In early recovery when I shared in 12-Step meetings I was filter-less. There wasn’t a topic off the table in my desperate attempt to stay clean. One night in 1989 I attended a late night meeting in Hollywood California when I probably had 8 months clean and was going through a new layer of painful feelings. I knew I needed to share some risky stuff but the room was filled with terminally hip rock and rollers I was dying to befriend and I didn’t want to be uncool. I went to the podium despite my ego and insecurities and shared that even though I owned my decision to be sexually active in casual relationships, I was questioning whether I was self-servingly open about my history with sex work and current employment as a nude dancer as a way to hide my real self behind the “sexual free spirit” image I put forth in recovery or if some part of me believed I was valueless and sex was all I had to offer. The second my mouth closed I felt the horror of vulnerability and shame. I wanted to evaporate into thin air. When the meeting ended there was a line of people waiting to speak with me. Every single one identified with what I’d shared and they started to tell me things about themselves they’d never told a soul. I realized that night how important honest discussions about sex are to our recovery and also how rare they are. Twenty years later I asked the founders of IntheRooms if I could host an open discussion video event about sex in recovery in the hope that members will bring this conversation to their face-to-face sober communities.
Well the conversation has begun and I’m THRILLED to announce that Jennifer Matesa is my guest for this week’s SEX TALK. We’ll discuss her latest book “SEX IN RECOVERY: A Meeting between the Covers” which will be released on October 4th. I do not say this lightly – this book is a must-read for anyone in the recovery community. It is a well-researched exploration of sexuality through the lens of recovery and is filled with personal stories and questions to contemplate individually, with your recovery community, or “book club” style.
Jen has done a masterful job combining the intimacy of her own story and interviews with a diverse demographic of recovering individuals while exploring big questions about sex, shame, privacy, trauma, sexual health, sexual stigma, and our right to sexual pleasure. I’m dying to quote long sections of the book here – especially the section on the lack of scientific research on the long-term psychological and physical consequences of sexual dysfunction that occurs on replacement drugs such as Suboxone and Methadone – but I think it will be more fun to discuss some of the content on SEX TALK. In the meantime, listen to her I LOVE RECOVERY CAFE interview with Nicola O’Hanlon at http://ow.ly/jiXa304EGVR
Jen’s been a longtime member of IntheRooms who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know outside of the cyber world. Her award winning blog, Guinevere Gets Sober chronicles her early years and personal experiences in sobriety and has gone onto to explore and comment on current trends in addiction treatment and the politics behind the drug war as it re-brands itself as a war against addiction. Her first recovery book, “The Recovery Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober” (Hazelden 2014) provides readers with a fact-based roadmap toward health and spiritual wholeness.
SEX TALK is a free live video event on www.intherooms.com . The website is free but you must join to participate. You can also attend the event from your iPad of cell by using the InTheRooms app. It is open to everyone in recovery. The group provides the momentum and steers the content. We keep the focus on the feelings experienced around sex and intimacy. Attendees can come into the main video box with a question or share their experience. Anyone who’s uncomfortable being seen can step off camera. If anonymity is of utmost importance shoot me an instant message with a question to relay to the group.
The following post is based on a series of conversations that keep popping up lately. I use a masculine pronoun but this story is not gender specific. Perhaps this blog will hit home for some people new to recovery. To be clear, the situation I’m describing involves having a partner who’s a casual consumer of substances – not someone heavily dependent or in the grips of their own addiction.
You did it. You’re finally clean and sober. What an achievement! Maybe you’ve even been exercising, hitting some yoga classes, and spending as much time as you can with your new sober friends. In fact, the only thing that feels shitty is going home to your partner.
Driving home you find yourself praying his car won’t be in the driveway. Sometimes just the thought of him unleashes a flood of negative feelings you swallow down. You walk into the house and feel the hate rising when you see him. Oblivious, he smiles and asks how the meeting went. Then he gets up to give you a kiss and inwardly you collapse into confusion, wondering if you’re going to have to divorce him. You see, he isn’t tormented over his substance use and has no desire to stop. Because he suffered through your suffering, he was 100% behind your decision to get clean. Compared to what you’ve heard from other people in recovery, you have it easy. No complaints when you head out to a 12-step meeting after dinner, always willing to watch the kids, to leave parties early, and not force you to go anywhere you feel jeopardizes your recovery. Yet, you resent him so much for not offering to quit using for you that you’ve convinced yourself the clock’s ticking on this relationship. When you aren’t angry, you feel guilty or jealous. Sometimes you start wondering if being sober is worth it.
Do you remember what motivated you to enter into recovery? It was the solution to your pain and suffering. Try not to lose sight of this simple truth. After you’ve been sober for a short time and the pain diminishes, you may get amnesia and forget why you are sober. What’s really happening is that with the pain of using gone, you’re starting to experience an avalanche of feelings. This is the “roller-coaster” you hear people in recovery talking about. Usually it’s like being hit by waves of anxiety and depression. Your mind will try to search for something to blame it on. Fear of feelings always underlies our attempts at control. If we can figure out who or what is at the source of our emotional discomfort, we can get rid of it. Or in this case, get rid of him. The disease-mind will start laser focusing on the problem and convince you that you have two choices – leave him or drink. Black and white thinking. Divorce or drink.
While it’s normal to feel disappointed that you can’t always get what you want, you do have a choice about whether to see the glass half full or half empty. Loving support is valuable. Stay in conscious gratitude for anything that is making it easier for you to attend to your sober needs. At this time keep the focus on yourself and stay close to your support system. Continue to exercise, meditate, go to meetings and talk about your feelings with your sober friends and therapist (if you have one). Remember, no one responds well to the pressure of recruitment. Try to accept that for now he may not have the same relationship to drugs and alcohol that you have. If he isn’t suffering, he isn’t suffering – and without a private pain connected to his using, there’s nothing to motivate him into recovery. Very few people surrender in any kind of real way if it is forced upon them. No one knows what the future holds but one thing is true – the disease-mind uses words like “never” and “forever” in connection to all unpleasant feelings and difficult life situations. This is untrue. Our lives (and our inner-lives) are ever-changing. Keep the focus on yourself. Practice patience and tolerance, and apply the golden rule by treating him with the love compassion and respect that you want for yourself. Stay close to your support and allow time to pass. More will be revealed.
The emotional roller-coaster has very little to do with anything other than your brain chemistry responding to being cut off from drugs and alcohol. It will eventually come to an end and your emotions will stabilize. You’ll experience moments of equanimity and be able to assess your situation, your needs, and your relationship more clearly. This may be a time to consider couples’ therapy to work through any distress that may linger.
Applying “live and let live” isn’t always easy, especially when it involves your intimate romantic relationship or life partner. As a newcomer it’s better to trust in the process of recovery and allow some time to pass rather than take impulsive actions in response to chaotic feelings. Avoid causing irreparable damage you may regret.
I began 2014 with a commitment to spend the year blogging more about how to enrich an already clean and sober lifestyle – how to have more fun and increase feelings of wellbeing. For 2015 I want to get back to basics and address early recovery – creating coping skills, what to expect, and how to ride out the tough spots without relapsing.
There is a misconception that the majority of people who get clean do it as part of a New Year’s resolution. If that were the case, every January there would be ridiculous amounts of people celebrating anniversaries in 12-Step programs. I’m talking out of the ballpark numbers. The truth is, attendance at most 12-Step meetings doesn’t go up noticeably in January. My guess is that many addicts spend January and February deep in self-loathing for not being able to comprehend why their countless attempts to control or abstain keep failing. Maybe January is a month for New Year Resolutionists to hit bottom. This year my blog is geared to helping people create lifestyle changes to support sustainable recovery, ease stress, and put an end to isolation.
Whenever I begin working with new clients one of my goals is to create new healthy lifestyle habits, create a weekly routine and to guide them through their resistance to all of it. There’s a predictable pattern. They start out willing to do whatever I suggest because they want to stay clean and sober and are motivated by fear of failure. A couple weeks into this routine and they’re complaining that they’re exhausted, that they can’t keep going at this pace without everything in their life falling apart, and that I can’t possibly understand how serious this is. I call this the “whiney phase’. This is when we fine-tune the routine to make sure there’s enough balance so they’re not in a genuine prolonged state of HALT (hungry angry lonely tired). This crankiness (which usually occurs between 14-30 days) passes and the benefits of implementing these new activities begin kicking in to bring on good feelings and a noticeable lessening of stress.
Anyone’s who been to rehab remembers the intense daily schedules – moving from one activity to the next. God knows I never was happy to be doing jumping jacks in a rainy yard early in the morning. Every day the addicts would get together and complain that the seemingly pointless daily routine business was because they needed to justify keeping us for 30 plus days.
Here is why it is important to create a weekly schedule in early recovery:
1. The worst-case scenario is for a newly sober addict to have hours pass with nothing to do except think. The disease is still very strong and loud in the weeks following that last drug or drink. The “feed me feed me feed me” mantra is the basis of restlessness, anxiety, depression, insomnia, mood swings, even physical symptoms of extended withdrawal. It can make us believe a headache is surely evidence of the need for a future lobotomy. And the worst part of all of this inner chatter is that left alone, our humor about ourselves dwindles rapidly. Taking the “edge off” becomes appealing and less frightening.
2. Exercise, yoga, meditation, healthy eating, time with friends, leisure time for activities (sports/movies/live music/dancing/comedy), 12-step meetings (or whatever recovery support groups you attend) added onto your daily routine will promote energy, mental clarity, reduce stress, improve sleep and leave you less time to think about yourself in negative ways. Regardless of what hopeless negative chatter your mind may want to kick up, you will have evidence that each day you are staying on point and are willing to go to ANY LENGTH to stay clean and move toward goals of happiness, inner peace, and freedom from fear of feelings. Your daily life is recovery in action.
How does all of this begin – especially for people who are new to recovery doing this on their own?
Create a hard copy (pen and paper) weekly calendar and a copy into your cell calendar with notifications. Each morning set alarm reminders on your phone for activities, appointments, meetings etc. Find a system that works for you. The main thing is that you plan your week ahead of time so you don’t spontaneously over-commit yourself at the expense of screwing up your day.
Here is an example of a weekly recovery plan.
Make a list of 12-Step (or alternative) meetings you will attend for one week. This way you won’t agree to working overtime or driving the kids without knowing what is at stake and having time to find an alternative meeting you can put into your schedule rather than believing you’ve screwed up and now have to miss the meeting. Remember – sustainable recovery is something you build through effort. By sticking to this early recovery lifestyle to-do list you have daily evidence that recovery IS your priority no matter what negative crap goes on in your head.
In your weekly planner include 30-60 minutes a day outside (walking, exercising, relaxing). Include 3-5 hour slots for fitness (whatever that looks like for you).
Make time to spend with other recovering addicts/alcoholics and a checklist of new people to contact via email, on www.intherooms.com chat, phone calls. Reach out and try to build a support group.
Always plan so that you have food and time to eat. Skipping meals or waiting too long to eat tends to make people cranky, outright angry, or weepy.
If you feel like you have been running non-stop to get everything done from the minute your alarm went off until you are about to turn in – take an extra 20 minutes to unwind with some music, YouTube a calming guided meditation, take a relaxing bath, or create your own end of day chill out space to reflect and unwind.
In the coming weeks I will elaborate on every activity that helps strengthen recovery and explain not only how to do it without it costing any money but also what the short and long-term payoffs are.
Remember – within the first couple weeks of following a daily recovery routine it’s normal to feel exhausted and overwhelmed and want to crawl back in bed and say fuck it. Power through this phase. Remember the agony of creating healthy habits is temporary and nothing compared to the agony of wanting to get clean and being unable to surrender again.
I wonder how many people reading this pre-Christmas blog are thinking about giving up their clean time to “enjoy” a few drinks over the holidays?
I wrote, “enjoy” in quotes because when the disease speaks to us it tends to create advertising strategies that would rival the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. For example, a couple years ago I was passing a park in New York City when the smell of weed hit me and a voice in my head responded with, “That smells RELAXING”. It was such an absurd adjective to describe weed that I recognized it as an impulsive ploy by the disease to try to get me to relapse. In fact, immediately following the word “relaxing” came “All you have to do is walk into that park and take a hit off that joint and you won’t have to write a recovery book and you can walk away from all the pressures that come with being self-employed“. Of course there is more to the story – it was the 4th of July and I hadn’t made plans so I was feeling sorry for myself and a little lonely. I was exhausted and hadn’t had a day off in ages and I did have a lot of writing deadline pressure – in a sense, it was a perfect storm of ongoing stress and HALT for the disease to gain a bit of a voice again (after 23 years clean). This is what is meant when we tell newcomers to respect the power of the disease – it’s always looking for a way to regain control. I loved heroin but if it takes weed to get me back to heroin, then the relapse-strategy of the disease will use weed. If you were a meth addict, a glass of wine will appear harmless by comparison (in the strategy of the disease mind). Pay attention to the way you think about drugs and alcohol this holiday season. The subtle use of language in your head is a trick the disease will try to use to gain traction. It’s part of the disease’s seduction.
It might use the color of wine or the rarely used holiday cocktail glasses you see at a party to get your attention or the jolly bar scene that appears through the window as you pass by on a snowy night. Rarely will the disease let you equate Christmas “cheer” with a syringe or a crack pipe. Instead, it will suggest partaking in the midnight champagne toast on New Years, or spiked eggnog on Christmas. Maybe it will start by tricking you into eating a dessert that you already know is dosed with rum. Recovering addicts and alcoholics can’t afford to get amnesia over the holidays. We must be alert to our actions and tell on the bargaining voice that assures us that we “are not in danger”.
Amnesia is how relapse begins.
I am currently with someone who is in withdrawal from Suboxone. When she started to use pills after several years clean, she’d convinced herself that the emotional pain and discomfort she was experiencing (over romantic disappointment) was greater than the pain of opiate withdrawal. Another way amnesia plays into relapse is that it distorts the hellish process we went through before we were ever able to summon the courage to get through detox. You know – the voice that says “It’s okay to drink throughout the holidays because you can get sober again in the New Year”. We forget all the times we tried to get clean but couldn’t make it 48 hours before giving up.
This holiday blog is meant as a reality check for anyone who is bargaining with himself or herself over whether or not to drink or get high this holiday season.
Yesterday was my friend’s first day off of 2 mgs of Suboxone (which, by the way, she got down to through an outpatient detox of 6 weeks. This involved a weekly taper which was equal to low level withdrawal misery). Last night she continually shifted from the bed to the floor, to the tub, to blankets, to no blankets while she went from sweating to freezing. It brought it back home to me – that horrible sensation of being so uncomfortable in your bones that no position allows for sleep. I could hear her moan, whimper, and weep all night long. There’s no way through it except through it – and by late tonight the worst will be over. Hopefully by Christmas she is through the physical withdrawal because we’ll be able to address the anxiety and depression that always follows detox by going to meetings and using stress reduction tools. A year ago when she relapsed, she really believed her emotional pain was so great that the only thing that could relieve it was a narcotic. Watching her pay the price for this error of judgment last night was heartbreaking. Alone with our mind, our disease will always suggest that life is more painful than active addiction. This is the amnesia I speak of. This is the lie.
Cravings always come about as a result of feelings and lack of self-care. When I talk about holidays being trigger times, I don’t mean that they will come in obvious ways. Instead, they’ll appear as an advertising campaign equating joy and community, intimacy and alcohol OR they will be in response to feelings of insecurity around specific people we have a history with, or in response to the void we feel around the grief of people who are no longer here. Cravings will kick up around loneliness, grief, disappointment, insecurity, hopelessness, and future fears. It will appear as nostalgia for a time when drugs and alcohol worked to bring relief and intensify good times, nostalgia for youth and innocence. The cravings will not be obvious connect-the-dots stuff. It might be a certain smell, or a body memory, or self pity that gets a voice in your head rationalizing how you can control it this time, stop when you want, use one drug and avoid others.
You do not have to be the victim of addict amnesia. There are tools to address every feeling, a fellowship and a community of people in your support network to share your deepest fears with, preventative actions and exit strategies you can put into place before stepping into environments where there are people drinking and using this holiday season. And most of all – minimize your time alone no matter how long you have been sober. Even if you insist that holidays have no power of you, the disease knows where you are vulnerable. It will manufacture a pro-alcohol advertising campaign in your thoughts while creating amnesia so that it’s impossible to get a reality check on what is truly at stake if you relapse.
Have a safe and happy holiday. Reach out. Volunteer. Don’t be alone.
In my teens and twenties, I fell in love with reading novels that blurred the line between fact and fiction. I would read everything I could get my hands on about each author so I could tease out the real story from what was in the novel. What I discovered disappointed me. Other than the adventures that inspired their fictitious pages, nothing much happened in their downtime. For example, Jack Kerouac sat in an easy chair watching TV and drinking beer with his mother for months on end. I realize that this was when they did their writing but it was a letdown to my nineteen-year old self. I saw no value in ordinary days.
During the early days of getting clean and sober it’s such an overwhelming experience that the process of adjusting to life on its own terms is an adventure all its own. The high highs and low lows are almost comforting because emotional instability is familiar to us. We may cry that we want inner peace but what we usually mean is that we want a little less intensity.
Once that inner turmoil normalizes, most of us go through a phase of creating drama because anything less feels like boredom. The no-drama grey area is too uncomfortable. We act out in anger, start arguments, begin gossiping, act inappropriately on the job, go hunting for sexual or romantic companionship – anything to not have to feel bored.
In time we gain experience living without having to Ping-Pong between highs and lows and we start to find comfort in the grey area. We can sit with our feelings. We’re surprise when we discover that drama no longer seduces us. Life goes on. We exercise, meditate, create goals, get hobbies and develop new interests, and attain healthy relationships.
But do we ever really value our ordinary days? I still get caught up in goals and deadlines, projects unfinished, the pressure of time passing. I savor the fun stuff as much as my peace of mind but sometimes I wonder if part of me still the 19-year old longing for on-the-page adventure while undervaluing the ordinary day. I know most people – not just people in recovery – plan activities to look forward to and “get through” the days leading up to them. Practicing mindfulness brings us into the moment but do we really feel gratitude for dull daily routines?
It isn’t until we are faced with crisis, loss, grief, tragedy, health issues, or a relationship storm that all we want is for things to “go back to normal”. Gratitude comes as a reminder that we have it good. Gratitude may cross our minds when we watch the news and realize the horrors people experience but sustaining feelings of gratitude requires conscious effort when day after day is filled up by work, laundry, grocery shopping, errands, and the whole “to-do” list. Sure, life always presents new adventures and excitement – we know this from experience – but the majority of the time it’s the typical “day in a life” stuff. It’s no different than what I learned about the favorite writers of my youth.
Recently someone new to recovery shared a gratitude list with me. It was simple: health, family and ordinary days. The words “gratitude for ordinary days” jumped off the page and shifted my perspective on my own life. I wanted to share it in the hope that it does the same for you.
Before I got clean I would sit around thinking about all the extra money I’d have if I ever stopped getting high. I had a hole the size of a quarter in the sole of my boot and every day I would do the math of my drug expense and think “I probably cook up and inject the equivalent of a few pairs of expensive boots every week”. After I got clean, however, I realized there was very little in the world that could compel me to come up with money the way drugs did. I didn’t have the extra hundreds in my hand because suddenly I was doing things like paying rent and feeding myself – stuff that hadn’t mattered before.
The same thing goes for creative and career dreams that once had a specific place in my fantasy life while I was getting high. I imagined all the things I would do once all my time wasn’t spent on feeding my habit. And, like most people in recovery, the minute I got clean I felt like I had to make up for all the lost years – starting immediately.
So whether or not I followed through on my to-do list of steps to take to realize my dreams, every waking hour I carried inside of me the insane pressure to be doing more than I was. No matter what I accomplished in the course of a day, I always felt like there was more to do. My head rambled on a continuous to-do list no matter whether I was actively productive or laying in bed at the end of the day. It was akin to holding down a computer key. And no matter what I accomplished or how happy and satisfied I felt, a voice in my head always insisted on more. It always left me feeling like I was not doing enough. This managed to keep me in some state of anxiety. Ongoing low-level stress is that “on edge” feeling that has the power to turn sour and turn into sadness or depression. It’s that inner voice, ignored or not, that insists that all is not well despite evidence to the contrary. In recovery-speak we call it “beating ourselves up” or negative self-talk. And it is a place the disease uses to distort our perception that the glass is always half empty and that we are never enough. Without drugs, our disease manages to stay alive inside our habit of creating a life that is too busy for us to find balance. Balance is always key to well being because it reduces stress.
Try to imagine our brain looking like dry riverbeds in the California desert. Every time we experience stress it’s like a flash flood. Every time we got high or drunk, every traumatic event was experienced as a full-on flash flood. What we end up with is a very deep river bed. It takes a lot of stress to fill these up to the levels that drugs would fill them. So, drug free, these pathways keep waiting for the big rain. When we first get clean the immediate drop in the water table (so to speak) is why we feel completely insane with anxiety. This is that feeling of exposed raw nerves during withdrawal. As we stay clean, the stress is lowered, in part because our brain slowly adapts to a lesser level of metaphoric rain filling our riverbeds but it is also because our new behaviors begin to deepen other pathways. In recovery, our healthy behaviors actually re-route our neurological pathways. We repair much of the damage active addiction caused our brain and begin to balance out our equilibrium. Nonetheless, our ridiculously imposing to-do lists keep our brains dampened by a low level of stress which in turn keeps our disease engaged enough to trigger other negative feelings. If we feel bad enough long enough, using starts to seem like a reasonable solution to “take the edge off” our feelings.
This is why it is important to create a daily routine that balances the workload with self-care and relaxing activities. This is why people go to the gym before or after work, why it feels like a weight has been lifted after yoga class, why laughter at a dinner with friends feels so good. Without these things, life becomes a soul-sucking job and no matter how successful we are, if we put pressure on ourselves every minute to be productive, if we hold our own whipping stick, at the end of the day no matter how much we’ve accomplished the feeling of being spent outweighs the satisfaction of a job well done.
I am not suggesting that we need to shoot lower with our goals or modify our dreams to less than we desire. I believe we need to accept our human limitations and that we’re best able to live a life of lower stress if we plan our day to include healthy decompressing time. This needs to be as high on the priority scale as anything to do with work and life errands. I realize that parenting involves placing other people’s needs at the top of the list and that there is often very little or no time to breathe on weekdays. So how can parents create daily balance to take care of themselves? One way would be to use family car time to play games, tell jokes or sing songs. Consciously create pleasurable activities wherever you are. For parents who have to kill time while their kids are in afterschool activities, bring along a book (fiction not self help). Audio books are great for taking a breather from self-obsession. Breathing meditations or guided meditations downloaded onto an IPod can be done anywhere (even at your work desk or in the office restroom). Take a few minutes throughout the day to stretch your body, to step outside and take in any natural beauty you can find. All of these little actions will add up to a big payoff – even for people who don’t get time alone until everyone else is in bed.
It takes practice to create stress-reducing activities and – trust me – the addict mind and the stress riverbeds in your brain will put up a lot of resistance – but a conscious effort will result in change. In time, self-care behaviors will come as effortlessly as breathing. It takes time to re-route our brains away from the pathways that were created prior to recovery but it will happen. Peace of mind and the ability to take on the responsibilities of a full ambitious life can co-exist.
Almost everyone who gets clean and sober goes through a period where they experience a ton of negative feelings toward the people they love the most. I’m not talking about people they love who they’ve recently met in recovery. These feelings are specifically ignited inside of us by people who have known us the longest. I’m talking about our family members and long-term romantic partners. The ones where our love-roots go deepest. Why are they the ones who make us feel the craziest after we get clean?
Often these are the people we still share the least about ourselves with. When we were getting high, we withheld information to protect them because we knew our self destructive actions would have caused them incredible pain or we simply hid our lives rather than risk them getting in the way our our drug use. Once we get clean, they usually have no idea what we are processing or the amount of work that goes into our healing. We start to resent them for not taking interest in our recovery and we feel unsupported. We compare the depth of our new recovery relationships and feel cheated at home. We can’t believe they expect that now we’re off drugs, we’re “back to normal”. It’s very possible they avoid asking questions that may yield answers because they feel safe in their denial and do not want anyone (us) to mess with it. There are many reasons why the people who love us the most keep up an impenetrable shield.They simply may not be ready.
In recovery we share intimate parts of ourselves with our support group only to return to our loved ones and have it feel like no one is interested in truly knowing us. This is never more painful than during the early months of recovery. Not getting what we believe we need from our family has the ability to make us feel unsafe, unloved, misunderstood, insecure, resentful, hurt, and it turns us into character assassins (as we start deciding what is wrong with them). This is when we must lean into our recovery support group and to remember to keep breathing and to keep our mouth shut. Damage control not only saves them from attack and injury but also saves us from the remorse shame and regret we will surely feel if we inflict pain on people we know we truly love – even if we aren’t particularly feeling it at the moment.
In early recovery we are finally becoming honest with ourselves, doing the hard work of looking at our wreckage, at our shortcomings, and we’re becoming acquainted with our emotional life. It takes a while to land into our feelings and start to heal old wounds.Demanding other people to meet us half way is unfair. Remember, it was our suffering that motivated us to seek recovery in the first place. Pain was the impetus. God only knows what pain our loved ones have endured in their own lives or in relation to us while we were wrapped up in ourselves. They’re going to change when they’re ready – and maybe never. True acceptance of this fact might not happen for years but punishing them because they do not meet our new expectations is – well – it’s selfish (and not very spiritual). Especially when we don’t know for sure if what we’re thinking or feeling is accurate. This is why we practice unconditional love and patience with the people we love. We need to trust that how we feel right now is not permanent. Things are going to change. We’ll keep changing and this will have a positive impact on our relationships over time – whether we believe it or not.
Keep breathing, bite your tongue, leave the house to take walks when you need personal space. When you are at your wits’ end and don’t know what else to do treat them with kindness, forgiveness and compassion. Take your cell outside and rant and rave to friends who will let you unload. Get through the early months of recovery without causing more harm to yourself and others. Love is complicated. No matter what happens with these relationships, whether they turn out according to your greatest hopes or not – you will be okay. Trust the process.
Our buttons get pushed because we crave connection and love. We also probably harbor some fear of what they might have on us that we aren’t prepared to hear. Sometimes this fear is what’s causing us to want to write these relationships off. The good news is that by working on yourself and finding peace you will inspire others to do the same. Families can heal together. Time is where the magic happens.
I’m a recovering addict who doesn’t like to feel shitty. I’ve discovered through years of trial and error that taking positive actions (especially when I don’t want to) that support my emotional and physical well-being pays off. I’ve lived through 25 years of season changes without getting high and have learned how to surf them with some grace. This is what I hope to share in my blogs – practical tips on how to cope with whatever life throws your direction without getting high.
Believe it or not – changing seasons have the power to wake up the disease (of addiction) and this can cause a lot of emotional discomfort.
I wrote Part One of this blog two weeks ago and since then everyone I talk to says they’ve been feeling crazy. A lot of people are going through a hard time this month and people in early recovery seem to be feeling it the worst.
The good news is that, for the majority of people I’ve spoken to, the root of their discomfort is connected to the change of weather and not their deep core issues. Though many of them fail to recognize this. When recovering addicts feel bad, the first thing they do is intellectualize and over-analyze their emotional life to get a false sense of control over it. When this fails they get filled by overwhelming helplessness. Some people will be experiencing some level of seasonal affective disorder because they slacked off on basic daily doses of fresh air and exercise all winter and they probably lived on comfort foods rather than a healthy balance of fresh vegetables and fruit. The good news is that these feelings – like all feelings –will pass. The current blahs and waves of depression hitting you this year don’t have to be repeated.
Recovery lifestyle changes are easier to embrace when you are given a choice between feeling good or feeling lousy. If you read this blog regularly you’re probably sick of hearing this – but trust me, physical activity pays off long-term in so many ways. You don’t have to become a crazy gym fanatic. Hike, walk, jump rope, bicycle – just move your body in the winter months. When its zero degrees no one wants to go outside. Do it for springtime sanity. Play it forward.
The change in weather is going to have an affect on you. Your energy may feel unsteady. Some days you’ll feel tired yet the weather is making you believe you should be super energized. A voice in your head is now blaming you for not having energy – like it’s somehow your own fault, like you are ruining a perfect day by being tired. Jeez – there’s nothing like the negative self-talk of the addict mind! Instead of staying stuck inside your head try this – accept that today you’re tired. Set lower goals and be gentle with yourself. Maybe you just need some rest. A lot of people experience a shift in their sleep patterns. Be patient. Don’t judge yourself. Honest – it is all going to even out.
It’s not just us – everything’s messed up. Trees were without buds late this year then almost overnight flowers opened. We are not alone. A shift is happening and nothing seems to be running smoothly. (It was seventy degrees yesterday and tonight its twenty-four). Whatever your body is doing energy-wise allow it to be where it is at. Stop expecting more of yourself. The renewal energy of spring is going to happen for you. It’s always our internal struggle with acceptance that feeds the disease. When our body feels off and we decide that our entire life feels off. We feel like shit so our life is shit. The worse we can make ourselves feel, the more that cocktail two tables over is going to call out to us, the more we’re going to want to linger in the scent of a joint that passed us on the sidewalk. The disease will point out drug or alcohol solutions to these feelings whenever it can – and our job is to recognize where these triggers are coming from – the dis-ease we feel internally. Recognize it and let it go. Getting high will not make things better. It is not the solution. Trust me – during springtime these ideas are going to pop into your head without warning. This is a trick so don’t turn it into something wielding power over you. Call a friend in your support system. You never have to tough it out alone.
This is the rollercoaster of seasonal changes: Lust, thirst, anxiety over lust, anxiety over cravings, melancholia over memories (which are often memories of times when drugs and alcohol still worked and these may involve outdoor patio cocktail memories), loneliness will accompany lust, financial insecurity may arise at the thought of needing new clothes or appear as harsh self judgment over not having money to buy thing you feel you can’t live without.. While beauty starts to spring up all around us with the rebirth of spring, on the inside we may be digging ourselves deeper into self-centered despair. Again, this is when you need to reach out and get together with friends. At a time of turning the soil over on our most powerful negative feelings, we need to step into the sunshine of community and of service – volunteer to garden in the community or find a volunteer position that is of personal interest to you. Get out among people.
If you are in early recovery and unsure what is going on inside of you – what is real from what may be the obsession or a general sense of hopelessness the solution is always in connecting to other people in recovery and disclosing what you are going through. You do not have to tough it out alone. These feelings are temporary. They may last a day or a week but they will pass. Soon you will land in a comfort zone and will be present to experience the vitality of the new season. This rollercoaster ride will come to an end.
When I was a little girl I would listen to Miss Peggy Lee singing, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is?” Even at seven years old I felt this song deep in my bones. Listening to it now, it so profoundly describes a feeling so familiar to addicts and alcoholics. In the song the solution is booze and dancing but in recovery how do we get through those days when we feel bored, lonely, unsatisfied and empty – days when our disease holds us hostage to these disproportionately magnified feelings?
I looked in the mirror and a blonde woman with a suntan stared back. I didn’t recognize myself. Was I really wearing pink gym shorts and sneakers? I ripped off my tortoise shell sunglasses and started looking for track marks, scars, something to prove it was really me. New Age music came over the speakers and two men began discussing their mutual enlightenment.
“John, when I first heard you lead a meditation, I found myself carried away by the melodic rhythm of your voice and suddenly I envisioned myself conducting and entire symphony around you.”
“Oh that’s beautiful” replied John as he droned on about his twenty-five years in Twelve-Step communities. That’s when it hit me. My track marks were gone. My punk rock youth was over. And all I seemed to care about was healing my inner child and shopping at the Beverly Center. My God – what happened to my personality?
I wrote the above story when I had just over two years clean. I’d been on a pink cloud most of that time, super-happy with the life I’d put together from scratch in recovery. There’d been no warning signs that everything would change with one glance into a mirror. Shortly after this experience, I shut my down my life in Los Angeles and spent six months alone in a car traveling the country, reflecting and writing a novel. Rather than allow my existential identity crisis to push me toward a relapse, it motivated me to pursue my dreams.
Fast-forward to six years later. I’m in a therapy session saying, “I go to meetings, I work out, I’m of service, I eat healthy, I have good friends, I’m in therapy – but really- big fucking deal. Is this it? Is this all there is? I feel so bored and crazy. Where’s the euphoria?” I knew I was going to leave her office and stir up the pot. The feeling of restlessness and urgency was familiar – it was what drove me out to buy drugs back in the day. I knew I didn’t want to get high but I craving something to make me feel more alive and, like with drugs, felt powerless to stop myself once the idea got into my head. Within days I’d seduced a dangerously attractive unavailable young active alcoholic and I’d started smoking. I have to admit I felt pretty badass and was charged with the electricity of that euphoric high I’d been craving.
Within weeks I was back in my therapist’s chair only now I was crying. I felt lost from myself – anchorless. All I wanted was to go back to the way I felt before I abandoned myself with escapist behaviors. And I was pissed. Why does everything that makes me feel more “alive” always have the price of self-abandonment attached to it?
I mention these two stories because in both cases I was hit by the same feeling – that life on life’s terms was not enough. At the time I didn’t know how to value peace of mind and I didn’t know how to find comfort in the grey areas of day to day life on its own terms. I was still grieving and romanticizing aspects of the unpredictability of my former drug-using life. I wanted drug-like excitement without picking up a substance.
While the first existential identity crisis lead me on a six-month odyssey of America rediscovering and challenging myself, it wasn’t an impulsive act. That road trip required patience and planning. The second story illustrates a pretty typical addict response to feelings of restlessness. It’s usually knee-jerk compulsive self-destructive behavior disguised as fun.
In recovery there will be days when life on life’s terms will not be enough to satisfy you; days when boredom will make you pace like a wild animal desperate to break out of the cage. The disease gets a lot of mileage from the language of denial. I considered myself “unstoppable” rather than compulsive. If I’d been able to recognize that the intense pull toward acting-out was a compulsion I was powerless over, I could have applied some recovery principles to it. Instead I saw surrender as a compromise of “my free spirit”. Besides, even in recovery I’ve often been willing to suffer the consequences to get what I want when I want it. Thing is – although the consequences are always the same, when I set out on a mission for thrills. I forget the price is always some version of feeling lost from myself, of being lost and anchorless at sea.
The ability to sit with my feelings – especially the ones that can be avoided by thrill-seeking behaviors – didn’t happen over night. First I had to become willing – which happened when I was no longer willing to pay the price that came with avoiding them and then I needed courage to have blind faith that if I sat with my feelings they would not destroy me. I quickly discovered that the emotional discomfort didn’t last long. Feelings pass – even cravings for excitement pass.
The key to gracefully getting through the existentially angsty days is to let go of the need to make shit happen as a solution to feelings. Sit with the feelings no matter how much the disease is screaming for you to not sit still. Trust me – this can save you ridiculous amounts of negative consequences and inner turmoil. Meditation and breathing can help with this. If you suspect that you’re meant to shift gears or make major changes, you will know it because the need to force change won’t be there. I am NOT saying that life in recovery can’t be exciting. Maybe it will be more exciting if you can stop imposing your old ideas of excitement onto it and see where you end up.
It’s good to be back in the blogosphere. I went MIA for a good chunk of 2013 because I was traveling with clients who had crazy demanding schedules. I was too wrung out at the end of the day to focus attention on any writing. I’m sure this year will be just as insane but I’ve committed to bringing mindfulness and better time management into all areas of my life so I don’t sacrifice things that bring me pleasure – including this blog. Although I plan to post something new every week, it won’t always be possible. If you sign up for my newsletter you can have my blog posts sent directly to your inbox the minute they’re posted. This also lets me share info and events that don’t make it to my blog.
Until now, most posts have been geared toward people in early sobriety while sticking to topics that remain relevant regardless of of how long you’ve been clean. I’m not abandoning this approach but during my New Year’s Eve meditation I had a revelation– to start writing not just about how to stay clean through difficult times but about ways to celebrate the positives. I want 2014 to be about seeking and celebrating the fabulousness of living a life free of active addiction. Let’s start taking stock of the positives that are in front of us at every moment in abundance – and learn how to bring in MORE. Addicts love MORE so let’s start inviting more health & wellness, serenity, energy, laughter, happiness and fun into our recovery. True, we have to do a ton of work to get to know ourselves and to heal from past trauma, drama, and self-inflicted injury – but let’s try in 2014 to not lose sight of what is so worthwhile about being clean and sober. Recovery is not simply the absence of being enslaved by obsession and self-destructive compulsion – it’s about being conscious, free and present for all the good stuff.
Let’s start off 2014 with an open mind and open heart. I’ve been in recovery long enough to know that well-laid plans have a way of becoming a trap for expectation and disappointment. Let’s start this year together by leaving the reigns loose and letting the universe surprise us as each day unfolds.
I hear some of you grumbling “But Patty how do I let go of plans, expectations and the illusion of being the master of my own universe? And what if I am uncertain, godless and cynical – can I still let go?”
My advice for myself and anyone who just heard the above comments whispering to them is this: While it’s important to have goals, try not to get married to the results you want from them. This is easier than it sounds. First you must get into the habit of catching yourself living in fearful thoughts and start using a variety of techniques to yank yourself back into the present moment. Obviously meditation is ideal but let’s start with this exercise.
When you feel your fear creeping up do you feel it in your throat, chest, or stomach? Does it feel like a tightness and shortness of breath or does it feel like the dull ache of hunger pains? What does fear feel like for you?
Close your eyes and locate the fear. Does it accompany thoughts about the future? Make a note to yourself (in your mind or on your cell phone) what the common source of future fear is so that you can train yourself to notice when your mind starts directing you back to this specific subject. When this happens – throughout the day I want you to step away from what you are doing, close your eyes and take ten long slow and very deep inhalations (mouth closed). Do this mindfully – meaning pay attention to the temperature of the air and to the movement of your nostril hairs. Try to fill your chest and belly with new air until it feels like there’s no space left inside of you. Now blow that air out through your mouth until you are an empty balloon. You can use this breathing time to either invoke creative visualization techniques (such as imagining your fear as black carbon poison that you are releasing from your body) or you can pray if you are so inclined, or you can use this time to repeat positive affirmations or you can think of absolutely nothing.
For the next week I want you to repeat this exercise to create the habit of becoming aware of fear-based future tripping and taking a conscious action to redirect your thoughts away from fear. Remember, every action is practice toward a goal – which is freedom from the fear-based hamster-wheel. Start experiencing your life in the moment. This is the place where we will always find peace.
I’d love to hear how this goes- your difficulties and successes – so please share your experience by posting a comment.