Couldn’t Stop Drinking? Really?

Let me see if I’ve got this. I was an occasional social drinker until I was 48, then stuff happened in 2006-2007, then I began to drink wine in an increasing amount over the course of 5-6 years, then I couldn’t stop drinking, then at 53 I stopped, and at 55 I’m still stopped.

Huh? If I couldn’t stop, how come I’m stopped?!

To the best of my ability to understand those ages and dates, I found my feelings and thoughts about the events of those years unbearable. I could not hold and carry these experiences in my arms. They heaved themselves onto my back and bent me double.

Wine at night lifted the heaviness of my heavy memories, my heavy heart, my heavy thoughts. More wine lightened the load. Why wouldn’t I seek relief from such burdens each night? And then the properties of alcohol and my physiology and my psychology did their interweaving and I couldn’t not pick up a drink.

Couldn’t not? Really?

I absolutely could not find a way to stop drinking on my own. I was seeing an individual counselor weekly at the time I was trying to stop. I was trained as a counselor myself! None of it worked.

Only in the company of others was I able to stop. I look back 20 months ago when I could not stop drinking, and look at today when I am stopped, and am flabbergasted. Why now and not then? It doesn’t make any sense.  I was Anne then and I am Anne now. What’s the deal on this?!

If I were a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, I can understand that I might not need to know the answers to these questions. I might not even be interested in the answers. All I would need to do to achieve my goal (mine is abstinence but others may seek harm reduction) is to not take the first drink that, for me, inevitably leads to the next and the next.

But I am a teacher, a counselor, a writer. People in recovery hear and read my words. A scholar’s, teacher’s, counselor’s ethics require that I know what I am doing and what I am passing forward. I need to understand and know as deeply as I can what works and what doesn’t and why.

Becoming and staying abstinent from alcohol is the hardest endeavor of my entire life. It has been the time of my greatest suffering ever. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Ever.

Couldn’t stop drinking? Did.

How and why? Humanity requires I attempt to answer.

. . . . .

I am profoundly interested in the social network effects of mutual support groups in recovery from addictions. Titles are abbreviated and/or excerpted, and the most recent are listed first. Thanks to Laurel Sindewald for her research assistance.

6 Things I Wish I Had Been Told on Day 1 in Recovery

1. You were right to seek out people to help you.

Although some people do achieve abstinence* on their own, you weren’t able to. Everything you did alone to try to stop didn’t work.

Early morning at Anne's placeAddiction is a 24-hour problem so recovery from it takes 24-hour help. Trust your original instinct that you needed the company and support of other people who want what you want. Make being connected to them your top priority.

At times, you will think some obligation of some kind – usually born of guilt or fear about not doing something at work or with a partner or with family – will seem more important than being with people or reaching out to people who are intentionally trying to stay in recovery. Especially in early recovery, almost never is that event or activity more important. Most of us will lose exactly what we think is most important to us if we lose our abstinence. Paradoxically, we have to put second what’s most important to us to keep it.

Know that isolating yourself, thinking “I’ve got this,” fear of bothering people with your phone calls, and inertia can all be part of addiction. Organize your day by thinking first of how to stay connected, then work backwards from there. Encourage yourself – push yourself if you have to – to go to gatherings and meetings, use the phone, and text like crazy to stay connected all day, every day, to people in recovery.

2. Watch out for shame.

Feeling ashamed of discovering one has become addicted to alcohol or drugs is not justified, but stigma is real and, at the beginning, it’s normal.

Shame tells us we deserve bad treatment and we can let down our normal barriers against allowing people to advise, define, evaluate, judge or criticize us.

An unfortunate tradition in recovery circles is to be directive, confrontational and critical with people newly abstinent. Best practices in care for addiction do not support confrontation. They support kindness.

It’s very hard to become aware of one’s feelings in the midst of the shock, grief and disorientation of not drinking or using, but try to be acutely aware of feeling shame when listening to someone share in a support group meeting or during a conversation with someone who seems to mean well.

If you start to feel ashamed, start singing “La-la-la” in your mind or whatever other method works best for you to block the intrusion of someone else’s views into your right to choose your own. Do this until someone else begins to share and then listen again, or until you can excuse yourself from that conversation to try another one.

Shame is part of the addiction problem. It’s not the solution. We’re all at different levels of evolution and transformation, desperate to hold on to what seems to be working for us now. Listen for people expressing kindness and move yourself towards them.

“[Some people] respond with rage when pressed to consider different viewpoints or countermanding data. The visceral power of these responses should be a clue to the psychology behind them: we save our fiercest defenses for an attack on that which keeps us whole.”
Lance Dodes

3. Watch out for boundaries.

Attending meetings with the like-minded and like-hearted can give you an uplifting feeling of oneness with everyone. Feel one with the group, but practice normal social distance with individuals.  Many of us have multiple problems, have had our boundaries violated on tragic levels, and are still uncertain about where we leave off and others begin. Protect and care for your vulnerable self at this time of incredible change for you. We’re all just trying to get better.

4. Cry.

Cry when you’re alone, when you’re with another person, when you’re in a group, when you’re at a meeting, when you’re in line at the grocery store. Cry anytime, anywhere. Better out than in.

5. About those thoughts of drinking and those drinking dreams?

Yeah. Normal. Call someone. Now.

6. If you only remember one thing I’ve told you – and it’s unlikely you’ll remember a single thing I’ve said given the state of one’s brain in early recovery – remember this one hyphenated term: self-care.

For about a billion reasons, people addicted to substances and processes lack the belief that they deserve self-care. Even if they want to practice self-care, they don’t have a clue where to begin or how to continue. Yet, self-care is fundamental to both beginning to recover and continuing to grow.

Just be open to the idea of becoming able to care for yourself with all your heart.

. . . . .

*I use “abstinence” and “drinking” in this post because are my personal addictions treatment goals, derived in collaboration with health professionals who know my particular case. But they are only one of many possible goals in addictions recovery. I am a proponent of harm reduction which supports recovery as an individual process.

Addiction and Recovery Paper Dolls

Fold the tabs to fill the addiction and recovery paper dolls!
Added 9/2/1014: I’ve received requests for a printable version of the cartoon so here’s a .pdf file: Addictions and Recovery Paper Dolls. Feel free to use and share!

Little Bits of Progress at 20 Months Sober

A young colleague blurted out to me decades ago, as if astonished, “You’re the loneliest person in the world.”

I have had a longing within from the beginning. It’s as if a freezing wind blows through an unfilled opening near my heart. While I was growing up, I knew it was all going to be all right because I was going to get married and have a husband. He would fill the hole. When he didn’t, I expected it to be filled by our child. When I was unable to conceive, I tried work. I divorced and tried different men. I tried a return to my family of origin. I tried a second husband.

When I adopted a cat, I did feel a cat-shaped puzzle piece blocked much of the wind. When my cat became ill unexpectedly, I felt as if I had to kill my own child to put her out of her misery. And other things happened. The wind howled.


To not feel as if what I was feeling was going to kill me from within, I tried relationships, I tried work, I tried exercise, I tried eating, I tried cats, I tried drinking wine. Wine produced quiet from the wind most consistently for the greatest number of hours. I repeated.

And then, because I cherish being able to choose my path, however lonely it might be, I chose to take a break from drinking wine. I was flabbergasted to learn I could not. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, no matter what I told myself, I could not stop drinking.

. . . . .

On August 28, 2014, I was 20 months abstinent from alcohol.

I have shared that I have only been able to get sober and stay sober with the help of, and in the company of, others.

As a teacher, I stated often that I was seeking “the truth and the light,” and “the one true thing.” In every bit of life, I sought whole meaning or sought to synthesize that small piece into a meaningful whole. In retrospect, I think I was seeking one perfect shape, exactly the size of the lonely opening within me, to ease my terrible longing.

What seems to be happening is that the hole is filling, not with one true love or one perfect child or one best friend, but with the presence of many people who are kind to me. And who let me be kind to them. And we rotate in and out through the days so that the filling isn’t dependent on one single person, or even on a specific group of people – only Betty, Bob, Jimmy, for example – but on many people.

And the people are human and they make mistakes and over-do and under-do. But because my days are spent with many, one person’s cruelty doesn’t have the power to destroy me, nor does one person’s kindness have the power to complete me.

I’m not sure how lonely I am today. Sweetness and gentleness and contentment are coming to my days. In little bits.

Thank You For Calling Me

It is late afternoon on the third anniversary of my mother’s death.

Remembering how I felt last year, I made what felt like a crazy request for some kind of reverse hotline or recovery phone tree and asked people to sign up to call me for the two-day period I was terrified I might fall as I have, over and over again, without notice, without force, back first, spread-eagled into darkness.

The first person to sign up doesn’t even live in my town. A few more people signed up. Look at this! Astoundingly, astonishingly, every single slot is filled.

Something happened to my fear. Did it lessen? I don’t know. But, as they say, a calm descended. Just knowing people were going to call me, were there for me, gave me a sense of hope and some kind of peaceful certainty.

I have relentlessly, ruthlessly attempted to become aware of my every feeling and thought, to isolate these causal variables as if I were my own scientific experiment, and to identify psychological reasons for them.

I was off an hour. I figured noon on the day before, but I cried while I was running on the elevated track at my gym at 11:00 AM.

I’ve cried so much at the gym – and gym culture is so funny; we notice each other’s vascularity, not our tears – I just went with it, running and sobbing to Smooth and trying to remember what thoughts preceded the crying.

Without notice, without force, I had thought of my fluffy step-cat that had to put down and I missed her and then I thought of my mother and I missed her and then I was a child without a cat or a mother and I was on the edge of the cliff.

So I thought about how it is normal when grieving normally for losses to bring up old losses. Thinking about my cat and my mother together made sense and were probably related to attachment issues.  And I thought of the Doodle and the people with their cell phones and made my mind, as if it had its own body, muscularly climb up hand over hand. I did not want to go over the cliff.

Today, people have called me and texted me and emailed me. When I could, I’ve picked up and have had lovely chats. When I haven’t been where I thought I’d be and have not picked up, I’ve saved lovely voice mails to listen to in perpetuity.

I haven’t cried today. I might. I’m okay with it either way. I’m not going to write any more or think any more. I’m just going to be. But I drew what it’s like to be me today.

What it's like today