Friday, September 25, 2009

Balancing on the Beam

There is an expression in recovery - when you're doing well, putting your recovery first, taking care of yourself, talking to people, going to meetings. It is called being "on the beam". I didn't understand this expression when I first got sober - it took a year for things to feel truly normal. Now that I've been sober for a while, I have a better appreciation for what this means.

Things are going well - they are going really well, in fact. My kids are thriving and busy, my business is growing. Everything is chugging along nicely in the crazy days of back-to-school and adjusting to new schedules. Every day is filled with kids' activities: soccer practices, Daisy meetings, CCD, playdates, homework. We rush headlong through the days with barely a pause, but we're finding our rhythm and overall things are good.

There is an unanticipated side effect to all of this, though. I am fully absorbed in the kids' lives, and I haven't been going to many meetings. I haven't been connecting with other people in recovery. My mind says to me that I don't have time, that I don't need to, that I am FINE.

I've heard the cautionary tales. I know the stories. Recovery is a full-time job. People who have been in recovery a while will say that the time to be the most cautious, to enhance your commitment to your recovery, is when everything is going well. Because it is far too easy to trick yourself into believing that just because the outside is great, the inside will follow.

In my experience recovery is a slow progression into stability, spirituality and mental well-being. It is like the process of slipping into addiction, but in reverse. The changes are subtle, the progression barely noticeable most of the time. One day (if you're lucky) you realize you have a problem, and you are so deep in the weeds you're not even sure how you got there. Recovery, for me, has been the same way. It is a day by day thing, taking care of myself, listening to advice, going to meetings and building my spirituality. One day, a few months sober, I was driving along in my car - just your average Tuesday - and it hit me: I feel good.

So here I am - everything external in my life is great. I'm busy, and my life is so full that I'm not taking care of my recovery. The internal changes sneak up on me. It is subtle, so quiet that I don't notice right away. It begins with my self-esteem. I start feeling unworthy; I start questioning myself. Little by little I lose interest in the things that are so sustaining for me - I don't make time for creativity. I start thinking why bother? I look at my jewelry and it all seems so silly, so pointless. Then the resentments kick in: I feel like I'm whipsawed by everyone else's schedules, I feel like there isn't time for me. I don't make time for meetings in the evenings. I think: the kids need me, there is homework to do, my husband can't be home early. My patience disappears - the smallest task seems monumental. The days start feeling like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day - the same crap over and over and over. I lose my gratitude. And then one day - just your average Tuesday - it hits me: I feel bad.

It took a good friend in recovery saying to me that I seem inflamed, irritable, angry, to get me to notice that my internal clock was way off. I felt like I was fine - smiling, keeping it all together. She called me on it - asked me why I hadn't been going to meetings, why I had withdrawn. Until she spoke up, I hadn't seen it myself. That is how the disease works - when things are going well, it tells you you're okay, you're normal. It lures you away. But, like any other chronic condition I need medicine to keep me well. For me, that medicine is talking to other alcoholics in recovery, going to meetings, and making time for spiritual growth. Without it, I start to get sick.

So I went to a meeting. I told on myself. I put myself back in the fold, the comfort and safety of other alcoholics in recovery who understand. I felt better immediately.

I am someone who likes proof, evidence. I guess the silver lining to it all is that I got my proof: prioritizing my recovery works. I need to take care of myself, make time for the things that sustain me. I feel like putting my family first is the right thing to do. I have to remember that it isn't selfish of me to take my medicine, to make time for my recovery. It is the most important thing. Because when the mothership goes down, it all goes down.

My daughter keeps a letter I wrote her from treatment up on her bulletin board. I wrote it to her in my darkest hour of despair - I didn't know if I'd ever feel better again. She couldn't read, so I wrote one sentence at the top - I said: I love you, I miss you, and I can't wait to see you again. Underneath I drew her a picture. It was a rainbow, and under the rainbow was the four of us holding hands and smiling, all together again. I went to look at that letter yesterday, to remind myself of all I have to be grateful for. I hadn't notice it before, but she had written a message underneath the picture. She had to have done this fairly recently, because she has only been able to write on her own for a few months. She wrote: "I love you Mom."

The craziness of our everyday life isn't a scene from Groundhog Day, it is a gift, and I am truly blessed.


  1. So beautiful Ellie. Glad you're taking care of the Mothership.

  2. Beautifully said. So true for all of us in life, even if alcohol isn't an addiction... keeping on the beam of balance is a lifelong art. Thank you for sharing this so that we can all remember the importance of caring for the Mothership!

  3. That was beautiful, El. It made me cry.

  4. Yes, I'm with Sunny. It is something I am wrestling with in a big way at the moment, and the description you gave of how you are feeling inside is *exactly* how I am at the moment. Thank you so much for sharing because it helps so much to realise I am not the only one.

    And to hear that prioritising the mothership shows such quick results.

    Now I just need to find a way I can do that. Think of yourself as lucky, being a recovering alchoholic - you automatically get a space to be with supportive people and a way to help your spirituality! (OK, that was a joke, and I hope/know that you'll take it as such, El)

    Now I just need to find something that works for *me* ... and then actually do it.

    Thank you. Gillian

  5. That was beautiful and scary. Life is fragile.

  6. I appreciate the support - thank you.

    Gillian - I have often thought that way myself - that I'm lucky to be in recovery because I have this incredible support. Never thought I'd EVER think that way, but I do! :)

  7. Oh Ellie, your description of how you slip really hit me. I do that, too. It's hard not to, with a small child and an ill husband.

    Thank you for the reminder that I need to take care of mama, too.

  8. That was beautiful and scary. Life is fragile.

  9. That was beautiful, El. It made me cry.