Pre-Drinking and Post-Drinking Thinking

My feelings and thoughts can get intense. I have come to understand that I primarily used drinking to manage the peaky, spiky, distressed inner state that my intense feeling and thinking can create.

Anne's dadTo stop drinking, I have had to manage my drinking problem directly, but I’ve also had to try to understand what is going on within me – the feelings and thoughts that trouble me so. I’ve had to become intensely aware of what I was thinking and doing that wasn’t working, then to discover new ways of thinking that might work. Then I’ve had to train intensely to make the new workable ways kick in over the old ways.

Ultimately, I think I am trying to learn to treat myself with mercy and kindness rather than with criticism and contempt.

. . . . .

Photo is of my father getting ready to fix his 55 year-old daughter white bread toast in the exact same toaster he used when she was a small child. To his daughter who has struggled and seems to be emerging like a phoenix chick from ashes, he has shown mercy and kindness.

. . . . .

I’ve created a table to show my new thinking vs. my old thinking, i.e. my pre-drinking/drinking thinking with my post-drinking thinking. (That’s a lot of thinking. Made me laugh. There’s the post title, then!).

Pre-Drinking vs. Post-Drinking Thinking

In practice, I try to start at the top of the list and work my way through to the bottom in a linear progression, but I tend to cycle in and around. It’s hard to take time to pause, to think systematically, and to then respond when conversations, discussions, conflicts or situations seem to provoke or require an immediate reaction.

I’ve probably sought most of my life to respond rather than react, to learn to pause and become aware of what I am feeling and thinking, to see what options align with my values, then to speak or act. A friend describes this as trying “to make my outsides match my insides.” A drinking problem put an end to an intellectual exercise and began a dire attempt to not just think, but do.

Here’s the Pre-Drinking Thinking vs. Post-Drinking Thinking table as a .pdf.

I Feel Happy

I don’t remember much about the days before I drove myself to a support group meeting but I do remember vowing I was determined to be happy before I turned 55.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I chunk my abstinence from alcohol and my continuing recovery from moderate alcohol use disorder, according to the DSM-5, by date and time:

  • December 28, 2012: Beginning of the absolutely most torturous days and weeks and months I had ever lived in 53 years on the planet
  • December 30, 2012: Two days abstinent on my 54th birthday
  • First weeks: hell
  • First 30 days: a thousand nights of hell
  • First 13 months: hell
  • December 28, 2013: one year abstinent in hell
  • December 30, 2013: turned 55 in hell
  • Months 13-16: a different kind of hell
  • Month 16: free myself from the hell of silence; still resident of different kind of hell
  • Month 17: July 4th weekend, 2014, a woman friend from my old life visited and reminded me of who I might still be
  • Month 18: still not happy
  • Month 19 1/2 – August 14, 2014: Shaken by death of Robin Williams. Knew it was time to say my story was about more than the substance.
  • Month 19 1/2 – August 15, 2014: Swam down deep and got to the essence of my sorrow. Drew chalk art on my sidewalk after. Wrote what I found first here. Wrote what I found next here.
  • Month 19 3/4 – Asked my friends to help my lonely little self and they did
  • Month 20 1/2 – Wrote today’s post the day after coloring with crayons for the first time in a long, long time
  • Month 21: to be celebrated on September 28, 2014
  • December 28, 2014: Expect to be abstinent two years in neither heaven nor hell, but in reality
  • December 30, 2014: Expect to turn 56 happy (off by a year – not so bad)

I can see only one more dark piece to write. Then I think I will have cornered it sufficiently to pare out the brown spots from this bruised peach of a life – or at least enough of them – to live deep, suck out sweetness and spit out poison, and be sturdily present for the paradoxical seed-and-pit at the essence of the rest of my lovely little life.

That’s My Choice? The Double Binds of Recovery from Addiction

Down, down, down I swim, with arms as strong as I’ve been able to make them, pushing aside dark, body-sized lobes of tissue to reach my deepest understanding of the fundamental truth of how life works, and when I stretch my fingertips for the blackest essence, this is what I touch: She is going to be mad.

. . . . .

How tragically, miserably prosaic. I had expected to hear Cat Stevens singing, “Love is all.”

. . . . .

When living captive to rage, one is required to engage, so one tans the rind of one’s awareness to leather to shield against the natural instincts to fight, flee or freeze. Or to attack. Or to feel. Or to think.

One defends.

One lives acutely, electrically observant, intimately learning the captor’s facial expressions, body posture, arm and leg movements, choice of clothing, all for clues of how bad what’s to come – and it will inevitably come – will be. But wait. The captor’s being nice. Maybe it’s over? Maybe the captor does love one after all?

One learns the captor’s body and being better than one learns one’s own.

One becomes the most careful of researchers, changing one tiny variable in one’s self at a time, wishing and longing that maybe, maybe one has discovered the word or deed that will cause the tides to shift, the rage to ebb and the love to flow. One thinks (yearns) to have that power. One shapes one’s attention and bearing and speech and movement and attire, not through an inner discovery of one’s own gifts and values, but in relation to the captor. Day after day, one forms one’s self from data gathered from without, not from within.

Rage is sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes overt, sometimes covert. One never knows if one will glimpse the Bowie knife first or feel the stiletto upon exit. Ultimately any sentence, any act, will be wrong. One will be knifed.

The double bind, the position of having no safe option, of having no self without the other, the captor, divides one in two. Even when given a choice, one can’t bear staying and one can’t bear leaving.

. . . . .

One is put in a double bind when one hears sentences or experiences actions that are conflicting and one negates the other. Anything one does in response is wrong. A classic double bind is “Do as I say, not as I do.” More subtle examples: “I love you unconditionally” and “You’d be pretty if you didn’t have such a big nose.” Or, as a small child, one is called to sit in a smoker’s lap, one is embraced, and the smoker says, “Ever seen a match burn twice?” and the smoker moves the hot match tip towards the child’s arm.

Dogs will avoid the parts of an experimental floor that deliver shocks. When the whole floor is electrified, the dogs struggle frantically. When they realize every response is hopeless, they just lie down.

Living with a person who offers up double binds breaks the heart. It can also break the mind.

. . . . .

A functional adult’s psychological job is to take new experiences and fit them into the self’s inner grid. Using inner awareness and outer observation, the person notes what’s happening or, if it happens too fast, examines it later, and either integrates and assimilates it into the inner grid or feels and thinks his or her way through transforming it – alone or with help – into something that does fit.

The trouble with living with double binds is that one learns one is trapped and therefore helpless and powerless to transform very much. One maneuvers and suffers and endures. If the self survives, it seethes with hidden rage.

In If 2007 Could Be Different, I wrote I had some challenging “new experiences.” In response to those new experiences most people would have been able to say, “Too bad,” slide them into the self’s grid cells on the outer edges of awareness, and move on. I could not. I won’t go into detail, but my heart and mind have taken hits from double binds for a long time. As an adult, if I feel trapped, I alternately thrash, rage, and drop to the floor sobbing helplessly, repeat.

I think I began drinking because I had no more capacity for double binds. I could not take one more in.

  • I so wanted to have a child that when I was a teenager I bought little baby clothes decorated with tiny, orange ducks and put them in my hope chest. I am unable to conceive a child.
  • My classroom is a sacred, holy place. I experienced violence in my classroom.
  • My hometown is a sanctuary. A mass murder occurred in my hometown.
  • I believe awareness is the way to bring in enlightenment and healing. Every time I turn my awareness to what happened, I feel I am trying to bring in sharp stars with knife edges.
  • I drink too much. I cannot stop drinking.
  • I cannot bear what is happening to my mind from drinking. I cannot bear my feelings and thoughts when I am not drinking.
  • If I drink, I feel terrible. If I abstain, I feel terrible.
  • You’re only as sick as your secrets. Keep this secret.
  • I write to free myself from silence. I will be imprisoned by stigma if I write to break this silence.

I have been abstinent from alcohol for 20 months. That’s 600 days of choosing to live with the thrashing helplessness of double binds.

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.