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:


53 comments:

  1. Ellie - Thank you for being so honest about what you've been going through. As someone who is in very much the same place (in recovery but super busy with other things, albeit good things), I thank you for reminding me that my surrender to my recovery must come first, EVERY DAY. There is no shame in your journey, for it's YOUR journey. God has a plan for you, and uses everything for His good. Bless you, sweet Ellie. Thank you for all that you. And may you continue to work on you, your greatest work yet.

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  2. And it does, Ellie, your voice does matter. Thanks for sharing this with bravery and vulnerability. Love you.

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  3. Ellie,
    I'm blown away by your wisdom, your courage, your openness, your humanity. I am so, so grateful that you shared this here. Sending so much love. xox

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  4. Oh Ellie, you are worth it! Thank you for a courageous and honest message. I thnk many of us, in recovery or not, have something to surrender.

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  5. I am so proud of you. I think this post is amazing, and I understand it so much more than you know. I understand the busy, busy, busy and the focusing on helping other people and not so much on taking care of your own self. SO MUCH. I know how much courage this took, especially as someone who has been a "face of recovery." And yet, I think this just reflects exactly how insidious alcoholism is. Which is exactly what people need to know. Sending you so much love.

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  6. It's so hard to not wonder about being judged. But we have to remember that if people are judging, it's out of fear of their own weakness and what we're ALL capable of....I hope that makes sense.

    You are so loved. xoxo

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  7. Thank you for your words, I know it take courage, lots of courage. I am hoping to find mine ~hugs~

    Brook

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  8. Love you, Ellie. You're brave and strong and I'm so happy you're being honest about your recovery, all of it.

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  9. Sending you love and wishing you peace.

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  10. And know this--unequivocally and 100%--YOU ARE WORTH IT.

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  11. Thank you Ellie.
    I needed to read this.

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  12. It's because you share your journey - all of it - that you've helped so many people. It's OK to be tired, and unsure, and struggling. I thank you for sharing that part of recovery - and humanity - with us, too. I'm proud to know you.

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  13. Oh Ellie. You do not have to be the "face of recovery" and we are all here supporting you and thanking you for your honesty. I know for myself, the two relapses I've had were a result of feeling like it was "too much work" to keep going. So that's my red flag too. Surrender isn't work. We can't think, read, talk, work our way around the fact that all we all have is a daily reprieve from this disease. Letting go is harder than hanging on, but it's so much better! <3

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  14. My dear, brave friend. We do together what we can't do alone! I am so incredibly proud of you and so blessed to have you in my life. Some words that you shared with my family, "You can't unlearn what you've learned." So very true. xoxoxo

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  15. Thank you, Ellie. There had been something about the tone of your writing in the last few months that made me think something was going on. I am so much like you in that I've had my own periods of trying to get away from doing the hard, scary work on myself. The program, my friends and my HP have always helped me find my way back - sometimes kicking and screaming - to me. Bless you. You are not alone.

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  16. You are so so brave and strong for writing this AND hitting publish. Both of which must have been difficult. But how can you tell your story unless you tell this part of your story? This is probably the part people need to hear most.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  17. Ellie,
    Wow. I could have written this post myself. I ended up not relapsing, but just a few months ago I found myself in almost your exact place. My workaholism was out of control. I was promoting my recovery memoir, blogging, and doing freelance work and seeing sponsees and trying hard to do it all well. One day, I realized I was living in Survival Mode--as a way of life. The only thing I could quit, as I saw it, was my blog. So I did for a while. It's been months since I posted. In the meantime, I have struggled with panic, fear, and lack of direction. I've felt sick of recovery, tired of my own story, tired even of trying to help others. Not long ago, I have never ever felt so close to relapse or so afraid for myself. I had a series of relapse nightmares. I actually told my husband Dave, "I promise if I drink I'll tell you." Scary. I still am not positive I'm in a totally safe place. I am SO grateful that a friend alerted me to this post! I haven't been reading many lately. I have long admired you, Ellie. I am SO grateful that you wrote this post. I have been writing an article this morning that I agreed to a long time ago and was just trying to describe how flattened my pride was when I got sober. And now I realize that this squashing of pride and this humble state of reliance and willingness to ask for help is an ongoing necessity. It's not how we begin but how we stay. I am going to print your post and read it every morning for a while. I don't want to be overdramatic, but your honesty just might have saved me a relapse. And of course, I read your story and realize that a relapse isn't the worst thing that can happen to me. Forgetting that I'm vulnerable and weak--but still terminally precious to God in any state--is what I need to worry about. And letting go of striving and achieving and impressing the world is the only way I can ever help it an iota. Thank you, thank you, Ellie. I'll be praying for you and in my mind you are more qualified than ever to talk about recovery. Hugs. Heather Kopp

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  18. You are officially the bravest woman I know. To share this with everyone (and I mean everyone) and to bare your soul in the hopes you might help yourself but help others in the process is the single most selfless thing I've ever seen. Whether you believe it or not.

    And rest assured you've helped a lot of people today. Not only those of us who sit smugly in our recovery and think we are immune from relapse but also for those who have relapsed and sit in shame.

    Now let us be here for you. Write yourself silly. Pour it all out on a page and let the sober blogging community share and help and love you until you can love yourself again.

    Thanks you and please, give yourself a break, you are only human.

    Sherry

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  19. Dear Ellie, I love you. *HUG*

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  20. I cannot tell you how much your writing and your Bubble Hour podcasts have helped me, reassured me, inspired me and given me hope. There is no reason for shame, you are incredibly courageous and even with a slip, still an inspiration and role model. Please feel the love and support of all who read and listen to you. Love yourself and care for yourself.

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  21. Ellie~ You are so strong and beautiful. Thank you for being so open and honest about your recovery. It is a honor to read your words and gives us all hope. If I lived in your town I would give you a smile, a hug and say what can I do for you now?

    Your in my thoughts & prayers~
    B.

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  22. Oh Ellie. Ellie. I love you. You are so brave. xo

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  23. Your words help me so much. Thank you for your honesty.

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  24. Ellie, Thank you so much for sharing. I've missed your voice! You can do this, and you are worth it! I've followed your story since the "Damomma" days. Saying a prayer for you right now.

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  25. Thank you for your honesty... I am the daughter of a recovering alcoholic (my dad) and a dead alcoholic (my mom; she committed suicide when I was sick, coroner listed alcoholism as a contributing factor b/c the psych meds she took wouldn't have killed a normal person, but her liver couldn't handle them.) I am glad you are back in recovery. My dad has been sober since I was 7 years old (he didn't want to have his two kids orphans) but reminds us often he is only one drink away from being back where he was!

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  26. Correction above--- my mom died when I was SIX, not sick. :)

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  27. Thanks for sharing Ellie. Take care of yourself. You don't have to be the leader of all women in recovery. Let the penguins surround you with love. Be well.

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  28. Thank you Ellie. Take care of yourself and care for yourself as you have others.

    You deserve the best. My thoughts and prayers and thanks are for you!

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  29. Thank you so much for this post. You woke me up to what needs to be done in myself. You are so generous to reach out to those of us who thought we can never be as strong as you. We are all in this together. We need one another. God bless you, Ellie.

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  30. Welcome back. One day at a time. Hugs.

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  31. Ellie, I don't know the strength it took to write this post and then hit publish too--incredibly brave and generous. The comments testify to the important work you are doing-no matter where on the recovery spectrum you are. Honesty is all we really have as currency to spend during our lifetime. We tell our truths and hope that in some way we are giving back to the universe which birthed and reared us.

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  32. So glad to see you are back. I know I don't know you, but I miss your voice when your blog is silent. I'm glad you are doing what you need to get better. Sending much love and hugs your way.

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  34. Sweet Ellie
    When I hadn't seen a post in so long I was worried about you because I know how fragile recovery can be, even after years of 'success.' I am so glad you were able to get help and are piecing your sobriety back together again. Take it easy on yourself, friend. You have NOTHING to be ashamed of. I wish more people were strong enough to accept help as you have. LOVE.

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  35. Thank you for writing this post, Ellie. Happy to see you back here on your blog, and awed by your bravery. Sending hugs.

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  36. I have missed your writing. Thank you for writing now and being brave enough to share your story. Your honesty is so inspiring. I hope you'll continue to share your story through this blog.

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  37. Your post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for your honesty. Take care of yourself.

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  38. Your posts helped me enormously 16 months ago when I was struggling to get sober. My alcoholism had consumed my life for too many years to count but I knew that AA was not the place for me so I looked to the online community for help and support and found your blog. You are a brave, amazing person and truly deserve all of the happiness in the world. Be kind to yourself and take care

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  39. Your words have always been so healing for me. My sobriety date is 3-29-2012. I did not use AA - I used you and your words - and I leaned on my family and faith. I'm 57 - and have drank on and off most of my life. Alcohol gripped me good and almost took me down. This past year I've lost my son-in-law (and almost my daughter) to a horrific car accident. Two weeks later my father passed away. Then one month later my husbands 102 yr old Memas passed. I have not had any alcohol and I'm doing nothing but cleaning, cooking and reading. I'm trying to heal myself again. I've never felt pain like this before ( my mother passed suddenl

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  40. Sorry - my mother passed in 2001 and I've fdrank thru most of the pain). I pray that you can find peace again. Being in recovery is the hardest thing I've ever done and I don't think we give ourselves enough credit for it. I pat myself on the back daily - I deserve it dang it!! Take care Ellie and know that they're are a lot of people pulling for you!!

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  41. Ellie,
    You are an amazing woman, you help so many people even when you are struggling yourself. I love you for that!!

    Kim B from CT

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  42. Ellie, there are no words, but I'll try. I found your blog and the "bubble" a few months ago, and as I write this, I am struggling to find lasting sobriety. Please know that you do not have to be the "face" of anything, or a role model for anyone. Just be you, that's what has drawn me to you. Please be gentle with yourself, we are all on this road together. I think you are the most courageous woman, I would never have the courage to speak out like you have. You are helping us all, even strangers like me, just by being you, by being human, by being pretty wonderful as far as I can tell! Sending love and hugs to you.

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  43. Ellie - you are so, so brave and such an inspiration to so, so many. I read this post following the one you wrote, today, on fear. As someone who has worked with addicts, alcoholics and their families for over a decade, your sharing your own experiences is sure to help others immeasurably. Thank you.

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  44. Love and fellowship to you Ellie. Always. Sending so much love. xxx

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  45. What a heartfelt post this was, Elle. Know that you are not alone, that we are all human and that sometimes life just happens. I am so touched by your courage and determination to regroup and let the true you shine through once again. You are helping many in more ways than you know! Hugs.

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  46. I love your voice- literally and literally. I've been reading your blog for years, knowing that I have an alcohol problem. Your posts have been a salve to many self inflicted wounds. Thinking of you and your family- you have this. Go with God and everything else that helps.

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  47. I commented before in an old relapse post. I wonder if what you are doing is helping? You are a very smart woman, and 12 step recovery is not for everyone. I find it simplistic, and it ever worked for me. I used WFS for my first 3 years, and now I am working on pretty heavy spiritual things with a therapist/spiritual guide kind of guy. Finding my "soul," my divinity, if you will, in a no religious sense. Understanding that my recovery was a singular journey, that a group couldn't help me. I was determined to not substitute one addiction for another.
    What works for me? Art. Music. Mediation. A great, spiritual therapist. The decision that I would never drink again. And time. I took a sabbatical from work to do this gut-wrenching work of learning who and what I really am. Great books are helping. Not recovery books: those bore me to tears. Books by Thomas Moore, like "Dark Nights of the Soul," and "care of the Soul." They are not religious, but they are deeply spiritual. Books by the Irish philosopher John O'Donohue. Eckhart Tolle's work The Power of Now, in which he explains that we are not out thoughts. They lie to us all of the time.

    And time, Ellie. Time to think. You did a lot in sobriety, as did I. Work, my teenagers, art, my side business, busy, busy, busy. Now, my time to think and create is sacred. Something to ponder.
    Peace,
    Nancy

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  48. Amazing post, thank you. You are an amazing inspiration to us all...please do not forget the gift that you give to us all. I am so glad that you were encouraged to write this post. I know it has brought comfort to so many.

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