The Perfect Storm

When the perfect storm of depression, mental illness and addiction comes together, it takes you to some very dark places. It’s difficult to put the internal storm into words for those who have never stood in its eye. Even now, as I’m typing, I’m separated from my last storm by only a couple of months, but the memories of the feelings, both physical and emotional, are fuzzy and difficult to articulate.

What I can say is that I am not surprised by Robin Williams’ suicide. As tragic, unexpected and painfully sad as his death is, I understand it. I suspect he was in the center of his own perfect storm.

Depression, in its most insidious form, removes all rational thoughts and memories and replaces them with truly irrational stand-ins. During my most lucid, rational, depression-free days, I know that I have a wide circle of family that loves me. However, in stormy times, I feel completely alone and as though no one in this world think twice if I ceased to exist.

That loneliness and isolating sadness is not just a thought, but something I know and physically feel. It’s during these times, when depression replaces rational thought with irrational, that suicide is possible. If I feel it in my soul that I will not be missed, then suicide becomes a real option that otherwise wouldn’t be considered.

I’ve been suicidal since 13 and over the past 25 years, the definition of “suicidal” has evolved a few times. Today, what it means for me is that I consider it in passing almost every day. I know that I will not do it today, but I regret that I didn’t do it 20+ years ago. I have the best handle on my suicidal thoughts today than I ever have, however it’s always still on the edge of my consciousness.

On top of living through depression, Robin Williams was an addict. He publicly acknowledged relapsing after 20 years of sobriety. Active addiction, recovery and relapse are all such powerful forces that they change any person who struggles through them. I cannot imaging the struggle through relapse after long-term sobriety; that alone must carry it’s own set of self-loathing irrationality.

I hope that his death has a ripple effect throughout the population. Of course we mourn, but my hope is that we consider his life, angst, and death from different angles. For this recovering alcoholic, it’s a reminder that even in recovery, when mixed with depression and other forms of mental illness, addiction changes the brain, giving irrational thoughts a disguise of normalcy. It’s what allows a person with long-term sobriety to pour a drink.

If I can ingrain that reminder in my head, like spray paint on a brick wall, I hope to keep it in the light during the next perfect storm. At the very least, it’s now painted here.

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

1 Year: Recovery and Reflections

Fireworks Show

It’s been one year since I’ve had a drink. Who knew that was even possible? Day 1 happened because I was hitting a new low every day. This is a progressive disease and after 20 years of alcohol abuse, I was at a point where my life had to significantly change or it was going to turn very badly, very quickly.

During my drinking career, I dodged a lot of bullets. I took a few flesh wounds, the kind you can recover from (job loss, bankruptcy), but I missed the really big ones. I am lucky to have retired from alcoholism without a criminal record. The possibility of a DUI and injuring someone was always right around the corner. Alcoholism lead me to take some very foolish risks on a daily basis.

I’ve had dozens of Day 1’s over the years and I’m still not sure which stars aligned one year ago to make that Day 1 different. I didn’t feel all that different that day. I knew that I had an appointment with a new therapist scheduled for Day 3, and I knew I shouldn’t drink until (at least) after that appointment.

So I made it to Day 3, met with my new therapist and cried the entire drive home. I had to pull over because I got lost driving through the tears. I was very guarded during the appointment, yet still I shared more during that hour than I’d ever shared before. It was hard and it was painful to pay mind to thoughts and feelings I’d previously worked so hard to drown. But I knew that I had to give therapy an honest chance. I was miserable and I knew that alcohol was going to kill me one way or another.

That got me through Day 4 and a few more. Through therapy, I summoned the courage to walk into AA. Again, I’m not sure which stars aligned to have that happen, but it’s become one of the unlikely pieces of my sober foundation. I am still amazed today that I ever walked into a meeting.

My sober foundation is strong today. I’m cautious, however, knowing my own history of self-sabotage: “I can handle a few drinks. Now that I know how bad it can get, I’ll just moderate myself.” That thought has been the starter’s pistol for many relapses over the years.

Today, one year in, I am a new version of myself. I have an idea of the me that I want to be, and there’s still some work to be done. But that doesn’t get me down because I know that I am capable of changing my reality. I’ve done it every day for the past year.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, which is laid out in black and white on this blog (usually more black than white). I’m grateful to have record of those days that were rough, to serve as a reality check when life feels great and I think “aw, what could it hurt?”.

Reaching the one year milestone is tremendous, but it’s not the end. I’m not magically fixed today and tomorrow will be no different than today when it comes to the day-to-day struggle that is alcoholism. No, it’s not the end, but it’s a thrilling and proud summit to reach.

Vacation Dreams (aka Nutty Vacation Sleeps)

When I left for a week’s vacation last Monday, I didn’t think I was overly-anxious about facing alcohol temptations. However, the first night’s sleep in my Floridian bed brought a vivid dream of me relapsing hard while away. Within the dream, my drunken self thought about the implications it had on my sobriety date and whether or not I could face AA again. It took a few beats once I woke up to put myself back into reality.

What brings on these vivid dreams? It seems as though we all experience them; FitFatFood recently blogged about a similar lucid dream. Was I more concerned about potential temptations than I realized?

Whatever the cause, that was the only alcohol-related dream that invaded my vacation. It was a great week of sun, swimming and shopping (way too much shopping).

When we arrived at my parents’ condo, I noticed that there wasn’t the usual display of liquor bottles that usually adorn the counter in Florida. Later, when my father was BBQ’ing burgers and I saw my mother come downstairs with a small red Solo cup for him, I realized they’d hid the booze in their bedroom.

Before they left for their usual 2 months in Florida, I told them that I’d asked my sister to store the contents of their liquor cabinet at her house while they are gone. Historically, while they’re down south, I would use their house as my drinking sanctuary. Although I’m confident in my sobriety, I was concerned about old, strong habits coming back.

I think this is why they made the booze in Florida less accessible, because this is the first time they’ve made any effort to minimize the presence of booze around me. They don’t drink to excess (most of the time, anyways), but it’s always there. I think this is progress. I don’t ever want someone to feel put-out because of my addiction, but their increased mindfulness is appreciated.

All-in-all it was a terrific week for rest and relaxation. However, by the end of the week, I was feeling a little “off.” Not in a way that made me concerned, just aware that my internal compass was put off slightly by a different routine. Back to work today (wish I could avoid that routine for another week!) and back to being grateful and amazed by the past year. Day 356 feels good.

 

Day 333: Recovery and Reflections

It’s easy to miss when you’re living the cumulative transformation, but when I really look at it, my life is monumentally different today compared to 1 year ago. Yes, there are physical changes that are noticeable to the outside world, but the most significant changes are on the inside. 

One year ago I was desperate to quit drinking, but I was as equally desperate to do it without anyone knowing what I was going through. I was scared, embarrassed and sick.

Fast forward to 3 o’clock this morning. I was driving myself and a friend home from an out-of-town bar. Wait, it’s not that kind of story; our hubbies are in a band that played lastnight. The 2 of us left early while the band packed up their gear.

During our 30 minute drive, my friend (whom I’ve known for only 8 months) told me a little about her previous 10-year relationship with an alcoholic that broke her heart. She also shared that she recently started thinking that she was drinking too much and quickly changed her habits to curtail the drinking. This friend (like most people in my life) had no previous knowledge of my alcoholism. She didn’t know me as a drinker.

“I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m an alcoholic,” I told her. I confirmed for her that no one can “fix” an alcoholic like her ex, no matter how much you love them. We then had an amazing, albeit brief, conversation about addiction and how devastating it can be.

After I dropped her off at home, I took note of how calm I felt. I had no anxiety prior to, during or after telling her I’m an alcoholic. This was the first time I’ve used that big scary word with a friend and I am completely at peace. This is not a conversation I would have  considered having one year ago.

Secrets make us sick. Having more and more people know my secret makes it harder to relapse. I’m slowly building an army of people who would instantly know I’m in trouble if I started drinking. In growing my army, I’m reducing the space that I can hide in.

And that’s how I’ll confidently get through day 333.

Day 280: Recovery and Reflections

Snow Globe Coaster

The metaphor of a rollercoaster works in my life in a couple of ways.  Most notably, in describing the ups and downs associated with bipolar II.  Another is in describing my commitment to any given task: I start out fully devoted and inevitably my enthusiasm wanes.

While this is likely a flaw that is connected with my ADHD, it’s something that I need to manage.  I used to allow myself to walk away from various undertakings, fooling myself into believing that I was simply “moving on.”  I can look back through the decades and see the wreckage in my life caused by “moving on” from various paths.

My weight has yo-yo’d a record-breaking number of times through my life because I easily abandon a healthy lifestyle that I’ve worked hard towards.  I’m back at the top of this particular rollercoaster: tracking calories, habitually hitting the gym, white-knuckling through the late-night Cheerio cravings.

I am nervous to admit that my enthusiasm for AA is waning.  The reservations I had about the program going in, seemed to melt away for a few months, giving me a calm acceptance of the rituals.  Today, I’m starting to feel some of those reservations surface again.  I see the dedication that some of these people have; 40 years of sobriety and they still attend 2-3 meetings a week.  Wait, what?

All of the speakers I’ve heard recently, while they were terrific storytellers, all of the stories were the same: “I was an atheist before I came to AA and once I opened the door a crack to my higher power, it was all I needed.  Now I believe.”  Great story, but the cynic in me is starting to sound the warning bell on this cult.

Part of what allowed me to be such a good alcoholic is that I’m always searching for an easy fix.  At the end of the year, I’ll start medication to control the ADHD.  I’m looking to this as a fix-all: one easy pill and I’ll be focused!  Not likely.

Ah the rollercoaster of life: managing daily responsibilities with a spinning mind and a thirst for vodka.  No wonder I’ve amounted to nothing in my 37 years; I allow life to hurtle along without any management.  Instant gratification has been my engine.  There’s so much work to do and my enthusiasm is fading.

Day 220: Recovery and Reflections

“I feel like I have you back.”

My husband and I have a relationship that rarely dips below the emotional surface.  Neither of us are good communicators and are usually quite happy to exist with our “everything’s fine” masks on.

Before I married my husband, I was a fighter.  I loved a good argument.  I would stuff my feelings until I started to overflow.  Stir in an unhealthy amount of alcohol and I would inevitably start a fight.

Hubby doesn’t play along.  He avoids conflict at all costs.  Early on in our marriage, when I was still trying to start the occasional argument, his reaction would be to go to another room and avoid me for hours.  Sure, in the beginning, it would further enrage me, but I’ve learned over the years to not try to engage him.  I’ve slowly, through this forced behavioural therapy, become someone who avoids the conflict as well.

Sometimes that means avoiding conversation that could lead to conflict.  So here we are: rarely talking about anything more than current events.

Tonight we had a quiet moment after work, just sitting still without the tv on.  We were chatting about “surface” items and I gently pushed for more.

Ring“Do you notice any changes since I’ve stopped drinking?” 

“Yeah, a lot.  I feel like I have you back.  I feel like I’ve got the person I married back.”

That’s how I’ll get through day 220.