Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mental Waiting Room

When the days get long and hard, my mind clicks off.

I go into a kind of suspended animation, a mental purgatory.    The hyperactive squirrel in my brain curls up, tucks his head under his tail, and dozes.

There are several reasons why the past couple of weeks have been harder than usual:  a husband working late most nights.  Cold, bitter, unwelcoming weather.   Financial strain.   Restless kids deprived of the invigorating outdoors.  

Typing those reasons down, looking at them in print, makes them seem small, insignificant.   Sounds a lot like life, Ellie, my mind admonishes me. 

It doesn't matter that individually these things seem manageable.   Add them all up, combine them with my own deep restlessness, profound boredom and cabin fever induced sadness, and you have a recipe for disaster. 

At least it would have been a recipe for disaster, in the past.   


Any one of those five things used to be a huge trigger for me.    When I was drinking, the days seemed more survivable, somehow, because eventually the clock would roll around to 5pm and I could have that first drink.   Just the anticipation of a numbing escape would put a little spring in my step in the afternoon.

In early sobriety (and by early sobriety I'm talking about the whole first year) stretches of time like the past couple of weeks were excruciating, as I adjusted to life without my escape hatch.    The hours of 4-7pm seemed to take forever.   I was angry, anxious, and grieving the loss of the friend who had become my worst enemy.  


By 3pm most days I feel like I'm moving underwater, my limbs sluggish, my words slow, measured and flat.

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the clock again, but not in anticipation of a drink.   I was patiently waiting out the minutes until the kids would go to bed and the house would finally be bathed in silence.

My mind was full of white noise.   Putting one foot in front of the other was all I could manage.    I plugged the kids into a movie, lay down on the couch, and closed my eyes.    I wasn't thinking about anything.  I wasn't sleepy.  

I stepped into my mental waiting room, and I waited.

I wait a lot these days.   I'm waiting for warm, sunny days.   I'm waiting for my husband's work schedule to calm down.   I'm waiting for the kids' spring activities to start up and fill our days.  I'm waiting to feel


At three and a half years sober, sometimes I think that I should be able to cope better.   Fingers of guilt tickle at my subconscious mind.   

I know those fingers.   They are my disease sneaking up on me, creeping through a back door left ajar.

I squash the guilt by remembering that my mental waiting room is a safe place.    It is here where I perfect the art of the non-reaction, the ability to pause when agitated, to breathe through the hard stuff.

Even though it doesn't feel like it, I have made progress.    Suspended animation is an improvement over anger, anxiety and grief.

Waiting is a form of healing, a nod to life on life's terms, a growing understanding that negative emotions are only as dangerous as I let them become.  

Instead of letting the guilt gain a foothold, I hang posters on the wall of my mental waiting room, and as I sit in suspended animation I read them over and over:

I am okay.

I am sober.

I am worthy.


When I was drinking - even before drinking became a problem for me - negative emotions like boredom, anger or sadness provoked a fight or flight response in me, and I chose flight almost every time.   I didn't know how to wait, because I was accustomed to altering my mood at will.    I couldn't wait out a hard thought, let alone a long stretch of days.

Spring will come.   The dark, flat days will pass.   Color will return to my internal and external world.    That first warm day, as we play outside with the sun on our face and the first flower buds bursting forth, these long days will seem far away indeed.

And I?  I can wait.   Finally. 


  1. I had bulimia for 20 years. 20! Sometimes I still wish I did. You're not alone in those feelings. We all want a security blanket...and I'm 51. Don't beat yourself up

  2. Another beautiful post Ellie! This has been the worst winter for me mentally that I can ever remember. I crave the sun and warmer I never have before. You are not alone!

  3. I want to thank you for this post-- I've never thought of the waiting as a positive thing. I'm always so restless and yet weary at this time of the year. The waiting gets on my nerves. Now I will try to view it in a beneficial light. Perhaps the waiting can be good for me.

  4. I called Heather all angsty over wanting answers this week.

    She mentioned something about when her brain has too much down time, and I went


    This past week was much slower for me, so naturally my brain leaped into adrenaline making all it's own---ANXIETY.

  5. Thank you for writing about these days, Ellie. Love you. Love your honesty, your transparency, your willingness to give us a look into where your mind goes and what your eyes see and what your body experiences. I can identify with a lot of your post in relation to trying to function when I'm fighting anxiety and depression. Helps me know I'm not alone too. thanks for being here for me <3

  6. Thanks, Ellie. I, too, am waiting, although I'm not sure what it is I'm waiting ON. It's not summer - Lord, no! - when I'm home alone with my 13 & 9-year old boys all day every feels like I'm waiting on happiness? Fulfillment? To have "arrived" at my destination in life? No good answers, just more questions. Waiting to FEEL, yes.

  7. I have this print in my office at work: It reminds me when I am struggling through a work day that this is my life, I owe it to myself to commit to it even if it's not where I really want to be. I think that waiting is important to acknowledge, to try and focus on each moment as having importance.

  8. This is beautiful. My brother is around 2 years sober. The first year was easy - he was institutionalized for most of it. The second year, when he graduated from a halfway house and reintegrated into the world - that's been the hardest for him.

    I'm on the other side of this: looking at him, offering him love + support, and pulling for him. He, like you, can do this.

    You are so worthy.

  9. yesterday my friend said "sometimes making no choice at all is making the best choice" and it made me think about this very thing. That I used to feel like I could, as you say, "wrap a warm glow around the monotony" come 5pm. It worked. Temporarily, to get the clock moving a little faster anyway. Of course, we all know how that turned out, but I digress :) NOW, the not doing anything but being still and not beating me up is all I can do sometimes, and you and people like my friend are teaching me that it's OKAY. I'm OKAY. We are okay. I believe that it will slowly change, because that's a promise for life, you know? Where the boredom and caged animal feeling will just get better over the years, or we'll learn more and more how to handle it.

    I'm writing a book again. heh.

    love you.

  10. As I go through recovery for PTSD and bi-polar disorder, with a severely depressive side, I have realized that the time I used to spend "sleeping" was now available to me- to be experienced and lived. The challenge is that I don't know what to do with that time. I think living through those hours and confronting my feelings is what I am supposed to be doing. Even though I may not have that depressive sluggishness, the temptation is to go back to be where it is comfortable.

  11. I am a little over two years sober and I could write, "ditto" all over this post. I too recognize that when I start to squirm in discomfort that I am being offered an opportunity to surrender to the monotony or discomfort and just, "abide"...