Saturday, July 30, 2011

Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going To Be

I can't believe I have only posted four times in July - less than half as often as I usually post.

It's not that I don't have a lot going on, or that there is nothing to say.  It's more like I'm taking an existential pause, keeping things as simple as I can, taking each day carefully and cautiously.

My Dad died six weeks ago.  It feels like a long time ago and the blink of an eye at the same time.

I'm still grieving, of course, but with each passing day my grief shifts, evolves.   Little by little I'm accepting that he is gone.  The sudden nature of his death makes it hard for my brain to process that he isn't here anymore.  It's not denial, exactly, because I know he is gone.  It's just that my brain can't handle keeping that information in the forefront of my brain for very long.   It is as if my brain thinks he is simply away somewhere, and that someday soon this business of him being gone will be over.  Every now and then it hits me - the full force of my grief - and I have to breathe deep, cry a little, or call a friend to talk about how I feel.

It is as if my brain is feeding me grief bits at a time - smaller, more manageable bites that I can process little by little.

I think this is healthy.  I think it's normal.  But I have never been through this before.  I'm just taking it as it comes, feeling my feelings, sitting in the discomfort and pain, and absorbing the moments of gratitude and peace as best I can.

One of the things I am most grateful for right now is the gift of creativity.   I spend hours making jewelry - elaborate beaded patterns that transfix my mind, my spirit, and usher me away from sad, from grief.  

Here are some of my favorites (click on the links below to view in my Etsy shop):


Shimmering Silver Squares Bracelet

Turquoise Dream Bracelet

I made a bracelet to remind me to keep it in the day, that each morning is a chance to start over, that no matter how bad I feel in any given moment, that it will pass.  I wear it to remind me to keep it in the day, carry gratitude in my heart and not lose myself to fear:

Just For Today Bracelet


On another note, I'll be heading to BlogHer '11 in San Diego on Wednesday.  I will be spending a lot of time in the Serenity Suite (click on the link to hear more about it from my good friend Heather), so if you're going to BlogHer please do come by and say hello.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Addiction is a DISEASE, dammit.

In today's Boston Sunday Globe there are two full length obituaries. 

Above the fold is the tragic tale of soul/pop singer Amy Winehouse's death from drug and alcohol addiction at 27 years old.  I am profoundly impacted by her death, although it isn't much of a surprise.  Her struggle with addiction has been plastered across headlines for years now. I remember a couple of years ago a British tabloid was running a contest - a morbid countdown of sorts - asking readers to bet on how much longer she would live. 

Her obituary spells out in sad clarity the ravages of drugs and alcohol; her life cut short, her talent squandered to the disease of addiction.

Below the fold is another obituary, George Brewster, who died after a fifteen year battle with cancer.  He was 70 years old.  Despite a life full of challenges, his children describe a man of unbridled optimism, someone whose spirit shone through adversity.  His daughter describes how even near the end he would talk about embracing the "glorious day", how he would walk every day; even as cancer treatments weakened his physical condition, his spirit soared.  He was 27 years sober at the time of his death, and the obituary describes how he was active in AA, a pillar of the recovery community, always ready to lend a hand to help a fellow alcoholic in need.

The juxtaposition of these two lives leaves me trembling with gratitude and fear.  Gratitude that I am sober, that I didn't lose my own battle with the disease of addiction, that I am able to embrace life, with all its ups and downs - as a sober woman of grace and honor.  Fear because I know so many people who are struggling to get sober, who haven't surrendered to the fact that alcoholism is a disease, one that cannot be cured.  You can't think your way out of addiction any more than you can think your way out of cancer.

Fear because addiction kills.  Just last week a member of my home AA group died from an alcoholic seizure.  My heart aches for the people I know who are struggling to get sober, because death - as horrible as it is - isn't the worst thing alcoholism does to you.  First it destroys your life, your spirit, your family.

Now that I have been in recovery for almost four years, I fully understand the power of the disease of addiction.  It is a disease that tells you you don't have a disease, that if you just tried harder, had more will power, you could beat it.  It drives you into isolation, full of shame and fear, and slowly erodes your spirit, your will.  It wants you silent, alone and afraid.

I am humbled and honored to be able to help women who are struggling to get sober. It helps my own recovery to reach out, share what I have learned, be an empathetic voice at the other end of a phone line, or over coffee.  I know I can't get anyone sober. I realize that in order to get sober a person has to surrender, to accept that they are powerless over alcohol, that they need help.  All I can do is encourage them to get honest, to be a safe harbor in their sea of bewildered hurt. 

But I'm scared.  I'm scared for everyone who is in the clenches of alcoholism. I know first hand how hard it is to wrench yourself from the jaws of addiction.   The statistics aren't good.  I hate talking about statistics, hate how despairing they are; I prefer to focus on the hope.  But the bleak reality is that alcoholism eventually kills the majority of the people afflicted by this horrible disease.

And it is a disease.  I am aware that this is a controversial topic, and I listen with an open mind to to those who argue that it isn't.  But I'm done being polite about it, because I know it is a disease.  It is a disease of the mind, body and spirit.  No addict wants to destroy their life. When bewildered loved ones ask addicts "WHY?  Why are you doing this to yourself?"  I know the answer is this:  because they have a disease.  An alcoholic who drinks can no more control how their body reacts to alcohol than a diabetic can control their body's insulin. 

People who argue against the disease concept - and many of them are in recovery themselves - don't like the loophole it creates, fearing the alcoholic will keep drinking, saying "I can't help it.  I have a disease." 

My response to this is simple:  my disease isn't my fault, but my recovery is my responsibility.  My responsibility is to stay away from that first drink, the one that will activate my disease. To stay away from that first drink I choose a program of recovery; I surround myself with other alcoholics in recovery, I talk about how I'm feeling. I ask for help.  A lot.

I didn't choose to be someone who can't have one or two drinks safely.  I would never, ever have done the things I did, taken myself and my family down such a dark road, if I had been able to stop drinking on my own.  I don't know that I will ever be able to find adequate words to describe what alcohol did to my brain.  It possessed me.  Even when I wasn't drinking, it nagged at my consciousness, pulling me back in over and over.  I don't know how to describe to someone who isn't an alcoholic what it feels like to wake up in the morning thinking, "Oh NO. I did it again."  

I have a disease.  A disease that springs to life if I have one drink.  It may not destroy me right away, but eventually, it will. I have no control over my own life when I'm drinking, because alcohol calls all the shots. 

The only way out of the disease of addiction is to surrender to it.  To accept in your heart that you can't have even one drink without triggering the craving, the obsession.  

Surrendering is hard.  It takes more guts to surrender than it does to fight, because surrendering involves vulnerability, and we're hard-wired to avoid feeling vulnerable.

The stigma of addiction keeps people unsurrendered.  People simply don't understand what alcohol does to an alcoholic, how it eventually takes over every aspect of our thinking.  It is hard to ask for help, because the response is all too often, "well, why don't you just stop, then?"

Choking out the words, "I can't stop," feels like defeat of the worst kind. It feels like you are the weakest, most morally corrupt person on the planet.   Ironically, choking out those words is the bravest thing anyone can do.   Eventually, alcohol degrades a person's life to the point where drinking feels like the only good thing left. And then the script changes, goes from "I can't stop" to "I won't stop".  

THAT is the disease of addiction.

To break the cycle, to get out of the spiral, you have to surrender.  You have to look yourself dead in the eye, and admit that you have tried everything you can to stop, and nothing is working.  That you aren't in control when it comes to drinking.  Peel your hands off the wheel, and go get help.  Fall back into the arms of people who understand, who can carry you until you feel like carrying yourself.

When I die, I want to be that sober person who faced the ups and downs of life with gratitude in my heart and a hopeful spring in my step.  I want to grow and learn through adversity, not skirt around it, shrinking from the hard truths in a bottle.

I didn't choose to be an alcoholic.  But I can choose surrender, I can choose recovery.

I feel sometimes like I end every post about addiction and recovery this way, but I will keep saying it over and over:  if you are struggling with alcoholism, open your mouth to save your life.  Tell your truths. And please, please surrender.   You will never be able to have one drink in safety.  If that thought sends terror into your heart, go find the people who understand, who have walked the path before you, who can show you that a life full of light and hope is waiting for you. 

Because here is the bleak truth:  it will kill you. But first it will destroy your spirit, your happiness, your ability to love.   It will.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Little Light of Mine

I am amazed at the power of voice.

Think about your darkest secret, the thing that makes you most ashamed.  Now imagine yourself at a podium, speaking about it to a room full of people.  Thousands of people.  Your tiny voice reaching tens of thousands of ears. 

Or think about your proudest moment, something you have overcome or accomplished in your life, and imagine the same podium, the same thousands of eyes and ears fixed on you.

My most shameful secrets and my proudest moments are one and the same.  As time goes on, I'm beginning to understand how our darkest times, our biggest obstacles, can lead to our greatest triumphs.

What I love about blogging is that you don't need validation, experience or approval to put your voice out into the world.  You don't need a publisher, or an established audience, or an agent.  All you need is a computer screen and your voice.

When I started this blog, I was lighting a tiny flame, a little tea light, and setting it adrift on the vast ocean.  I knew the odds that anyone would notice it were slim.  But I also knew that if one person was drawn to my little light, my voice, that would be enough.

Writing openly about my addiction and recovery is the scariest and most rewarding thing I have ever done. I could never have imagined, in my darkest hour, full of secrets and shame, that one day I would be broadcasting my pain to the world.   More importantly, though, I could never have imagined the healing, empathy and peace sharing my voice would bring. 

Every single time I have opened my heart, used the power of voice to reach out, gifts have come my way.  People emerge from the dark unknown to share their own experience, strength and hope, tell their own stories of pain and recovery.  Together our little lights spark a mighty flame, creating a roaring fire for all the world to see.

The light chases away the shame, you see; it drives the shadows of fear, isolation and guilt away.  They can't take purchase, because together we are a force to be reckoned with; a megaphone of hope. 

I am humbled to be an honoree for the BlogHer Voices of the Year for my post, Look.   I didn't know I was nominated, that a good friend had submitted this post for consideration.  When I got the email yesterday saying it was one of 20 honorees in the Life category, I cried tears of gratitude.  And joy.  I get itchy talking about recognition or accomplishment. More often than not I'm on the other side of this, wishing it was my voice that had been recognized, feeling that little twinge of jealousy that I wasn't picked.  And I know, too, that it is all arbitrary; that there are thousands - tens of thousands - amazing voices out there that deserve to be honored, and my voice is just one tiny drop in a sea of talent.

I'm talking about it here, though, because that post is about the worst, most shameful, day of my life.  It happened in 2007, about two months before I finally got sober.  As I lay curled on a stretcher in an emergency room, desperate, sick and forgotten, I wished that I would finally slip away. I couldn't imagine life without alcohol, and I certainly couldn't imagine I would ever overcome the shame and fear I felt that day.

And here I am, only four years later, looking back on that horrible day and feeling gratitude in my heart.  Not because it is recognized as a Voice of the Year, but because I know, now, about the power of voice.  I was stuck, alone, and I had clamped my heart and my mouth shut, determined that nobody could ever, ever know the depths of my worthlessness, my weaknesses, my shame. 

All that changed when I let go of pride and fear, opened my mouth, shared my pain and asked for help.  The power of voice saved my life.

If you are riddled with fear and shame, if your dark secrets are eroding your spirit, your sanity and your soul, there is hope.  Use your voice, light your own little tea light, open your heart.  It doesn't have to be at a podium, or on a blog; the size of the audience doesn't matter.   One is enough. 

Start telling your truth, ask for help.  I promise you that your fears of discovery, of being shunned or discarded, are only one piece of a broader picture, an unknown future that is full of grace and hope. 

Find one safe person, and start talking.

Use your voice.  Your little light could start a mighty flame.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I've gone quiet, and I have gotten lots of emails from people asking if I'm okay.  Thank you for checking in; I will never cease to be in awe of the power of the connections I've made through this blog.

I am okay. I'm doing better than last week, and each day brings a little more healing, a little more perspective.  I haven't been posting because I don't have much to say, and writing about smaller, everyday things feels odd to me. 

I keep waiting to want to post about something else: family, recovery, life. There is certainly a lot to say. But just like there are moments where I can't understand how the world just keeps on going without my Dad in it, I have a hard time finding the right time to switch gears, stop writing about grief and loss when those two things are dominating my world at the moment. 

Not writing about it feels like saying good-bye, and I don't want to say good-bye, even though I know I have to.

So I will start with something small.  A silly thing. 

Who is who?  One is me at eight years old, and the other is Greta, yesterday:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Down The Rabbit Hole

It is possible to be okay and not okay at the same time.

Yesterday I turned 42. We went up to my Mom's condo in NH, which is nestled on a beautiful lake. We went swimming, watched fireworks, went for walks, played games. I didn't really want to celebrate my birthday, but of course we did anyway. It's what you do. You keep on going, no matter what. There is a picture of me smiling over my birthday cake, made by my brother and given some extra flair with frosting by the kids. The smile is real - I'm happy, I'm grateful. And I'm also really, really sad.

People ask me a lot "How are you doing?  You okay?"  I give them a smile and say that yes, I am okay, that I'm muddling through.

But the reality is that I'm struggling.  I am functioning - I shuttle the kids to their activities, go to play dates, the gym, out with friends.  I smile and sometimes even laugh, but underneath it all there is a kind of flatness, a bewildered feeling that I can't shake.

I'm forgetful.  I lose my train of thought all the time; I grope for words and mix up my kids' names.  If it weren't for the reminder alarm on my phone I would forget about Finn's karate or Greta's soccer camp.  I can't hold a thought for very long.   Things that used to light a fire inside me, like making jewelry or writing, barely produce a spark of interest.

It is way more than sad.  It feels more like lost.

I spend as much time as I can with my Mom, who is teaching me so much about grace and gratitude, even as she navigates her grief, takes tentative steps into her new life without my Dad.  They were married for forty-six years.  I am in awe of her ability to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. 

I go about my day, groping my way from one moment to the next.  I am not curling up into a ball.  I am functioning.  But sometimes, just barely.  Every now and then, without warning, the world in front of me seems to shimmy and shift, reality slides off the page, and I fall apart.  But I always pick up the pieces, take a deep breath and keep on moving.

The thing I notice the most is that my old nemesis, Anxiety, has come home to roost.  She perches on my shoulder, a dead weight, and whispers into my ear a constant stream of unwelcome thoughts.  

I have always been an anxious person.  I know now that it was likely at the root of my drinking.  I would self-medicate, drown out the whispering voice of fear.  

But now, of course, I don't have that particular rip cord to pull; I can't simply drop away from myself, numb the sharp edges.  

I don't drink anymore, but I have my own private rabbit hole, a tiny place in my head where I can slip away, even as I robotically go about my day.  I lived here a lot in new sobriety, as I tried to get from one end of the day to the other without a drink.  In my rabbit hole I am safe from the whispering voices of fear.  I know I'm not fun to be around when I'm there; I'm mechanical and flat, going through the motions, phoning it in.   But I'm upright, I'm putting one front in front of the other, and sometimes that has to be enough.  I'm simply not capable of feeling it all.

My rabbit hole provides temporary relief from the anxiety.  I haven't felt anxiety like this in a long time.

There is something wrong with my back.  Perhaps I twisted it or strained it, but I don't recall anything specific.  Maybe it is stress, maybe a combination of both.  When I'm on my game, when I'm not hobbled by grief, an injured back is simply a call to the doctor to make an appointment; something to check off my To-Do list.  

But my brain isn't functioning on all cylinders, and instead of coping I'm paralyzed with fear.  It has to be something awful, it tells me, something incurable.   Instead of picking up the phone to call the doctor, I obsess about all the symptoms, adding brick after brick to my monument of fear.

My stomach churns when my kids aren't with me; I'm convinced - with a lot of help from the whispering voices in my ear - that something tragic is going to happen.  

Now I know that someone healthy, vibrant and alive can just be gone in the blink of an eye.  I always knew that, of course, but now I feel it in my bones, how fragile it all is, and it makes me very, very afraid.

There is a ray of hope, I guess, because I can observe all this, as if from afar.  I understand what my brain is doing; it doesn't want to process my Dad's death, so it is occupying itself by worrying over other things I can't control, like my health, or what happens to my kids when I'm not around.  My brain is like a cat batting around a crippled mouse before going in for the kill.   Needless torture and pain, but it's something to do.

This ability to observe myself, even with my neuroses clanging away, ensures that I will be okay.  I can talk about it, work it through.   On the other side of this is growth and enlightenment.  I know that is true. 

I have to do all the things I did in early sobriety.  I have to keep talking, be gentle on myself, not succumb to guilt that I'm not the best mom to my kids when I'm hiding in my rabbit hole.  I have to put faith in front of fear.  I have to do the next right thing - like call the doctor - instead of allowing my anxiety to grab the wheel and steer the bus off the cliff.  

I have to surrender, let the current take me where I'm meant to go.  My job is simply to keep my head above the water, and let time do what time does best:  heal.