Thursday, January 24, 2013

Recovering Chaos Junkie

I used to hate routine.

In early recovery I realized that I was facing two intertwined addictions:  alcohol and chaos.

I didn't know that I loved chaos until it was gone. I have heard others in recovery speak about this, so I know I'm not the only one.  I was talking to a friend about this the other day, how I used to be, in my words, a "chaos junkie".

When I was at the worst of my alcoholism - when denial had a firm grip on me - I used to feel so sorry for people who did things like get up at 6am to jog, or went to bed early so they could tuck into a good book, or who sipped one glass of wine all night and then STILL walked away from it, unfinished.

I would see well-adjusted people and think: they must be so bored, as I clutched my wine glass a little more tightly.

That's what alcoholism did to me; it made me believe my life of scrambling to keep up with the day-to-day obligations of life, the untangling of half-truths and outright lies, the grey or black-out nights, the nursing morning hangovers and the obsessing over my next drink, was exciting.

Of course, looking back on it now I realize my life was empty, shallow - a mile wide and an inch deep.  I had lots of friends, but I didn't let many people get too close for fear they'd find out my horrible secret.

When I finally embraced recovery because I wanted it for myself - this took months - I began to embrace routine, too.  Eventually I began to need routine; I craved predictability like I used to crave alcohol:  without it I became fearful, timid and reclusive.

I discovered that not only did I not love chaos, but that any new situation made me profoundly uncomfortable. I didn't like calling people that I didn't know; a call to my bank, or a store, would make me nervous.  I wanted to know the system of every place I went in to; I didn't try new restaurants or stores for months.

Basically, I realized that at heart I'm an anxious, shy person.  I felt so brave and confident when I drank - I'd walk in anywhere, talk to anyone.  It was a shock to find out that wasn't really me.

This got better, over time.  I am still hesitant to try new things; going to a new conference, for example, makes me anxious.  A new city, a hotel I've never stayed at before, a party at someone's house who I don't know well, a play group or house party where I don't know many people (what if they lost my reservation?  what if I get lost on the train? what if nobody talks to me?) makes me uneasy, but I do it anyway.  I practice stretching my wings - not too far - but enough so that I don't let fear govern my life.

Mostly, though, I cherish routine.

I never thought I'd feel this way.  In early sobriety I complained so much about how bored I was, mourning my old "exciting" way of life, that a friend joked she was going to get me a tee shirt with a big red number 5 on it (as in ... on a scale of 1 to 10, I loved 1 or 10 and hated 5, thinking it was boring, and all I heard from everyone is that to stay sober I had to embrace 5).

The last few weeks have brought some change into our lives.  My husband got a new job, and we're both excited about the new opportunity, but I had become accustomed to him working eight miles away, home predictably at the same time most nights so we could have family dinner or I could go to a meeting.  Now he's commuting into the city - leaving before I'm awake in the morning and coming home half an hour before the kids have to go to bed.   It's a big adjustment.

Someone has been sick in this house for three weeks, knocking me off my routine.  I missed exercise, yoga and meetings (both cancer support groups and recovery meetings) for almost two straight weeks.

I've been having trouble sleeping - lying awake staring at the ceiling until 2 or 3am every night. I had an undercurrent of anxiety that followed me everywhere.  I got sick, and spent the better part of a week in bed - sick enough to feel poorly but not sick enough to sleep.

The anxiety grew, my monkey mind wouldn't leave me alone.  It took me a while to realize what was out of whack:  routine.

We all got better towards the end of last week, (knock wood) and then the kids had a four day weekend (MLK day and a professional day for teacher training) so once again I couldn't go to my normal activities.

My anxiety peaked on Monday night; I couldn't sleep, had lost my appetite and felt near tears.

Yesterday everyone woke up healthy and trotted off to work and school.  I stared at the four walls of my house, simultaneously soaking up the silence and feeling completely out of sorts.  I paced from room to room, sat down to work on jewelry, got up again to pace some more, meditated ineffectively, tried to read and then it hit me:  get back into your routine, Ellie.

I went for a walk, then did some yoga.  My mind quieted immediately.

I slept like a baby last night.

Today I woke up feeling refreshed and grateful.

After the bus rumbled away, I meditated for half an hour, then went to yoga.  I did some work, and then sat down to write this.  The anxiety is gone.  POOF.

My name is Ellie, and I'm a grateful recovering chaos junkie.


  1. I'm basically anxious and shy, too, and I cling to routine as a way of making sense of the chaos and disarray that otherwise terrifies me. This is a beautiful description of deeply familiar terrain. Thank you. xox

  2. When I lived in NYC, I never went to bed before 2 or 3 am. It's the law in that town. So people would call me at all hours because they were up, too. Then I moved to LA. People go to bed early and get up early. The first year I was here I thought they were all nuts, why aren't they awake doing, you know, the same stuff as me? (basically nothing but watch TV since there was no Internet!!!)

    I eventually switched over to the LA schedule, mocking it the whole time. What a bunch of LOSERS, they're all in bed at 9 pm. Yeah, well I'm now part of those *losers* and I prefer it to the NY sked. It's amazing what you can get used to .

  3. I needed this post.

    Between snow days, holidays & sick days, I realized this week my daughter hasn't had a full week of school since Mid-October. Someone, mostly me, has been sick since then too. I'm not big on routines, in fact, having been raised in chaos, I find chaos far more comforting and easier to deal with than routine. But routines get me alone time, and I need that alone time. I've been beside myself for weeks now, as one thing after another comes along and throws a wrench into my daily routines. I a small meltdown today and my husband tried telling me I wasn't alone in this frustration, that there were lots of parents out there who were tired of having their plans kicked to the curb by sick kids, long weekends, snow days and more. And then I read this. Thank you.

  4. That's interesting... I don't think I've ever been a chaos junkie, even when I was acting like one... but I remember having breakfast once as a guest in a retirement/nursing facility and seeing two very old women almost come to blows because one sat in the other's regular cafeteria chair. I thought "please, God, don't ever let me become so set in my ways." I find a moderate amount of chaos in my life helps me treasure the return to "routine" and keeps me from getting too rigid. A moderate amount of routine helps me be grounded enough to manage the chaos when it comes. One without the other would just get old. I try to welcome them both, and steer clear of spending too much time in bed with either!

  5. Welcome to the January blahs. I know exactly what you are talking about here, Ellie.

    I also think as moms we get addicted to chaos and just assume that our kids are along for the ride. It isn't good for any of us. You have to put on the brakes. And the best, most important rule of self care that we can do for ourselves and our families is to not take that first drink.

  6. Great post! I can relate to so much of it. I no longer actively create chaos in my life. But I'm still working on finding a routine that feels right to me.

    (On a different topic that you recently raised: I sometimes have technical problems leaving comments on your blog. On my ipad, the boxes can overlap and prevent me from pushing the "publish" button. On my laptop, I get a popup message about a script that runs on your site. When it comes up, it erases my still-being-composed comment and I have to start over. Just thought you'd want to know!)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anne - it's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way! :)

      And I'm sorry about the technical trouble on my blog. I have had other people mention it to me, too. I'm looking in to it - but I'm not technically savvy at all, so I'm not sure what the problem is. Thanks for letting me know, though, and for being persistent and still commenting! :)


  7. I have developed a morning routine over the past year; for the first time in my life I don't jump out of bed and head straight for the car or train. Instead I make a fresh juice of fruits and veggies, a cup of tea, do a little yoga, meditation, and mantra or prayer, and then I go. It is amazing the shift it causes in my entire day when I do this, and when I don't. I don't suffer from alcoholism but I was a very heavy drinker and cutting that habit was the number one reason that I became able to develop my morning routine. So grateful for a clear head in the morning these days. Thank you for sharing!

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