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. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Emote already

Emotions are a funny thing. I was once told I didn't have any, or at least that there wasn't any evidence that I did - and that was by my husband. I've also been told I have a flat affect and that I give a . . . not so warm first impression. All of this belies everything going on under the surface, which I assure you is spectacular. Some habits are hard to break, and it's still very difficult for me to open up and let anything out, but I'm learning. More importantly, the way I acknowledge and process emotions internally has changed dramatically, and that is one of the best gifts recovery has given me. Recovery has allowed me to see more clearly who I am and why I am the way I am - not to place blame for my addiction but to discover my authentic self and continue to grow and change in positive ways, something that became impossible for me in active addiction.

Growing up in my family was idyllic in many ways. I always felt loved and supported and safe in my home. But a lot of value was placed on stoicism. When things were hard, you put on a brave face and kept plugging along. We expressed love but not in a gushy way. There was not a lot of tolerance for unnecessary drama, even though kids and teenagers are ALL about unnecessary drama, and there was an expectation, at least perceived, that you maintain a level of propriety and always do the right thing. The way I decided to handle this was to bottle up my feelings and put up a front. I craved approval, so I always did or pretended to do the things people expected me to do. I was embarrassed by feelings I thought would be considered silly or weak, so I didn't express them and eventually convinced myself I didn't feel them. They were there, under the surface. I just didn't want to acknowledge them and was ill-equipped to process them, so they eventually all melded into anger and outrage, which felt safer because I could direct it at other people and things. I became angry and resentful about everything but somehow blind to my part in any of it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I have clearly always been a glass half empty kind of girl. By way of illustration, there was a time after my parents moved me in 11th grade when I once again found myself frustrated with being new and awkward and friendless (moving was a recurring theme in my childhood.) I would spend my lunches wandering the halls pretending I was in a hurry to get somewhere so I wouldn't have to sit alone in the cafeteria. I would write wild, rambling letters to my best friend, and for some reason she saved them. I probably don't have to tell you how disturbingly fascinating it is to get a glimpse back into your 17-year-old mind. One letter opened with, "Well, I'm living here in eternal hellfire" - just a matter-of-fact assessment of my  situation. All of these terrible things just happened to me. I thought if everyone would bend to my will, the world would be a better place, but that, of course, never happened. One of the things I had to do in early recovery is literally go through an exercise every day where I would take annoying things that happened and figure out how to spin them into positives (a fun commute activity that also distracts from excessive road rage - which, surprise, I also have). Reversing 40 years of glass half empty thinking is hard. I'll let you know when/if I succeed. For now I like to call myself a realist rather than a pessimist. To some it may seem a subtle distinction, but I'm going with progress.

Like a lot of alcoholics, I was always uncomfortable in my own skin. I never felt I belonged anywhere. My instinct was always to be what I thought others wanted me to be, rather than risk not being liked and accepted for what I was. I built a lot of walls between me and the outside world, and I suppose spending a lifetime pretending you're something you're not inevitably makes you believe that what you really are isn't good enough. I don't think it's why I became an alcoholic (I believe my brain is broken in a special way that causes that), but I do think it's why drinking was so appealing to me in the beginning. Pretending to be something you're not is exhausting, and alcohol provided relief. I stopped caring what people thought of me when I was drinking. I rarely acted appropriately or did the right thing, and the best part was that I didn't care.  Unfortunately, I would always sober up, and that ball of rage was still there. So I walked around, angry with the world, pretending like everything was okay, knowing it wasn't, and using alcohol to make the feelings go away.  

In treatment, I was told that the best thing about getting sober is you get your feelings back, and the worst thing about getting sober is you get your feelings back. That rings pretty true for me. In the beginning I was so emotionally raw and stripped down, I couldn't string together a sentence about anything without bursting into tears, and I found myself apologizing every time it happened. It took time to come to the realization that emotions don't make me weak; they make me human. I began the slow process of unraveling all of that anger to discover the real feelings underneath, and it’s something I'm still working on today.

There were people close to me who were surprised by my addiction and to hear that I had been miserable for so long. Turns out I'm a pretty good liar, but I've also always loved to laugh. I suppose it’s hard to reconcile those two things, but it makes perfect sense to me. I understand what they say about comedians always having a twisted dark side. Comedy was always an escape for me. Those who know me well know my affinity for all things funny - funny by my standards, that is. Biting sarcasm is also a stellar defense mechanism, deflecting attention from real issues and emotions. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been somewhat worried that I would lose my sense of humor in recovery. To me, that would be tragic. I’m happy to say that I still love to laugh, and I still laugh at the same things I laughed at before. I’m even happier to say that I now experience joy in my own life as well.

I love this bit that Louis CK did on Conan a while back. He talks about the phenomenon of kids getting meaner and not building empathy because of the ability to hide behind their screens and send their bullshit into cyberspace, basically. A kid can insult another kid and not be forced to face that person and see the pain and hurt he's caused – to really feel the implications of his actions.  You can lose yourself and your humanity in a lot of things. It's not unlike what I was doing in my addiction. I isolated and drank away my feelings. I lacked empathy and compassion for other human beings because I couldn't get outside of myself and my own misery to connect with anyone. He goes on to talk about the beauty of actually experiencing an emotion without trying to distract yourself from it. Honestly, I just think Louis CK is a comedy genius. But he's right.  Emotions are uncomfortable and painful sometimes, but there is value in sitting with them, experiencing them, and waiting for them to pass in their own time. You never truly appreciate the highs without the benefit of having experienced the lows.  

Emotions don't scare me so much anymore. I'm still not the best at sharing my feelings with others or outwardly expressing emotion - old habits and all. I've learned a lot about myself and the feelings I was trying to cover for many years. I've learned that talking to someone about my feelings is necessary when I find myself in a dark place. I've learned that relationships don't thrive without real communication, which doesn't work when I take feelings out of the equation. And relationships are everything. I want mine to be real and meaningful and deep, which means letting people in. It takes work. It didn’t magically happen when I got sober, but I'm grateful that it's happening slowly over time in recovery. The fact that I can tell you that means I'm light years from where I was three years ago, but I'm sorry, I'm still not going to gush about it.