Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pirouette On A Tightrope: On Addiction and Depression

I am emerging from my self-imposed break from writing because I feel an ache, a bubbling emotion that needs to come out in words.

Robin Williams' death hit us all hard. Just like in the wake of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death, I feel
perplexed, gut-punched, incredulous.

Their deaths touch us because their talents were so massive, their performances so vulnerable, that we felt a kinship, a connection, with them.  The thing about that connection?  It only went one way.  The unrequited first row seat to their creative genius was the gift they gave us.  And, we know now, the pain driving those staggering performances - both comic and tragic - that hid behind all those characters.

At first glance Robin Williams appeared to be the opposite of vulnerable - full of crackling energy that surrounded him like a force field.  To be honest, his brand of humor always made me slightly nervous.  When I watched him interviewed, or hosting an award show, I felt as though I were watching through squinted eyes, waiting for the wheels to come off and the whole thing to fall apart.

This may sound like Monday morning quarterbacking - all "I saw it coming".   I didn't.  But I know now why his energy made me uncomfortable.  I recognized that pirouette on a tightrope, the thin veil between comedy and melancholy.  

How many of us thought, when we heard of his suicide, "WHY?  He had so much to live for?"

As someone who battles both depression and addiction, I understand that how much a person has to live for doesn't matter in the face of these potentially fatal illnesses.   Most of the people I know who have struggled with addiction also struggle with depression and/or anxiety.   Drinking or using drugs becomes the Band-Aid over the bullet hole.

I ended up relapsing after years of sobriety because of untreated depression and anxiety.  I learned a valuable lesson while in treatment:  I can build a strong castle of recovery - massive and impenetrable from the outside - but if it is built on a foundation of sand, it will eventually fall.  The issues behind my drinking - depression and anxiety - were the shifting sands underneath my recovery.  Unaddressed, they would eventually take me down. And they did.

I had no idea I was depressed. I thought depression meant you couldn't get out of bed, that your world went grey and meaningless, that you were filled with lethargy and despair.

Mine didn't manifest that way.  My depression came out as manic energy - impulsive, compulsive, obsessive.  I didn't stop from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until the moment I fell into a fitful sleep.  My mind never, ever stopped.  To the outside world I looked on top of my game - productive, full of life, passion and drive.  Recovery is an inside job, and I stopped working on my insides. I took my validation from the outside in, and for someone like me that is dangerous ground.

If I started to feel those shifting sands under my feet I ran harder, faster. I started another venture or project. Without consciously knowing it, I was afraid to stop, like a beast was nipping at my heels and if I paused it would get me.

It got me. My addiction is my beast - it was waiting for me to run out of energy, skulking in the shadows and ready to pounce. 

When I see the recaps of Robin Williams' performances - especially the improvisational ones, or the interviews - I recognize that mad dance. He was larger than life - he was so, well, Robin Williams. How hard it must have been for him to let down that veneer, to ask for help.  His humor was his armor, and we loved him for it.  We craved that version of him, we validated it.  And he delivered, at his own peril.

Recently he checked himself into rehab, and according to his publicist it was a precautionary move, to help prevent relapse. As details emerge, it appears his depression had such a grip on him that this came too late.

Depression is such an elusive concept. Most of us, when we hear this word, think:  sad.

For those of us who struggle with depression we know sad is a woefully inadequate word.   Just like I can't really describe what addiction feels like, I don't know if I can find words to describe depression.

To me, it felt like a mad scramble. A desperation to keep moving while appearing focused and outwardly fine.  Like that analogy of the duck - calm on the surface and paddling madly beneath the water.

Like addiction, for me denial played a huge role.  It wasn't an active denial - nobody was saying, "Ellie, I think you're depressed" while I protested.   I didn't know what I didn't know.  And because I am an alcoholic, that disease got me before the depression did.  But, in time, I realize that untreated depression is just as deadly and insidious.

Today I view my recovery as a three-legged stool: a program of recovery, therapy and medication.   I have historically had two of the three legs:  program and medication, therapy and program, recovery and medication.  I teetered on two legs as long as I could, but of course I fell.  Medication is tricky in recovery, and it took a while to find a safe and effective dosage. 

Now, with all three in place, I feel grounded.  My outside life is somewhat chaotic, complicated, as I work on the wreckage of my active addiction.  But I will take outside chaos with inner peace over inside chaos and outer peace any day.

I am staggeringly lucky.  I was able to get treatment for 90 days, with a lot of help from my family and friends.  I know without that treatment my chances of making it were slim.  I also know that I wasn't able to ask for help because I was so deep into my depression and addiction that I was incapable of saving myself.  It was people around me who got me the help I needed.

Many people aren't that fortunate.  Many people struggle and don't even know that they are depressed. Many people turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain, and many of them become addicted as a result.

We are a society of quick fixes. We applaud drive, determination and outward appearances.  Vulnerability and fear sit in the back seat, shushed and scorned.

I don't know how to end this post, what kind of statement I'm making here, exactly.  I can only share my own experience and hope it touches others.  If you are struggling on the inside, ask for help. Find just ONE person to open up to.  Even if all you can say is "I don't feel okay", start there. 

And if someone asks you for help, please listen.  Resist the urge to tell them how great their life is, how much they have going for them.  Offer up pieces of your own struggles to help them feel not so alone. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Enough.

How I wish I could find a way to share with you what the past nine weeks have been like. 

For once words fail me, because one of my greatest gifts - the gift of story - is also one of my greatest liabilities.

I love a happy ending; a hopeful garnish to ease the sting of pain.  

There is no room in my life for decorative flair these days. I am on a journey inside, to the unvarnished truth.  I am traveling through time and space, to the very core of me.   It is both a wondrous and terrifying experience.  I cannot afford to dodge unpleasantness or pain.  This is not to say I do not have hope or happiness; I have plenty of both. 

But I have learned that my preference for a neat, tidy, happy ending has allowed me to avoid uncomfortable truths about myself. 

I read my own words about the difficulties of the past three years, and I see a lot of grace, hope and gratitude.  I see myself weather the loss of my Dad, battle cancer, wrestle with depression, anxiety, and struggle with relapse.

The words I have written in this space are all true. I am skilled at finding grace in the darkness. 

It's what has not been on the page that matters now.  I wielded my words like a shield, hoping they would protect me from the increasingly shaky ground under my feet.  I didn't want to look down, at the cracks. I wanted to reach for the sky.

The thing about the sky?  It is unreachable.  What matters is what under my feet, a solid foundation. The parts that nobody sees, deep in the earth, are what holds everything else up. 

I don't know where I belong these days.

All I know is that it is impossible to go on a sacred internal journey and write about it for the world to see.  

But because I have written so publicly about recovery for so many years, I do want to share this:  I have spent the past 60 days at an all women's inpatient residential treatment center.  I completely stepped away from my life, my family, my kids, my world.   It is the hardest thing I have ever done, because I so want to be needed. I want to be the mortar that holds everything together. It is much easier to do that than to look at myself. 

Moms aren't supposed to do this, step away and focus only on ourselves.  We are hardwired, most of us, to sublimate our needs to help others.  We aren't supposed to put ourselves first - especially after the selfishness of addiction has held the whole family hostage. 

I have hurt a lot of people over the past few months.  I lost myself, and instead of asking for help, I thought I could tough my way through it on sheer force of will.  I was so, so scared, but I kept madly weaving myself a tale of strength and hope, instead of admitting that fear had me by the throat.  I would like to say I should have known better, but the irony is that all the knowledge in the world can't help against addiction.  I forgot about God. I took my will back.

When it comes to addiction, self-care is key.  In general, women struggle with this.  Women in recovery have an even greater struggle, because we wrestle with so much guilt, shame and remorse that we overcompensate and give even more of ourselves away.  At least I did.  Maybe this will sound familiar to some of you, too.

As much as I want to be with my kids, at the moment that is not fair to them, because they can't make me well.  It's an inside job.  I need to be here, among other recovering women, and I am no good to anyone, especially my kids, until I am on steadier ground.

So here I am, post treatment, sitting in a little room in a sober house on Cape Cod, living with four other recovering women.  I am taking it slowly this time, my re-entry into life.  I have lost a lot of things I used to take for granted, everything from driving to the privilege of being part of my kids' everyday lives. 

I don't know what my life will look like going forward. It's no longer up to me.  I am living moment-to-moment, praying, doing my best and letting go of the outcome.  I am sitting in lots of discomfort. I can't afford to wonder what people are thinking of me, if I am being judged or scorned.   I don't know what will happen.  All I know is that if I am sober it will all work out the way it is supposed to, and that may not be the way I would like it to.

My suburban life feels very far away at the moment.  I have spent two months living with people who are battling for their lives, and it changes my perspective on a lot of things.  I feel disconnected from the things that were so much a part of my identity: writing, blogging, advocacy, jewelry making. 

Those are things I do, but they aren't who I am.

I am a work in progress: a flawed, joyful, messy, broken, hopeful, grateful woman in recovery. 

And today, that is enough.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Shards

I wriggle in the over-stuffed chair, shifting my knees from side-to-side, searching for something to say to fill the silence.

My therapist gazes patiently at me. Long pauses don't bother her one bit.

"The thing is....", I begin.

She waits.

"The thing about blowing up your life is that you get to sift through the ashes, searching for the remains - the shards - that really mean something to you."

I speak in the second person, because it's too hard too say "me" or "I".  I pretend I'm speaking about some other person, a stranger I'm observing, perhaps.

"Interesting analogy", she says after a beat. "But it sound rehearsed, like you've said it before."

As usual, she's right. That little analogy is what I say to people who ask me how I'm doing.  I'm scrambling for the blessings in this mess, and that visual seems to relieve people of their worry.  They comment on how I'm being brave, how it's important to find the gifts in hardship.

With a sheepish grin, I nod.   "Yup."

"Tell me about the shards, then," she says.  "Which ones are most important to you?"

I brighten.  This is an easy one.  "My kids. My husband. My family. My friends."

"What isn't a shard that surprises you?"  she asks.

I think for a moment.  "My businesses. I mean, I still care deeply about Shining Strong, but it's in very capable hands. I want to keep making jewelry, but I feel so overwhelmed these days that I sit at my desk and just stare into space.  I'm done with all the crazy running around, and it's a relief."

She waits, poker faced, as I stare at my hands.  I sense I've answered wrong, and say so.

"Why do you think there is a right or wrong answer to my questions?" she asks in that infuriating rhetorical way that therapists have.

I look at her, helplessly, and shift my legs again.  I take a sip of tea.  "Well, because, you're clearly after something, and I don't know what it is."

"Ellie, we're talking about YOU.  Not me.  You do realize that, don't you?"

I stifle a surge of rage.  Of course I know we're talking about me. But, see, I don't know me very well anymore. I thought I did. I had it all worked out: mother, entrepreneur, recovery advocate, wife, daughter, friend.

She sighs. "I'm just wondering how come you aren't a shard, too", she says, quietly.

My eyes widen. "I didn't realize that was a option?" I stammer, as though her question were a multiple choice test.

"Exactly," she says.

As I drive home I realize the shard analogy is more than just a thing that I say to people. I feel shattered, stripped bare, raw. Things have happened. Things I won't talk about here.  Not yet.  I am keeping my life small, safe and very quiet.

I am trying to figure out how to just be.  Just be Ellie, whoever she is when the world isn't watching, when there are no demands for my time, when it's just me in my cozy home with my family.

I feel broken into a thousand shards myself, having fought as hard as I could against the pressures of the past few years, against my old nemeses depression and anxiety and addiction.

Words, for the first time I can remember, don't come easily.  All I know is that I give up.  And not in the scary way; in the healing way.  I feel like I have been trapped underwater, my foot tangled in weeds, with my lips mere inches from the surface.  I have struggled, kicked and thrashed as hard as I could thinking sweet freedom was just within my reach.

I didn't know that freedom would be mine if I would just stop kicking, let my body go limp and sink, loosening the hold these demons had on me.

I am a fighter. I've had to be.  For all the writing I have done about surrender, I missed something important: the bravest warriors know when to surrender.  Rushing headlong into a battle you can't win with brute force isn't courage, it's folly.

And so I sit. I sit in overstuffed chairs and wriggle. I sit in recovery meetings and listen. And cry. And talk.  I sit with the stillness of my life and the roaring silence in my mind.

And bit by bit, I pick up each shard, examine it, and ask myself where it fits with my life,  With me.

With whoever I am becoming.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: How COULD he?

I was scrolling mindlessly through my Facebook feed, the day the news broke, and I saw someone post "RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman. So sad."

My response was visceral and possessive:  WHAT? I thought.  MY Philip Seymour Hoffman?

I have no claim to him, of course. I never met him or even caught a glimpse of him in person.  It is a testimony to his strength as an actor that I felt such a connection with him.  His achingly beautiful performances, where he so often portrayed the dichotomies that lie within us all - sinner and saint, courageous and vulnerable - touched us all.

It is no surprise that he was such a talented character actor.  A hallmark of all addicts is that we're great chameleons.

His death effects me on another level, as someone who had recovery - good recovery - and then relapsed. It is hard to respond to the question how could he? because it is a question I ask myself, too.  How could I? With everything I know about addiction, with all the blessings in my life:  how could I? 

Let's start by talking about you for a moment.

Think back on resolutions you have made to yourself.  Perhaps to lose weight? Eat healthier?  Exercise three times a week?  All of the above?

You know, intellectually, that your life will improve if you stick to your plan. You come out of the gate going gangbusters.  It isn't hard to stick to your plan, because the benefits are immediate - hey! I have more energy! I'm sleeping better!  I can button these jeans!  My cholesterol went down! 

You are a disciplined, intelligent person, and you don't like to be bested by anything, so you stick with this plan.  For months.  You do this until the point where getting up in the morning and going to the gym is second nature. You reach for the carrot sticks instead of the cake without even thinking.   Friends compliment you on how good you look/feel.  The rewards for this healthier lifestyle make it easy to stick with it.

Over time, this healthier you is just, well, you.

One day you have an early morning meeting and you can't go to the gym. You haven't been scheduling early morning meetings, because it's your gym time, but hey, just this once won't matter. Things are nuts at work. The next day you decide you'll work out in the evenings because you got so much done at work early in the morning.  Except when you get home that night you're tired and don't go.  The next night there is a traffic jam and you get home too late to work out.

A few days, or maybe even weeks, later you skip your healthy home-brought salad and go out to lunch with co-workers.  While you're out at lunch, nibbling french fries, you think:  I should do this more often. It's important to socialize with work people. 

After a while, you're only bringing your healthy lunch once or twice a week, and you're only working out occasionally.  But you still feel good. Your clothes still fit.  You tell yourself you will amp up the workouts if your pants get tight.

One day you can't fit comfortably into your suit, so you head out and buy one - just one! - work outfit.  Just until you can take off the few extra pounds.

Weeks later you are mindlessly digging through your closet for your old two-sizes-bigger clothes.  It's just that you have been so busy.  You know what you need to do, and you've done it before, so you'll get back into shape when things calm down.  It's not like you're going to stay this weight.

Eventually you're not only back to your former weight, you're heavier.  How did this happen? Things were going so well!  You feel ashamed.  You feel like a failure. You feel so despondent.  Dieting doesn't work for me, you think.

Does any of this sound familiar?

What is so hard to see, in these situations, is that you didn't just end up heavy.  It all started the day you skipped your morning workout for what seemed like a perfectly good reason: work needed you.

It's death by a thousand paper cuts. It's a slow, almost invisible slide into old behaviors.

Recovering addicts need constant vigilance to stay sober. It's hard at first - everything (and I mean everything) feels different. Putting recovery before everything else is hard, counter-intuitive, because you are accustomed to letting the hectic pace of life to put the healthier, non-drinking you, last.

Eventually, though, with daily discipline, structure and support, being sober becomes second nature. You feel so good that you don't ever, ever want to go back to that dark, shameful, secretive place.

Someone who has worked hard to get fit doesn't want to go back to being heavy, either. But still it happens to almost all of us who try to lose weight. Very few of us do it once and keep fit for a lifetime.

With recovery it isn't a matter of what we want, either.  We all want to stay sober, but addiction is a brain disease, and what we want doesn't hold all the cards.

Put very simply - back when we (meaning addicts/alcoholics) first used alcohol or drugs, we triggered something in the primitive part of our brain - the part that governs survival instincts like shelter, reproduction, food, thirst.  Our addiction takes root in this primitive part of our brain, snuggled up next to the things we need to survive.  With time, as the addiction grows, our brain puts drinking first.  It moves up the ladder of needs - starting as an emotional addiction and ending as a physical one - and eventually it trumps everything. Active alcoholics will choose alcohol over food and hydration.

Their brain is literally telling them:  you need this to survive.

Additionally, the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought, and the amygdala, which controls emotional processing, get hijacked.  The site youthcomm.org, which targets teens, explains it simply:
"...drugs and alcohol also affect a part of your brain called the neocortex that keeps you from doing dangerous things. Ira Moses, Ph.D., who used to run a drug abuse program, calls the neocortex “the brain’s brakes—it controls most of the brain’s functions.” The neocortex helps us think through consequences of our behavior, consider risks, and stop us from doing things that might feel good in the short run, but harm us or the ones we love in the long run. This part of the brain basically gets turned off by drugs and alcohol."
Once activated by drugs or alcohol, in an addict's brain the neocortex hands the reins over to the lizard/primitive brain, which is thinking:  alcohol first. drugs first.  The symptoms of addiction are behavioral, because the rational part of the brain isn't functioning.  This is why people around active alcoholics are astounded by the insane behavior we do when we're drinking. Because it is, quite literally, insane.  Our neocortex is out of the picture.

So, back to the original question:  how COULD Philip Seymour Hoffman relapse?  With all he had going for him?  With all that sobriety?

The same way I did.

There is no cure for addiction, but it can be treated; it can go into remission.  Treatment involves a daily regimented program of recovery of rigorous honesty, communicating with fellow addicts/alcoholics in recovery, self-care and - for many of us in recovery - spirituality.  It involves a daily surrender to the fact that we are powerless over our disease and all its manifestations.

Here's what I mean by that:  my relapse didn't start when I drank. It started about a year and a half before when, coming out of cancer treatments, I had drifted away from active recovery.  I stopped engaging in the daily self-care regime that treated my alcoholism on a daily basis:  meetings, yoga, exercise, asking for help, prayer.

I substituted my recovery for what looked and felt like healthy behavior -particularly in the crazy pace of today's world - workaholism.

Just like the ill-fated dieter in the example above, it was a long slow slide towards a drink.  Without my knowledge or permission, my disease was ramping up, because I wasn't tending to it on a daily basis.

I don't remember actually drinking.  I was in an emotional blackout, I guess.  I was so far away from the healthy behaviors that kept my recovery alive that my disease took over, and I was without a single tool to resist it.

So where does personal responsibility factor in?  Especially as it pertains to relapse?

This is a dicey subject, so I offer here only my personal thoughts on the matter.

I view my alcoholism like I do my cancer:  a chronic, life-long and potentially fatal condition.  I didn't choose to have either one.

Neither one is my fault, but my recovery in both is my responsibility.

In my mind, my relapse is as if I found something troubling- perhaps a lump in my neck (where I had cancer before) - and I decided (consciously or unconsciously) that it was probably nothing and didn't see a doctor. Then, months later, I find out my cancer is back and it has spread.

The moment of responsibility lies with my knowledge that I am a cancer patient in remission and I can't afford not to have something checked out.

But, particularly when dealing with hard or scary things - it's human nature to dumb it down, file it away somewhere convenient or easy, or simply procrastinate.  Like our dieter.

With addiction, just like with cancer, we can't afford to file it away, though.  Once we have surrendered and know we are an alcoholic/addict, it is our responsibility to maintain that recovery.

BUT. Relapse happens. It happens with cancer. It happens with diets. It happens with addiction.  For all the reasons I described, alcoholics find themselves with a drink in their hand and no tools to resist.  Knowing alcohol is bad for you, that it could kill you in the end, doesn't factor in.  That bus left the station ages ago, when the first of the thousand paper cuts slid across your skin, seemingly without much impact.

When I am not active in a program of recovery, my addiction is untreated.

It is my responsibility to stay active in recovery.  I drifted away from it. I relapsed.

It is not a moral failing. It is my disease coming out of remission.  But, unlike cancer, I can choose to treat it on a daily basis and stay in recovery.  Cancer treatments cannot promise such a hopeful outcome. Hopefully I will be able to treat my addiction, daily, for the rest of my life.  I know this is confusing to people not in the world of addiction:  if you can choose it every day .. why don't you DO that every day?  I will politely refer back to the dieter.

Because we're also human.  And brains - all brains - are adept at side-stepping scary or unpleasant things.

So let's not wring our hands and ask why. Or how could he?  Philip Seymour Hoffman died because of his disease, not because he was weak, or willfully self-destructive or morally unfit. The argument "well, one doesn't just find oneself with a needle in one's arm" infuriates me. Because addicts do. Addicts who are not working a program of recovery find themselves with a needle in their arm and are just as baffled and saddened about it as those who love them. And once the drug is in their system, the sober person is just gone. And they can't get back without help.

And far too many addicts/alcoholics don't ask for help, because of the damn stigma.  Far too many addicts/alcoholics don't reach for a chance at recovery because they are too afraid of society's reaction to what they, too, perceive as a personal weakness or failing.

Lets band together to beat down the stigma of addiction that keeps alcoholics and addicts stuck in their fear of being judged.

I long for the day when addiction is viewed like cancer - without stigma and with the urgency of all potentially fatal conditions.

RIP, Philip.  May your tragic death in the spotlight help to bring more understanding to the disease of addiction.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Just Because

My eleven year old daughter leans into me, out of the blue, and sighs happily.

I rest my chin on the top of her head (the top of her head? when did she get so tall?) and inhale her musky-strawberry scent.

"What's up?" I ask.

"Nothing, Momma," she mumbles.  "I just wanted you."

She wants me. 

Two months ago I lay face down on a rumpled, cramped twin bed at the treatment facility and sobbed until my eyes ran dry.  In my mind's eye I could only see the smoldering wreckage of my life.  I drank again, I thought, and the worst part is I don't even know why.

I rub her back, and we sway back and forth.  I love you, she says, simply.  Not in response to a gift she's been begging for, or as an apology for one of her mood swings.  Just because.

Love you too, I reply, afraid to say more, to overdo it, scare her off.

My mind pings back to her first visit to the treatment center; how she stayed at arm's length and only flicked her eyes in my direction twice.

With each visit she moved a little closer.  On the second visit she sat next to me while we ate lunch. The third?  She gave me a hug before she left.  By the final visit she chattered away about her life, and even smiled at me.

The card from her that greeted me as I walked in the door after a month away said:  I love you, and I am so proud of you Momma, but it will take time to build back trust. Just don't drink.  I know you can do it.

One thing about tossing a bomb into the middle of your life?  You get to pick through the ruins, hoping to find the things that truly matter to you, praying you can get them back.

Like the musky-strawberry scent of a pre-teen girl who hugs me, just because.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

This post is part of Heather of The Extraordinary Ordinary's free-writing link-up, Just Write.  Click HERE to join in!



Monday, January 13, 2014

The Other Side of Fear

I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all the support, love and encouragement I have received since my last post about my relapse.

I'm pleased to report that the saying "feelings aren't facts" is totally true.  My fear of being judged or alienated proved to be ill founded.  If there are people judging me out there they are remaining blissfully silent. 

I am overwhelmed (in the good way) by all the comments, messages and emails. 

When we are suffering, it is easy to feel like we're the only people on the planet. It seems like the bad feelings are never going to get better.  No matter how many times I have said to other struggling people "hang in there, it gets better", it is still very difficult to believe that when it's me who is in pain.

When I wrote about my alcoholism before - from the start of this blog - it was from the relatively safe perch of time and distance.  It wasn't as hard to write about the stigma, shame, regret and guilt of alcoholism with over a year sober tucked under my belt.  For someone who writes extensively about the power of truth and vulnerability, when it came time to share my own without the buffer of time I felt more frightened than I have in a long time. 

I had to wait to hit "publish" on my last post until I felt in my gut I was putting my words out there for my own healing, not because I wanted to dispel rumors or try to project some image of okay-ness that wasn't true.  I had to be sure I wasn't writing for anyone but myself and was able to let go of the outcome.  

I forgot about the power of truth and vulnerability.  Not everyone understands addiction or recovery, but everyone understands suffering and courage.

Because it takes courage to be vulnerable.  When someone speaks or writes their truth - unvarnished and straight from the heart - I feel awe and admiration, and no small measure of respect.  When it's my turn, however, the urge to varnish. minimize or maximize the truth is overwhelming.  

And why do I want to polish up the truth?  Why do I feel this urge to minimize my accomplishments?  

Fear.

Fear of being judged, of course, but also fear of the "who do you think you are's".  

I have learned that fear is at the root of so many deflecting emotions like anger or resentment. Fear is also at the root of pride, envy, perfectionism and shame.  At the heart of it all, for me, is self-centered fear of rejection and abandonment.  

Social media can amplify and exaggerate this fear.  People don't post about their vulnerabilities often.  We aren't practiced in expressing our fears.  When perusing Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. we can find ourselves comparing our insides to everyone else's highlight reels.  

What I felt from the responses I received from my last post was relief and identification.  Even people who aren't alcoholics, who aren't in recovery, wrote to me about their own struggles, fears and experiences with falling down and getting back up.

Many, many people expressed that they wish they could be more open about their fears, doubts and insecurities but that they couldn't because of fear of peoples' reactions, of not fitting in and being perceived as weak or inferior.  

There is a chasm between how we feel on the inside and what the world sees, and at the bottom of this chasm is a river of suffering.

Every time we open up and share our truth, our vulnerability, we are building a bridge across this chasm.  In recovery we do this all the time; we open our mouths to save our lives so the chasm doesn't swallow us whole.

I will never be rid of fear, but I am learning to embrace it as a great teacher.  The antidotes to fear are self-love, faith and truth.  When I can face my mistakes, regrets and truths with compassion and love, I can find the strength to build that bridge. The only way fear wins is if I stop trying; if I avoid what is really going on inside and keep polishing up the outside instead.  The shiniest castle built on sand will eventually fall.

My relapse happened, in large part, because I didn't want to face some hard truths about what was going on underneath it all; how my foundation was crumbling as I madly kept on building. 

I can't get well on my own; when I try to fix myself I inevitably make things worse.  Thank you - everyone - for your words of hope and encouragement, but mostly importantly for sharing the vulnerable, beautiful parts of yourselves. When we raise our voices together, fear doesn't stand a chance. 

If you're struggling and have been afraid to reach out for help because of fear, take a deep breath, and speak your truth to a trusted friend or loved one. Or even start by speaking your truth out loud in front of a mirror. Tell yourself what you're afraid of.  Truth shines a light on the things that make us suffer and sends fear scuttling into the shadows.

Let go.  It's worth it.  You're worth it.

And so am I.



Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My Truth - On Relapse, Recovery and Getting Out Of My Own Way

For many, if not most, of the people in my day-to-day life I am the only alcoholic - at least self-admitted alcoholic - they know.

Or, perhaps more accurately, I am the only alcoholic in recovery they know. Over half the population in the United States has been directly or indirectly impacted by addiction, and many people are familiar only with the ugly, destructive face of alcoholism; the one that rips apart families, destroys childhoods and brings so much sorrow and fear.

In 2008 I decided to start blogging about my journey in recovery.  It's the truth that I never thought many people would read it.  I wrote it for myself, to stay close to my truth, to heal the woman that drank her feelings away for so long.  As I healed and met so many incredible recovering people, and so many suffering people, it became clear to me that the stigma of addiction - the shame - keeps far too many people stuck and alone.

I also realized that I never met one single person who was ashamed of their recovery.

This was the spark behind why I continued to write about my journey, why I started the non-profit Shining Strong  and why I have been so determined, for as long as I have been on this path, to bring voices together in honesty and truth to break through this stigma and shame.  Recovering people are nothing short of amazing.  They have stared their own demons dead in the face, put down the substance that numbed the fear and learned how to embrace their frailties, their vulnerabilities - their own humanity- in ways you don't see often in this fast-paced, shiny, perfection-driven world.

I was truly humbled and proud (turns out those emotions can cohabitate) to be one of the pioneering women online who were sharing their experience, strength and hope to heal themselves and let the struggling alcoholic know she's not alone.

My war cry was that I would continue to write until it no longer helped me and then I would step down.

Here's the thing about a war cry:  it implies that you're in battle.  In my case more like a crusade.  It is nearly impossible to ride out in front on a white horse waving the flag for a mission you believe strongly in and not lose yourself in the process.

I lost myself.

The past two years have been difficult.  Losing my Dad so suddenly followed quickly by my cancer diagnosis were a one-two punch that I never fully recovered from, although I was the last one to figure this out.

Instead of doing some hard work and facing the grief, anxiety, depression and PTSD that was growing worse, I threw myself into work, into the cause, into helping others...  into anything that took me out of myself.

To me and the rest of the world I seemed very, very busy but content.  Every now and then a good friend would say "are you doing too much?" and I would say that I am doing a lot but that I love everything I'm doing and couldn't imagine giving up anything.  I was so convincing because I believed this myself.

Slowly but surely the foundation of self-care and recovery I had built for myself began to erode.  I stopped going to cancer support groups.  I stopped yoga.  And eventually I stopped recovery meetings.  When asked about this my reply was invariably:  "I speak to dozens of people in recovery every day! I'm fine!"

I wasn't working my own program of recovery, though.

There were signs.  Insomnia. Panic attacks.  Exhaustion that led to sleeping at odd times of the day.  Recurring nightmares.  Bouts of fear so crippling I could barely breathe. Crying jags I couldn't stop.

If anyone peered too closely at me, inquired as to whether I was okay, I would admit to some of the things that were happening, but deliver this information all wrapped up in a nice little package with a proverbial bow on it, implying that because I was aware of these problems that I was fine, that I had a handle on everything.

I informed people, but I didn't ask for help.  The truth is I didn't know how badly off I was.

I'm scrappy.  I have always lived by the motto "when the going gets tough, the tough get going".  It works really well for me in many areas of my life... including cancer. To get through cancer treatments you have to be a fighter.

Recovery, however, is not about fighting.  It's about daily surrender.  It's about having the courage to be vulnerable, to sit with hard feelings, to tackle hardships as they arise because anything that festers in an recovering alcoholic's brain can lead to a drink.

I stopped surrendering.  I tucked my chin and squared my shoulders and I ran.  I ran as hard and as fast as I could, hoping (without even consciously knowing this) that I could outfox fear through sheer determination.

This is the biggest mistake an alcoholic can make because I can't think my way out of a feeling.  I can't distract myself from it through any means - including workaholism.  The thing about workaholism is it looks healthy from the outside.  Our society rewards the over-worked and exhausted

Without a program of recovery, without asking for help, without offering the same love I give others so freely to myself I ended up a shell of a person ... full of fear and sadness for all the un-dealt-with things.

I was in so much emotional pain that I relapsed.   I didn't think I could drink in safety; I knew I couldn't. I just wanted the pain to stop. I didn't call anyone.  I didn't ask for help.  I didn't get honest.  I curled up into a ball and gave up.

It took me down fast, and it took me down hard.  It lasted one week - in November - and I ended up in treatment for 30 days.

I would love to say I went gracefully and willingly.  I didn't.  I was so full of shame and misguided pride that I wanted desperately to stop without having to go away.

My family and friends did the only thing they could do:  they told me to go get help or to get out.  They saved my life, because it fanned that tiny little flame in me - my recovery pilot light - that told me I deserve to be well. It overcame the self-destructive shame just long enough for me to surrender and accept help.  They loved me when I couldn't love myself.

Back to my original statement - that I am, in many cases, the only recovering person (at least the only public one) people know.  Most of the people in my day-to-day life have never seen the addict that rages in me. Not even my children, who were very young when I first got sober. Not most of my friends, because I kept her carefully hidden away for so many years.

This time, though. she came out. My family and friends saw the face of alcoholism. It's not pretty.

And this time. my disease tells me, I should have known better.  I forget all the compassion and love I give others who relapse. Self-centered fear of rejection and judgment takes over and I hate myself.  Shame comes over me like a tidal wave, and I start to drown.

My world is reduced to two choices:  ask for help and live, or curl up in shame and drown.

I chose life.

This is the hardest thing I have ever done.  Harder than cancer, because it involves surrender and so, so much shame.  In order to live I have to stare this shame (and fear) in the face every single day and that makes me feel very. very vulnerable.

I feel judged.  I know the people in my town  - most of them at least - are aware of what happened (if they weren't they are now!).   Suddenly I don't want to be the face of recovery anymore.  I want to disappear.  I want to pull a cloak of invisibility over my shame and pretend nothing happened.  Everyone I see I think: "do they know?"   That's my precious ego rearing its ugly head; the very-much-human part of me that is so scared of not being liked or respected.

But I didn't come this far to shut up now.  This relapse - as painful and humiliating as it is - is part of my journey. It is part of my Recovery Story because - Thank GOD - I am still in recovery.  I made it back, not because of my own will but in spite of it.  I got back to recovery through the love of others, and for this I will always be grateful.

I have a lot of hard work to do.  I am in the process of figuring out where writing fits into my life now.  I put my whole life into the very, very capable hands of other recovering women who are running Shining Strong while I sort myself out.  I put my jewelry businesses on hold.

Recovery is  full time job.  I have a lot of changes to make, but I am taking in one day at a time.  I don't have any set notion of how my life should be anymore.  I am doing my best and letting go of the outcome.  I surrender, and get out of my own way.

I have started and stopped this post dozens of times. I sought counsel from others in recovery about whether I wanted to - or even should - write anything about it.

Every day I am healing a little more. growing stronger.  I pray every day - at least twice a day - and ask for openness, honesty, willingness and gratitude.  I pray for forgiveness from others and from myself.  I pray for the release from the bondage of self-centered fear.  I ask for guidance, and for God's will - not mine - to be done.

I embrace my humanity - that trembling scared little girl that never feels like a grown-up - and I tell her I love her.

I am telling myself that I'm worth it, even if I don't always feel that in my heart.  I am trying to give myself the same gift of compassion I would give to anyone I know who relapses.

Shame and guilt are not the same thing. Guilt says "I did a bad thing".  Shame says "I am a bad person".

I have done things I feel guilty about. and for those I will make amends when I'm stronger. I am not a bad person.  I made poor choices, and I will face the consequences of those choices.

If there is one thing I want my kids to learn about life it is that it is not our mistakes that define us. It's how we deal with them that matters.  Shame is a killer of dreams, of hope, of self-esteem, of love.

I am a woman in recovery, and I am not ashamed of that.  Not one bit.

Ironically, I am turning to the message of Shining Strong for help.  I watch this video we published exactly one year ago today, and see my kids holding signs that say "Your Voice Matters" and I want to believe that not just in my head, but in my heart: