Recovery Notes #6

Trying (and failing) to be grown-up

I was trapped in a corner of a houseful of recovering alcoholics at a sober party. Everybody was having fun, laughing, talking, singing — except me. I felt like an alien. My hands were sweaty and the wide smile on my face felt like it was about to snap like an overstretched rubber band. I desperately had to pee but I was afraid to get up and walk through the crowd to find the bathroom.

After two weeks of sobriety, I discovered that quitting drinking is the easy part of recovery. The hard part is learning to live life without alcohol, or as the alcoholics say living “life on life’s terms.”

It was explained to me that alcoholics stop developing spiritually and emotionally when they start to drink. Unlike most people who grow into responsible adults by learning how to handle the experiences (good and bad) of living, we dealt with everything by getting drunk so we never grew up. When we quit drinking we find ourselves at the same age (or younger) emotionally as we were when picked up that first drink. I was a 30-year-old woman with the emotional age of a teenager. Furthermore, as a result of the ravages to my self-esteem during my drinking years, I had lost even what few social skills I had back then.

I was incapable of making any kind of tangible plan for my life and could only indulge in grandiose fantasies. I fancied that I would spend only a short time in recovery before going on to become a rich and famous something, like a politician or a best-selling novelist. This sounded just like the idea I had, as an 8-year-old, of becoming a famous figure skater without ever learning to skate. Or like the stories I had spun in the bar about the various ways I was going to save the world. Then as now the fantasies skipped over doing the necessary work to meet the goal.

My mind seemed to have a mind of its own and was completely beyond my control. It would hook onto something and obsess endlessly. One minute it would tell me I was an intellectual giant, destined to do great things and then the next minute it would tell me I was so stupid I didn’t deserve to live (alcoholics referred to this as “an egotist with an inferiority complex”). My moods were like a rollercoaster, up and down, over and under and around. Beneath everything was nameless fear that came over me in waves and paralyzed me. I couldn’t sleep and I had to force myself to eat.

The people in recovery still seemed weird to me and I balked at getting too close to them. I kept trying to be a grown-up and take care of myself. But I couldn’t do it and there was nowhere else for me to go. So I hung on to Jen who had been sober for the eternity of two years and who offered to “babysit” me in the beginning. Months later when I finally worked up the courage to ask her, Jen would become my sponsor but in those early weeks asking somebody that question was unthinkable so I just followed Jen around town like a puppy. She took me to meetings, introduced me to other recovering people and listened to the sad saga of my life ad nauseam. She pushed me to do things that scared me, like making me talk to people I didn’t know and dragging me to sober parties.

Most of all, she (and the other alcoholics) gave me something to hang on to by reassuring me, almost on a daily basis, that I was not unique, they had all felt the way I was feeling, had the same kind of thoughts and obsessions and that in time this would pass and my life would get better. It is not an exaggeration to say that this saved my life.

 

This blog has been inspired by reactions from readers of “Free Love,” my novel about recovery from alcoholism. I have often been asked why I chose to write about that particular subject. While there are several answers to that question, the most honest one is that I’m a recovering person myself. That opened the door to more questions. So I have started this blog to share some of my thoughts about alcoholism and addiction, based on my experience and observation.

If you’d like to read or gift Free Love, check out my SALE PRICES!

Recovery Notes #5

The thousand pound phone

After finishing a fridge-full of booze the night before, I awoke on the first day of my sobriety shaky but still resolved to quit drinking, a resolve bolstered by the fact that there was no alcohol left in the house. I knew I couldn’t quit alone but the thought of asking for help sent sharp spears of terror through my soul. I’d gotten by for years (with the help of alcohol, of course) by hiding my vulnerability behind a tough persona. Now I faced exposing myself for the uniquely worthless worm that I was secretly convinced I was. (I didn’t understand until years later that thinking myself uniquely worthless was as grandiose as thinking myself uniquely worthy).

I found the number for the self-help recovery group* in the phone book but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone. Later I would learn that nearly all alcoholics wrestle the fear of phoning for help and I would laugh at my fight with the “thousand-pound phone.” But that day all I could do was pace the floor, smoking and imagining ridiculous scenarios in which I would get rejected: ‘Yes, we help alcoholics but not you (laughs),’ ‘Stop wasting my time! (slams down the phone),’ ‘What’s the matter with you? Don’t you have any friends?’ Finally sometime in mid-afternoon, I exhausted myself and made the call.

The number rang through to the Detox Centre which acted as an answering service for the self-help group. (The centre was part of Northern Addictions Services programming during 1980s and 90s. Today there is no Detox in Yellowknife.) I launched into my tale of woe only to be given a list of three names and numbers. It took nearly everything I had to make that first call and now I had to do it again. I worked up the courage with several more rounds of pacing. I got one busy signal, one answering machine (I was too frightened to leave a message) until, finally, I spoke to a woman who agreed to take me to a meeting the following night. Whew!

I have heard many alcoholics say they felt a sense of belonging and security from the moment they attended their first meeting. That didn’t happen to me. My first meeting was packed with what I thought of as crazy people who engaged in uproarious laughter in between bouts of serious discussion about how they were going to “clean up the wreckage of their past” by “making amends” for the way they had behaved while they drunk. The laughter seemed fake (probably because mine was) and while I could understand that they might need to make amends to people, I did not feel that I would ever have to. I had a long list of people who needed to make amends to me.

I went home that night feeling more isolated than ever. I still wanted to quit drinking but now felt that I had nowhere to go. In tears of desperation the next afternoon, I sought refuge in the office of my friend Mike, the man who had inspired me to quit drinking by telling me his story. “I know somebody you can talk to. She’s been around and is kind of tough like you,” he said.

Mike got Jen** on the phone for me and she to agreed to meet me for coffee in the Miner’s Mess (Yellowknife’s iconic coffee shop). “Look for a tall ugly blonde,” she said. I must have looked like a typical lost alcoholic because she stood up and waved me over as soon as I walked in. After getting us coffee, she sat down and scrutinized me. Then she told me exactly how I felt. Over the years, I have tried to remember what she said but I have never been able to. All I can remember is that for the first time in my life, I felt that somebody saw who I was and understood.

So it began.

 

*I have chosen not to publicly name the self-help group I joined out of respect for the traditions of that organization.

**Not the real name.

 

This blog has been inspired by reactions from readers of “Free Love,” my novel about recovery from alcoholism.  I have often been asked why I chose to write about that particular subject. While there are several answers to that question, the most honest one is that I’m a recovering person myself. That opened the door to more questions. So I have started this blog to share some of my thoughts about alcoholism and addiction, based on my experience and observation. 

If you’d like to read or gift Free Love, check out my SALE PRICES!

Recovery Notes #4

Delusions and denial

When I was drinking I thought I had special powers.

I didn’t have any tolerance for the crazy people (aka social drinkers) who only ever had one or two and who (God forbid!) would sometimes abandon their drinks entirely. Instead, I spent my time with the kind of drinkers who would open a fresh bottle of whiskey and throw the cap in the garbage, the kind of drinkers who habitually got so drunk, they stumbled over their own feet, slurred their words and repeated themselves ad nauseam, all the while thinking themselves brilliant. They’d hang their heads and pass out at the kitchen table, or on the floor, or in the bathroom with their heads in a pool of puke, have beer for breakfast and slobber over their clothes. Afterwards, they’d deny what happened and pretend they’d only ever had a few social drinks. Those were my kind of drinkers.

I would match them drink for drink, but I was different (or so I thought). I drank because I was a writer and heavy drinking had a long and illustrious history among the creative class. As a writer, I was called to experience life deeply, to throw myself into the thick of things, to live fully and creatively and this involved lots of alcohol. Creative people like me had special powers so that alcohol didn’t affect us in the same way as it did ordinary people. I never stumbled or slurred my words (although sometimes people couldn’t hear me for reasons I didn’t understand). I did not pass out, (although I sometimes got tired and went to sleep in unusual places). If I drank in the mornings, it was so that somebody who really needed it would not have to feel bad about their morning drinks.

I thought that my biggest problem was that I was unfortunate enough to be attracted to rock-bottom drunks. Out of concern for my alcoholic friends, and also the alcoholics I saw staggering around Hay River, I became interested in the larger problem of alcoholism in the North and set out to sober everybody up.

I began to research alcoholism in my capacity as a reporter, and attended an Alcoholics Anonymous roundup, interviewing members and sitting in on AA meetings. (I also attended their banquet and dance, after a few surreptitious drinks in the bar.) One of the AA members I interviewed explained the role of denial in alcoholism: how alcoholics lie to themselves, and everybody else, about their drinking and how this denial serves to keep them drinking. “Hey, that describes everybody I know,” I thought. I published a detailed story about AA in Tapwe, hoping that some of my poor benighted friends might see themselves in it and get the help that they so badly needed. I may even have urged one or two of them, over drinks in the bar, to join AA.

Sometime later, I left Tapwe for a better-paying job at Hay River’s other newspaper The Hub and launched a weekly column about my personal life. I wrote a piece entitled, My Sweet Seducer, in which I described waking up on a hungover Sunday morning to find a half bottle of Scotch and an overflowing ashtray on my kitchen table, lighting a smoke and then having a conversation (in lurid prose that embarrasses me to this day) with the bottle as though I was trying to resist a lover who had betrayed me and now tempted me again. At the end of the piece I capitulated and reached for a drink.

There is a part of ourselves, often so deeply buried we don’t know it’s there, that nudges us toward healing and we start calling for help, sometimes long before we are ready to receive it. Looking back now, I understand that writing that column was one of my calls for help. But at the time I fooled myself. I explained to anybody who would listen that the column was not about me, that I had turned myself into a character in order to render an artistic commentary on alcoholism. (As far as I know, a lot of people believed me. At least they pretended to.)

It wasn’t until three years later when I had moved to Yellowknife and decided to quit drinking that I saw how deeply I was steeped in denial. It shocked me to realize that while I could see how others denied their alcoholism, I was unable to see it in myself even though I was drinking just as much and behaving in exactly the same way. This, more than anything, made me realize the power that alcohol had over me. And it convinced me that I would not be able to quit alone.

 

This blog has been inspired by reactions from readers of “Free Love,” my novel about recovery from alcoholism.  I have often been asked why I chose to write about that particular subject. While there are several answers to that question, the most honest one is that I’m a recovering person myself. That opened the door to more questions. So I have started this blog to share some of my thoughts about alcoholism and addiction, based on my experience and observation. 

If you’d like to read or gift Free Love, check out my SALE PRICES!