Warm and Sober

In the winter, drinking looks like a dim, warmly-lit pub. Bluegrass music. Pints of Guinness and ounces of whiskey that burn on the way down. Faces lit up by the candle on the table as drinkers lean in to the centre, trying to hear and be heard over the music. real-1950s-gang-chick In the summer, it’s a patio, or a park. Tall cans with beads of condensation. A cottage, with a wrap-around deck, like the ones in Canadian beer commercials. Revealing dresses and margaritas and sitting on a roof under the stars. A keg party in a big field with a band. Summer drinking and winter drinking have many things in common: The fuzziness. The reprieve from thought. Din. Possibilities. Electricity. Magic.

These associations unsettle me, of course, even though I know that most of them are marketing-driven, self-deceptive bullshit. The parts that aren’t are difficult to quantify and are probably related to spiking dopamine levels. But there is something to them — drinking did make me feel safer. It slapped some blinders on me and protected me from a great number of negative emotions. That pub and those patios were wombs and all my friends were in there with me and the amniotic fluid was gin and we could ignore the contractions and just stubbornly remain right where we were.

Sobriety gets cold sometimes. It’s standing outside that warm pub, shivering, in the real world. It’s walking by that patio. It’s being torn from the safety of the womb, bloody and and squirming, getting smacked, and then growing up. But it’s not hell frozen over. And it’s got to be possible to be warm and sober. And happy and sober. I mean: booze is a fucking depressant. Who needs that in the summer? Who needs anything other than sunshine and green grass and slushies?

______

Tomorrow I’ll have been dry for nine months. If my abstinence were a baby, I could birth it, and chances are, it would live. I may even be ready to expose it to the outside world. Is it time to let it be a thing that exists outside of me, instead of coddling and overprotecting and focusing a disproportionate amount of energy on it? Could I just sling it over my back and trust that it’s there? Is it possible that I’m done with gestation just in time for patio season?

Why Can’t You Control Yourself?

Put two recovering alcoholics in a crowded room together and – if they’re lucky – they’ll find one another.

How?

twomenPeople who have quit drinking are generally aware of the alcohol in the room. This makes non-drinkers easy to spot. If that non-drinker is in early recovery, there’ll be recognizable signs; one hand clutching an empty glass that held cran and soda for about 30 seconds; a stubborn stake-out beside either the food or the door; shiftiness, discomfort, and/or exaggerated swagger. This is, of course, a stereotype — but it’s a stereotype that has served me well.

Recovering alcoholics find each other, and they talk. They talk freely; as though they aren’t strangers, and as if every word spoken eases their burden. They speak as intimates, because they are. They find relief because, as Brené Brown puts it, “if we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

—-

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I shit myself. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was at the Montessori school that I attended, and I was wearing blue sweatpants. It was near the end of the day and children were sprawled on the classroom floor, loosely gathered around our teacher, who was reading to us. I had to go to the bathroom, but I felt it was inappropriate to interrupt the reading. I remember being very aware that the situation had come to a crisis, and that there was nothing I could do about it. So I sat there, quite calmly, and shit my pants. When the other children, noses crinkling, started to move away from me, I put my fingers to my own nose and said “ew! someone farted!” while I sat there in my rapidly cooling shit. I told no one. I got on the bus to go home, red-faced: a tiny little me, with a funny little walk, my jacket deliberately tied around my waist. When I got home and walked in the door, I was in tears before my nanny even opened her mouth. I can’t remember what she said, but she was lovely, so I imagine it was comforting. My next memory is being in the bathtub, being washed clean.

—-

I associate addiction with having a lack of control and I associate having a lack of control with shame. I don’t know that all recovering addicts feel this way, but I know a great many who do. It is embarrassing to act compulsively; to not be able to ‘just stop’ the way other people can. On a rational level, I know that the area of an addict’s brain that controls choice has been severely compromised. I also know that the loss of control is an experience common to much of humanity; the addict cannot stake a claim to it. Still. At five years old I was already afraid to ask for help, and I knew to lie and deflect. That has nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with instinct. And a distorted instinct is not easy to cope with — especially not alone.

So. You’re put off by those two ex-drunks who found each other and swapped stories (that were dull or horrific or coated in self-pity) for the better part of the night? You may shrug or roll your eyes, but please: Let us talk. It really does help.

The Language of Recovery

There is a linguistic theory which holds that language determines thought. This has always made perfect sense to me. Yes, we may require thought before we can utter a sound, but without just the right sound, we are lost. Language has the power to either liberate us, or to render us mute. The domination of the word over thought is particularly noticeable in the world of addiction and recovery.

The way we speak about our addiction greatly impacts our approach to recovery. To attend an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA – or NA or CA) meeting is to surround oneself with unfamiliar idioms, aphorisms, and vocabulary. The meetings almost always have their own language, which newcomers quickly learn and adopt. Once this particular language is learned, it usually cannot be unlearned without threatening one’s recovery. I am an alcoholic. I am powerless over alcohol. There is no such thing as an ex-alcoholic. There is no such thing as a recovered alcoholic. There is no known cure for alcoholism. This type of language gives a very particular shape to recovery.

Different treatment programs use different vocabularies. Often, programs encourage the development of words and ideas that feel right for the individual. In aftercare, during check-in, I say, ‘my issue is with alcohol’, because that’s the simplest way I can put it. A fellow addict, Frank, likes to say, ‘my challenge is with alcohol’ because, as he puts it, “without challenges, it is nearly impossible to grow”. He saw his challenge with alcohol as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in his life. It’s working; Frank celebrated his cake night months ago, and he looks fantastic.

vomiting-words1Of course, addiction-specific terminology can provide a great source of relief for someone in early recovery. When I quit, I felt like a bit of a freak. It was (and often is) just SO HARD. I’d tried to quit before – a couple of times, for a couple of years – without taking it seriously. When I decided I was going to put my heart into it, I needed a little (a lot of) help from my friends, which was embarrassing and, much worse, isolating. Trying to describe my experience felt impossible. Learning terms like ‘pink cloud’ and ‘post-acute withdrawal’ reminded me of the vast number of people who recovered before me. There are already words for what I’m going through! I don’t need to flail about in this alphabet soup looking for the right letters!

In his book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Maté explores the healing power of language when he espouses the importance of re-labelling in order to recover. Specifically, he refers to the idea of ‘needing’ a drink. Of course, no one ever needs a drink, but we all – addicts and non-addicts alike – frequently use that colloquialism. So why is it important to examine?

When we re-label, we give up the language of need. I say to myself: “I don’t need to purchase anything now or to eat anything now; I’m only having an obsessive thought that I have such a need. It’s not a real, objective need but a false belief. I may have a feeling of urgency, but there is actually nothing urgent going on.” Be fully aware of the sense of urgency that attends the impulse and keep labelling it as a manifestation of addiction, rather than any reality that you must act upon.

Maté’s book was instrumental in helping me build my new neural pathway, but I didn’t swallow it whole. My (ever-evolving) philosophy on recovery is proving to be as piecemeal as the language I apply to it. For the time being, I accept the word alcoholic, but the idea of permanently brandishing that label unsettles me. My goal is to be teetotal; for ‘I quit drinking’ to grow up and become ‘I don’t drink’. A lofty goal, perhaps, but I believe that aiming for a comfortable identity will better protect my sobriety than allowing myself to pigeonholed.

I just reread that: “My goal is to be teetotal.”

A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that those words could be mine.

 

A Reason (or Two) to Have a Drink (or Two)

There is a fellow in my group called Greg. He’s a bit older than me, charming as hell, and has a young family. He comes across as happy. No, more than that: he comes across as fulfilled. As I got to know him, I began to think: “Why on earth would this man need to drink?” He is bursting with love for his wife and his children. He is a hard worker. He has a sense of humour. Could drugs and alcohol possibly give this man anything he didn’t already have?

Another group member, Evan, is much older. He has a sick wife and no children. His shoulders are often slumped with regret. He is determined and hopeful, yes, but there have been times when his pain would creep across the empty floor and crawl up my legs, leaving them tingling in discomfort. This I understood; this I can forgive. The drink has a place here.

And me? If I sat next to myself, in this very room, would I look at myself and wonder how I got here?

During the initial phase of this treatment program, clients are provided with a summary and analysis of their drug use. Certain ‘using situations’ are assessed and then indexed. Essentially the survey is asking: What makes you drink? and the categories are as follows:

  • unpleasant emotions
  • pleasant emotions
  • physical discomfort
  • pleasant times with others
  • social pressure to use
  • conflict with others
  • urges and temptations
  • testing personal control

During my intake, ‘pleasant times with others‘ was deemed my riskiest situation. “I just like to party,” I thought. “It’s normal and I’m young and everyone does it!”  Who doesn’t love a couple of bottles of wine with dinner or a handful of post-work pints? How better to get to know new colleagues, or friends, or perfect strangers than over a couple of ciders and caesars and a bottle of gin? I felt certain that the medical establishment was out of touch with what constituted ‘normal drinking’. I decided to opt for moderation, as opposed to abstinence – a route supported by my treatment program.

I was a couple months into treatment when I discovered two things:

  1. The idea that I primarily drink to enjoy ‘pleasant times with others’ is bullshit.
  2. I am currently incapable of moderating my alcohol intake.

The first point became clear to me when I deconstructed those post-work pints. I had to admit how often I had initiated that trip to the pub, and how frustrated I’d been when no one was interested in joining me. I remember devoting a bizarre amount of time trying to convince my colleagues that there was a decent reason to go out – “it’s Wednesday!” rarely worked. It took months of self-reflection before it dawned on me that I had never been celebrating. There was nothing to celebrate. I was just sad and often scared, and so I manufactured situations in which it was appropriate to drink and drink and drink.

Black-Dog-Monatage

Initial impressions aside, it had become apparent that I was very much an ‘unpleasant emotions‘ – and not at all a ‘pleasant times with others‘ – type of drinker.

Many of my comrades in aftercare are in the same boat, including – I suspect – Greg. Neither his situation nor his gratitude have changed, but the long winter began to take a toll on him about a month ago. I remember looking at him the last time he shared, and seeing something that wasn’t quite there, but shook me nonetheless; a fleeting shadow just behind his eyes that made me pause and think: “oh.”

I don’t mean to imply that I don’t still wonder how he, or Evan, or any of us fell into this mess. I do. These days I just prefer to spend my time focusing on getting us all out.

Mass Relapse: A Fantasy

I’d been attending my aftercare group for a few weeks when I first had the thought, “man, would it ever be fun to party with these people.” I knew it was an indecent thought, but I couldn’t dismiss it. I think its impropriety may have fuelled my fixation, and I began to fantasize about how such a thing could come about. Would one of us propose going for a coffee after group? Would another one of us overhear and suggest a place that happened to be licensed? Are mass relapses rare or common events? Would we swear each other to secrecy the next morning, only to be betrayed by the weakest (read: strongest) link the following week?

2-silent-film-still-orgies-granger

Though I may have puzzled over the logistics, I  had no misconception about how such an hypothetical night would unfold. We are all people who were, at one point, desperate to escape our own minds. We rarely stopped at one drink, or toke, or line. We have all experienced debauchery and hedonism and excess. We have sacrificed much for what seems like very little. And it’s true; it was little. But a little bit of air to breathe in a room sucked dry is vital. So to is a little release from a hand around one’s throat. It’s just a little sip, yes, but that sip keeps us going, for a little while longer.

And so to drink or to use or to lose control with these people would be a (forgotten) night to remember. I imagined sitting on a barstool, head swimming, trying to memorize everyone’s story — knowing that, by daylight, they’d be lost to the ether. I imagined a lot of laughter, and silliness, and infidelities, and injuries, and regrets. We’d all been the last one awake at the party — how would such a celebration possibly end?

So: I used to sit in my chair during group, jumpy as hell. I thought that everyone in the room, deep down, coveted one more night of fun. Those first few weeks were very hard; I felt sure I was unravelling. I sought solace in that fantasy of drink, and to comfort myself, I brought everyone down with me. Ultimately, I thought, “they’d want to come along!”

I know now, months later, that a shift occurs after a period of recovery. I am no longer the wounded, defensive animal that skirted the edges of the room. I see that fear in the eyes of newcomers, and I feel it in the energy they introduce to the group. They want to drink as much as I wanted to. But lo and behold: I do not want to drink with them. I can’t even compel myself to imagine such a thing. Take them to a bar? Fuck, no. My new fantasy? I want to hold them and make them tea and let them cry and cry while I tell them how much better it will be six months down the road.

Lovely Neuroplaticity (ish)

ernest_hemingway_drinkingAt some point during my adult life, the solution to nearly any problem became booze. A panacea for any negative emotion, booze was quick, it provided a significant period of relief, and my access to it was unlimited. Bad day at work? Booze. Overwhelmed with school? Booze. Bored? Booze. Lonely? Booze. Anxiety? Depression? Fear? Student debt? One martini, two martini, three martini, floor.

All the while, I was forging and then re-inforcing neural pathways. I was misleading my mammalian brain, and teaching it that alcohol is the thing that saves me from danger. In our big lovely brains, bad feelings translate to a survival threat. Anything that soothes that bad feeling promotes survival from that mammal brain’s perspective. Denying myself, therefore, resulted in searing existential pain. A feeling of, if I may, complete dis-ease.

I estimate that I’ve had a fucked up relationship with alcohol for about eight years. That means that for eight years, I’ve been telling my brain over and over again that “alcohol makes me feel better”. Rationally, I know that drinking was making my life worse, but because I was addicted, that knowledge wasn’t enough to make me stop. I had to re-wire my brain. I’ve read that it takes 30 days to form a new neural pathway. I have also read 45 days, 60 days, and 90 days – a common length for a stint in rehab.

For me, it took 213 days. More than 200 days of sobriety before that feeling of being under threat dissipated. I first noticed it while out for dinner. The man I was with ordered red wine, and I braced myself for the customary knotted stomach and clenched fists that tend to arrive with alcohol. On this day, though, something was different. I looked at the wine, and I felt nothing. Nothing!

What an exciting and delicious lack of feeling! Who knew that not feeling could result in such hope and joy?

Since then, I’m aware of my blossoming pathway on an almost daily basis. When I experience an uncomfortable emotion, I no longer crave a drink. I don’t feel as though I’m missing out at celebratory gatherings during toasts. My new neural pathway is a baby next to that massive eight year behemoth, but it’s usable. And it’s getting stronger every day! All I have to do now is remember to take that different route, and I just may have a fighting chance.

Cake Wisdom

I am one of 25 people in a circle of grown men and women, sitting in a dimly lit room. This circle surrounds a table overrun with treats. There is candy, there are chips, there is soda. In the centre, there is a cheaply-made, cheaply-decorated grocery-store cake. 

I am celebrating with strangers. It’s Odessa’s ‘Cake Day’. I don’t know yet what these people will mean to me. All I know is that there is a gorgeous woman being honoured, and that this woman, despite being addicted to marijuana, has not smoked it for an entire year.

Image

I am a member of what is called an ‘after care’ group. Everyone in the room has a substance abuse problem, has completed a number of intensive sessions, and has committed to either abstinence or moderation. 

My first impression is general: They all look pretty normal. My second, more specific: I cannot believe this woman is a pothead.

Cake days happen every couple months. The celebration always unfolds the same way: The honouree cuts the cake, delivers it while the rest of us catch up with our neighbours, and then sits down to eat. The facilitator – a lovely man that is almost a caricature of a social worker – says a few words about how far the honouree has come. At that point, the honouree speaks; sometimes just a few words, sometimes a carefully planned speech. 

Odessa falls somewhere in between. She tells us about her past, about how much better she feels, mentions a few things being sober has allowed her to accomplish, speaks lovingly about her young child, and then says:

I no longer want to miss what the world has to offer by using.

I look at her and think: a year! All I have to do is get through one year and my entire perspective will change? One year sober, and I’ll start to give a shit about ‘missing things’ that ‘the world has to offer’? Incredulous, I could have dismissed the notion outright had Odessa not been sitting right there, four chairs over. Just sitting there, with this poise, telling us her truth. I sense that she’s a bit surprised herself. I also feel her determination. Someone in the group says: The person we’re really celebrating tonight is your child. That’s who wins in all this.

I realize I’m holding my breath, that these emotions feel too powerful to be directed towards a stranger. I am proud of Odessa, I am rooting for her, I will help her in anyway I can. The only thing we have in common, that I know of, is this thing we’re trying to beat; and for now, it binds us together. Odessa thanks the group for our continued role in her recovery, and looks at the floor. Our paper plates on our laps, we clap for her, and, our thoughts turning inward, permit ourselves to hope.


Six months later, Odessa lapsed. A lapse is a lesser relapse; small enough that it doesn’t set one’s ‘counter’ back. In this program (unlike AA) a slip is only a problem if you don’t get right back up again. Odessa lapsed on a weekend, but marched right back into group on Tuesday and confessed. She was shaken, but resolute. She looked beautiful. I said, “only you could make a relapse look classy”, and I meant it. In some ways, she radiated more strength than she did on the day she celebrated her first year sober. Of course, our victories can’t always be celebrated with cake. She’ll just have to remember.