Archive for the Addiction Category

Ten months

Posted in Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety on October 31, 2011 by sobermadman

My last post was 11 months ago.  Last December was a bad month.  I was depressed, angry, and often suicidal (yeah, I know, just like every other post I have written).  December ended with the beginning of what will hopefully turn out to be my last drinking bout.  My last drink was on January 7 of this year, and I’m a week shy of 10 months of continuous sobriety.  Ten months beats the hell out of my previous record of 60 days.

A lot has happened in the past ten months.  I’ve worked my way through the 12 steps, and now try each day to practice the principles of the steps in my daily living.  I’ve been through some pretty significant health issues.  I’ve spent about one month out of the ten lying on the floor because of lower back problems.  I’ve been offered a promotion…and then passed over for it.  I’ve been in 2 car accidents (no…not drinking and driving, and neither was my fault).  In short, I’ve gone through things that in my drinking days I never imagined that I could get through without drinking, and yet I’ve remained sober.

I guess all of this begs the question…what happened that I could remain sober through all of these things when last year I couldn’t put together more than 2 months of sobriety?  I think that the day of my last drink can help shed some light on that.  I had started drinking again on the day after Christmas.  On January 7, I was at a party that one of my coworkers was hosting at his home.  After being there for a couple of hours, I broke down and poured myself a drink.  Bourbon and coke, one of my old favorites.  I took a couple of sips…and suddenly a realization came over me.  If I drank that drink, I would invariably have another.  And another.  And who knew when or if it would ever end.  This realization was nothing new, of course.  I knew that I was a drunk.  The really startling realization was that I had the overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want to live…and potentially die…this way.  I poured the drink out.  I don’t know that I had ever poured a drink out before.

AA oldtimers say that this was a moment of spiritual awakening.  Maybe so.  All I knew at that moment was that I desperately wanted to be free from my addiction and that I was not moving in the right direction for that to happen.  Something had to change.  For me, this was a moment of complete surrender.  I was willing to do anything to keep from having to drink again.

I’ve worked damn hard in the past 10 months.  The steps demand rigorous honesty, intense self-evaluation, and willingness to admit faults and make restitution.  There are days when it doesn’t seem like it’s worth all the hassle, and, honestly, there are days when I slack off and don’t do the kind of work that I need to.  I know today that this is okay, as long as I am able to wake up the next day and get back on the beam.

I’ve done things in the past 10 months that I never imagined myself doing.  I’ve attempted to make amends to people that I frankly never wanted to speak with again.  I’ve started meditating and even have joined a meditation group.  I went on a spiritual retreat with a couple hundred other sober men.  I even led a special Memorial Day AA meeting at 3 in the morning.  I’ve worked to address my character flaws and have become less cynical, less angry, and less afraid.

The payoff to all this work?  The biggest clearly is that I’m sober.  Not only am I not drinking, I can honestly say that I don’t have those crazy, obsessive, “Oh my God I’m going to die if I don’t get a drink” feelings anymore.  Beyond that, though, for the first time in my life I am developing a deep assurance that no matter what happens in my life, I can be okay.  That doesn’t mean everything in my life will be okay, just that I can handle whatever life throws at me today because I have the tools and resources necessary to deal with it.

I am intensely grateful to AA and to the steps of recovery for these gifts.  Learning to trust that the program does “work if you work it” has allowed me to surrender and stop fighting, which in turn has allowed me to begin to experience true sobriety.  I’ve not arrived.  In fact none of us ever do.  I’m beyond doubt still a work in progress.  Not every day is good.  But today I’m convinced that if I work my program of recovery I will not have to drink and will have a reasonably peaceful existence.  I’m also convinced, though, that the wolf is still at the door, just waiting for me to get lax in my recovery.  I don’t want to be back where I was last December, so I’m going to keep plugging along at this recovery journey, one day at a time.

The Diet Coke Nightcap

Posted in Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety on November 4, 2010 by sobermadman

I am writing this from a hotel room in North Carolina where I am attending a meeting of my professional organization.  The last time I was at this meeting, some of my colleagues had to half drag-half carry me back to my hotel room.  Not one of my better moments.  That meeting, back in March, was the site of my first relapse.  It began in an airport bar, continued with being invited by the police to leave a minor league baseball game I was attending with a friend from college, and ended with the pitiful scene of my colleagues helping me back to my room while I showed them the shiny new 24 hour AA chip that I had recently earned.

So far this trip is working out differently.  After a full day of working-with lots of joking about how much everyone needed a drink-my colleagues retreated to the bar about 9:45.  They invited me to join them, and I did for a bit.  When I stood at the bar waiting to order my drink, the thought flashed through my mind: I could have just one.  Instead, I ordered my Diet Coke.  I sat with my colleagues feeling completely self conscious.  There is something in the alcoholic mind that thinks that everyone is as obsessed about the fact that I’m drinking Diet Coke while they’re drinking martinis, wine, and vodka tonics as I am.  And one person did make a comment about my drinking.  He asked if I was traveling with my own bottle of whiskey, something I had commonly done in the past.  Now, as I sit in my room, I am fairly certain that none of my friends are sitting in their rooms thinking about what I spent the evening drinking the way I am thinking about what they were drinking.

I spoke to my wife earlier this evening, and she noticed that I didn’t sound like myself.  “Are you depressed?” she asked.  I thought for a while before responding.  “No, just resigned.”  Resigned to the fact that my life is now a life of drinking Diet Cokes while my friends drink whatever they want. Resigned always to be the designated driver.  There are worse fates.  I once worked in a nursing home where most residents had to have their beverages thickened to keep them from choking.  Thickened Diet Coke would certainly suck worse. 

Getting through tonight was a big thing for me.  In early sobriety, we are advised to avoid people, places, and things that are likely to be relapse triggers.  So I spent part of the evening at a conference, in a bar, with people I used to drink with.  I got all three of them.  We are also advised to avoid becoming too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  That’s why I returned to my room, ordered some gumbo from room service, and called my sponsor.

Today is 10 days since my last drink.  I still don’t like not drinking.  I still feel sorry for myself and resentful of others who can drink safely.  I don’t have to like being an alcoholic.  I do have to accept it if I want to get better.  So tonight I’ll practice accepting a lifetime of Diet Coke nightcaps.

Starting Over

Posted in Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety on October 28, 2010 by sobermadman

Today has been 3 days since my last drink.  Sometime last Saturday night the obsessive thoughts about drinking became stronger than my resolve to resist them.  My recovery program broke down.  The details of the next 2 days are somewhat hazy.

There are all kinds of excuses I could make, but in the end, I just wanted to escape.  The problem with escaping is that at some point all the problems that you’re escaping from catch up with you.  My sponsor told me, “One of these days you have to get sober, and when you do you have to deal with this shit.” 

As I look back at my last entry, I am impressed with the power of denial.  You see, the blog says I wrote this on Sunday night.  In this entry, I talk about how much I had wanted to drink and how I had resisted.  I don’t actually remember writing this.  I wonder who I was trying to fool?

And so I start over.  October 25, 2010 was the date of my last drink.

Life in Technicolor

Posted in Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety with tags , , , on October 21, 2010 by sobermadman

Remember watching The Wizard of Oz?  The opening scenes, when Dorothy is in Kansas, are black and white.  Then, there’s the tornado and the house goes spinning through the air.  Dorothy steps out of the farm house and emerges into a world of bright, vibrant technicolor.  Oz is a land of vivid colors anyway, but the sudden transition from dull black and white makes Oz even more dazzling.

Getting sober is kind of like stepping out of the black and white farmhouse and into the electrifying land of Oz.  Emotions and experiences that I had previously only perceived through the murky haze of drinking, a hangover, or the anticipation of drinking suddenly are crystal clear and deadly sharp.  This would be all well and good if life were all well and good, but anyone who has lived life honestly and authentically knows that life is more often than not full of pain and hardship.  Stepping from the black and white world of drinking into a world of crisp, acute emotional distress is disorienting.  The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions describes problems “now made more acute because he cannot use alcohol to kill the pain” (page 39).  It hasn’t taken me long to discover that this brave new world of sobriety is hard work that isn’t much fun.

I haven’t written here for over a week because I frankly haven’t had either the emotional or physical energy to do so.  I’ve sat down with my laptop 2 or 3 times and started writing and have managed to get a few sentences out only to decide that it’s not worth the effort.  My waking time is filled with depression, anger, boredom, and self-pity, while my sleep is punctuated with intense, emotional dreams.  Little things come along that can derail me for hours, and big things can throw me off for days.   In time, I am told, this will all even out.  The roller coaster ride will end and life will be more like a pleasant drive in the gentle ups and downs of rolling hills.  But for now, my highs are absurdly high while my lows are deeply, intensely low. 

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy discovered that she had the power to return to her pleasingly dull, black and white Kansas home simply by clicking her heels together and reciting, “There’s no place like home.”  I too could return to my black and white anesthetized world by clinking a couple of ice cubes in the bottom of a rocks glass, pouring whiskey in, and drinking my way home.  Dorothy, though, was leaving the make believe world of Oz to return to the reality of Kansas.  For me to step away from the brilliant pain of sobriety back into drinking would be a retreat from reality.  That retreat has its enticements, but it will ultimately cost me far more than it would give me.

Freud famously said that the purpose of therapy is to help people move from “hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness.”  This may be a pessimistic view of the world, but for now it helps me to frame my sober experience as the life that normal, mature people live every day.  For today, I’m going to accept the ordinary unhappiness of my sober life.

15 years ago…

Posted in Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety on October 10, 2010 by sobermadman

It was 15 years ago that someone first suggested to me that I should go to an AA meeting.  I was 22, a recent college graduate, and in first few weeks of my Master of Divinity at Princeton Seminary.  I was doing well academically, making some good friends, and had met the girl of my dreams (who eventually became my wife). But there was a problem.  Nearly every time I drank, I ended up drunk.  Sometimes I meant to end up drunk, but often I didn’t.  The guys on my hall in the dorm noticed how often I spent nights throwing up in the restroom.  A couple of people came to me to ask if I had a drinking problem.  Of course not I didn’t.

This was not a new thing.  I had started drinking late-not really until my senior year of college.  But from the time I started drinking I had been a heavy drinker.  But it didn’t cause problems.  Sure, there was the morning that I took the GRE with a hangover.  There was the night that I slept on the front porch of my apartment.  But all this was just part of being in college, youthful enthusiasm that I was sure would pass.

It didn’t.

I was seeing a counselor, and I mentioned to her that sometimes I drank too much.  She asked me to explain, and I told her that I kept getting drunk when I didn’t mean to.  She explained that this likely meant that I was an alcoholic and suggested that I consider going to 90 AA meetings in 90 days to see if that would help.  That was the most ridiculous suggestion that I had ever heard.  Maybe I drank too much, but I was most definitely not an alcoholic.  I was successful and intelligent and fully in control of my life. 

I did, however, decide that maybe I should take a break from drinking.  I decided to quit for a few months.  I was drinking again within a week, although significantly less than I had been.  At first.  In time, I was drinking pretty much like I had been before.  But I was having fun, so I banished any thought that maybe I had a problem from my mind. 

I drank for almost 15 more years.  Not always that heavily.  For several years after my children were born, I cut back on my drinking significantly.  I always drank more than the CDC’s recommended two drinks per day for an adult male, but only got drunk infrequently.  Of course, that moderation eventually ended as I found myself needing to drink more and more.  Sometimes, when my wife became concerned about my drinking, she would jokingly suggest that maybe it was time to call up the counselor who had told me to go to AA.

This past week, I was at a meeting in Princeton, and I ran into that counselor.  I told her that I had finally grown up enough to take the advice that she had given all that time ago.  She asked me about how sober life was going.  I told her that I was feeling wonderful, horrible, histrionic, sad, hopeful, and hopeless, often all at the same time.  She gave me that knowing, therapist smile that told me that I’m feeling exactly what I should be feeling.

My worst day sober

Posted in Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety on October 5, 2010 by sobermadman

Early sobriety is not fun.  Obviously, the physical withdrawal from alcohol is difficult, but the shakes, sweats, headaches, anxiety, and sleeplessness of that experience is short-lived.  The emotional withdrawal is longer and more discouraging.  In the weeks since I finally quit drinking, I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster.  Some days I have almost manic optimisim and energy.  On others, I am so depressed that I can barely make myself spend the day at work and occasionally end up taking a nap under my desk.  I’m irritable all the time and lose my temper over the smallest things.  Tears come unexpectedly and at sometimes inopportune moments.  My sponsor calls this “thawing,” when the feelings that we have numbed ourselves from for years start to emerge.  At times, this cacophany of emotional noise gets to be too much and the thought of simply drinking it all away becomes a powerful temptation.

Every now and then in an AA meeting, you’ll hear someone say that their worst day sober is better than their best day drinking.  It’s not my place to question anybody’s experience, but in the past I’ve had some pretty good days drinking, and in my short experience with sobriety I’ve had some pretty awful days.  Today I was depressed, angry, and tired.  I was sick of reaching out to other people in recovery.  I tried to go to an AA meeting at noon, and couldn’t find the church where it was located.  Finally, I just drove home and went to sleep for the afternoon.

The simple truth is, there are days when sobriety sucks.  I have had better days drinking.  I have to remember that those days are over.  The romantic idea of sipping scotch in front of the fire with a hunting dog at my feet is simply not reality for me anymore.  Drinking for me means getting drunk, and getting drunk means hiding, lying, pain, and, ultimately, loneliness and even worse depression.

In reality, early sobriety is only a more intense version of regular life.  Everybody has days that are terrible.  Everybody has to manage emotional pain.  We alcoholics have simply spent years in denial-not only about our drinking, but also about our emotional lives.  Sobriety forces us out of emotional denial and into acceptance of life on life’s terms.

In recovery, we take one day at a time not only because most of us can’t honestly face a lifetime without drinking but also because of the fact that our worst days sober often are, in fact, worse than some of our drinking days.  Our worst days in sobriety are not permanent, though.  Today, about all I can think of to be grateful for is my family and that I’ve not picked up a drink.  Tomorrow, though, I can start again and hope for something better.

Obsession

Posted in Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety on September 28, 2010 by sobermadman

If you spend any time at all in an AA meeting, you’ll hear people talk about the miracle of no longer having the obsession to drink. For some people, it is almost like a conversion experience, a moment in time when, with a flash of light they were freed. For others, it is a gradual thing. As one person told me, I woke up one day and realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had obsessed about taking a drink.

It’s important to clarify here the distinciton between thinking about a drink, wanting a drink, and obsessing about drinking. Most people in recovery will admit that, no matter how much time they have or how recovered they are, there are still times that they think about drinking. You mow the lawn on a hot summer day and the thought comes, “a cold beer would be nice.” Thoughts pass quickly, especially if you don’t let yourself get into the mindset of enjoying the thought or fantasizing about that cold beer. As one person told me, thoughts are like someone who knocks on your door. You can’t control who comes to your front door, but you can control who you let in. I like to think of thoughts of drinking as being like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or door to door siding salesman. They come around periodically, but I don’t let them in my house.

Wanting a drink is another category. Alcoholics wouldn’t be alcoholics if they didn’t want to drink. Some people with long term sobriety will say that even if a magic pill were invented that could cure alcoholism, they wouldn’t want to drink. I suppose that may be true, but it’s hard for me to imagine. The truth is that I like drinking. I like the golden color of bourbon in a rocks glass, the aroma and flavor as it passes over my tongue, and the gentle burn in the chest as it works its way down. And I love the warm glow that spreads to every part of my body when I’m drinking. It’s easy to romaticize drinking, to think about the color and the taste and the aroma and the warmth. I like the way a hot toddy makes me feel when I have a cold or the way good wine tastes with good food or the way a cup filled half with vanilla extract and half with coffee makes the day start out just right (maybe that last one should have been a red flag or something). And, to be honest, if I could drink like a normal person, I would. Maybe I’ll get to that point in sobriety where I wouldn’t, but I’m not there. I didn’t become an alcoholic because I hate drinking. I have to remind myself that my ability to enjoy these pleasant aspects of drinking is a thing of the past for me. I’ve crossed into the realm where drinking means hiding bottles in my underwear drawer and swigging vodka from the bottle while I’m in the basement doing laundry.

And then there’s obsession. Obsession is more than a thought, more even than a romantic longing. It is an urgent need, and it can come completely out of the blue. I don’t know how other people experience it, but for me when the obsessin to drink comes along, it feel like I am denying myself something that is crucial for survival. It easily devolves into panic, not unlike the panic that comes after I’ve been swimming under deep water for too long and need to get to the surface and take a breath. Alcohol is more than a thought, more than a desire, it is a need. The obsession tells me that I simply can’t go on unless I have a drink.

Most alcoholics have been asked by their spouses or partners or children why it is that their love for those people isn’t enough to keep them sober. That certainly is a conversation that I’ve had with my wife. The simple truth is that the obsession to drink is stronger than the love that we receive from and have for these people that we normally treasure. When the obsession to drink comes, my obligations to my family, my job, and myself fall by the wayside. None of them are enough to keep me sober.

The obsession to drink isn’t gone, but it is fading. I go days at a time without feeling that I am going to split apart without a drink, and when it comes I have some tools in my sobriety tool chest that help me to move beyond it. I say the serenity prayer, call my sponsor, and help a newcomer to AA. I remind myself that I only have to get through today without a drink and that the obsession is short-lived. These tools are really about surrendering to the obsession and admitting that I’m powerless over it. If I fight it, I’ll lose. If I simply accept it, surrender to it, and trust the program, my sober network, and my higher power, I’ll get through it.

I love hearing oldtimers talk about the obsession to drink being taken away, because it gives me some hope in where I’m headed. And I love hearing newcomers talk about how they live with the obsession nonstop and feel completely insane, because it reminds me where I was. For now, I’m somewhere in the middle. When the crazies come, they can feel as strong as they did on my third day without a drink. But I’m getting some experience in riding that out and doing what I need to do to get past it, and each successful experience makes each subsequent one a bit easier.

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