Outside of the Comfort Zone

I have given myself a new job title: “Conference Queen.” 95% of the time, my job keeps me at a desk, chained to a computer. This month, I’m living the other 5% and spending each week in a different city, whoring out the company that writes me a cheque several times a month.

I’m naturally painfully shy, making it difficult to strike up conversations with complete strangers. Even more difficult is that my only reason for introducing myself is to give them a sales pitch (yuck!). Multiply that by several hundred conversations and that’s my entire experience at any conference.

That said, I’ve forced myself over the past few years to become the person who can man an exhibitor booth on a trade show floor and come out the other side with solid new leads. Hell, I’ve even gotten pretty fast at setting up and tearing down the booth on my own.

However, the one piece I’m having a hard time getting comfortable with is the after-hours networking. Every night is an event designed to outdo last year’s host. I’ve had dinner on a museum rooftop overlooking the nation’s capital, dinner at a historic fort, followed by a fireworks display that would rival most city’s Canada Day celebrations and a 70’s themed cocktail party at a war museum surrounded by dozens of tanks, planes and machinery that date back as far as the 1800’s.

The venues are always amazing and the alcohol is everywhere. It’s free, it’s abundant and it’s an opportunity for attendees to have a good time away from home. I don’t directly struggle with wanting to drink, however I do struggle with interacting with people as they slowly become pickled.

The jokes aren’t as funny to me as they are to everyone else. I’m not “in” on the inside jokes that inevitably come out between long-time co-workers as they become more and more drunk. I imagine a lot of people are uncomfortable around drunks, but as an alcoholic in recovery, there’s an added layer of discomfort.

So I politely excuse myself from attending the after-after-hours hospitality suites that flow free booze until 1am. And when I hear the rumours over breakfast of a broken elevator and vomit on a wall, I’m happy to have missed the “party.”

The setting for one night's cocktail party

The setting for one night’s cocktail party

Still Experiencing Firsts

Tonight I’m in a hotel room in Toronto. I’ve been in this city, this hotel, countless times since I’ve been at this job. However, this is the first time I didn’t bring a bottle in my suitcase. The summer before I got sober, I had 3 one week stays for different training courses. 5 day courses that I would spend vacillating between buzzed and sick-to-my-stomach hungover.

I would always be on my own for these courses – alone, in a different city, with no accountability. Well, other than showing up each day for 8 hours of class and passing an exam on the final day. Other than that, I was in a private, hedonistic world. I could drink as much as my body could stomach and there was no one around to say “no.”

So here I am, 14 months sober, in the same physical space, but a very different head space.

Instead of ripping the bottle out of my suitcase as soon as the door closed behind me, I unpacked. Instead of hitting up the pop machine in search of sugary lemonade for my vodka, I made a cup of tea. Instead of turning on the tv to drown out the silence, I am here, laying on the floor quietly tapping out these thoughts of mine.

Life’s not perfect. In fact, it’s progressively gotten shittier over the past couple of months. So it’s not perfect, but it’s better.

“Do You Miss Drinking?”

“So you don’t drink at all?”

“Nope.”

I can see the light bulb turn on for her; she realizes that I’m an alcoholic without me saying the words.

“Do you miss drinking?”

I pause and smile. I’m honest and say “yeah, I do.”

“How long?”

“Not long… 13 months.”

“Cheers to sobriety.” She clinks her beer against my club soda.

My brain is broken. That’s the only answer for why I would ever miss it. But I did that night. I was in a bar waiting for my husband’s band to take the stage. I was feeling self-conscious and lonely. For a moment, I missed alcohol. I wondered how a shot of tequila would feel after abstaining for 13 months. I thought about how easy it would be to walk up to the bar and order a vodka & soda, instead of plain club soda. No one would even know.

My brain is broken, which is why I entertained these thoughts instead of immediately remembering how physical ill I was when I drank. I did eventually remember the reality of my alcoholism, but didn’t care. In the moment, the good things in life didn’t outweigh the booze. In the moment, I missed drinking.

My World is Shifting But I’m Strong Enough to Stand

GlobeI was incredibly lucky during my first year of sobriety, in that life around me remained consistent. While I waged a war internally, running through a thick forest of long-suppressed feelings, battling the demons of addiction and the realities of decisions I made within addiction, the sun rose and set every day without a hitch. Little hiccups occurred along the way, but overall, external forces were kind to me.

Fast forward to day 399: the world around me is starting to shift ever so slightly.

My husband is quitting his job today to start with a new company at a 40% pay reduction.

My sponsor has asked to meet with me at my home tonight. I believe she is going to tell me she can no longer sponsor me. She’s been struggling at a dangerous level lately and I don’t think it’s a smart idea for her to be a sponsor right now. I think she’s realizing that now, too.

400 days ago the ball of angst would have started building in my stomach, my mind would try to remember how much vodka I have left and how soon I can get to it without arousing suspicion, and my body would automatically drive to the closest liquor store (my mind not catching up to my body until I’m pulling into the parking lot).

Today, I’m able to calmly and objectively review both of these imminent changes. To me, that’s a testament to the work I’ve done this year in therapy and AA. Sure, my head is swimming a little when I think about how my husband and I will have to adjust to this significant drop in income. And yes, there is a butterfly or two where previously the ball of angst would have been, as I anticipate the uncomfortable conversation when my sponsor “divorces” me. But I’m taking a moment to reflect on how I’m feeling and comparing it to how I think I would have felt had this day happened a little over a year ago. The difference is extraordinary and I am proud of myself.

Even that small piece of self-awareness is enormous. To have the clarity to stop and reflect, instead of falling off a proverbial cliff into a pity party, is a significant change.

I am proud of that, as it makes the work I’ve done feel tangible. Until now, it’s been an abstract awareness of the work I’ve done.

I’ve heard people in meetings say that they’re grateful to be alcoholic because it brought them to AA where they’ve learned how to change their lives and they’ve become part of a supportive family that will absolutely help you when you need propping up. I suppose that’s how some alcoholics in recovery have survived unthinkable tragedy and stayed sober.

If people before me can stay sober through the unthinkable, then surely I can get through whatever I need to today. Again, I am incredibly grateful that my world stayed so stable for that year while I learned how to be a strong enough person to continue standing when the world becomes a little unstable.

 

With Clarity, Analysis Must Come

For years I drowned any and all feelings with vodka. When that stopped working a year ago, I spent the year focussed on simply not drinking. I didn’t think about tomorrow, I only thought about today. After stringing together a few hundred sober 24 hours, I started feeling confident in sobriety. That’s when the focus shifted.

It’s time, now that I can look at the world with more clarity, to look at my life and truly analyze if it’s the life I want in the future. I had a session with my therapist last night and this came up unexpectedly. The emotion that poured out of me as we talked about my marriage was raw. It’s a clear indicator that I need to explore the viability of this relationship.

From the outside looking in, there’s no reason to consider leaving: there’s no adultery, abuse or visible problems. But inside the relationship, we’re little more than roommates. I can’t say that I want more, because I don’t know what “more” is. I’m challenged to describe what a good marriage is.

My therapist has asked me to begin exploring what a good marriage looks like to me and whether or not this relationship has the ability to become that. It’s entirely possible that we’ve run our course.

It’s opened the floodgates to feelings that I used to drown and I’m raw. Emotions are at the surface and it’s scary. Alcohol isn’t a thought today, but some of the related behaviours are there. Relapse happens long before the first drink is taken. It’s important to be vigilant and honest about red-flags in sobriety. I know that exploring the survivability of my relationship has the potential to trigger relapse. So it’s time to double up: double up on meetings, double up the contact with others in program, and double up on therapy.

But first, I think I’ll double up on some Advil and take a nap. It’s no surprise that my head is pounding and spinning at the same time.

Maintaining Tradition vs. Group Evolution

Every long-standing institution, at some point in its longevity, needs to decide whether it’s going to hold steadfast to its traditions or if it’s willing to evolve with the generations. Alcoholics Anonymous is no different. With its beginnings rooted in 1930’s ideology, it seems as though it must naturally go through its own evolution of sorts to “get with the times.”

One piece of evidence of its evolution is the establishment of women-only meetings. The 70’s and 80’s saw droves of women coming into program, to a point where women equal or outnumber the men.

I regularly attend a women’s meeting and think of it as a safe, friendly and warm place to share and listen. This past week, one woman attended for her first time. She’s been in program for 25 years and is an “AA purist.” She’s told people over the years that she doesn’t believe there should be women-only meetings.

We’ve gently altered the readings, scrubbing gender references to use more neutral language. This enraged our purist. She grandly stood and proclaimed to the world that we should all be ashamed of ourselves and she wished us fitful sleeps. For reals.

For whatever reason, she decided to return to the meeting after dramatically storming out. She remained (relatively) civil for the remainder of the meeting until afterwards when one woman attempted to apologize for the “offensive” readings. The purist’s response was: “I hope you don’t die today for what you’ve done.”


Know Your Meme

It’s sparked a conversation among some of us about whether or not AA needs to evolve. Arguments can be made on both sides. I believe it needs to evolve to integrate aspects of the 21st century that the founders never could have considered (technology and social media, the loosening bond between church and state, etc.). Others believe the program is a complete package that works because of its traditions and should not be tinkered with.

I know I’m not the first to come into program, believing I can “make it even better” but I do want to be part of the evolution. There isn’t an agnostic meeting in my city and I want to explore the possibility of starting one this year. A lot of leg work will need to go into researching the local appetite for such a meeting and seeking out the right location (the traditional church basement doesn’t seem appropriate), but it could end up being a worthwhile project for me this year.

I wonder how the AA purist will react to an agnostic meeting? Is it wrong to secretly hope it causes her some anxiety? Yeah, I know… it’s wrong!

(My apologies if the shocked Daschie above is distracting as you’re reading, but he’s just so perfect for the reaction to “I hope you don’t die today”!)

Day 393

On the Eve of a Sober Birthday Celebration

It’s Monday, 9:00pm. At this time tomorrow night, I’ll be speaking at my AA group’s birthday celebration meeting. We are marking my 1 year, along with 5-year birthdays for 3 other members. My home group is a large group on its own, with around 50 people attending each meeting. For birthday meetings, that number easily exceeds 75. The butterflies are starting to flutter as I put the finishing touches on my 1 year coin speech. I plan on bringing extra Kleenex, wearing water-proof mascara, and doing my absolute best to live in the moment without giving in to anxiety as I deliver this message:

My name is Mental Rollercoaster and I’m an alcoholic.

I wanted “We, not I” engraved on my coin because it succinctly summarizes what AA has done for my life. I had isolated myself from my family for so long, that I forgot that it’s possible to be part of a We. I had convinced myself that I needed to hide my drinking and hide my pain from my husband and my family. I convinced myself that I was protecting them. They didn’t need to worry about me, on top of all of their own problems.

The truth is, I wasn’t protecting them. I was protecting my addiction. I knew that if I allowed them to get too close, they would not let me continue on the way that I was. I was protecting the addiction from them.

Now I am a part of the AA We and I am a We again in my marriage and with my family. Thank you for being patient with me and giving me a We to come back to.

I came into AA very lost and scared. I’d been drinking alcoholicly for close to 2 decades and I was quickly stumbling towards the finish line. Like so many of you, I’d tried staying sober on my own with zero success. On day 3 of sobriety, I started working with a therapist who is the reason I walked through the door of my first meeting.

My first meeting was the Women’s Meeting. At that first meeting, like everyone else, I was scared, emberassed and generally lost. A woman immediately welcomed me. She gave me a big book and sat with me until the meeting started, asking me how I was doing. I saw this woman at the Alkathon on Christmas Day and she told me that she wasn’t sure about me at that first meeting. She said I looked like I could be a runner. She couldn’t have been more right – I am a runner and had she not shown such compassion to me at that first meeting, I very likely wouldn’t have seen a second meeting. I thank her for being such a big part in saving my life.

I kept coming back and I heard “you have to get a sponsor.” For this painfully shy, isolating alcoholic, that was a terrifying prospect. I knew right away that I wanted Susie as my sponsor, but it took almost 2 months for me to get the courage to ask. I was so afraid to ask for help and even more afraid of rejection.

The anxiety was overwhelming for those 2 months. The night I knew I absolutely had to man-up and ask her, I was grabbing my keys off the counter and I thought “you know, I could just swing by the liquor store on my way. A couple of shots and I’ll totally have the courage to ask her.” That’s the insanity of this disease!

I am so incredibly grateful to have Susie as my sponsor. I know I haven’t been an easy one because I do have trouble reaching out, but she has read me perfectly from day 1. She’s known when I am ready and able to open up and she’s known when I need to clam up. The moment Susie agreed to sponsor me, I literally felt a shift from within. I felt the anxiety fly away and I felt a strong sense of “this is right.” As Susie would say: “Everything is as it should be.” Your support and wisdom has done more for me than I can ever express. I am so grateful to have your guidance in this journey.

To the people who came into AA before me, I thank you for carrying forward this program that saves lives. I thank you for taking in the newcomers under your wings. To the people who have come into AA after me, I applaud you. You are home; you’re where you need to be. Sobriety doesn’t have to be difficult. Life is difficult; AA makes sobriety manageable within life.

Thank you all for my sobriety.

Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net