Friday, September 15, 2017

Letting go . . . some more

I've written before about surrender – how difficult it can be to admit I have no control over most of what happens in my life and to deal with the frustration of falling short of expectations. I have worked hard to get to a place where I can identify and feel my emotions – sit with them, ride them out, and know they're always going to change. I've worked hard to get to a place where I can be present in my life, to be in each moment without wallowing in regret over the past or anxiety over the future, to live life on life's terms, and to be okay with all of that. And I am.
It would be disingenuous though to say the last year and a half hasn't put me to the test. My life and family have been turned upside down and inside out and pieced back together in a way I didn't expect or plan. My children have dealt with challenges I never would have chosen for them. And while I truly think we'll all be better for having gone through it in the end, it has gotten me thinking lately about letting go. Not letting go of the control I once thought I had but obviously didn't. Because yes, at one time I thought I could micromanage my world, foolish drunk that I was, and then I learned in recovery that I couldn't. I learned to surrender and stop fighting to control the uncontrollable. I was left with managing my part – my reactions to people and situations, my contribution to relationships, my perception of reality.
But what about the bigger things - the overarching expectations I and others had of what my life was supposed to be? In many ways, those things remained unexamined. The expectation is that I have a family, friends, a career, interests, hobbies . . . a life . . . that looks a certain way. I gave up the frustration with lack of control over meeting expectations, but what of the expectations themselves?
Most of you probably know by now that my son is living at the Discovery School of Virginia. He's been there for almost six months now, dealing with emotional, behavioral, and academic issues that were crippling him at home. The changes in him are remarkable, and it's clear that he's where he needs to be right now. Six months ago he was in a terrible place. His inner turmoil was palpable. It was not normal middle school angst. Not by a long shot. 
Not surprisingly, he always wanted in on the latest trend – expensive sneakers, athletic pants, sunglasses, electronic devices. Those things were inordinately important to him. When we visited with him a few weeks ago, he needed new sneakers, and we took him out to buy some. Historically, shopping with the boy has been a stressful and potentially explosive situation, and that is putting it mildly. If things were going to go off the rails, it was going to be around this exact type of scenario. Trust me. So I laid down the law – I would buy him sneakers, but they would be the cheapest pair we could find, whether he liked them or not. He said he was good with that. He said he didn't care. He said, and I quote, "I don't care about image anymore. Image blocks growth." And he didn't just talk the talk. At the shoe store, he commented that he liked some more expensive shoes, but he was grateful to get the least expensive ones.
I don't know how Discovery does what they do so well, but it occurred to me that the process he's going through now is not entirely different from what I've gone through in recovery. Although my son had not yet (to my knowledge) used alcohol to self-medicate, he had become obsessed with possessing and using anything and everything he could to distract himself from his reality – from feeling and being present – because it was too painful. It worked for him about as well as alcohol worked for me. It worked until it didn't. The distraction would wear off, leaving him as rattled and fearful as ever, grasping for the control that eluded him, overwhelmed by insecurity and sadness, desperately searching for the next distraction. 
Discovery did what we could not do at home. They took away all of the distractions. There is no tolerance for negotiation or emotional manipulation or lashing out at others. The boys are stripped down to their foundations, held accountable for their behavior, and taught to process feelings and problems in a productive way, all while working together as a team to provide for their basic needs with consideration for how their words and actions affect the well-being of others in their group. In other words, he's relearning everything about interacting with the world, without distractions to numb the feelings that evokes. For me, it's very reminiscent of what I went through going to rehab and subsequently learning to live without alcohol. It's a whole new way of life, which requires letting go.
I vividly remember a time when I said with certainty that I would never send my child off to boarding school to let someone else care for him or her. Of course, that was before I had kids. I'm wiser now and realize that I was right! In the sense that I would instead go the extra mile and send my child off to live in the woods to let someone else reprogram him. That's entirely different, obviously.
In all seriousness, there was no way I could have predicted that path. It was a last resort, under difficult circumstances, but it was the right thing to do. And it took a whole lot of letting go – letting go of physical control over my child, letting go of knowing what he's even doing day to day, letting go of the idea that I could parent him out of his misery, but, in a bigger sense, letting go of my own construct of what my son should be and what our relationship should be.
I'm just going to put this out there – my kids have so not met my expectations. At all. They are exceptional and complex people, in very different ways, but in no way what I imagined them to be before they blossomed into what they are. Because I couldn't dream that big. My daughter in particular lives way outside the box and gives zero fucks what you think. So to lay my expectations on them would be . . . limiting. I have no idea where they'll go in life, and I don't want to. Their paths are their own. What I want for them, and what I hope to give them, is a foundation that allows them to succeed and fail and be present in life and to be okay, to have inner peace, no matter where they are or what is happening around them. And to be kind. Always that, because just don't be a dick, please.  
A couple of weeks ago my daughter showed me a you tube video a classmate of hers made, wherein she talks about and assesses all of the other children in their class. I know, I know – there are multiple problems with that scenario. Mostly they're for that girl and her parents to sort out, but what she said about my daughter was, "She's that girl that comes from a troubled family."  Hmmm, comes from a troubled family . . . I admit that it got under my skin a little bit. We talked about all the reasons it shouldn't, why you don't engage when others try to insult you, how people will try to label you to secure their own place in the world, why people are threatened by anything different, etc., etc., bleep, bloop, blop. She knows this. She has it down. She moved on.
But it got me thinking. Is that what we are? A troubled family? And why should that bother me anyway? It all comes back to those big expectations of what my life is supposed to look like. I've gotten comfortable with things being out of my control and not going as planned. I can be at peace when chaos swirls around me. I'm willing to be authentic, even if not everybody appreciates my awkward realness. But maybe there was a part of me that still thought I was failing at life because I was falling short of those expectations - expectations that I wasn't letting go.
A troubled family is no doubt what we are. We have troubles. Who doesn't? I certainly never planned any of this. My kids have both been through the wringer in the last year. Their father and I are navigating the world of co-parenting from different households. My daughter started middle school – gross – where kids, I'm sorry, are giant A-holes. My son lives in the damn woods! But the point is not that we are the troubled family. The point is that we are the family that acknowledges our troubles. We're not ashamed of them. We fight for each other and do everything in our power to deal with them in a healthy and productive way. And no matter what, we love and support each other through them. So if we don't look like a conventional family while doing so . . . well, that's your problem if you don't like it, because we're okay.
Image blocks growth. If I worried about how others view my life, about meeting arbitrary expectations, I wouldn't be where I am today. My family fell apart spectacularly but in a way that allowed each of us to branch out and grow in ways we couldn't have imagined. Had we all held it together, white-knuckled it and focused on distractions rather than dealing with our troubles, we might have the picture perfect postcard of a family to send out this holiday season, but it would just be an image. Instead we're the troubled family, a work in progress with endless possibilities.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

New Normal

It's been so long, I may have forgotten how to write. The last seven months or so have been . . . a bit chaotic on all fronts. Some things are not my story to tell, so I won't, but for me it's probably been the most challenging time in my life. And that's saying something. Suffice it to say, what my children feel and experience affects me more deeply than I ever could have imagined and much more so than anything that happens to me directly. This is the shit they don't tell you about before you have kids, because it's hard, you guys. It's ridiculously hard.

Other things are part of my story and, I think, important to share. Like how my recovery has been the greatest gift during this time. I don't know how I could have survived without it. There have been days when I've felt like a zombie, literally walking aimlessly through the day, unable to function as a human being. One morning in particular, I had a fleeting thought that I might as well give up and drink, simply because I didn't know what else to do. I was just so tired of living. That's when all I've learned in recovery kicked in, and I told on myself. A few years ago, saying words would have been the last thing I would have done in that moment, but this time I blurted it right out, which effectively took the wind out of those self-sabotaging sails.

Recovery has given me the foundation to deal with life, and life right now is messy. The voice in my head that used to tell me to drink and get numb and hide because the world is terrible and will destroy me in the end (wow, that shit is crazy), now tells me that everything will be okay. And I believe that to be true. That things will randomly work out. They just will.

I have a friend who covets normalcy. Because normal people seem so . . . blissfully normal. But what even is that? She and I talk about it often. The older I get, the more I believe no one is normal. I mean, I don't know anyone who is. Granted, my circles are suspect - alcoholics, endurance athletes, lawyers, people who are related to me . . . very suspect. But I don't even know what the standard is supposed to be. And do I want it? I think I've always preferred the company of those who are not usual in the least.

I haven't shared with many people about my recent separation and impending divorce. I was thinking about why that is. It's not because I have shame or regret or even sadness about it, although there is naturally a sadness about the ending of a hugely meaningful period in my life. It's because I'm fiercely protective of my family, and I don't particularly care for the perception that the break up of my marriage is the break up of my family. We'll always be a family. We're a team. Each of us loves and wants the best for every other member of the team. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed. That's how teams work, after all. This is no less true now just because, as my son noted, we have a second team headquarters.

When you tell people you're splitting from your spouse, they have expectations. They expect you to be terribly sad or terribly angry, possibly terribly both. That's normal. They expect you to fall apart. They expect you to say bad things about your "ex". They expect drama and conflict and bitterness and tears. I regret that I'm letting everyone down. (Not actually.) In all seriousness, I would love to be an example that it doesn't have to be that way.

Believe me, I wish there was an easy explanation. My kids would very much appreciate that. But relationships are complicated. People are complicated. We're not normal or predictable. If we're lucky we continue to grow and learn and change throughout our lives. And sometimes we have to assess where we are and adapt, even when it's scary or painful.

What I know is that I will never regret building the life and family we built together. "Ex" is hard for me to say because there are so many better things he continues to be - the father of my children, my co-parent, my friend, my support system - a great father and one of the most kind and decent human beings I know (a much better person than I). What I believe is that we both deserve the opportunity to be truly happy and fulfilled in our lives, and maybe this new path is where we'll find it.

Is this normal? I don't know. I guess our normal is in transition right now, but I feel confident that everything will be okay, and I'll take that over normal any day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Runaway Monday

A few people have asked me how our first day of school went. Well, funny you should ask . . .

I once heard that having a child is like forever having your heart go walking around outside your body. That struck a chord with me because it feels just so. I never realized how much I would experience life all over again through my children until it started happening. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I would have signed up for that, because good lord - the angst!

My oldest child started middle school last year, and it did not fail to bring the drama. We experience the highest highs and the lowest lows together because my heart aches when he hurts and soars when he's happy. It's an emotional roller coaster every damn day, multiple times a day. The boy is very much a combination of me and his father. He is emotionally mature and sensitive, but he's also head strong and argumentative. That means he wavers between being a calm, rational human being, and an unyielding, shrieking howler monkey. You never know quite what you're going to get. This past Monday was his first day of 7th grade, in a new school, so I knew to tread lightly. My heart was probably going to take a hit.

Of course I second guess everything I do as a parent. Of course I do. I could be more patient, I could raise my voice less, I could be more awesome on a regular basis. There are a hundred things I wish I'd done differently. Daily. But at the end of the day, I just want my kids to feel safe and loved and to be kind, and most days I think they do . . . and are. Other days I just want to shake them and scream, "Feel loved, damn you! Appreciate it! How do you not get how much we love you???" Mind you, I do not, because I'm pretty sure that would be bad parenting, but what do I know?

Monday was an "other day" with the boy. After a rocky evening routine, he was rude, I was cranky, and I confronted him. I told him it was not okay to be rude and disrespectful to his family. He was mad that I hadn't asked him what was wrong. After an extensive and insane argument between a 12-year-old and a 45-year-old about the distinction between "How was your day?" and "What's wrong?" he decided that I simply didn't understand him and maybe he would be better off somewhere else. Yes, he was leaving. Incredulously, I asked, "Do you honestly think you can find someone to live with who will care about you more and treat you better than we do?"

Here's the thing. Maybe I was right. But you can't reason with a shrieking howler monkey. The end. He pushed past me and was gone. His sister stood there begging him not to go, and I said out loud, "He'll be home before dark. He doesn't have anywhere else to go."  In my mind I was telling him, be home before dark. In his mind, I'm guessing, he heard a challenge.

I was once a runner away from home, and I remember those feelings well. I just knew it would teach my parents a valuable lesson about treating me so badly if I disappeared. "I'll show them!" I shouted, shaking my tiny fist to the heavens. I also remember how that bravado faded the farther I got from the property line and the closer it got to nightfall. I never made it far. I was too scared. I was banking on that as I watched my son pedal down our street on his bike. I know him. He just needed time to cool off. He knows the streets in our neighborhood like the back of his hand. He was safe, and he would be back. My heart ached, but I wasn't scared. Yet.

It was 7:00, still two hours until dark. After 15 minutes or so, his sister and I went out and drove around the neighborhood. We saw him a short way from the house, but when he saw the car, he took off in another direction, and we lost him again. I took it as a good sign that he was still in the neighborhood, and we went back to the house to wait. By 8:00, I was worried enough that I had called Ashby home from his evening activity, and he was out driving around. No sign. By 9:00, it was almost dark, so we called the police. By 10:00, our street and surrounding areas were being searched by law enforcement. No sign. His picture had been circulated, friends had been called, all his regular haunts had been checked. No sign. 11:00 came and went.

As midnight approached, I could feel myself starting to crumble. I'm not what you call "good in a crisis" - yes, I put Bennett Brauer-style air quotes around that. I just get paralyzed and shut down. While Ashby coordinated with the police and went out searching, I stood on my front porch for five hours, staring at the street and willing my boy to come back. I watched cars drive back and forth, watched the sun go down, watched police cars converge and then scatter, hoped that every light coming down the street was a car delivering my child home. But it wasn't. Over and over again, it wasn't. The nagging discomfort of having him out of my sight, whereabouts unknown, turned slowly into abject fear. I know this boy and his fears, and all of the harmless possibilities became less and less possible as time went on. My heart felt crushed. I could barely breathe. I got a tiny glimpse of just how broken I would be if anything ever happened to one of my children.

Then, just after midnight, I got a call that I'll remember forever. "Mrs. Ray? This is the manager of the Burger King on Highway 70 in Durham. I have your son here. He wants you to know he's very remorseful."

Look, I'll be honest - I had questions. Not the least of which was, uhhhh, we live in Raleigh, so what the fuck? Like how? And where? And what?? But in that moment, nothing mattered except my boy was alive and safe. Because that. He is my heart. I need that! And I felt it jump back to life. Five hours worth of pent up emotions came spilling out, and I was sobbing uncontrollably, not recognizing the sounds coming out of my mouth, unable to process what was happening as the Durham County Sheriff's Office and Raleigh PD coordinated his trip home.

I haven't felt that kind of raw emotion at least since I first got sober and discovered actual feelings, and maybe not ever, since I'm quite certain my life never mattered to me the way my kids' lives do. And maybe we all needed it - a wake up call, a shift in perspective - to realize just how good we've got it, how much genuine love and affection we have between us, and how we can try a little harder to understand each other better.

A police car rolled up to deliver the boy and his bike home around 1:00 a.m. He was scraped up and smelly, but otherwise none the worse for wear. There are no words to explain how it felt to have him back in our arms. Over the next 24 hours, he filled us in on some of the details of his adventure. Craziness like riding his bike alone for miles and miles down a busy highway (he's never ridden on streets outside of our neighborhood); falling off his bike and pulling gravel out of his own elbow wounds (he's never not fallen apart at the sight of blood); busking in a parking lot for cash and band-aids (he has zero experience as a performer); buying dinner with his proceeds and hanging at a Burger King until closing (midnight - hello - way past his bedtime.) Who is this kid anyway?

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little impressed with how much more successfully he ran away than I ever did, even though the mere thought of how many things could have gone wrong is absolutely terrifying. In the end, I suspect he learned more on his first day of 7th grade than he anticipated. Not one of us imagined his first day of school picture would be used for a missing juvenile bulletin later that night. I think the world seems a lot bigger to him, home seems a lot safer, and he has a better understanding of how much he's loved. Hopefully that's a tool he can hold onto for later.

I like to think I'm always learning. Maybe that's why I second guess so much. I've never been afraid to admit to my children that parents make mistakes. I make mistakes. A shit ton of mistakes. Frankly, most of parenting seems like a crap shoot to me. The way I see it, my mistake on Monday evening was trying to argue the boy into understanding my point of view. Because, shrieking howler monkey. Know your audience, right? I'm a grown up (ish), and I should have let it go (letting it go is hard, you guys!) But what I learned on Monday evening is, when mistakes are made, and things go sideways, I am surrounded by a community that comes together. Friends, neighbors, family, law enforcement - we were completely overwhelmed and grateful to everyone that jumped in to help and didn't quit until our child was safe at home.

When we tucked the kids into bed early Tuesday morning and finally stopped to breathe, Ashby jokingly mentioned that it's too bad I'm an alcoholic because if ever there was a time for a drink . . . And I felt grateful all over again because that thought hadn't even crossed my mind. So today I'm going to hold my babies a little closer and be grateful that my heart is whole. And though I'm still a trainwreck of an alcoholic who can't express and process difficult emotions, I'm going to be additionally grateful that drinking away my feelings was not only not my first instinct, but it wasn't an instinct at all.

So, how did the first day of school go? Not as planned, I suppose, but it could have been a lot worse. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Comfort Zone

As I approach five years of sobriety, I've been thinking a lot about how different things are now. For so long I wanted to get sober. I tried and failed over and over again. I was as surprised as anyone when it finally seemed to stick. In that first year, I actually thought things were pretty good. Compared to rock bottom, things were in fact looking up. I wasn't actively killing myself, which was a positive change. But looking back, I can see clearly now that it was not exactly a carefree time.

More than once in those early days, someone would tell me I needed to do things - like share in meetings or publicly tell my story. Let me not bore you with all of the many reasons why those are terrible ideas - reasons that include my functional inability to use mouth words competently in a public speaking situation - but this was their rationale: "You have to do things that are outside of your comfort zone." Those words have been bouncing around in my head and irritating me for damn near five years now. Why? Because a) don't tell me what to do, and b) where the fuck is this comfort zone, and how do I get in it in the first place?

At the time I just thought it was uncool to shame and guilt me about not doing things that make me insanely uncomfortable, because being in a meeting and with other alcoholics was supposed to make me feel better. These were my people, the ones who are like me and get me, so why were they making me feel bad? Frankly, it almost pushed me away from meetings altogether, because not sharing made me feel bad about myself, and feeling bad about myself is not something I needed help with. I submit that we in recovery could possibly try to be more accepting of the fact that not everyone is cut from the same cloth, and not every suggestion works for every person, and shaming is rarely the answer. Unless the question is "What's a shitty thing to do to someone who is already scared and vulnerable?"

Nevertheless, I stuck it out and kept going to meetings. I was doing the things that worked for me and getting the support I needed from people I connected with. Over time, I learned to let the comfort zone admonishments go - at least enough to continue going to meetings, eventually even without guilt. But upon further reflection, it actually goes much deeper than that for me. Let's revisit point b) . . . seriously, where is the aforementioned comfort zone? Where is my comfort zone? Is there one? My whole life has been a series of uncomfortable events. I don't remember a time before I got sober when I was ever comfortable being me. 

As far back as I can remember, I never felt like I was okay. I didn't trust that my own instincts were right or good, so I did what I thought others expected of me or behaved the way I thought others would. Outwardly, I never expressed myself in a way that reflected what was happening inside. As a result, I never truly felt known or accepted in any real sense. I never looked at myself or figured out what I wanted in life because I was too busy pretending to be what someone else wanted. Of course, not being real isn't comfortable because there's this constant, nagging fear of being found out. Drinking fixed nothing, but it made me not care or think about the fear for short periods of time, and that I guess was all the comfort zone I had for a long, long time.

Then I stopped drinking, for real. Physically I felt better, but my head was all over the place. It was overwhelming trying to be all better all at once. Because that's crazy. And unrealistic. And exhausting. And I was still doing it! Putting all of my effort into being what I thought others expected me to be and behaving the way I thought others in recovery would behave. Which is why it really got to me when I was criticized for not doing things a person in recovery "should" do. Get out of my comfort zone? I wasn't in my comfort zone, and now that booze was out of my life, I didn't even know where to begin to find it.  

My first year of recovery was angst-ridden. I was trying so hard to overachieve at sobriety. I struggled with not doing the program "right". I dragged my feet on getting a sponsor or calling people (because people things give me anxiety), so I beat myself up over that. I felt guilty if I didn't share at a meeting, so I set arbitrary goals to share x number of times per week and then inevitably felt bad about myself after because it was inevitably bad. I was fearful. I heard about people relapsing all the time, sometimes dying before they made it back. I didn't want that to be me, but I didn't know how or why recovery worked. And if I didn't know how it worked, how could I be sure it wouldn't stop working? I wanted guarantees. I wanted comfort. A whole fucking zone of it, if possible.

I've realized a few things between year one and year five. Of course there are no guarantees. I hope I make it to my five year sober birthday tomorrow, but I can't guarantee it. A little bit of fear is okay. I'm scared of what would happen if I drink again. I should be. It almost killed me. But the fear of not doing recovery "right" will only lead me back to that old habit of pretending to meet others' expectations. However good that may look on the surface, it's not real recovery, and if I continued to approach it that way, I would be as much of a fraud as I was when I was drunk. I would never know what it's like to be understood and valued for who I really am, and that is transformative.

Maybe it just took time and an open mind for all of that to sink in; time to let go of the anger and misery that came before. Oh, and a tremendous amount of self-reflection, behavior modification, and surrounding myself with people who get it - definitely that stuff. But the upshot is I feel like I'm okay today, and that's not nothing. It's a whole lot of something. I'm comfortable that the way I do recovery is working for me, even if it's not perceived as "right". I'm comfortable that I am of service to others, even if I don't say words out loud in public. I'm often comfortable being me, even if I'm not everyone's cup of tea. Fuck tea anyway. I guess I'm finding my comfort zone. Maybe it won't take another five years to step outside of it. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

We don't all get miracles

I enjoyed being at a meeting last weekend where I saw three people in my recovery circle pick up chips for 9, 23, and 28 years of sobriety. There is so much hope in the experience of others in recovery. Several years ago, I didn't think it was possible for me. They say you have to stick around until the miracle happens, and when I see people with that much time in recovery or look back on my own 4+ years, I know that miracles do happen. 

Unfortunately, they don't always happen, and we don't all get second chances. Addiction is a terrible disease that robs people of their lives, sometimes by destroying everything worth living for and sometimes literally ending them. I don't need to go over the statistics. They're available, and they're depressing. Sadly, I've also seen too many real flesh and blood friends suffer and die from this disease - two of them just in the last two months. And with each one come the questions. Why? Why didn't they "get it"? Why them and not me? How am I different?

The answer, of course, is I'm not. We're all just people who share the same disease. As with other diseases, some people are sicker than others, some seek treatment and some don't, some respond to treatment and some don't, some find the right combination of treatments that work, and some are too sick to even try. I'm no different. I was just lucky to live long enough to see the coming together of circumstances that put me on a path to recovery, and that's where the miracle happens. Only if you manage to get that far.

Many thoughts ran through my head recently when I became aware that an old friend was dying from the disease that we share. As the days went on, I felt more and more sad and more and more angry. It wasn't fair. Not just in the sense that she wouldn't live long enough or be lucky enough to experience her miracle, but because she left behind so many who may never understand why she didn't get it and that it wasn't her choice. As she lay dying in the hospital, I looked back at old messages - conversations we shared about alcoholism and recovery. These are her words:

It makes me so mad at myself for doing the wrong thing when I'm fully aware of what the right thing is. It's just not as easy as one might think, huh? And, now, on top of my self loathing, I have an unbearable shame.

These aren't the words of someone who chose to party instead of being a responsible adult. This wasn't someone having a good time. This was someone who was sick and suffering. Someone who felt hopeless, like she had nothing left to give. And I get that, because I lived it. One of the reasons I started this blog was to try to foster understanding, but it's easier to be supportive of recovery than it is to understand the disease. I imagine some people believe it's just a matter of making the choice to stop. I assure you that it's not.

I wish I could explain it in a way that made sense to someone who hasn't experienced addiction, but I don't know that it's possible because it defies explanation. When I was at my rock bottom, I could have no more "just stopped" than if I had cancer and tried to stop having it. I was sick - hopelessly, helplessly sick. The difference is, I was ashamed of being sick, and probably by many, I would be blamed for being sick.

She has everything going for her. Why is she making that choice? Why won't she stop for her husband and kids? These are legitimate questions - that I asked myself over and over again. I can only speak from my experience when I say I didn't choose, and I couldn't stop. I love my family dearly, and being a mom is the greatest joy in my life. Anyone who knows me will tell you I love those little bastards with all my heart and have since the day they were born. But being sick distorted my thoughts so much that I believed they would be better off without me. I believed they would be happier if I just let my addiction kill me. Let that one sink in. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around that now, but I've read those thoughts in my own words - scrawled in a journal I kept in the days immediately before and while I was in treatment. Those aren't rational thoughts. They're not the thoughts of someone who likes to drink to have a good time. I hated it, but I kept doing it. I had lost the power to choose and no longer cared if I lived or died. I thought my precious children, whom I love more than life, would be better off without a mother. I was sick.

But here's the worst part - I could have easily died in that moment. Withdrawal from alcohol is no joke. Google it. I did. Probably a thousand times. I could have died from my alcoholism in that moment or a ton of moments before, or since if I hadn't been lucky enough to get well. And if I died, maybe my family would have been too ashamed to let people know why. Maybe the majority of you would have blamed me for choosing to drink and die. Maybe my kids would have believed for the rest of their lives that they weren't enough to make me stop. And all of that breaks my heart.

I know life's not fair. Believe me, I tell my kids that very thing all the time. I can usually accept that and move on. But it makes me angry and sad to see what this disease takes from people. I hate to see my friends die without dignity, without compassion or understanding, and without the comfort of being surrounded by loved ones. I hate that the people left behind may blame their loved one for being sick, that they may blame themselves for not doing things differently, and that they may spend the rest of their lives wondering why they didn't matter enough to make their loved one stop. I hate the disease for destroying the lives of those who have it and those who love them, and I hate that it's so shrouded in shame and secrecy that it's hard to generate a better understanding of it by society as a whole. I think we do a good job of understanding each other within recovery communities, but the destruction caused by the disease goes so far beyond those walls. So should the discussion.   

Every time a friend passes, I know without a doubt that my story could have ended the same way. I am no different. I just got well before I died. I am so grateful to have been given a second chance to live. I just hope that sharing my experience may help some of you understand those who never get that second chance.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I Surrender

I mean that generally. I surrender. It's something I do now. For me, it was the first step into recovery and the hardest step - not to make, because it was the only place I had left to go by the time I got to my rock bottom, but to wrap my head around and embrace. Surrender and acceptance are certainly subjects that are frequently discussed in recovery circles and at meetings, and I'm sure they mean many different things to different people. I'm slowly learning to surrender as I understand it, and it's quickly improving the quality of my life. I suppose I once equated surrender with weakness, with giving up, but it's only through surrender that I've become stronger and able to move forward.

Surrender - it sounds so dramatic. But truly it is just a new way of thinking. I admit I am easily frustrated, and my frustration comes when reality doesn't quite live up to my expectations. Which happens. A lot. I have said before that I'm an all or nothing kind of girl. It's the way my brain is wired. If I have a new thing (let's say a couch) and someone (let's say one of my kids) gets a tiny smudge on it (let's say it's happened), my first instinct is, "Well, it's ruined!" But come on - ruined? We can still sit on it, which is the idea, and, truth be told, knowing my family, it won't be long before it's more smudge than couch anyway. That is the cold, hard reality, and I'm okay with it because I want my home to be comfortable, not pristine. I mean, cleanliness is nice, but sometimes life gets messy. Fighting it (with strict couch regulations?) mostly just makes everyone tense and unable to enjoy the couch. Life gets unexpectedly smudgy all the time, but I want to live my life around all the smudginess, not be paralyzed by it.

Surrender is accepting my lack of control over most things in my world, like when and where my kids are going to smudge up my shit. I walk through life with expectations, big and small, every day. When things don't go my way, and those expectations are shattered, I have two choices - accept it and adjust my expectations or fight it and try to force the world to fit my mold. There was a time when I chose to fight every unwinnable fight, which led to frustration and disappointment, which led to more and more drinking to numb the anger and resentments, which led to complete and utter exhaustion and defeat. In my struggle for control, I lost control of everything, and I lost my will to fight. When I finally surrendered, I felt more relieved than I ever had in my life. Aha!

I have often told people that going away to inpatient treatment was instrumental in jump-starting real recovery for me. From a 12-step perspective, I really had no problem for some time admitting to myself that I had no power over alcohol and that my life was unmanageable. That happened months earlier, when I first attempted outpatient treatment, and to a lesser degree for years before when I would try to quit drinking on my own. The sticking point was moving beyond that first step. In order to do that, I had to accept that help would come from a power greater than myself and then turn my will over to that power. Forget the angst I felt about defining that power (which I came to find out wasn't necessary for me), turning my will over to anything or anyone seemed impossible. Going to inpatient treatment forced my hand.

I'm going to admit something right now that I'm not very proud of, but what the hell. I was recently watching an episode of some Kardashians take over the world or some such nonsense. I know, I know, but I was working out, and it was on, and . . . look, don't judge me. Anyway, the episode revolved around a character's downward spiral into the depths of his addiction. It was so hauntingly familiar - the downplaying, the rationalizing, the spiraling out of control when the drinks started flowing, the trip to the emergency room, the fear, the shame and regret, followed by the inevitable waffling over how to deal with what has obviously become a problem. Bottom line - what I'm telling you is that the Kardashians brought me to tears, and not in the traditional Kardashian sense. It was actually relatable and reminded me just how difficult it was to surrender that first time.

The day I walked into the treatment center in Virginia, I certainly felt the magnitude of it. Ashby drove away, leaving me with strangers in unfamiliar surroundings with no means of transportation or real communication with the outside world. But the hardest part had actually been the days leading up to it - making the decision. To be sure, I was ready, but I still struggled. How could I walk away from my life for 28 whole days? How could I leave my job at a very busy time with no notice? How could I be away from my kids for so long - longer than I'd ever been away from them since they were born? How could I miss Mother's Day? Who was going to write the checks for our bills that month? Who was going to do my half of the chores? What about that race I was registered for? What in the world was I going to tell people about where I'd been when I came back? And those concerns all seemed so legit at the time, but I really only needed to ask myself one question: "Do I want to go away for 28 days now, or do I want to give up everything and go away forever?" It seems like a no-brainer, but going through all those questions, explaining it to the kids, actually saying goodbye and walking out the door, and a very surreal three-hour drive into the middle of nowhere, VA . . . it was a gut-wrenching experience that I can still feel to my core when I think about it today. And yet, somewhere in that decision-making process, I surrendered. I accepted that this was my best and maybe only chance to save everything that mattered to me, and with that realization a tremendous weight was lifted.

Over the next four weeks, I turned my will over in a very real way. I no longer had the illusion that I was in control. My daily routine was decided for me - I was told when to get up, when to eat, when to go to class, when to do chores, when to go to bed, and a whole bunch of other things I wasn't allowed to do. Maybe more importantly, life at home went on without me. Successfully. Work, home, kids - they all went on just fine without me. It was humbling and comforting at the same time and probably something I needed to see to believe - that it was possible to let go without losing. 

As many a control freak will tell you, the reason it's so hard to let go is the tremendous fear that our worlds will crumble if we're not micromanaging them. Going away to treatment gave me an opportunity not many have - to step completely outside of my world, observe that it can function and thrive without me, and then be allowed back in. I had solid proof that I wasn't that important. Knowing that I fully wasn't in control of anything outside of myself gave me the freedom to focus on what I had neglected for years - everything on the inside and how I connect with and relate to others in my life - the stuff that matters. This was the work that would make it more and more possible for me to surrender and accept the things I can't control.

Surrender happens on a daily basis - from my acceptance of my disease to dealing with smudges. That doesn't mean it's always easy. I still have the urge to fight it when things don't go my way. About a month ago, I realized I was having an issue with my achilles. It was stiff and achy in the mornings, and running seemed to irritate it. Although I've been fortunate not to have any serious injuries in the past, I have a history of denial and pushing through pain when something comes up. I fight it. I openly admit that I spent about a week pretending I wasn't feeling what I was feeling and continuing to run while aggressively willing the pain to go away. Surprise - it didn't work. During that week I felt an old, familiar feeling - the angst of fighting the inevitable, trying to control the uncontrollable. And when I finally admitted to my coach there was a problem and made an appointment with a doctor, I felt that familiar flood of relief. Surrender. Of course it's better to invest a small amount of time in rest and treatment now in order to prevent a more destructive problem later. Obviously. The fact that it only took me a week to get to obvious is major progress.  

I used to be so afraid of the whole concept of surrender. I thought it meant giving up, quitting, compromising myself, but that hasn't been my experience. It just means I can accept the messiness of life and stop struggling to seize control of it, and in that acceptance I find moments of peace and contentment. By surrendering, I haven't lost. Instead, I've gained more than I ever thought possible. 


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

To race or not to race?

"What are your plans for next year?" That question loomed large in my head back when I was feeling slumpy. Of course, in my circle of friends, that means, "What races are you planning to do next year?" I've been thinking about it for a while. I guess my first reaction was, maybe none? Yes, with a question mark. Then I figured that could have been the slump talking, so I sat with it for a while, and now I'm thinking, maybe none.

Racing over the last few years has been a great experience for me. I've accomplished some of the big things I always wanted to do but thought would take much longer - doing an Ironman (and another and another), qualifying for Boston, running Boston. Hello?! I thought I would have to at least reach senior citizen status to have a Boston qualifying time within reach. I've become a better and more efficient runner than I ever thought possible, and I'm not even being conceited. I just kind of thought I sucked. On occasion, someone will ask me how I've managed to improve as much as I have over the years. Really it's a multi-step plan. First, you have to start running and doing races, and then you have to keep it up, no matter what. Then (and this part is key) you have to be a raging alcoholic - like, genetically - and you have to pursue that into the depths of hell. On your slow return from rock bottom, channel all of your obsessive energy and early sobriety angst into your training. Boom - instantly improved running. But whatever, I guess some people aren't willing to work for their PRs. I like to go above and beyond. What can I say? Incidentally, it also helps significantly to get a coach, if possible, after sobering up to rein in your crazy. 

In all seriousness though, I never considered not running. Even in the darkest times, I ran. I ran hungover, I ran drunk, but I ran. The longest I went without was when I was in treatment, which was difficult. It struck me that a lot of people there had a strange assortment of personal items with them, having either packed in a rock bottom haze or had their things packed by a family member who wasn't greatly concerned if their loved one had matching outfits or underwear. I packed myself, and I didn't bring much, but I had running shoes and clothes . . . I'm just saying. I tried to run at first, but we weren't allowed to go outside of a one-block radius. A couple of times I ran around and around and around in circles until it added up to about 3 miles, but the block was so small it was dizzying, the confused staring made me feel awkward, and doing laundry was . . . problematic, so eventually I decided to give it up for the duration of my stay. 

When I got home from treatment, I couldn't wait to get back on my treadmill. My first day back, I ran, and it felt great. It was easy and comfortable. I felt strong and healthy. It wasn't because I was training for something or trying to get anywhere. It was running for the sake of running, for the joy of it, for how it made me feel in the moment. Getting home was great, seeing my family was great, but it was also all a bit scary and stifling, as human interaction can be. The eggshells we were all walking on took time to break down into a new comfort level. But when I laced up and started running that day, I felt free.

I had to decide where to go from there, and I wanted to go everywhere - so many races, so little time. I wanted to push myself to accomplish new challenges and new distances. I wanted to keep chasing and catching that feeling of freedom, to ease the discomfort of learning to live in recovery. I wanted to be the healthiest, fittest, sober-est person in recovery. Because I live in extremes. Since that time, the longest break I've taken from training is . . . not at all. Skipped workouts are not a thing that exists in my world - not even when I had shingles, and I promise you that was a shitty, shitty, painful mistake. And that's not dedication or badassedness or smart, frankly. It's a glaring character defect. Sometimes (a lot of the times) I have trouble recognizing when it's in my best interest to take it down a notch.

Three and a half years and a lot of races later, I'm back to the same question. Where do I go from here? What are my plans for next year? Over and over, I come back with the same answer. I've found myself too many times this year dragging ass out of bed on a long training day and asking myself, "Why am I doing this?" I don't need to do it for fitness. I don't need it to get the meditative and therapeutic benefits I get from running. Those things are critical to maintaining my wellness, but I can get all that from shorter workouts. Long days are about racing, and while I love racing, it's not something I feel compelled to do right now. There was a purpose in racing for me. I never felt like it was a waste of time. I like to set a goal and achieve it. I like to test and push my own limits. In my recovery, I've appreciated the motivation and structure and sense of accomplishment that training and racing has given me, but I feel like the time has come to take a step back. 

There have been reservations in my mind because I think in all or nothings. No racing? But there are so many other races I want to do; I might be able to get a little faster; I haven't even tried an ultra yet! But I'm guessing those races will still be out there in 2016, and some of them will even be willing to take my registration fee. In the meantime, I might get to sleep a little later on weekends, have more adventures with my family before my children realize I'm not cool, spend more time supporting my family and friends at their races, and even learn to be still and not do anything. And of course stepping back from racing doesn't mean I won't be running. I'll just be enjoying the journey for a while. The destination will sort itself out.