Friday, May 23, 2014

Running into recovery

I've been a runner since 2003.  As with a lot of other things I've tried, I jumped into it with both feet, thinking it would finally be the thing that . . . I don't know . . . fixed me. I collected bits and pieces of happiness along the way in my life, but something was always missing, and I tended to fill the space with alcohol. Somewhere deep inside, I knew it was a problem, although it would be years before I would own up to it, so I was always searching for the next great thing that would change me from the outside in. And there's no question that I was dedicated when I latched onto something. I had married my husband in 2001, and he was in his lazy law school days when we met, but he had been an avid runner and cyclist at one time. Somewhere around 2003, he decided to get back into running, and one day I decided to go along. I had never been a runner. In fact, the last time I had run at all was along I-64 in the pitch black dark of night after my college roommate and I ran out of gas on the way back to school from a beach trip. It was the pre-cell phone era, and we figured changing into sneakers and running to the nearest exit was our best bet. I suspect we made it about a quarter of a mile before I was huffing and puffing and taking a rest on a guard rail. Fortunately, we were rescued and that night had a happy ending, but it wasn't that I fell in love with running. My takeaway from the whole ordeal (besides start looking at your fuel gauge periodically) was that running is hard.

Fast forward to my first real run in March of 2003. I was certain it wasn't going to go well, but we set out to do an easy 2 miles around the neighborhood, and I felt great. I was surprised and delighted, especially considering I was hung over (possibly a little bit still drunk) from the night before. This was it! Running would be my salvation, the solution to the problem I couldn't admit I had. Before I even attempted another run, I was committed to doing my first 5k in two weeks, my first half marathon in September, and my first marathon in October. And for a while, it worked. I was excited about running. It felt good to push limits. Every time I added mileage and ran farther than I'd ever run before, I felt accomplished. I even drank less when I knew I was getting up to run in the morning. There had always been a sort of ebb and flow to my relationship with alcohol, which made denial easier. When things were bad, I leaned on it heavily, but when good things came into my life, I relied on it less. There were even times (like during my pregnancies) when I didn't drink at all.  So I looked for things – distractions – to help me fool myself into believing I didn't have a problem. When I started running, it was still early enough that I was able to focus some of my energy on something new.

As my relationship with running grew, I trained and raced all the time. I always felt like I needed that next race on the calendar – a reason to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. I was trying hard to run away from my addiction, but it was trying just as hard to swallow me whole. Running became my rationalization. I was able to tell myself that I was okay, as long as I could still run a marathon. Surely an alcoholic couldn't run a marathon. And what better way to reward myself after a training run or race than with a drink - or twelve. There were times early on that I really did feel good and healthy when I ran, and I would make plans for cleaning up the rest of my life. They were glimmers of hope that came mainly when I ran, and maybe that's why the whole concept never soured for me, no matter how ugly it got in the years to come.

Eventually, running became a punishment. I lost any ability to not drink the night before a run, so I would wake up hung over and dehydrated and hit the road. "This is what you deserve," I would tell myself as I plodded along. I wanted to suffer, to feel the damage I was doing to my body, to berate myself, and to assure myself that I could fix it by just not drinking next time. There were times my heart was beating so fast, I believed that I would die before I finished the run. I had zero mind-body connection – no idea if my racing heartrate was because I was running up hill or because I was going through withdrawal; no idea if my knee hurt because of a running injury or because I bumped into something in a drunken stupor the night before; no idea if I was getting blisters or hot spots on my feet because I was periodically losing feeling in parts of my hands and feet. I was scared. Scared enough to google everything I could find about withdrawal symptoms and alcoholic neuropathy. Not scared enough to stop drinking. I would run and tell myself that it was the last time, that I was definitely not going to drink like that again, that I wouldn't have to run feeling like that next time . . . if I survived this time.

In the end, I was drinking and running – sometimes at the same time. I showed up to more than one race still drunk from the night before. I kept pushing myself, punishing myself, and experiencing a total disconnect from my body. Addiction for me was about isolating myself. I isolated myself from everything and everyone. I was there but not there. Recovery for me is about connectedness – getting outside of myself and connecting with others but also reconnecting with myself. It was a slow process, first learning to connect with other addicts in recovery, but it eventually translated into other areas of my life.

Today I'm grateful for every ache and pain I feel on a run, because it's telling me something, and I can hear it. I know when I'm starting to get a blister because I can feel it. When I run up a hill and my heart feels like it's going to burst out of my chest, it makes me smile because my heart is telling me that it's working, not that I’m drinking myself to death. No wonder I didn't listen to my body before. I didn't want to hear what it was saying. I say running is a gift that keeps on giving because it's really been there for me all along. It's given me hope, it's taught me what my body and mind are capable of when they work together and what it can't do when they don't, it's gotten in my face and told me that I was dying, and it continues to be a huge part of my recovery. In very early recovery, I struggled with the concept of a higher power and my discomfort with prayer and meditation. Then I realized, running is my prayer and meditation and where I feel most connected to a higher power, whatever that may be. It's where I work out my problems, it's where I accept my weaknesses, it's where I come to terms with suffering, and it's where I find my strength. Of course, it's not the most important thing in my life – no, I don't love running more than I love my family – but it's where I wrap my head around all of those other things, big and small, and come out the other side feeling physically, mentally, and spiritually fit. If that's not recovery, then I don't know what is.        

Friday, May 16, 2014

Don't cry for me

I don't know if I can ever fully put into words everything my life in recovery is, but I suppose I can start by telling you what it is not. It's not a sad and tragic existence. Active addiction is sad and tragic. People suffer and die from it all the time. I believe I came pretty close to dying from it. Recovery, on the other hand, is what keeps me well and gives me hope. We talk about it a lot in my family. Even my 7-year-old encourages me to go to meetings now because she wants me to stay well. And I am. I'm living well. However, I know that some people feel sorry about the way my life turned out. They feel bad that I have to deal with being an alcoholic. They feel bad that life is so hard for me and that every day is a struggle, as if my addiction hangs over me like a dark cloud. That is their perception and I think a fundamental misunderstanding of what recovery is. The beginning of my recovery was the end of my tragedy. There's no need to feel bad for me because living in recovery pretty much kicks ass.  

I was pondering why people think of recovery that way, and it occurred to me that I thought the same thing before I really started living it. My drinking was bad for a long time, but in the end it was incredibly bad. It was a struggle just to get through each day. It was a blur of waking up feeling terrible, obsessively planning where to buy alcohol that day, where to hide it and how to get it into the house, figuring out how and when to secretly drink around my family without appearing too drunk, and then staying up half the night to drink more and cover my tracks. This is an incredibly difficult operation to maintain in and of itself, even if you're not drunk and/or hung over 24 hours a day and simultaneously trying to raise children, work a full-time job, and train for whatever marathon or triathlon is coming up next. And yet, I wasn't sure I wanted to give all of that up and commit to sobriety because recovery didn't seem "fun".

The thing is, I didn't actually know anything about recovery. I hear a lot of people in meetings talk about the perception problem – sobriety must be boring and lame and pathetic and sad.  I get it. I thought it. I couldn't imagine doing most things without a drink in my hand. My relationship with alcohol is the longest relationship I've had in my life, and the thought of breaking up with it was daunting. I really only knew that quitting drinking was hard. I'd tried to do it on my own, and I knew for a fact that not drinking for a few weeks made me really, super irritable. Is that how I wanted to feel for the rest of my life? There was no example of long term recovery in my frame of reference to assure me that when I got well, things would actually get better. That wouldn't come until I finally got desperate enough to seek out help, which I was fortunate to be able to access fairly easily because I had resources and the support of my family and my employer. 

I was surprised (and a little outraged) at first when I would go to meetings and see people with long-term sobriety laughing and carrying on like they were normal people. Didn't they know that alcoholism is sad and depressing? Turns out, they had just stopped fighting their alcoholism and started embracing their recovery. I understand why some people give up early in the process. I like instant gratification as much as the next guy, and recovery is not a quick fix. The beginning is hard. Actually getting sober, dropping out of my life and walking away from my children to go to treatment, negotiating those early days of sobriety – those things were all incredibly painful and difficult. I was sick, and I was coming out of the deepest, darkest days of my illness and doing what I had to do to get well. Learning to cope with life and feel and process emotions without anything to numb them was going to take time. But it wasn't the same as all those times I didn't drink for a few weeks. I wasn't just giving up drinking. I was learning to live.

It's funny how much more clearly you can see things sometimes the farther away you get from them. I didn't realize when I was drinking that I was slowly dying rather than living.  I'm glad that I somehow found my way into recovery, and I'm grateful that I stuck it out to get to the good part, and I'm hopeful that it will continue to get better as long as I continue to stick with it. At the same time, I ache for those who are still trapped in that dark place where I felt trapped for so long. I want them to know there are options.  

Life in recovery, of course, is still life. Not every day is going to be grand, and I don't always feel happy. But I feel something, and that's better than desperately trying to feel nothing. At the end of my active alcoholism, there was a 100% chance that every day was going to be a bad day. Today, I feel like there's at least a 50% chance that any given day will be a good day, and I'll take those odds (my non-alcoholic, optimist husband asked if I really only think there's a 50/50 chance, and yeah, I'm still a hardcore realist.) There's no guarantee, but there's hope in that. So I want you to know – whether you are in recovery like me, whether you think you might need recovery, whether you know or love someone in recovery, or whether you are just a human being with compassion for other human beings (FYI, this list should be all inclusive) – my life in recovery is good. I no longer struggle through every day obsessing over my dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. We broke up, hopefully for good, and most days the thought of it doesn't even cross my mind. Instead, I get to participate in relationships and be present in my life. I don't want anyone to feel bad about the way my life turned out. Addiction is terrible, but recovery is beautiful. I only wish everyone who needed it could have it.   

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why am I doing this?

A few years ago, I decided I was tired of living a lie.  From the outside things looked pretty good.  I was busy "having it all" – career, marriage, kids, an active lifestyle that others seemed to admire – but deep down I knew I was a fraud, and every moment of every day I was waiting, almost hoping, for everything to fall apart.  I was a wife, mother, lawyer, athlete, and an active alcoholic.

I was also tired of spending all of my time and energy maintaining my addiction.  I was, as they say, sick and tired of being sick and tired.  Getting sober wasn't an easy process, and it certainly didn't happen overnight, but I can tell you that it was worth it, and I can tell you that it is possible, and I can honestly say that I don't believe I would have experienced one moment of true peace in my life without it.  And yet, my recovery is not something I openly share with everybody I meet.  My relationship with alcohol is still my biggest secret, whether it's my addiction to it or my hard-fought freedom from it.  Once again, lately I have been feeling tired of living a lie.  I'm a person living in recovery, and I want you to know that.

I recently watched a documentary about recovery that was recommended by a friend.  It's called The Anonymous People, and you should watch it too.  Everyone should.  It's what ultimately moved me to start this blog and put myself out there as a face and voice of recovery.  Recovery is something I think about and work on every day; it shapes every part of me and every aspect of my life; it's something that I and my family and friends celebrate and something for which I am deeply grateful.  It's not something I take for granted, and it's not something for which I feel shame.  So why do I continue to hide it?  There is the stigma perhaps, but it's more that I hesitate to share for fear of making others feel uncomfortable.  When they feel uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable, and then we're all uncomfortable.  But why shouldn't I make us all uncomfortable?  As with almost everything in life, outside of our comfort zones is where most growth and change takes place.

A few weeks ago, I ran the Boston Marathon, and a friend approached me after an AA meeting and told me that she had relayed that fact to her daughter.  Her daughter's response was an incredulous, "Someone in AA ran the Boston Marathon?"  Uhhh, yeah.  We laughed at her daughter's obvious misunderstanding of how driven and determined a person in recovery can be.  After all, I spent 20+ years being obsessively driven and determined to get a drink at all costs.  Not surprisingly those same qualities can be redirected to accomplish amazing things.  I am certain I wasn't the only person in recovery who ran in Boston, although I didn't see anyone wearing a shirt announcing them as such.  We are runners and mothers and wives and lawyers and everything else under the sun.  We are productive citizens, and we are everywhere.  I can't help but feel a responsibility to share my experience in the hope that it may help someone understand what recovery means to a person living it and what it could mean to a person who can't access it. 

I believe there are many paths to recovery; that there is no one right way.  I choose to attend AA, but I don't follow the program to the letter.  I do believe that being of service to others – sharing experience, strength, and hope – is a key ingredient, and I often find myself struggling, not feeling as if I'm doing my part.  I attend AA meetings regularly, but I never share.  I get so much out of what others share, but an intensely introverted nature and a crippling fear of public speaking keep me silent, which brings me to the written word.  I'm coming late to the blog game, but I feel compelled to do it, to share my experiences in recovery and encourage others to do the same.  Let's get uncomfortable . . .    

What this blog IS:
  • The experiences and musings of one person happily living an imperfect life in recovery.

What this blog IS NOT:
  • An instructional guide on how to work a recovery program.
  • A scientific explanation of addiction.
  • An attempt to convince anyone else that they are an addict or alcoholic.
  • A place to judge me - you may, of course, but I probably don't really care if you do.