Thursday, August 20, 2015

We don't all get miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I Surrender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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