this book.

Phoenix Rising:  A Journey of Self-Discovery through Addiction Recovery Many times over the two years about which this book is written – my first two years in recovery from addiction to alcohol – when I was confronted with a challenge, I envisioned myself standing alone in front of an inquisitor. The answer would be life or death for me or for someone I cared about. But seated behind me were rows of the strongest people who have guided me my entire life: my teachers – Mrs. Shane Pollet, Mrs. Loreta Walker, Mrs. Annette Perkins, Dr. Doreen Hunter; my family – my mother, my father, my Uncle Gaines, my Aunt Peg, my Uncle George, my Aunt Lena; my counselors – Mr. N., Dr. P., Dr. X., Mary, Dr. S., Dr. H. – all there for me to consult. And my sister, Margaret, for whom I was once protectress and so regret becoming like another child for which to care. Even my former husbands and boyfriends are there, if silent. I have no right to ask them anything, but I remember well their intelligence and skills.

All the knowledge and experience and wisdom of all the people were at my back. I felt as if I spoke my answers alternately, confidently, with their voices.

Even though I haven’t seen many of them in decades, they have been with me and I am grateful for their efforts on my behalf.

Many people contributed to the writing of this book but I am naming several specifically for their direct help with this particular project, or for their direct help with me making it through the two years of my life this book covers. In every moment was a potential dealbreaker. Those are high stakes and none of these people flinched.

Alex Edelman is the one with whom I can share the hardest questions and count on receiving probing, expansive, radically informed, humane answers.

Dan Smith read my blog and sent me supportive emails when I was rolling in agony on the floor in early recovery and a “this is a book” email when I began to regain my balance.

Coach Sarah Beth Jones shared what she felt and thought about my writing, then asked me to probe more deeply about what I wanted and what I meant.

Robert Giles, my father, has nudged me for decades to do what I said I’ve wanted to do since Mrs. Pollet asked us in fifth grade to make dolls of who we wanted to be when we grew up. My doll was a writer. My father has personally and financially supported his troubled daughter and I think my mind would be broken and my body homeless if he had not. He made the leisure required to write this book possible and I am grateful.

Janeson Keeley models writing honestly and deeply and commented generously and supportively on my blog, even before this book was an idea. Kelly Alcorn also commented thoughtfully and often on my blog.

Debbie Palombo climbed her Mt. Everest – the real one! – and in her inimitable, genuine, cheerful way said I should and could climb my own.

Karan Rains told me decades ago, “It’s harder with smart people.” But she helps me find my way, or my way back, to my heart.

Rosemary Sullivan stated outright to me that hiring an addictions counselor at 15 months sober was a risk but she took a chance and gave my desperately grief-stricken life meaning and purpose.

Z. Kelly Queijo and Gail Billingsley reside with me in a small town. They were my friends before and they are still my friends. They would not say so, but I consider their unwavering support heroic.

The cover art for Phoenix Rising is a detail from “Woman Rising,” created and designed by Jackie Harder then painted by, in alphabetical order: Gail Billingsley, Catherine Fae, Anne Giles, Robert Giles, Ben Harder, Jackie Harder, Greg Kiebuzinski, Brandon Lowe, Kelly Queijo and Laurel Sindewald.

The men and women who seek addictions treatment awe me and steel me with their honesty and bravery.

Without the men and women who attend support group meetings, I would be floating, spread-eagled, in chaos. They calm me, then guide me, then inspire me. How can I adequately thank rescuers? I hope this book in some small way honors their gifts to me by attempting to pass them forward.

Without Laurel Sindewald, this book would not exist. When she began assisting my father with his work in June, 2013, I was secretly six months into my first year of abstinence from alcohol. It would take me another ten months to share in public that I was in recovery from addiction to alcohol. I shared for many reasons, but one of them was seeing the bright, shining, passionate honesty of Laurel Sindewald and not matching it with my own.

Openness created a synergy I’ve experienced with only a few. Laurel deepened my thinking, feeling, insights and writing with her fine mind, thoughtful discussion, and impeccable, extensive research. Then she took on a herculean task. She read my entire blog, excerpted it, organized it, and edited it as a book manuscript. As if it were her own, she entitled the book, designed the cover, and meticulously prepared the entire package for publication. The writing is mine. The book is hers. My gratitude is without bounds. I appreciate, respect and love you, Laurel.

Woman Rising

I wrote in an email to Jackie Harder in November, 2014: “I have a vision of a mural with a woman rising. I see her profile, I think her arms or hands are raised, and she is both lifting herself and being lifted, perhaps from fire and ashes, like a phoenix.”

Jackie transformed my vision into art.

Woman Rising by Jackie Harder

Jackie created the original painting by hand, designed a digital image, then orchestrated its birth on the entry wall in my home over a series of sessions during the spring of 2015. These wonderful and creative people, in alphabetical order by last name, held the paint brushes:

  • Gail Billingsley
  • Catherine Fae
  • Robert Giles (my dad!)
  • Ben Harder
  • Jackie Harder
  • Greg Kiebuzinski
  • Brandon Lowe
  • Kelly Queijo
  • Laurel Sindewald

Painting a woman rising

I painted a bit, too, primarily the green leaves in the bottom right-hand corner!

I am so grateful for this beauty in my home and the humanity and generosity that made it happen.

. . . . .

See, start to finish, all the photos of the project’s progress.

Read more about Woman Rising: A Community Mural Art Project.

After One Year as an Addictions Counselor

After one year as an addictions counselor, for my own recovery from addiction to alcohol, I’ve learned that if I don’t handle upset, I’m doomed.

That’s the killer of abstinence that I’ve seen. Stress, frustration, anxiety, sadness, hurt, doubt – if they’re not dealt with as they happen, they accumulate like backpacks. The person topples, not from lack of willpower, lack of character, lack of desire, lack of making “good choices,” but from the weight of carrying too much for too long. To keep from feeling crushed by upset, to numb the pain, to escape the too-heavy load, the person drinks or uses.

Upset piles upAs an addictions counselor, it’s inhumane for me to shout, “You can resist!” at the person face down in the dirt of distress, miserable beyond bearing, immobilized by heaviness. Why should they resist? What do they get for abstaining? More unrelenting imprisonment in anguish? Who would choose that?!

The work of someone trying to abstain or practice harm reduction is to not let the load of upset get that heavy. Once one’s down, it’s nearly impossible to get back up. It feels like self-mercy to use.

How do I keep from letting upsets pile up? It’s not life that I have to handle, but how I feel when life happens. How do I do that?

What I, and many people who struggle with addictions, feel when life happens is fear. Any life happening, from a broken dryer to a death in the family, feels pretty much the same. Paired with that feeling is the belief that fear threatens safety, even survival, and needs to be fixed. Immediately. Fear necessitates a reaction.

The first reaction is protective. I might react with more feelings such as anger or hurt, or with an action – hit or shout to stop whoever or whatever is perceived to be causing the fear. Then the reactions get more intricate, designed to control others and situations to stop the source of fear.

Fear, reactivity, control. That’s the raw inner experience of people trying not to use.

Add longing. Add longing for love, for connection, for acceptance.

That longing leads us to relationships. Fear, reactivity and control aren’t great tools for building relationships. A sense of confidence in my ability to be authentic, vulnerable and intimate? A sense of personal security, personal power, a desire to give and receive? Nah, I don’t have those. In relationships, I fear judgment, rejection, and abandonment.

Fear, fear, fear.

I was so used to feeling fear that I thought it was normal, even correct. Life is scary! React! I’m being a good girl when I protect!

But I was increasingly miserable, I was behaving miserably, and people in my life felt miserable because of my misery. I sought help.

What I was taught is so simple.

If I can pause to become aware of what I am feeling and thinking, I give myself a chance to make a choice about what I do, or don’t do, next. As someone recovering from addiction, I can assume fear is my primary feeling.

My first choice, then, needs to be to calm myself.

Why and how I calm myself are crucial. Why? I calm myself to keep myself from accumulating upset. That it’s. How? I use my own self as the calming tool – not external sources like substances, or processes (eating, working, gambling, shopping, porn, etc.), or other people or relationships. I become aware I’m feeling upset, I accept that I am upset, and I make a a matter-of-fact, neutral, strategic decision to calm myself.

I do not calm myself because I am bad and wrong for getting upset. I don’t judge myself. I may have every reason to get upset! I’m just going to calm myself first. Then I’ll deal with the reason. Scolding and scorning myself for getting upset upsets me further.

And telling myself to “stay positive” and “be grateful” and “stay in the moment” denies the reality of my experience. The experience may deserve negativity and ingratitude and departure. Again, I calm myself because it’s simply the first order of business for addictions recovery.

Once I calm myself from a flood of feeling – for me, primarily from fear – I rescue my brain from being soaked with emotion so now I can think.

I become aware of what I’m thinking. As dispassionately and objectively as I can, I examine the reality of my thoughts.

What I have discovered about my thoughts when I am upset is they are primarily negative beliefs about myself and about life. In sum, when something in life distresses me, I think, “This has happened because of me. I am ineffectual. That this could even happen at all negates everything I’ve ever believed in, stood for, and done in my life. I am helpless to make myself or anything better. I, therefore, deserve rejection, abandonment and shunning.”

Such battering thoughts! They bring me to my knees!

Who knew that my little pile of genuine, reasonable distress over life events was being heaped upon by my own thoughts?! No wonder distress accumulates so thickly and so quickly that, before I’m conscious of having a choice, I’m on the ground and want to drink.

Sometimes I can un-upset myself all by myself. Sometimes I can’t. What’s a person recovering from addictions to do when calming isn’t happening?! Calming has to happen.

If I find I can’t calm myself, I’ve got to reach out for help. Not for help with directly calming me – that perpetuates my lack of skill with self-calming. I need to reach out to someone who will help me calm myself.

When I began my work as an addictions counselor a year ago, I thought my job was to help people struggling with addiction to have insights. I was using that method myself, trying to figure out what I needed to understand to free myself. Surely I just needed to think harder and longer and addiction would yield to the force of my intent and intellect.

I accept and appreciate my novice counselor self. She was cute! I understand why she thought the way she did. And she wasn’t wrong, exactly. Face pinned to the ground below unremitting upset, I’m incapable of looking within. I’m looking for a way out. If I don’t calm myself and give myself even half a chance to choose differently, I know what feels blissfully like a way out…