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.   

Thursday, October 23, 2014

My boy

My son is 10 years old. He's my first born, my boy, and he's a great kid. He's very much a little boy at times, but he's an old soul, with an emotional depth and maturity level that catches me off guard at times. Last week, he was officially diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome. Life was no different after the diagnosis than before - the symptoms he's experienced for years now were the same, and we weren't advised to do anything differently. The diagnosis was not at all unexpected. Still, it really, really bummed me out. Something about attaching a name to it made it real in a way it wasn't before, and who wants their child to have a syndrome? It sounds ominous, right?

It's not. We first noticed his tics in the summer before he started third grade, a little over two years ago. At first it was his eyes darting back and forth. It took a while before we realized it was involuntary, and he didn't know he was doing it, so we stopped yelling at him to cut it out. That's called good parenting. Eventually that one subsided, but he started making noises - little humming sounds, almost like he was clearing his throat. When that went away, it was the eyes again, sometimes darting, sometimes rolling, or it was some other little noise he was making. The frequency comes and goes. Some days it's not noticeable at all; some days it's fairly constant.

Tourette Syndrome is a spectrum disorder, and it appears that he is on the mild end of the spectrum. It is thought to be genetic, and interestingly, when we really started to think about it, it is entirely possible that my husband and I both have a parent or grandparent who may have had it. According to the doctor, many people are never diagnosed. An involuntary tic may just be seen as a habit, and some people do age out of it. 

I guess the bottom line is that it's not a big fucking deal. It doesn't affect his ability to do anything and everything he wants to do. It's just a thing about him that he can't change, and if there's one thing I learned from Dirty Dancing, it's that if you love someone, you have to love all the things about them. Actually, that is a lie. I learned nothing from Dirty Dancing. I just wanted an excuse to reference that scene so I could also reference this reenactment of the scene performed by Jerry Orbach and Conan O'Brien, which I enjoy immensely for some reason. RIP, Jerry.

So why was I so bummed out by the diagnosis that changed nothing and wasn't a big deal? Because I'm afraid. I don't want my child to be different in a way that will make things difficult for him. I don't want kids to make fun of him and give him a hard time and hurt his feelings. I'm laying my fears all over that poor kid. I had to stop and think about that. Do I want my children to strive for sameness? To fear anything that makes them stand out? Of course not. We're all different, and I always want my kids to feel free to be uniquely themselves. So, why should I be afraid of any part of who they are? Especially when they're not.

We've talked to him about the tics and about how people react to them at times. Before we took him to the neurologist, he told us if there was medication to take the tics away, he didn't want it. Because they are a part of who he is. He thinks of them as a superpower that helps him know who his real friends are. When people give him a hard time, he rationally explains to them that he can't help it, and that's just the way it is. He doesn't give it any power. He doesn't allow it to limit him. He participates enthusiastically in school, he runs for student council, he tries out for school musicals, he sings in the chorus, and he'll play any sport with anyone any time. He puts himself out there, unabashedly. He put the diagnosis in perspective long before we ever got it. That amazing 10-year-old kid. I only hope to be more like him when I grow up.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Socializing 101

I've been invited to several social-type functions lately, and I'm happy to say that I've handled them quite well. Not trying to brag, but that's big progress for me. No question, I'm still an awkward, uncomfortable introvert who feels physically and emotionally drained by social interaction, but it doesn't make me long for invisibility or make me want to hide in the bathroom to avoid talking to people any more. And yes, I actually hid in the bathroom for 15 minutes once at my own party - because making people wonder why I was in the bathroom for so long seemed preferable to interacting with the people I invited into my home - whaaat? Let's just say socializing is not my strong suit.  

It's fascinating what you learn from watching your own children. Earlier this year, when we were in Boston for the marathon, we took the kids to the hotel pool for a swim. My 10-year-old hit the hot tub, and when he returned, he told me about the nice man he met who was also from Raleigh and was also running the marathon. They'd had a nice chat during their soak. Then recently, when we were at a party at someone's house, he wandered off and struck up a conversation with one of my colleague's wives. Turns out she is a speech therapist at his school. She's never worked with him and didn't know him, but I guess he recognized her and introduced himself.

These incidents tell me at least two things: 1) Someone didn't get the stranger danger memo, so parenting fail on my part, and 2) Dammit, my 10-year-old son has better small talk and socializing skills with other grown ups than I do. Meanwhile, my 8-year-old clings to me or her dad, and when someone addresses her, she smiles like a weirdo, says nothing, and turns to us, desperately pleading with her eyes for someone to bail her out of this painfully uncomfortable situation. Now that, I can relate to.

I'm not really what you'd call a people person. In fact, my motto used to be "God, I hate people so much". It's not clever or catchy, but whatever - I was probably drunk when I thought of it. Turns out, I don't hate people. I even like a lot of people. What I claimed was disdain for everything and everyone was really fear. I feared other people because I didn't like myself, and hating them first meant I didn't have to care what they thought. But I did care. Obsessively so. I had this debilitating fear of being judged, so I pretended to be what other people wanted, and then I had this debilitating fear of being found out. Drinking, for a long time, was the only thing that eased my discomfort. It was definitely the only way I could imagine interacting with others in a social situation. But it also drove me further into hiding. My alcoholism became a big part of my secret identity - Superwoman by day, Superdrunk by night - until days and nights started to blur and everything fell apart. One of the scariest things about getting sober was realizing that I was going to have to get real, and fuuuuuck, what were people going to think of the real me? Certainly, socializing would never be an option again. Or so I thought.

And that is what I love about my recovery community. They made it possible for me to baby step into being me and to be able to sit comfortably with that, even in a room full of people. They stunned me by accepting me, even after I let down my walls. They  showed me love when I felt most unlovable. I've heard it said and believe it to be true that the more fucked up you are, the more the recovery community will embrace you. After a lifetime of putting my best, fake foot forward, I led with the worst I had to offer, and that's how I met some of the best, real friends I've ever had.

I think that's the real magic in recovery for me. That ability to connect and relate was stunted for me for most of my life - buried under fear, then numbed by alcohol. Recovery helped me start to dig out - made me believe I could have an interaction with another person without fearing judgment. There is a refreshing openness and honesty surrounding my friendships with people who are also in recovery, but that dynamic has translated to other relationships in my life. Turns out I can be real and honest with regular people too. Over time, it led me to be more forgiving and loving toward myself as well. I mean, there's some good stuff under all that dysfunction.

Is everyone going to like the real me? No, but that's okay. I don't like everyone I meet, sometimes for actual reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. That's life. There was a time when it was offensive to me if someone didn't like the facade I put up, because that was the sole purpose of the facade - to win approval - and that's all I had. Now I can appreciate the real relationships I have and not waste time and energy on the ones I don't. And if you don't like me, I still won't hate you, because what's the point?

And all of that makes socializing a hell of a lot easier than it used to be. Will I ever have the skills of my 10-year-old son? Sadly, probably not. I'm still going to stand awkwardly in a corner when I don't know anyone. There are still going to be awkward silences when I attempt small talk. I'm still going to laugh awkwardly at inappropriate things. Basically, I'm awkward. But I'm owning it, and I no longer feel so uncomfortable being me. Sometimes, I even thoroughly enjoy it - all without a drink in my hand.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Embracing a slump

I'm in a bit of a slump. Not in a specific area - in all areas. I'm unmotivated to train, unmotivated to work, unmotivated to socialize, unmotivated to get out of bed in the morning. I'm not talking depression-level unmotivated, but more like I'm seriously half-assing everything and feeling irritated that I can't get fired up about anything. It's been going on for a couple of weeks, and, to be honest, I'm pretty sick of it - that's right, I also have a bad attitude.

The thing is, slumps happen. Life's not all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.  Well, maybe if we're talking this guy: 

But that's okay, because I've learned in my recovery that I have to get real if I want contentment in my life. And real is flawed. I like to think that in recovering from my addiction, I am also making progress in recovering from a bad case of perfectionism. For me, the two go hand in hand. It was never about being perfect; it was about looking perfect from the outside. It was about hiding the truth and projecting a socially acceptable image. It was isolating, because however impressed people may have been with what I projected, it was never real, so I was never able to connect with others in any sort of authentic way.

When I was very new in recovery, I was able to identify some of my perfectionist tendencies and make changes. Mostly, it was the obvious stuff - like holidays. It had always been my policy to go big with holidays, which is sort of a no-brainer for an alcoholic. Holidays were a great excuse to drink excessively - even normal people do it. But also, creating the picture perfect holiday, in my mind, was what made it special and happy for my family. Looking back, I realize that it was more about making up for the fact that I wasn't really "there" and about literally getting the perfect picture so we could all look back and believe that these were the happiest times of our lives.

What I have since discovered is that I don't give a shit about getting the perfect picture. Pictures are nice, yes, but making a legitimately happy memory is infinitely more valuable, whether there is photographic evidence or not. After all, what am I trying to prove and to whom?

This year, for my kids' birthdays, I let them have the parties they wanted. They weren't fancy, and they weren't the parties I would have necessarily chosen myself, but we all had a genuinely good time. We completely forgot to get party favors for my son's birthday. Guess what? He didn't notice. He still had the time of his life playing laser tag, and bonus - the other kids' parents didn't have a bunch of useless crap to throw away later. My daughter's cake was . . . well, this:

A bit of a ninja turtle green mess, but she and I made it together, and that's the part we'll remember - the part we would have missed out on a few years ago, when I would have stayed up all night making the picture perfect party cake, alone and drunk. These parties were real, stuff went wrong, the kids loved them, we were all happy, and we didn't get a single picture that was worth a damn. 

So I've started to ask myself about other parts of my life. My work, my relationships, my recovery, my training . . . what do I really want out of these things, and am I working toward that, or am I still just going for the perfect picture? It's complicated and I think one of the reasons for this slump of late. The reason I'm trying to embrace the slump is that I think it's nothing more than a sign that I'm no longer fully satisfied by the status quo, and some type of change and growth is imminent. If I'm open and honest and willing to delve into it. Which is exciting but also scary, and scary makes me feel more . . . slumpy.

A slump tends to make me withdraw, and I have to be on my guard about that. When someone asks me how I'm doing, and I reply with "fine", it's not a deep and meaningful conversation, and it's also usually a lie. While this is perfectly acceptable with the majority of people I come across in my daily life, when I start saying that to my friends and family, one thing is certain: I'm not fine. That response is designed to keep people out and keep me isolated with my pain and discomfort, which is not a safe place for me to be.

On the up side, a slump is real. There are no highs in life without the lows, and there is no growth without sometimes difficult self-reflection and self-examination. So I'll embrace this one and use the tools I've come to rely on in my recovery to figure out what it's telling me. I'll talk to friends and family and relish those connections because they're where I find some measure of contentment, even in a slump. I'll tell on myself for feeling irritable and sad and frustrated, because negotiating what's in my head on my own is definitely the worst possible call. I'll keep moving forward, even if I'm not giving it 100% right now. And I'll do my best to be real, because the picture doesn't matter to me any more. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Leadville - an epic adventure with a twist of recovery

I try to limit my use of the word "epic" because it is so overused these days and more often than not in hyperbolic fashion. When my 10-year-old throws a football a considerable distance, categorizing it as epic is a bit of an overstatement. That being said, the experience I had recently traveling to Colorado and crewing for my husband, Ashby, at the Leadville Trail 100 Run truly was epic, in my opinion, and it was well worth the wait. For those of you who don't know, Ashby is not just a runner - he is an ultrarunner, which is a little bit crazy, and he just finished (on his third attempt) the Leadville Trail 100, which is a little bit crazy on a whole other level. You can read about the details of the race and his experience with it here

My job this year, as in the last two years, was to crew for Ashby during the race. In the past, I have done this alone or while toting two small children around with me (I'm still trying to figure out how/why we thought that was a good idea.) This year, I had friends along to help. My friend, Paige, agreed months ago to come along this year and help me crew. I'm not sure what possessed her to agree to such a thing. After all, she is not really interested in pursuing ultrarunning herself (although she is an athlete and runner), and there are no blood ties between her and Ashby that obligate her in any way to assist him in achieving his dreams. But that's Paige - always a supportive and generous friend - and I was looking forward to the experience so much more getting to share it with her. Ashby and I have traveled to Leadville together the last two years, but it's a 30-hour race, where the plan involves seeing him seven times along the way for a few minutes at a time. Crewing is a lonely business when you're a crew of one.

Our third crew member was Karl, a friend from Raleigh, who also planned to pace Ashby for most of the second half of the race. Karl is the husband of one of my colleagues, and I hadn't actually spent a lof of time with him before. Karl came into the mix sort of at the last minute. He has only recently gotten into ultrarunning and has become one of Ashby's more adventurous training partners. He had some personal interest in experiencing Leadville first hand, but it was still remarkably generous for him to take time out of his life and away from his family to fly out to Leadville for the weekend. He was all about being there for Ashby and attending to whatever need he had, and I think he made a world of difference in helping Ashby get to the finish line comfortably. 

To elaborate on the crazy, running a race at altitude requires months of preparation  - weird preparation, like sleeping in a hypoxic tent or, in the alternative, sleeping in a mask attached to a compressor that has the same effect. Also, training with a mask on to limit the amount of oxygen you get during strenuous exercise. Basically, there's a lot of mask-wearing. When you hear your 8-year-old daughter's friend ask, "Why does your dad sleep with that thing on his face?" you suddenly realize that possibly this whole thing has gotten out of control. However, that is the level of dedication Ashby has had when it comes to Leadville. It's been a life lesson for the whole family on how to deal with failure; how to accept it with grace; how to learn and grow from it; and how to persevere and conquer the things you fear the most. Our whole family had to come together and support this effort, and we all did what we had to do to make this happen. We hoped anyway. The first time, we were naive, and then we felt defeated. The second time, we thought we actually knew stuff, so we took steps to prepare appropriately, and then we felt defeated. Now, the third time, I wanted to believe it would happen - that the new preparation had been enough - but I would be lying if I said I felt sure. Nevertheless, I had a lot of hope.  

Ashby had driven to Leadville a week early to acclimate, and Karl had joined him on the Thursday before the race. Paige and I were flying out Friday morning, and I would drive back with Ashby after the race. As a person relatively early in my recovery, travel has been an interesting way for me to observe my progress. I remember the first time I traveled after getting out of treatment. It struck me that my entire approach was different. I didn't choose hotels based on whether they had bars nearby or minibars in the rooms. I didn't have to plan activities around my drinking schedule or make sure activities included alcohol (because before I could see no point of doing an activity if there was no alcohol involved.) When I was drinking, the whole idea of traveling filled me with angst because it messed up my routine. I wouldn't have my regular stores, my regular stash, my regular hiding places. Travel was a burden. The world is vast, but my world was microscopic. Wherever I was in the world, I was still trapped in the same ugly place. There was no freedom from my obsession with alcohol. In very early sobriety, travel continued to make me quite nervous. Being outside of my comfort zone - away from my regular meetings, out of touch with my support network, and out of my predictable routine - felt dangerous and threatening to my recovery. Over time, I have grown to love it, and I've found that I feel safe as long as I'm in a good place with my recovery. I can be present and experience it, and my world has become infinitely bigger and more beautiful. It's very illustrative of the freedom I've been given in recovery. 

Nevertheless, I am still very much a creature of habit, and I knew that this particular trip was going to take me outside of all of my comfort zones. I'm terrified of flying; I would have to fly there on two different planes. I hate being cold; night time in Leadville was going to be around 40 degrees in August, and I strongly feel that 80 degrees in August is a little on the chilly side. I hate not being able to work out; I was off my training routine for what ended up being five days - the horror. I enjoy my sleep; over the course of the five day/four night trip, we only got one real night of sleep. I have no patience and hate waiting; this trip mostly involved waiting on stuff. I hate being in the car; this trip mostly involved being in the car. I hate using public bathrooms and/or using the woods as a bathroom; I think you can see where I'm going with this . . . They tell you in recovery to beware of finding yourself hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and this trip was likely going to entail a little (or a lot) of each.

Paige and I arrived in Denver around 1:00 in the afternoon on Friday. Karl picked us up and drove us the two hours (actually more like three because of construction traffic) to Leadville where Ashby was attending pre-race meetings. I watched the outside temperature reading on the inside of the car on the drive. It went from 90s in Denver to 40s and back up to the 70s over the course of the drive. WTF? It was just the beginning of the temperature fluctuations we would experience over the next 48 hours. Leadville temperatures would get up into the 70s in the afternoon and as low as 38 during the night, and for some reason 70 degrees in Leadville with clouds feels chilly but without clouds feels like you might burst into flames. Another atmospheric note - the altitude in Leadville is no joke, people. There were times just walking up a slight incline made me stop to catch my breath, and I had a raging headache within a few hours of arriving that didn't go away ever . . . well, until I got back to 5,000 feet in Denver. That being said, the scenery in and around Leadville is breathtaking, and the weather for the weekend was actually probably about as good as it gets for that race. The skies were bright blue and beautiful, it didn't rain, and the temperatures were mostly comfortable with proper layering and unlayering. 

After driving to Leadville, we collected Ashby and drove another 30-40 minutes or so to Buena Vista, where we had reserved a small two-bedroom cabin until Sunday at noon. Although it was 30-40 minutes from the start/finish, it was only about 15-20 mins from the aid station we would be at twice on either side of the midpoint of the race, so it was a pretty good location for a home base. The cabin was not fancy, but it was comfortable. I'd rather not discuss the bathroom. Suffice to say, after my first shower before the race, I opted to forgo showering for the rest of the weekend, and after I stepped in leaking toilet water in my socks, I opted to wear shoes inside for the rest of the weekend.

By the time we were settled, it was time to eat dinner, have a quick crew meeting to go over our race plan, and then go to bed for a few hours. We got up at 2:00 a.m. and hit the road a little before 3:00. Race start was 4:00. I tried to get a sense of how Ashby was feeling, but he didn't say much. I just felt a calmness from him that he didn't have the last two years. I didn't think it was necessarily a confidence that he would finish but rather an acceptance of whatever happened. What he was really feeling, I have no idea, but that's what I imagined.  Meanwhile, I was a bundle of nerves. There is something even more nervewracking about the start of a big race when you're invested but not the one doing it - being left behind to wait and imagine the thousands of things that could go right or wrong out there. And in this race, with those conditions, I do believe there are that many variables. We watched him run off into the night and then shuffled off to the van to drive to Mayqueen, the first aid station we had planned to crew at mile 13.5.

One of the challenges of crewing is trying to figure out how long you want to sit outside and wait. Ashby had provided us with goal time windows for arriving at particular spots, but anything can happen, and you certainly don't want to miss your runner. On the other hand, the car is cozy and warm when the sun's not up and it's 40 degrees outside. Mayqueen also seemed to be the coldest spot on the course, at least from a crew/spectator perspective, so I didn't want to hang around outside any longer than we had to. Parking at Mayqueen is along the road, so we had to walk about a half mile from the car to the aid station. Karl went ahead as soon as we parked. Paige and I stayed a while longer, I ate my second breakfast (because altitude apparently also makes me hungry all the time, even more than I'm already hungry all the time), then we packed our backpacks with crewing necessities and hoofed it in. After waiting about an hour and seeing the sun come up, Ashby came through around 6:30 a.m. He looked good and was in good spirits. We took care of his needs, and off he went. Of course, it was too early to know how things were really going, and I tried not to read too much into anything or make any predictions. He was on the outside of his time goal for that aid station, but I knew the first section had a lot of single-track where passing was difficult, so pace would largely be determined by the crowd. I also knew that it was wise to be conservative at the beginning of such a crazy hard course. We all had a long way to go.

Crewing involves a lot of waiting and watching, watching and waiting, and then more waiting. Finally, you see your runner, and then you have a few minutes of frantic activity, during which you try to assess and gather as much information as possible on how the race is going at that point in time. I tried hard not to overwhelm Ashby with questions, because I know he doesn't deal well with chaos. I generally tried to gauge how he was feeling, how his heartrate was, and whether he was taking in (and keeping in) his nutrition. When we were waiting, I would feel all this anxiety, wondering whether he would come dragging in feeling terrible, hoping he wouldn't say he wasn't eating or, worse, that he'd thrown up. I was desperate for information. After he ran off, there was a sense of relief that I knew where he was and how he was doing, but I was always left with a head full of questions I wished I'd thought to ask. 

When Ashby left Mayqueen, we scooped up discarded items, trash, empty bottles, etc., loaded up our backpacks, hiked back to the van, and made our way to the next aid station, Outward Bound, at mile 24.5. This was the best aid station for parking because it was set up in a field rather than along the side of the road. Visibility was good - you could see the aid station from the car, and you could see the runners coming in from quite a distance. We made fresh bottles, loaded up our gear, and walked in and set up shop. It was mid-morning, and it was starting to warm up and get comfortable. We ran into a friend and chatted for a while. Before long, Ashby came in still looking good but needing to do some blister repair on his feet. It worried me that he had blisters this early on, but he didn't seem all that concerned. Otherwise, he reported that he was feeling strong, his heartrate was on target, and things were going well. It was about to get warm, so he changed into his warm weather gear, we sprayed him down with sunscreen and replenished his nutrition, and he was off again. 

The next stop was Twin Lakes at mile 39.5. The parking again was on the roadside, so we parked, made bottles, loaded up our gear, and hiked in to the aid station. The sun had gotten hot, and all of the shady spots were taken, so we set up in the blazing sun and waited. I was a little nervous about the heat because I know that Ashby traditionally has a hard time with heat, even when he's not climbing mountains at 10,000-12,000 feet. The last two years, he wasn't all that chipper coming through this aid station, which was the last place I saw him before he missed the cut off at the halfway point. This year he blew through shortly after noon looking strong and reporting that things were still going well. No blister complaints. Whew. I wished him luck and told him we would be in the same spot when he came back through at mile 60.5. That would be the next time we would see him, and it would be a while. He had almost 6 hours (6:00 p.m. was the cutoff at the halfway point) to go 10.5 miles. Seems like it should be doable, but it's no ordinary 10.5 miles. This section had been the end of the line in the past, and I was incredibly nervous for him as he set out to tackle Hope Pass.

With several hours to kill, Karl, Paige, and I hiked back to the van and headed back to the cabin to take a break. Karl was planning to pace Ashby for the rest of the race after his return to Twin Lakes, so we tried to get him to rest. Paige and I went out and got some lunch and a few forgotten but necessary supplies like hand sanitizer and paper towels and a Snickers ice cream bar. I tried to take a nap back at the cabin, but I was too nervous to get to sleep. I knew if Ashby made it back to Twin Lakes and felt okay, he would have this in the bag, and the waiting and not knowing was killing me. Finally, it was time to load up and head back to Twin Lakes. It was starting to cool down by the time we parked and hiked back in to the aid station. We arrived and set up in the same spot and waited. We ran into friends again who reported that they had seen Ashby at the halfway point around 4:30, and he looked great. I was excited and cautiously optimistic. The time cut off back at Twin Lakes was 9:45 (or so we thought - turns out they pushed it to 10:00, but none of us knew.) As it got later and later, I got more and more nervous. Karl had wandered up the trail to find Ashby on the course, and he finally came back around 9:30 to announce that Ashby was on his way. However we were on the wrong side of the aid station, where Ashby had to check in before 9:45. Since he didn't want to risk stopping before check in, and he didn't want to check in and then backtrack to where we were set up, we frantically grabbed everything we could and moved it down the road to an area right outside the aid station. Ashby came in looking a little worse for wear. He was still in good spirits but said that he had a rough stretch where he had felt sick and thrown up, and that had significantly slowed him down. This was not good news. I was very nervous to hear he'd thrown up. I knew he needed to rebound from that soon and start taking in nutrition or things could really go downhill. He didn't want to drink his food bottle as scheduled, but Karl promised to carry it with him and make Ashby drink it as they moved. I felt helpless to do anything to make him feel better, so we got him into his cold weather gear, changed out his water and nutrition, and sent him on his way. Paige and I cleaned up, packed up, and headed back to the car. We were headed back to Outward Bound next, but it would be a longer break than last time since Ashby was moving slower, and we were close enough to the cabin to head back for another respite.

Back at the cabin, it was dark and deserted and creepy. We were seriously out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and nothingness and really dark darkness. Paige and I began to entertain every worst case double murder scenario imaginable. I was also antsy times a thousand wondering how Ashby was doing. We had planned to head back to Outward Bound (mile 75.5) around 1:30, but I was able to pull up the tracker on the Leadville website and see that they were making quicker progress than I thought. I was sort of relieved to pack up early and get the hell out of that cabin/potential crime scene, but I was even more excited at the thought that things were going well out on the course. On our way back to Outward Bound, in the wee hours of the morning, after not sleeping for almost 24 hours, it became glaringly obvious why not painting lines to divide the lanes on your 55 mph, two-lane highway is a bad idea. It messes with your head in a serious way, and we did not enjoy it. Nevertheless, we arrived in one piece and hauled our packs out to the aid station and waited a very short time before Karl and Ashby popped out of the darkness just after 2:00 a.m. Ashby looked great - strong and relaxed. He took a short rest, got his things, and went on, and that was the moment I knew. He was going to finish.  

We met him again at Mayqueen (mile 86.5) at 5:45 and one final crew access point where there was no aid station (mile 93) shortly after 7:00. He looked strong but obviously tired at both. He didn't need much from us; he just wanted to be done. I know him well enough to know what motivates him, so I tried to offer words of encouragement. Crazily, he seemed to be picking up his pace. Each time he surprised us by arriving earlier than expected. At the last stop, I was just starting a sandwich when he rolled up. I thought I had time. I mean, how about a little consideration for me, right? I put down the sandwich and went to see if he needed anything. I told him he had plenty of time. He called me a liar and ran away. Whatever, I figured he was probably just losing it. I know I was - from 29 hours of no sleep and not just running 93 miles.

At this point, our crewing duties were done. All that was left was to head to the finish and wait. Our waiting skills were pretty honed by now. We parked the car in downtown Leadville and walked about 3/4 of a mile out from the finish line to meet Ashby and Karl on their way in. For the last few hours, every time I thought about the moment he would see the finish line, I could feel my throat tighten and tears stinging my eyes. It caught me off guard, and I would quickly think about something else. When he came into view, and it was really happening, I didn't even try not to cry. I had experienced the agony of defeat along side Ashby for the last two years, and I truly got to experience the thrill of victory with him on that stretch of 6th Street. It was the culmination of three years of training, planning, attempting, failing, doubting, fearing, regrouping, overcoming, and ultimately achieving a goal that seemed nearly impossible to achieve at times and that most sane people would have abandoned long ago. I've never known him to want something so badly that was so hard to get, but it was never in him to give up. I could see all of that in his eyes as I took his hand and we walked toward the elusive Leadville finish line. At the end of the road, I peeled off and watched him cross, looking almost as fresh as he had 29 hours ago when he crossed the start in the same spot, however the hell that's possible.

You would think this would be the time to go relax, shower, maybe eat, and get some sleep, but we actually went the opposite way. It was shortly after 9:00 a.m. on Sunday when Ashby finished. After that, we got back in the car for the 30-minute drive back to the cabin in Buena Vista, where we had to clean up, load everything into the van, and check out. Then we got something to eat and drove back to Leadville, where they had the post-race awards ceremony at noon. This is maybe the only time I was actually cranky on the trip, but only because they chose to have a ceremony with time-consuming award-presenting and speech-making two hours after the end of a 30-hour race in a crowded, hot, stuffy gymnasium, making smelly runners and crews (some with raging altitude headaches) who had been awake for 32+ hours wait until the end for them to give out the fucking belt buckles. I'm not saying crankiness was the best approach in this situation. I felt bad putting a damper on Ashby's buckle excitement. I'm just saying . . .   

Belt buckle in hand, we then had to go back to the race store to pick up Ashby's personalized jacket. This race gives really nice swag, but they do make you work for it, even after you already worked your ass off for it. While Ashby and Karl hit the store and Paige collected Ashby's drop bag, I downed more headache powder and booked a hotel room near the Denver airport. Karl and Paige were flying out around midnight that night, and Ashby and I had no real plan except that we were going to drive back to Raleigh. With a room near the airport, I figured we could all sleep until they had to catch their flight, and then Ashby and I could sleep until morning and hit the road. There was one small hitch in the plan - the 3 hours worth of mountainous highway separating us from our hotel room. We had to make a decision about who among us was least likely to fall asleep behind the wheel. Although Ashby was obviously the most physically exhausted, he was also wired from all of the recent dream-achieving, so he took the wheel. Until he couldn't, and then Paige took over, and eventually we straggled into a Hyatt where sweet, sweet sleep would soon come. After pizza. Only after pizza. Later that night, we said farewell to half the team, as Paige and Karl headed off to catch a shuttle to the airport, and early Monday morning Ashby and I embarked on our 28-hour journey home. That's right. 28 hours. Straight through. Because why not?

Side note on driving 28 hours straight from Colorado to North Carolina - don't. There was a moment around 3:00 in the morning when I was driving through Indiana or Ohio or one of those states that starts with a vowel, when it was dark and the fog was so thick I couldn't see more than a few feet in front of the car, and for the third time in the last four nights I found myself behind the wheel of a minivan at 3:00 in the morning, and I might have started to hallucinate a little, and suddenly that illusion of control I have when I'm driving went completely out the window, and I actually thought, "I'd rather be flying." So you know it's bad.

Obviously though, we made it back home alive and well, and I've done a bit of reflecting on the whole thing since. What it comes down to is that I'm grateful for the once in a lifetime experience and for what it showed me about my life. The race itself was amazing to watch, as always, and crewing is a fun and rewarding thing to do. It is mind-boggling how difficult the course is, and being there to see the runners at various stages, at their highest highs and lowest lows, is a profoundly human experience. Getting to see someone I love cross the finish line after working so hard to get there was pure joy. I'm grateful to have been a part of it.

I'm grateful to be where I am in my recovery, which gives me the freedom to experience this kind of adventure and be present and appreciate the magic in it rather than focusing on my own discomfort. I was cold, I was tired, I was hungry all the time, I had a headache that wouldn't quit, and any one of these things would have been something that ruined everything for me once upon a time. When I was in active alcoholism, these things all would have been reasons to drink. A lot. I would have obsessed about finding alcohol. When I was in very early recovery, I would have obsessed about avoiding alcohol. Now, I don't have to think about alcohol at all. I have a network of friends in recovery to lean on who are not out of touch even when I'm far away, and I have tools to deal with situations as they happen. I'm so grateful for my freedom in recovery.

I'm grateful for the relationships I have in my life. Ashby and I have both been overwhelmed by the support he's received from family and friends during this endeavor. A lot of people reached out to wish him well, encourage him, and congratulate him. We are so fortunate to have family who support us and watch our kids while we're off gallivanting across the country achieving personal goals. We are so fortunate to have kids who are such cool little people that we can't wait to get home to see them - so much so that we're willing to drive 28 hours straight to get home. And then to have friends who go above and beyond and take time out of their own lives to drive and/or fly across the country to participate in our personal adventures . . . well, we have been gifted with remarkable people in our lives, and I'm grateful for that.

Speaking of, shout out to Paige, who has been one of my closest friends for many, many years. We've known each other since junior high school, and we've had plenty of adventures together over the years. We chat nearly every day and share our fears and flaws along with the mundane details of our lives. We can talk about anything or be comfortable in silence. She has been a huge supporter in my recovery, and we share a lot of interests and views on life. Even knowing that this trip wouldn't be the most "fun" all the time, she jumped right on board and crewed her heart out. I never had to get past the halfway point of the race on my own before, and now I'm so glad I didn't have to, because the difficulty level increases exponentially when the sun goes down Saturday night. I figure she at least cut in half my chances of driving off a cliff or getting murdered in the middle of nowhere, and she made it a lot more fun. One of my favorite memories was the second time we were at Mayqueen. It was around 5:00 a.m. It was cold and dark, and Paige and I were each wrapped in blankets, sitting in camp chairs under a very starry sky. I was tired and delirious, nestled in the hood of my down jacket. We were chatting and people-watching and waiting. My voice was starting to fade and crack, and Paige said, "Tell me a story."  And I thought to myself, this is real friendship. I'm grateful for that.

FInally, I'm grateful to be married to Ashby, who I've said before is an amazing person. There's no need to go into all the reasons why here, although he's going to wish that I had. Yes, I know him well enough to know that the man loves compliments. It's not because he finished Leadville, although I truly admire the dedication it took for that to happen. But what I learned about our relationship on this trip was that, even after a 30-hour race that took a lot out of both of us, we looked forward to spending 28 hours together in a car because we like each other. And we actually had fun spending 28 hours together in a car, even though we probably came pretty close to dying a few times. That is saying something, and I'm grateful for that.

So, after a week of assessing, that's how Leadville 2014 shakes out for me. Long story short, it was epic.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rolling with it

I've not been super bloggy lately (yes, I know that's not a word), but those who know me know that this is because of my job. I work as part of the central, non-partisan staff at the NC Legislature, and this is a particularly busy time because the Legislature is in session. The last several weeks have been challenging to say the least, and this week has been the final push that's maybe pushing us all a little over the edge. The last days are a weird time – after weeks of long, intense days and late nights, there are periods of frantic activity punctuated by sometimes endlessly long periods of waiting. It's nearly impossible for me to actually be productive in those periods of down time because my brain is only semi-functional, and I feel the need to save its remaining functionality for whatever may be coming. Obviously, I thought this is the perfect time to write a blog post. What could possibly go wrong?  

My job involves a certain level of personal sacrifice. Frankly, it's pretty hard on my whole family. For at least part of the year, my hours here are wildly unpredictable. We fill whatever need, at whatever time, in whatever capacity, that we're called to fill. It's been almost fourteen years, and my husband still asks me in the morning what my day looks like and when I'll be home. Invariably the answer is, "I don't know." I truly don't know. Ever. For a control freak, that is a tough pill to swallow. And I spent a lot of years swallowing a lot of drinks at the end of every day in a failed attempt to manage my feelings about my inability to control things in my professional life. Ultimately though, I've found that dealing with it is like dealing with anything else. You kind of just have to roll with it.

This week has been frustrating, exhausting, and at times upsetting – like when my kids called me at bedtime (more than once), crying and begging me to come home - ouch. The last week is always the worst, but it's like this to varying degrees all session, which means Ray family life is divided into two categories – session life and interim life. Session life kind of sucks, you guys. Don't get me wrong. It's not nearly as bad as active alcoholic trying to manage session life, but still . . . The bottom line is, I can't commit to anything 100% during session, which would be one thing if that was a defined period of time, but it's not. In North Carolina, we have no session limits. They get done when they get done, which invariably ends up being the worst possible timing. Case in point – last year they adjourned on the Friday in July that my daughter was having her 7th birthday party, which was a sleepover. We also took the kids out to a movie that night. Try doing that on little to no sleep for days in advance. On second thought, don't. Just trust me that it's way less than ideal.

This year, this weekend marks the end of session and my 25th high school reunion. I planned to go. I was going to drive to West Virginia with one of my best friends today and come home on Sunday. I was excited to see old friends. We both were. That's why we planned it – months ago – when I felt certain that session would be over and I would be well-rested by now. At the beginning of the week, I held out hope that at least the things I was working on would wrap up in time for me to go. As the week dragged on, I realized there was no way that was going to happen, and I had to cancel the trip. Even if I wasn't going to actually be working today, the amount of rest I've gotten in the last week, plus a 6-hour drive to get there, would have left me worse off than I was 5 years ago at the 20th reunion when I was incoherent and/or unconscious for entirely different reasons . . .

I won't say I wasn't disappointed. I agonized over the decision for a while. I didn't want to let my friends down because I'd committed to going, but I didn't want to let my colleagues down because we're all fairly beaten down at this point. Ultimately, I felt the only option was to cancel. Years ago, I would have been angry. And hostile. And bitter. And completely unable to put the situation into any sort of perspective. My game plan would have been to take the next opportunity to get drunk and rage about it. I absolutely could not roll with it. These are the times I am so appreciative of my recovery and the ability it's given me to see things in a different light – to see other possibilities besides the Costanza-esque view that maybe the WHOLE UNIVERSE IS AGAINST ME.

This weekend was going to be the first time I would have hung out in a bar since I've been in recovery. I've been around people who were drinking, and it's not really something that bothers me, but I haven't been in that type of setting or around anyone who was actually drunk. I've spent some time thinking about that and talking about it – with friends in recovery and out. I've thought about my safety net and my "escape plan" if I were to feel uncomfortable. I tried to check and double-check my motives and intentions. In the end, I felt I would have been safe. But maybe - just maybe - the universe was trying to tell me something. I'm still bummed I'm missing out on the opportunity to connect with old friends, but maybe things happened the way they were supposed to. Maybe I'm exactly where I need to be right now. Maybe I just got screwed. Either way, I'm rolling with it.     

Friday, July 4, 2014

Mommy, will I be an alcoholic when I grow up?

I was driving the kids home from school one day when my 7-year-old daughter posed that question from the back seat. "I'm just like you, so does that mean I'll be an alcoholic when I grow up?" I was a little caught off guard (because that is SO not what we were talking about), but my unfiltered response in the moment was, "Maybe." It's certainly not the first time I've thought about it. Ever since my children were born, I've wondered what the future holds for them. Maybe more than others who haven't struggled with addiction, I've wondered what their relationship with drugs and alcohol will be. I can't predict whether they will struggle with addiction in their lifetimes any more than I can predict any other difficulties they may face. Still the answer fell with a thud in the car, and my stomach flip-flopped a little. Nowhere is powerlessness more overwhelming than in parenting because we so desperately want only good things to happen to our children. Once again, I had to accept the unknown.

When I first got into recovery, my kids were 4 and 6 years old. They didn't really know or understand what alcohol was, much less alcoholism. I don't think we had any idea how to talk to them about it, so we told them only what they needed to know about where Mommy was. Mommy wasn't well, so she went away to see some doctors and get better. Later, Mommy had to go out to meetings every day to stay healthy. They accepted that. They wanted me to be well, and as long as they knew generally what was going on, they didn't ask for additional information. I knew the day would come when they would want more, and I knew that I wanted to be completely open about it with them. But what do I tell them? How do I explain what alcoholism is when I'm not sure I understand it fully myself? What do I tell them about my own experience? How much do I tell them and how soon?

I heard the best story at a meeting recently. A man who had been in treatment had been away from his young daughter for several months. When he returned home, he went to the school where she attended kindergarten because he was anxious to see her. The kids were at recess, so he went out to find her on the playground. The teachers were all lined up on the edge of the playground watching when his daughter spotted him and ran over to greet him. She hugged him and told him how happy she was to see him and then turned to the teachers and said with a smile, "My daddy is an alcoholic!" Is there anything better than the innocence of a child? She attached no judgment to the word, no shame. It was just another thing that was part of her world. And that's how I try to operate with my children. Recovery is part of our lives. It's a way to maintain wellness, and there's no shame in that. I exercise almost every day and eat right to maintain my wellness as well, and I've never felt compelled to shroud that in secrecy. 

So we talk about addiction and recovery, and we talk about the fact that Mommy is an alcoholic, and we talk about what all of that means to our family. Still, the question – Am I going to be an alcoholic? – seemed to be the first time one of the kids thought about what would happen if they drink, not what would happen if I do. The frightening truth of it is that I don't know. There's no test I can give them to find out if they are or will be alcoholics. I don't even know what I think about my own alcoholism. Was I born that way? Did I become one over time? Was there a point of no return, and what was it? When did I really know? I don't know. Our lives are full of unknowns. I've almost learned to deal with my own. I try very hard to stay in the present, not to fret over the future or obsess over the past. But of course I want to make all of my kids' unknowns less threatening and scary. I can't. I can't stop them from experiencing life, and they will be faced with things I probably never imagined when I was growing up. Their decisions will be harder. The world is a much scarier place. There is just more of everything. All I can do is be honest and arm them with information, be open to what they have to say and what they want to share, and let them know they have a safe place to land where they are loved. The rest is out of my hands.

I look at my daughter and see myself in her. I watch her on the playground, spinning until she makes herself dizzy, running and flailing wildly, and I think she has the same desire I always had to be out of control and lose touch with reality – to be fuzzy and dizzy and numb. I see her throw raging tantrums when she feels she's been wronged, and I think she has the same heightened sense of outrage I always had at injustice along with a warped sense of how that applies to her privileged life. I see her dedication and determination in school aside a wild, rebellious streak evidenced by her funky sense of style, and I think she has the same desire I had to people please and be praised but a slightly darker side that wants to get away with things and doesn't give a shit. But ultimately I have to remember that she is not me. She's her own person, and she is not destined to follow in any of my footsteps. Just as I can't not worry about my son simply because he is so much like his opposite-of-an-alcoholic father in his approach to life.

At the beginning of my recovery, I hadn't gotten a grip on my obsessive desire to know and control outcomes – that terrible impatience at waiting for things I wanted resolved right now. I wanted recovery immediately, whatever that was, I wanted my family to be better and happy, I wanted to know for certain that I would be the guy picking up a 20-year chip in 20 years. It took a while to learn that part of my recovery is accepting that none of that is guaranteed and none of it happens right now. Everything is a process, and outcomes are unknowable. So too, with my children, I have to accept that I don't know where life will take them.

I know as they get older, the discussion will get more complicated. Knowing what I know now about addiction, I would choose for them never to drink. But it's not my choice. I wish telling them what I know would be enough to make them make that choice for themselves, but I know that's not necessarily the case. I don't know if there's anything anyone could have told me when I started drinking as a teenager, or even as my drinking progressed in my 20s, that would have altered my choices. I know at some point along the way, I lost the ability to choose. I know it's a possibility that my children will someday find themselves in the same devastating, debilitating position. If that happens, I'll be there to share what has worked and not worked for me and help them find their way, just as I will be for any other situation they're faced with in this life.

I have a deep appreciation for the honesty and openness with which my children discuss my recovery. Like the little girl in the story, they attach no judgment or shame to it. One day, I was giving Ashby a hard time about his candy habit, and he made a comment (jokingly, because that's how we roll) about how it was like me with alcohol – if you put candy in front of him, he's going to eat it. My son was quick to interject, "That's not true.  If you put alcohol in front of Mommy, she wouldn't drink it now because she's better, and she knows it's not healthy for her." His understanding almost brought tears to my eyes. Another day, we were in a restaurant and ran into friends. We were discussing going to Pickles. When someone asked what that was, my son said (loudly and matter of factly), "Pickles in the Park – it's an AA meeting." Because that's what it is, and that's how I live, and that's cool with him.

So . . . maybe. "Maybe you will be an alcoholic like me when you grow up. With our family history, you should be aware of what that means so you can make informed decisions about whether you want to drink alcohol at all. You may want to because your friends do it, and it looks fun, or you may genuinely like the taste. There's nothing wrong with drinking alcohol when you reach an appropriate age. It's just bad for some people, like Mommy. It makes me very sick, so I can't drink it anymore, and I have to do things, like go to meetings, to make sure I stay healthy and don't drink anymore." Their sweet responses from the back seat – "I don't ever want to drink alcohol anyway!" If only . . .

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Someone to watch over me

Today is the birthday of a dear, dear friend. I met him the first day I was in treatment, and I knew right away that we were soul mates. I believe that each of us has numerous potential soul mates. They are not always (or even mostly) romantic partners but just people in our lives that we connect with on a soul level. This young man befriended me when I so desperately needed to connect with someone who understood what I was going through. He reached out to me because he could see that I was in pain, and he knew that pain in his own life all too well. We talked about all kinds of things, some heavy, some not. I cried about how homesick I was already, and he hugged me. I had never needed a hug more than I did in that moment, and there was something about it that was so genuine and pure, because all we both really wanted was to get better, and we understood that about each other instantly. We became fast friends, and we shared so much over the next few weeks – deepest regrets, fears, goals, hopes, dreams, and laughs. He had a way of making me laugh, even when everything in me wanted to cry. Going to treatment and starting my journey in recovery was a monumentally life-changing experience, and he will forever be a part of that in my mind and in my heart.  

It's hard to explain what his friendship has meant – how deeply important it is to me and how much I rely on it still. I suppose the attachment I feel would seem odd to some. We met at very different times in our lives. I was nearly 40, he was 23; I was from NC, he was from NY; I had a family and an established career, he was just out of school and undecided on careers but had aspirations of making a return to drumming in a band; I was a middle-aged mom, he was young and hip (or whatever the kids call it these days). The substances that got us there were different, but we were both addicts, and we got each other. The worst of circumstances brought us together, but we got to know the best parts of each other in treatment because our walls and defenses were down. In our adult lives, we rarely have the luxury of really getting to know someone on more than a superficial level. Life is too busy to connect with our own feelings and emotions on a daily basis, much less somebody else's. In social situations, we're usually too busy putting our best foot forward to actually be real. In treatment, we were cut off from outside distractions. Our minds were clearing from a toxic haze. Emotions were new and raw. We led with our worst and put it all on the table, stripped everything away until we just were who we were on a basic level, and the love and friendship that came from that was unlike any other I've experienced. It was special.

I'm not exaggerating when I say I don't know how I would have gotten through that time without him. He ended up leaving a week before I did, and I felt tremendously sad to be left behind ("irrationally upset" is how I described it in my journal). His last day was a Saturday. I will forever be grateful to Ashby for readily agreeing to visit on Sunday that week, knowing how important it was to me to spend that last day together. The next day, I had Ashby take me out to buy a disposable phone so I could text him because I couldn't stand the thought of not being connected. He was my life line. In fact, it was the only rule I broke while I was there. I kept the phone with me all day and texted whenever I got the chance. It was comforting for both of us. I felt lost in treatment, and he felt lost in the world. He told me once that he liked being institutionalized. It was safe. We didn't have to make decisions. He was afraid to trust himself in a world that felt dangerous and unknown. I was envious of his newness – his freedom to do anything he wanted to do with his life and make a fresh start, but he was envious of my stability – my family and career, all the things I hoped I hadn't destroyed but certainly had damaged. We shared our fears about what the future might hold. When I got home and started to reintegrate into my life, I could talk to him about all of the frustrations of early sobriety that my friends and family who were not in recovery couldn't possibly understand. I relied on him, heavily.

Being an alcoholic, my powers of denial are particularly strong. The truth is I really didn't see it coming when his sister sent me a message out of the blue asking me to call her. I'd never met her, never heard from her before, but I honestly didn't expect to hear that he was gone, that his addiction had taken his life. At 24. It was a crushing blow. We were coming up on 6 months of sobriety, and I fully expected to be sharing milestones with him for the rest of my life. I was so angry on his behalf because I know how much he didn't want this. He hated the drug – he hated what it did to others he cared about and hated what it did to him. He was disgusted by it. It would never have been his choice. It wasn't his choice. And that's the sad reality of addiction that is incomprehensible to someone who has never experienced it and almost incomprehensible to those of us who have.

All of a sudden, I felt very adrift. He was my whole support system inside of recovery. It was a huge loss, and it felt like no one around me really understood the magnitude of it. Most people in my life are interconnected in some way, but he and I had this very isolated relationship. We'd gotten to know each other in a place most people didn't realize I'd been, dealing with an addiction that most people didn't know I had. Other people in my life didn't know him, and I felt very alone in my grief. I also had this panicky fear that my memories of him would slip away because I was the only keeper of those memories left behind. Inside jokes don't flourish when they're one-sided – trust me, he would appreciate the tragedy of that.

Shortly after his death, I had a dream about him. It was a little fuzzy. I don't know where I was, but I came across him unexpectedly. He was wearing a suit and was glowingly happy and smiling, and he hugged me, much like he did the first time we met. I had such a good feeling when I woke up that I told his sister about the dream. I thought it was sort of random and funny because I hadn't known him to be the suit-wearing type, and I also found it comforting that he had been so happy in the dream and that it had left me with a feeling of contentedness as well. She responded that, although I had no way of knowing it, he had been cremated in a suit he'd had and that he always felt really good about himself when he wore it. I believe in signs from the universe, and I believe this was one. I believe wherever he is, he's finally free and at peace, and I believe he's still with me and somehow wishing me well. Losing him and not wanting to drink over it was a turning point in my recovery. One of the main reasons I didn’t want to drink is that I knew he wouldn't want to be part of a rationalization for destroying everything we'd worked for. I feel that living happily in recovery is one way I can honor his life and memory every day, one day at a time.

I've since learned to expand my support network, which is a necessary component of my recovery, but it hasn't been easy to let people in – not easy like it was with him. Soul mates don't come along every day. He was there at the exact moment I needed him in my life, and to me that's no accident. He continues to be a source of strength and support in my recovery and has taught me great lessons about myself in life and in death.

I still have that disposable phone I used to text him in treatment. I haven't been able to give it up or delete the messages. My favorite - "You're the best friend I've had in a long, long, long time. It's sad but true." While I laughed and gave him a hard time about the backhandedness of it, I understood exactly what he meant, and it is probably the truest, nicest, most reciprocated thing anyone has ever said to me. I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to know him, and I cherish our shared experiences and the love and friendship he gave so openly. I wish him a happy birthday and know that somewhere, somehow he knows that I do.    

Friday, June 6, 2014

A family affair

My alcoholism didn't happen in a vacuum. Neither does my recovery. It's so painfully true that addiction is a sickness that affects the whole family. I feel fortunate that my children were young enough, and we were able to shield them enough, that I don't think they will have memories of my active alcoholism. My husband, Ashby, is another story. He suffered greatly. I sometimes think that it must be so much harder for the loved ones of an addict. As much as I was powerless and hopeless, I was at least privy to my secrets, and I had alcohol to numb the pain. Ashby never knew what he was walking into, and he was painfully aware that I was slipping away more and more each day. I remember a time about six months into my recovery when we were at a social function, and I saw a change in him. There was a lightness about him that I hadn't seen in years. Freedom. He wasn't worried about where I was or if I was going for another drink or how many I might have had before we got there. That's when I knew he was recovering too. I don't like to hear the stories he tells about the worst of my drinking, but I need to hear them. It's been part of the process of healing our relationship. It takes an amazing person to stick it out with an addict through the ugly descent to rock bottom, to get past all of the anger and resentment, and to really understand and support recovery. I believe Ashby understands addiction as well as a person who is not an addict can understand it. He made the effort to educate himself, read the literature, go to Al-Anon meetings, and even get therapy to deal with my problem long before I could admit the problem existed. He's never once used my addiction against me, and he has supported without question everything I've needed to do for my well-being in recovery. He also recognizes the limits of his understanding and has always encouraged me to cultivate relationships with others in recovery because he recognizes the importance of that as well. I think sometimes loved ones resent recovery as much as they resented the addiction because it becomes the new number one priority, and they feel short-changed yet again, but Ashby fully understands that if recovery does not come first, then everything else will suffer. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that level of support and understanding, and I appreciate it. I could never thank him enough for that. The amazing thing is, he would never expect me to. He would say, "It's just what we do." Ashby and I have always been a pretty good team – balancing and supporting each other in our careers, in parenting, in athletic pursuits – and recovery is no different. It has to be a team effort for us. We were all sick and suffering, and we've all worked hard to get well. As difficult as it is for me to read, I asked him to write about his experience in his own words . . . 


Not too long ago, Wendy suggested I write a post on her blog about what it is like to live with and love someone in recovery from an addiction to alcohol. I was immediately enthusiastic as there are few things in this world I enjoy more than talking about myself. I was also excited to be a part of Wendy’s blog because I know how important it is to her. So I started to think about what I would say and, for the first time, found myself at a loss for words. Wendy’s struggle with alcohol and her recovery from active addiction is so much a part of who I am, and who we are as a couple, that it's hard to know where or how to start.

Before I can talk about loving someone in recovery, I need to say a few words about loving someone who is an active addict. It's not fun. I watched alcohol slowly take away the woman I loved. Her addiction caused me to doubt everything. Was it just me, or did she really have a problem? How do I handle this? Do I yell and scream at her? Do I give her the cold shoulder? Do I ignore it and hope it gets better? How can someone so smart be so stupid? Is this my fault? How can she be so selfish?  Am I enabling her? Where’s my line in the sand? When will I have had enough? When will I finally leave? Why is this happening to us? Why can’t I have my best friend back? As her addiction worsened over the years, I asked myself all these questions and more a thousand times a day.

Her relationship with alcohol was always an issue, but it became more and more unmanageable with each passing year. I became convinced that she was an alcoholic long before she was able to admit it to herself and ask for help. While struggling with her ever worsening addiction, a friend gave me a copy of Courage to Change and sent me to an Al-Anon meeting. I went and listened and was angry. I couldn’t understand others who told me to let go of my anger. I thought I deserved to be angry. What I came to realize, to really and truly believe over time, was that alcoholism is a disease. My wife, the mother of my children and my best friend, was sick. I knew that unless something changed, she would die. She didn’t want to be sick any more than I wanted her to be, but she was.

I supported her every time she tried to quit. I took her to the emergency room and the doctor’s office when she had withdrawal symptoms. Each time I told myself this time would be different. It wasn’t. I went with her to outpatient treatment. I read the books, and I went to more meetings. I tried to understand the disease and to direct my frustration and resentment toward the disease and not the patient. 

I won’t discuss the details of those final weeks and months, but suffice it to say the bottom finally fell out, and she agreed to go away to rehab. I drove her there and left her in a strange hallway full of people we didn’t know. I saw the tears on her face and the fear in her eyes, and I turned and walked away. It was, without a doubt, the single most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It also turned out to be the best thing I have ever done. 

She threw herself into recovery with the same ferocity and drive that she does everything she sets her mind on doing. She stayed in treatment for 28 days. I visited on weekends, and we talked on the phone when we could. I took care of our two children and told them that mommy was sick and had to go away to get better. I assured them she would be back. Eventually, I brought her home and we began to rebuild our life together.


When she came home she seemed so fragile. This period of time was not easy for either of us. I had grown used to being a single dad, as I had taken on a lot of the responsibility around the house even before she left for treatment. Even when she'd been there going through the motions, she hadn't really been there, and while we never stopped loving each other, we hadn't liked each other for quite some time. In some ways her return to our life felt like an intrusion. I was conscious of this feeling and worked hard to be patient, to be supportive, and to have an open mind and heart. 

By this time I was a full believer that alcoholism is a disease, and I was behind her recovery 100%.  She attended 90 meetings in 90 days, and I was glad for her to do it. I had to pick up the slack at home while she was away, but it wasn’t a problem. After all, I'd just spent the last month as a single dad, so what was an hour here and there? It seemed like an obscenely small price to pay to have her back. She went to meetings and came home, and we talked about the meetings and her recovery. We talked and really listened to each other. We got to know each other again and learned to communicate honestly and to trust. 

As she got farther along in her recovery, I realized that all the anger, all the resentment, and the lack of trust had vanished. I was no longer afraid that the next drink was right around the corner or hidden in the linen closet. I’m not mad at her, and I don’t blame her any more than I would blame her if she had cancer. I believe that alcoholism is a physiological disease, not a moral one. Embracing that allowed me to come to terms and be at peace. The laughter came back. The trust came back. I realized that I have always loved and trusted Wendy. It was the disease that I hate and don’t trust. The disease doesn’t just infect the alcoholic. It also infects loved ones and family members. It breeds contempt and distrust and resentment. In order to be free, both the addict and the loved one have to recognize the effects of the disease for what they are. We often say that we have both been given the gift of perspective.  As if someone turned on a light in a previously pitch black room, we can now see all the obstacles around us and avoid them rather than repeatedly crashing headlong into them.

So now, three years later, she goes to meetings, and we juggle the schedule to make it work. I have a very simple rule by which I live: her recovery comes first. Period. It is the foundation on which our lives are built. If her recovery crumbles, everything else goes with it. If she needs to go to a meeting, then I want her to go to a meeting. Her absence for an hour or so is much better than a lifetime without her. 

Not only do I have my best friend back, I have a new and improved Wendy 2.0. I can't be mad, even after all we went through, because recovery has changed and improved our lives in ways we may not have ever experienced if addiction wasn't part of our story. Sure, we still have real life problems, and we get on each other’s nerves like all married couples do. But living with a spouse who is in recovery and has truly embraced recovery is a beautiful thing. She smiles easily and laughs more. She goes with the ebb and flow of life and is much more fun to be around. One of the many beautiful things about recovery is that it forces both the addict and the addict’s loved ones to be open, honest, and vulnerable. With these qualities come true personal growth and a deeper emotional connection.

Our journey through addiction and into recovery is not something that I would trade or change. It has brought us closer together and made us stronger. I’m humbled, inspired, and moved by what she has accomplished, and I’m grateful for it every single day.