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.

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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.

Deodorant

Posted in Uncategorized on October 6, 2010 by sobermadman

Ever noticed that faint, vodka-like smell when you put on your deodorant?  If you’re not an alcoholic, probably not.  I noticed it for the first time this morning.  So naturally, I put the deodorant container up to my nose and smelled intentionally.  The thought crossed my mind, it wouldn’t really be drinking if I just licked my Speed Stick.  That wasn’t a thought that I allowed myself to entertain for anything more than, say half a second, but for that half a second it actually seemed like a halfway decent idea.

If you wonder if you have a drinking problem, smell your deodorant.  If you have even the slightest interest in tasting it, get to an AA meeting.

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.

The Cure for the Common Fuck-Its

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2010 by sobermadman

My sponsor says I have a case of the “fuck-its.”  The symptoms are simple.  Fuck AA.  Fuck sobriety.  Fuck calling another drunk.  Basically, fuck all this work.  It’s too hard, and I really just want a drink.

The earliest symptoms appeared while I was driving to work this morning.  I was about halfway over the bridge when the thought came-“I’m really not going to drink for the rest of my life?  Ever?”  I quickly reminded myself of the old AA saw-no, I’m just not going to drink for today.  And my mind said, “Bullshit, I know that’s just a mental game to trick me into not drinking today.”  That didn’t bode well for the rest of the day.

When I start to feel this way, I know what I’m supposed to do.  Call another alcoholic, read some AA literature, and get to a meeting.  What did I do?  Cancelled my 9 a.m. appointment with my therapist, went to my office, shut the door, and isolated myself.  There’s an AA saying that we should treat our minds like unsafe neighborhoods-never go there alone.  Well, I was like a tourist from Kansas in wandering alone in Harlem, just begging to be mugged.  I got depressed, angry, and tired.  The thing is, a part of me likes to nurse a grudge, even if the grudge is only at myself and my addiction.  Finally, I picked up the phone and called my sponsor.  He didn’t answer.  What a relief!  That meant I had done my duty and now I could return stew in my misery.  And stew I did.  By the time I got home from work, my mood was foul and I was completely disengaged.  My daughter played with her DS and watched Sponge Bob while I slept on the couch.  I ordered pizza for dinner so I didn’t have to cook.  I wasn’t drinking, but for all the good I was doing her I may as well have been.  I was a strong candidate for father of the year.

There is a solution to the fuck-its, and it’s what I should have done first thing this morning.  Finally, around 5:30, I called a couple of alcoholics and made plans to attend a meeting.  My sponsor called me back and I told him what I was feeling.  We met later and he gave me my diagnosis.  He was glad that I did all the right things even if my mind said fuck it.  Apparently, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be (aside-why is an AA GPS useless?  It always tells you you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be).

Father Joseph Martin says that a sign of maturity is a willingness to do what is good for you even if you don’t want to.  Alcoholics and addicts have made careers out of avoiding what normal, mature people do, and learning to do it now is tough.  Sometimes, I just don’t want to be a grown up.  But I did, because it’s what sober, responsible people do.  And I’ll wake up tomorrow and do it all over again.  One day at a time.

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.

Insanity

Posted in Uncategorized on September 26, 2010 by sobermadman

In the second step of recovery, we acknowledge the belief that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  Inherent in the idea that we need to be restored to sanity is the assumption that we are insane to begin with.  Bill Wilson (AA cofounder) once explained that the insanity of the alcoholic is the repeated pattern of believing that we can drink normally when, in fact, experience has proven that we cannot.  It is what the AA Big Book refers to as the “subtle insanity that precedes the first drink” that, inevitably, leads to us getting drunk.  It is this that leads many in recovery-and often in popular usage out of recovery-to state that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  While this may not be a clinically accurate definition, it certainly does describe the kind of insanity that plagues the life of the alcoholic and addict.  Father Joseph Martin suggests that alcoholics are like men and women who every day climb into a ring with a prize fighter and get beaten to a pulp.  Every day, as they climb into the ring they wonder how they will avoid being beaten up.  “AA comes along,” he says, “and says, ‘Don’t get in the ring’.”  A solution that obvious usually eludes us.

For many of us who are alcoholics, though, our insanity runs much deeper.  Thought patterns that are warped by drinking, and by attitudes and beliefs that preceded and often led to our drinking, are often narcissistic, delusional, and paranoid.  Most of us suffer from what many AA’s refer to as “terminal uniqueness.”  There’s no one like me.  The double-edged sword of terminal uniqueness is our belief that we are superior to everyone and our deep fear that everyone is better than us.  I have spent most of my life being afraid.  Afraid of walking into a room full of strangers because I was certain that everyone would look at me, talk about me, judge me, and reject me.  Afraid of not being smart enough or competent enough.  Afraid, deep down, that I just wasn’t god enough, that I could not be acceptable, and that whatever I did to make myself acceptable would never be enough.  This is what some mental health professionals refer to as “negative narcissim.”  Believing myself to be the chief of all sinners is as narcissistic as believing myself to be the best of the best.  Both are ways of claiming my uniqueness and exceptionalism.

Alcoholics are not alone in having these neurotic ideas.  Lots of people do.   It’s just that, for us, we have learned to deal with them by anesthetizing ourselves to them.  I discovered very early in my drinking that having a few drinks in me loosened me up enough to allow me to relax in a crowded room.  I could go from being a terrified wallflower to the center of attention.  If it stopped there, it may not have become a problem. But it didn’t. As always happens with alcoholics, it progressed.  By the time I quit drinking, alcohol had stopped functioning as social lubricant for me and instead had led me to isolate from even the people I cared about the most.  Early in my drinking, I enjoyed the social aspect of drinking with others.  By the time I quit, I wanted nothing more than to sit alone in my living room after a hard day’s work and have 10 or 12 drinks and then to fall asleep on the sofa.  My wife and kids were distractions to my drinking, and I was physically present for them but emotionally absent.  Like many alcoholics, I was alone in a room full of people, even people who loved me and that I loved.

The other day, I told a friend that the downside of sobriety is having to deal with reality. This was only partially a joke.  The longer I go without a drink, the more I am feeling the feelings that I’ve been drowning for a very long time.  Fear, anger, depression, and anxiety plague me.  The addict part of me has a seductive way of saying, “You don’t have to feel all this shit.”  And that’s an appealing voice.  A dozen or so drinks of some good bourbon, and the pain will recede as oblivion takes over.  Recovery offers me an alternative to running and hiding.  The promise of recovery is not only that I don’t have to drink, which is a good thing, because, frankly, not drinking isn’t enough. If recovery were just about not drinking, I’m pretty sure that I’d be drinking.  The promise of recovery is that I can discover a way of living in which I don’t have to be paralyzed by terror or bound up in anxiety or nursing my anger.  I’ve talked to enough people in recovery who used to feel just as crazy as I feel now and who have gotten better to have some faith and some hope that it can happen for me too.

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