Sunday, August 19, 2012

In Which I Claim To Have No Answers and Then Give Answers. Kind Of.

This post has been bubbling up in me for weeks now. I keep sitting down to write it, stumbling and bumbling over my words, my thoughts, and giving up.

Even now - this is a true free-write, my friends.

I get a lot of email from people struggling to get sober, or people newly diagnosed with cancer, or people struggling with anxiety, and they ask me how do you do it?  Whether the 'it' is stay sober, get through cancer treatments or stave back anxiety, or depression - something in one of my posts will resonate with someone and they'll email me and ask me for advice.

I hate giving advice, because what works for me may not work for someone else. Usually, all I do is tell my story, what worked, what didn't.  Mostly, I just encourage them to keep going, and compliment them on having the courage to reach out to a stranger, to put their pain into words.

Because honestly?  Whether it's sobriety or cancer or depression or anxiety? The answer to how do you do it, is basically I don't know.

Wait, that's not totally true. I do know that I don't feel like the one doing it - whatever it is - because I'm surrounded by people who pick me up when I fall (and I fall frequently), and I feel connected to my God, my faith, in ways that are new and exciting to me. So I'm not the only one doing it.  Never alone.


Let's take recovery as an example. When someone asks for an answer to how to get or stay sober, I don't have one.  What I know is only what I went through, what I continue to go through.  Here are a few things, though, I believe to be true:

Nobody is going to do it for you. If you're waiting for someone to ride in on a white horse and save you, it's going to be a long wait.

Everyone has their own bottom. Some people wake up one morning sick and tired of being sick and tired, reach out for help, and stop. Others (like me) need to crash into a wall at 100 mph before they'll ask for help. But I don't know anyone who has ever gotten sober without asking for help, and then letting that help come.

I don't know whether you are an alcoholic or not. I do know that it doesn't matter how much you drink, or how often, it's what it does to you that counts.  Do you think about it earlier in the day?  Do you plan your activities around drinking? When you have one do you usually (or always) want more?  Do you have a list in your head of all the ways you cannot possibly be an alcoholic? These are signposts that you may have a problem. Whether you choose to listen to them is up to you.  I believe, though, that if you're wondering about you're drinking, you're probably an alcoholic, and it's just a matter of how far down the road of self-destruction you want to go.

When you are full of shame and remorse about your drinking, or something you did (or didn't do) while drinking, and you feel that little tug, that voice that whispers maybe there's a better way - listen to that voice, because it could save your life. Listen to it before the louder voices of shame and guilt tell you to have a drink or a drug to make you forget how badly you feel.  Use your shame like a little fuse of hope; ignite that light and fan those flames until they burn bright with promise.

Ask for help, ask for help, ask for help. And then DO something about it.  Just asking isn't enough; action is what counts.

Be proud of yourself. Beat back the shame and guilt by understanding that asking for help, getting sober, takes a ton of courage.  Many people live their whole lives and never have to dig that deep, find that kind of bravery.

You will get to know who you really are.  You will understand more about yourself and life than you ever thought possible.  You will experience moments of grace and beauty that non-alcoholics (or people who haven't deeply suffered) don't get to see.

You will not do this recovery thing perfectly.  You will make mistakes.  You may relapse.  You may shake your fists at the heavens in anger and shame for months.  You may ask why me? over and over and over.  You may not love your sobriety for a while.  You will look around and all you will see are people who can drink and stop, you will feel like a victim, singled out.  Other-than.

You will fall down. A lot. You will want to give up. You may actually give up, and have to use what little strength you have left to drag your carcass back to the surface, back to the world.  You will have to ask for help over and over.

Sometimes - most of the time, actually - you will have your biggest breakthroughs in your darkest hour(s). Suffering is a phenomenal teacher; all you have to do is survive.  Put one foot in front of the other.  Sometimes the only thing you have to do is NOT do something: don't drink.

And if you do drink? Come back. Light that little fuse and fan those flames.  Do that until your light shines so bright the shame and guilt can't get through.  And don't do it alone.

Getting through cancer is much the same way. You can't do it alone. You need to reach out to people, ask for help, and let them help you. It's humbling.  And for me, it was hard.

You will have moments where you don't think you can go on. Where the pain, depression and fear will be so bad you can't stand it another second.  And then you do.  You stand it another second, and then another, and eventually the clouds part and you feel better and you think you have it licked. And then  the clouds gather again and there you are with your face pressed into the floor wanting to give up.

You will shake your fists at the heavens and ask why me? over and over.   You will look around and feel like a victim; all you will see are people who don't have cancer. You will feel other-than, singled out, different.

Sometimes the only thing you have to do is NOT do something: give up.

And if you do give up?  If you have paralyzing, crippling anxiety, or anesthetize yourself with drugs or alcohol or food, or succumb to the darkness and fall so deeply into the pit and decide you never want to get out.   What then?

When (not if) one (or all) of these things happen, use that fear, pain and doubt and make that little fuse. Forgive yourself, love yourself enough to ignite that light and fan those flames.  Use the last of your strength to raise your hand and say help.

And just like with recovery, you will get to know who you really are. You will experience moments of grace, beauty and truth that people who never have cancer don't get to see.

What I'm getting at, I guess, is that it is all about self-forgiveness.  There is no perfect recovery - from anything.  That may sound obvious or trite, but I get all these emails from people saying: why can't I get this? And I think, oh, I understand how you feel.  Stop trying to get it.  You can't. Surrender - that's not the same as giving up.  You won't ever do anything perfectly so start forgiving yourself NOW.

We're really bad at that, whether we realize it our not. We're bad at self-forgiveness. We're so used to the voice in our head that tells that that mother does it better, or that person has better sobriety, or that person does a better job than me, etc. It feels arrogant to praise ourselves, forgive our mistakes, pat ourselves on the back and say damn, I'm proud of myself for getting through that.  We search for ways we could have done better.  At least I do.  All the time.

I find peace when I remember to love myself, to light my fuse, fan my flames and tell myself  good job on finding your truth, asking for help, getting through this un-get-through-able day. Even during my spectacular failures.

Especially during my spectacular failures.

Over the past year and a half ... the one people keep emailing about and asking me how I got through?  I fell, over and over, and I sometimes I fell hard. Some of those falls I talked about here, some of them are stories I have yet to share publicly.  But my people know.  They are the ones that pick me up and love me until I'm ready to love myself again.

It's all about getting up. And knowing that you will fall again, and it's okay, as long as you keep that fuse lit, take a deep breath and say help.


  1. This is the kind of post that can be re-read, or re-written, so many times without losing its meaning, its sincerity, its necessity. I have several people to whom I need to send these words, so thanks for giving me a way to help.

  2. God, I love you!

  3. Our son asked for help last night. It's not the first time. He is 15 years into a alcohol and drug addiction.
    So I think I can say with some experience - "good job". Everyone word - this is the way it is.

  4. wow, ellie. just wow. and thank you.

  5. Wow. I just... this is wonderful.

  6. I'll say *ditto* to the WOW's! Love your thoughts and how beautifully you craft your words.

  7. This is one of the most eloquent responses I have read about responding to someone's pain and how to think about my own pain. It is so necessary to discover our own ways to survive, and it is so helpful to see how others have survived.

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