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 titled this blog “Celebrating Nothing and Everything” because it’s time for us to put down the scorecard that rates and divides the content of our life into worthy events or dull days. All of our life should be celebrated. We all know how easy it is to get caught up in the daily grind or lost in financial stress or romantic drama or pretty much anything where our addict-mind starts to pull levers so that the glass looks half empty instead of half full. I’m here to say that we don’t have to wait until a, b, or c is accomplished before we can be happy or fulfilled or experience peace. Seriously, let’s give up the belief system of “I can be happy when…” It is no longer being supported inside my mind.
I want every day to matter. Don’t you?
A few years ago I experienced probably one of the craziest things to happen in my entire life. While on vacation, I came face-to-face with a panther. (You can be read about here: http://www.pattypowersnyc.blogspot.com/2011/10/death-defying-summer-vacation.html). This event was probably one of the most transformative spiritual experiences of my life. At first whenever I thought back on the panther experience, my body would kick into a simulated fight and flight trauma response. Now it kicks up the joyful feeling of excitement that I felt when I thought I was about to die (for real) and I looked at the sky and trees and panoramic view and realized how LUCKY I am to have had the chance to be here – on this planet. To exist here. To experience this life. As cornball as this sounds, I’ve never really lost that feeling – and I do believe we are all so lucky to be here. It is such a beautiful planet. No matter how we feel, what shape our life is in – we really can step outside and take a good look and slow things down, get out of the prison of our mind and find some beauty nearby. Beauty is a mood lifter and it is always available to us if we make the effort to seek it.
As 2014 comes to a close, I am feeling a lot of gratitude. This past year has been a peaceful one for me – and this has not always been the case. A lot of amazing stuff has happened on a professional and personal level but what really blows my mind is that there has been a real deep shift inside of me this year that I know is a direct result of all the accumulative work I’ve done on myself throughout my years in recovery – working a program, therapy, EMDR, etc. This doesn’t make me special or my recovery exceptional. I’m witnessing these same changes in others all the time. I’m just personally blown away to discover that I continue to change and find a deeper peace inside of myself. I truly feel safe. It’s easy to remember my life in the days leading up to my first day clean in 1988 and recall with fondness all the fun and drama and running and hiding (from myself) I have done over my years clean. Mostly, I’m grateful I’ve remained willing to grow – and I keep being surprised by how good I feel.
One thing I can say that was consistent with how I spent 2014 is that every single day I spent time outside and I appreciated whatever weather I was walking in. I was living mindfully in small ways. I was always celebrating nothing and celebrating everything. I hope this blog can inspire you to do the same in 2015.
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.
When I was eleven I was on my school’s gymnastic team. A year later I traded in all my after-school activities for boys and drugs. From that point until I entered rehab at twenty-eight, the only exercise I got was from sex or from being chased by police dogs. I don’t know if this qualifies as a ”fitness phase” but in my late teens I’d regularly jog from 14th and Third to Avenue D to cop heroin. In those days cabs wouldn’t go into Alphabet City and jogging felt safer than walking.
When I got clean and sober my body started sending signals to my brain “Hey remember me? I’ve been sustaining this girl while you were hijacked by active addiction? Can you get her to give me a little attention please?” because out of nowhere I wanted to start exercising. I had a few friends who were “gym nuts” but my entry into fitness started slow. I couldn’t feign the enthusiasm for working out that they had. When they’d try to cheer me on I’d get annoyed. I deliberately started going when I knew they weren’t there.
My gym experience was miserable. I’d be bored after a few laps around the track. I could only dog-paddle around the pool for so long before I’d feel ridiculous. And forget about figuring out how to use the resistance machines. Even if someone took time to explain them to me, I couldn’t pay attention. My ADD stressed-out brain would get overwhelmed. I loved the idea of being strong and fit with a fabulous body but I definitely didn’t have any love for the gym. After a while it felt like I was paying a monthly membership so that I could hate myself in entirely new ways. But I kept showing up.
Here’s the thing. Everything I was going through was totally normal for the amount of drugs I’d been using and the length of time I’d been using them. It was going to take a while for my brain to rebalance itself. In the 80s there wasn’t the science and research to back what I was discovering first hand in my recovery process. All I knew was that for the first four months I was either too hot or too cold. I would feel happy and out of nowhere be filled with anxiety. Stress seemed to be irrational. It could be set off by an idea. I got my first good night’s sleep somewhere between 5 and 6 months clean and it took a year before I could read a page in a novel and be able to tell you what I’d read. I’d either be wired for sound or completely lackluster. It was normal to be laughing and crying in the space of five minutes. When someone with less clean time than me said they were running five miles a day I wanted to slit my throat.
Here’s what was happening in my brain. During prolonged drug use, dopamine receptors get jacked up, sometimes 1500 times higher than their natural levels. The brain stops releasing natural dopamine and endorphins in an attempt to rebalance itself. Dopamine is what drives out desires. It’s responsible for motivating us and rewarding us. This is how we experience intense pleasure, love, and connection. When you take away drugs and alcohol there’s a major drop in dopamine levels. We feel this deficit as lack of motivation and lack of reward. This means that even things that should feel great only feel slightly satisfying. It’s hard to maintain motivation when there is no immediate pay off. When the brain’s in dopamine-deficit mode it creates stress. This is what makes it hard to focus attention and why it’s difficult to sleep. The brain responds to low dopamine levels the way we respond to heartbreak. It yearns. So even if the obsession to get high has been lifted and drug cravings have vanished, it’s normal for a strange broken-hearted despair to linger over everything.
Healing takes time. Luckily the brain, body, and spirit (the you) want to survive and thrive. It wants to restore itself and our lifestyle changes speed up the payoff. At the beginning I couldn’t muster up motivation to workout because I wasn’t getting enough of a pleasure payout but I continued to show up at the gym and do what I could. Eventually I found what worked for me. When I started getting an endorphin high from aerobic classes I understood what motivated people to run five miles or run marathons.
I began to sleep better and my energy increased. Weird new positive feelings started surfacing. I felt proud of myself for staying committed to my health and my recovery, self-esteem started silencing some of the self-hate. It’s crazy how all it took was finding the right workout to boost my endorphins and the payoff was immediate.
If I get honest, what drove me to join a gym, aside from peer pressure, was vanity. I wanted a slamming body. I instead I got hooked on the feelings and this is what sustained my motivation. The body thing just sort of happened as a bi-product.
If you are new to recovery (or an oldtimer who has avoided exercising) I hope you find a form of cardio that excites you. Your brain will reward you for it, your immune system will strengthen and yes – your body will change.
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.
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.
Congratulations – if you are reading this it means you made it through the winter without killing yourself. Believe me I’m not trying to be glib. While seasonal depression hits addicts and non-addicts alike, taking lifestyle and recovery actions to ward it off during winter months can be a matter of life and death for us. Here’s a spooky fact – I wrote the opening sentence this morning then left my computer. By the time I returned this evening I’d been told of two suicides, both women with substantial clean time. While I am not certain of their situations and it’s possible other mental health issues or clinical depression may have played a part, Seasonal Affective Disorder is no joke.
For most people living in winter weather zones, this year was a doozy. If you follow this blog you’ve seen how almost every week I am writing about actions to take to arm yourself against winter depression. Some of you may have followed my suggestions and others may have felt okay at the time and didn’t see any point in it. The fact is, adapting seasonal lifestyle changes pay off later. They are preventative actions no different than when people go to meetings regularly so they have a built in habit of reaching out for help when cravings to use hit them. Here is the SAD’s risk for people in recovery – when we slip off into the emotional darkness, winter depression can inspire fantasies of suicide but thats not all – after a while our head will come up with some crazy ideas that sound sane to us such as, “Getting high is not as bad as killing yourself.” Our disease will use depression as a way to isolate us from our support group, from 12 step meetings, and from joyful activities until the darkness feeds off itself. Our addict-mind will utilize the strength our disease gains from our isolation to suggest that getting high is almost a kind of harm reduction when weighed against the threat of suicidal thoughts. Remember – the disease is subtle and patient. You must always have strategies to weaken its grip on you. This is why ongoing recovery requires vigilance. Lifestyle changes and taking affirmative actions (even when you don’t want to) are as vital to long term recovery as connecting to whatever sober support system you attend.
In 1995 I experienced my heaviest case of winter blues. Throughout the long winter I didn’t feel depressed at all, which was pretty amazing considering I probably saw daylight for less than ninety minutes per day. However, as soon as the weather cracked, the birds started chirping, and the temperatures started hitting 50, it felt like I was trapped inside a bubble, like a force was preventing me from connecting to other people or feel the joy of spring everyone else was experiencing. By the fifth week of telling myself that “this too shall pass” I wondered if maybe I was becoming a danger to myself in a real sense. Should I write down suicide hotline numbers or admit myself to Bellevue? I also blamed myself for hitting this emotional low at 7 years clean and I felt a lot of shame over not being able to pull myself out of what I mistakenly thought was self-pity. Then one day I woke up and it was gone. Joy, optimism and energy returned. I believed there was a wealth of information out there to prevent this from happening again and I have adapted it to my winter health and wellness recovery routine. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some days I feel like crying or don’t want to go outside but I’ve experienced such a great payoff for the small price walking for an hour in the cold every day that I push myself out the door no matter how much I might not want to go.
If you slacked off on self-care all winter chances are you’re feeling pretty lousy. Free-floating depression, lack of motivation, a desire to hide out from people, and a lot of beating yourself up for not trying to take better care of yourself … Am I close? It’s time to put the hammer down and stop hating on yourself. That was then and this is NOW. This is a new moment.
Close your eyes and take a few slow deep breathes. Let your breath, your pulse, your heartbeat pull you into this moment – be here now. Whenever you catch your internal dialogue starting to engage in negative self-talk inhale deeply and blow all that crappy carbon monoxide and soul sickness out of your mouth forcefully. Don’t worry – this isn’t a “let’s ignore the reality of all our unresolved issues and pretend that we are happy” exercise. It is an exercise in taking the opposite action to what you feel inclined to do. Addicts tend to invest so much into their emotional suffering that if they put it on hold for ten minutes to do something positive they feel almost like they have betrayed their dark side. hahaha. Trust me – I am speaking from personal experience. Taking positive actions does not mean that your suffering was not real. It simply means that you can occupy all spaces at all times and all are equally authentic. So CHOOSE JOY. Dress appropriately for the weather and take a good forty-five minute walk. Stay mindful and pay close attention. Look for signs of spring. Are there buds on the trees, new flower stalks sprouting from the ground, does the bark have richer color? What about the birds? Can you hear them? Can you smell spring in the air?
Today in NYC it was still pretty chilly but I got on my bike and rode until tears and snot ran down my face from pollen allergies. Ha – fuck it – I’m happy to take any sign of spring even one invisible to the eye. Today my sign was pollen and I was filled with gratitude and there was excitement in my heart.
You can give yourself an emotional overhaul. Start by making a decision to let go of yesterday’s mood and breathe your way into some optimism. Get fresh air. Buy some really colorful fruit and vegetables. When you are in the store think COLORS and pick food that is yellow, red, orange, purple, light green, dark green and blue. Throw it all together in a salad bowl – combine fruit and vegetables. Colorful, tasty and alive – like you want to feel. Now eat it while you watch a comedy you know makes you laugh super hard.
In no time we’ll be complaining about the heat so make it your mission to stay mindful and pay close attention to every detail of spring as it unfolds. A lot of restless energy and emotions will be thawing out – including your libido – so prioritize connecting to your recovery support people and share whatever craziness is making you feel unhinged. There is comfort in discovering that all the addicts in recovery you talk to will be be relating to your feelings. You aren’t alone.
In the next blog (Part 2) I will talk about the seasonal roller coaster of emotions specific to this time of year and how to find acceptance and do damage control. Remember, as long as we have war games strategies against the disease of addiction, we will not lose the battle.
I was so grateful to finally get clean it never occurred to me to question what fun would look like in recovery. Although it made me sad, a part of me was prepared to adapt to a fun-free existence if that was the clean and sober trade off .
When I had less than 90 days clean I ended up at a 12-Step picnic in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I’d been exposed to the hip Hollywood recovery crowd at a world convention a few months before I got clean. When I got out of rehab in New Orleans, I boarded a Greyhound Bus back to LA. I knew I needed these people in my life if I was going to make it. The only person I recognized was a teenager with 6 months clean who I’d lived with in someone’s kitchen when we were using. I kept my eye on him for some sign of acknowledgment all day while going through the motions of selling sodas for the hospitality committee. The day was a series of my self-conscious awkward attempts to fit in.
The picnic ended with a meeting. Everyone shared their gratitude for the gorgeous day and the fun they’d had – everyone that is except me. I wanted to cry. If this was what fun was going to look like in recovery, God help me. I only had one idea of fun and it was a memory or fantasy I’d been chasing for a million years. Fun would be a hotel room, a lot of drugs, a lot of money, and a lot of sex with someone who I was attracted to and excited by. Anything less was not going to cut it as fun in my books. The happier people sounded the deeper inside myself I went. I was consumed by such immense sorrow it left me lost and alone. I hated this and was not having fun. “Patty, would you like to share?” Suddenly everyone was looking at me and before I knew it I was saying out loud everything I’d been thinking. Fuck it. Too late now for pretend gratitude. When the meeting ended people told me to hang on, that it would get better. More people talked to me that night than in the previous week of meetings strung together. By the time I went to bed, I felt pretty good. I had hope that there was life after drugs.
I share this story because everyone experiences something similar to this when they first get clean. I had absolutely no clean fun reference points. I’d been high from 12 to 28 so whatever fun I’d had happened under the influence. The only thing now that was impeding my ability to have fun was my self-obsession. Feelings of insecurity, self-consciousness, and adolescent awkwardness permeated my every activity in public. The pressure I put on myself to “appear cool and unaffected” was killing me. In truth, life without drugs was unchartered territory and I’d always relied on the comfort of the emotional detachment heroin had provided in social settings. Without it I felt exposed and vulnerable.
In spite of my cynicism, I said yes to every invite and we traveled in sober packs – to concerts, to parties, to dance clubs. Soon my life was as rich as it had been before drugs isolated me. Along the way I developed deep friendships that exist to this day.
The interesting thing is rediscovering what fun means to me as I get older. Every few years, I have periods where I no longer know where I belong socially. Things that interest me now tend to be more solitary. Too much solitude- even if it’s spend doing things I enjoy – becomes lonely and I’ll think “I need to enhance my personal life, meet new people, go out and have fun” but these thoughts are filled with that question “What does fun look like to me now?” Sometimes I will go out and realize I am the oldest person in the room and start to wonder where my peers are. It can make me feel as awkward as my early days in recovery. Thankfully I have enough experience to know that if I keep an open and curious mind my experiences will reflect this. When I shared my thoughts at that picnic years ago, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. I find this to be true now too. I talk to other people who are single and over 40 or over 50 and ask them what they do for fun and – maybe it’s my generation – but it seems a lot of them are asking themselves this question and have started trying new things, testing new waters and are more than happy to include me.
It is so easy to get caught up in life and responsibility that we forget to play. If we lose our sense of playfulness and joy old ideas will creep in that say the only real fun is found in a bottle or a substance. Don’t let your disease trick you with this lie. If you feel like your life is lacking fun, commit time to exploring different things until you discover what fun looks like for you.
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.