Friday, December 5, 2014

A Newly Seperated Girl's Guide to the Holidays

I went to the mailbox yesterday and received my first holiday card. 

I used to adore this time of year - both sending and receiving cards - picking out that perfect picture (always taken as a family at Thanksgiving) and running to the mailbox every afternoon to see it chock full of those non-bill-shaped envelopes bearing updates from friends and family.

When I saw that first green and gold envelope with a little heart sticker on it, my stomach plummeted.

This year there will be no holiday card from our family, because our family is separated.

I suppose I could send a card with just the kids on it. But what would the message say?  Joy?  Merry Merry?  Happy New Year?

I don't feel any of those things this year. 

Over the holidays, even more than usual, there are reminders of what-isn't-anymore all over the place, like little bomb-lets that explode in my face when I least expect it.

Holiday commercials of intact families celebrating over a Thanksgiving meal. Magazine ads of Moms and Dads kissing under mistletoe, or grinning conspiratorially to each other as they stuff holiday stockings or wrap gifts. 

The holiday cards with smiling Mom-Dad-Kids, their arms slung around each other, wearing goofy Santa hats or matching outfits.  All together, just like they were last year, only one year older.

The holiday season makes me glare at the wedding rings of the Moms in front of me in the grocery line, their chubby babies' drooling grins taunting me.  I used to be them, I think.  My stomach twists with regret and jealousy.  Why didn't I pay more attention when all that was mine.  

The changes are coming at me fast.  Our beloved dog, Casper, died last week.  She was thirteen years old, lived a long, full life, and it was time for her to go.  My husband and I got her when our marriage was only two years old.  As I mourn her loss, I find myself thinking: my marriage began and ended with her life.

I don't want to put up the tree.  I don't want to decorate.  I don't want to celebrate.  Every step of the way I'm haunted by traditions past:  he cuts the trunk, I hang the ornaments, a crackling fire blazing in the background. 

I want to curl up in a ball and unfurl on January 2nd.

Friends mock-complain about all they have to do: the in-laws coming to stay, prepping meals, planning trips to see family, grumbling about what to buy their husband or what their husband will get for them.  All of it sets my teeth on edge, but I just stand there and smile, feeling like I have a blaring neon sign on my forehead that says:  separated.

I gazed at the smiling faces peering out at me from that first holiday card.  Then I closed my eyes, and I prayed. 

May they have a happy holiday season. May I find joy in the blessings I have, instead of all I do not have.

It helped.  A little.

Here's the thing, though: none of these emotions have any bearing on our separation specifically, on the circumstances behind it, or the reasons why.  I don't regret the separation itself, I realize, although it's confusing and hard and sometimes I just want to get in my way-back machine and start all over.

What I'm grieving is the loss of The Dream, the one that is shoved in our faces over-and-over-and-over during the holidays.  If you were an alien from another planet and landed on earth on December 14th, or thereabouts, you would think we were the happiest-smilingest people in the Universe.

At least that's how it feels to me, newly separated for my first holiday season.

Our society commercializes happiness, and it's never more glaring than in November and December.  I'd like to see a magazine ad, or a commercial, of a single mom and her kids sitting down to Thanksgiving, or buying a Christmas tree. 

They'd be smiling, I know they would, because my kids and I smile together. A lot.  I am not unhappy when I'm able to live my life as it is, and not how I feel it should be.  Most of the time I am content, and I'm able to grow and learn from the hard lessons life is teaching me right now.

But, dammit. It's almost impossible not to lose myself in comparisons when family-and-togetherness is everywhere.  Logically, I know that we're still a family, just in a different form. I know my kids are over-the-top excited for Christmas, and that they had a great Thanksgiving with their Dad.  I had a great Thanksgiving, too, with some amazing sober friends. 

I would be okay, most of the time, if that damn cookie-cutter family wasn't grinning out at me from my television, Facebook stream and mailbox. 

That's not how the world works, and I know this.  This is hard core life-on-life's terms. When I'm in a good head space, I can find peace in chaos.  When I'm not, I find chaos in peace.  I fall into the 'shoulds' - how my life should be instead of how it is. 

Don't Should On Yourself, my friend would say.

I'm trying. I will get through this. I will say a prayer of compassion over every card I receive this year. I will pray for peace of mind, for acceptance of what is, and gratitude for all I have. 

But sometimes?  Sometimes I just have to get my truth out there, that this is hard. 

It just is.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Hallway

You know that expression, the one that says "God doesn't close one door without opening another one"?

I've never particularly liked it - it felt too much like a Band-Aid over a bullet hole, like plastering a bumper sticker over an openly bleeding wound.

Of course it's true, like most over-used sayings.

The part that isn't mentioned, though, is the hallway.  The one I find myself standing in right now,
one door firmly shut behind me, but the new door remains out of sight, at the other end of a shadowy journey I can't define.

I spend a lot of time by myself. I can't drive, and so I leave the house only with help, and only when necessary.  It's amazing how much of my identity was wrapped around the woman-who-did-stuff.  I used to go non-stop, all day - rushing to and from appointments and errands and business engagements and housework, and making dinner, and activities ...and, and, and.

What I have learned is the vast majority of all that rushing around was unnecessary.  Life just felt more comfortable when I didn't stop moving.  I would never simply sit and think, or pray, or breathe.  When I did these things the feelings would start to come -the fear, anxiety and uncertainty I felt at the core of my being - and so I'd go someplace.  Like Target. Or Michael's. Or Stop & Shop.  I would lose myself in the mundane hum of normalcy, mindlessly pushing my cart up and down aisles, making hundreds of tiny decisions so I could avoid thinking about the bigger ones.

What happened, when I stopped - well, let's get real .... when I was forced to stop - was all the feelings came to the surface.  I could no longer dodge the reality of my fear.  I don't numb it from the inside-out with alcohol, and I don't numb it from the outside-in with labels I affix to myself to validate who I am.

I am slowly peeling away all those labels, and its scary.  I pick away at their sticky edges - Wife, Mother, Writer, Daughter, Blogger, Alcoholic, Cancer Survivor, Sister, Friend.

Every major way I defined myself has changed.  I no longer lose myself by slipping into the characters I assembled to feel better about myself through your eyes. 

Now, when I push the cart up and down the aisles, I don't feel like I fit anywhere, and it's uncomfortable.  The Moms I talk to jostle about, clutching their car keys and dashing off to the activities I can no longer take my kids to.  They talk about the husband I no longer have.  The family dinner I am no longer preparing.  Planning the family vacation I no longer go on. 

All of the major relationships I have in my life are changing, evolving. I have taken a giant step back from everything that used to define me, before.  My work. My family. My marriage. My social life. My writing.

I long, sometimes, for the way my life used to be, before the weight of all those self-affixed labels crushed me.  When my biggest problem of the day was how to fit it all in - get one kid to soccer and the other to CCD and get to the grocery shop and start dinner.  When my brain was so crammed with my To-Do list - my businesses, my family, my husband and friends - that I didn't have to think about myself.

I know I can't go back there.  I know this hard stop is in my life for a purpose.  I squirm in the silence, in the calm.  I'm great in a foxhole.  It's the lulls that scare me.

I suffer when I resist the reality of what is, as opposed to what was or what might be.  I am in the most pain when I scream and kick against all those closed doors, those maladaptive coping mechanisms - my people pleasing, my co-dependency, my self-medicating with alcohol or work.

I can't even hide from myself in my marriage anymore.  I am not Mrs. Anybody.  I am just me.  

When I can let go, when I can just stand still in this dark hallway and just be, I feel fleeting moments of peace. 

I am mourning the loss of the blueprint, though.  The one I so carefully drafted for how my life was supposed to look, like a perfect holiday card.  The one that made me feel as though I was in control of my destiny, although of course I never was.

I don't have any blueprint anymore.  Every pre-conceived notion I had - every label - is torn and tattered.

Now I stand alone, peeling back the labels, feeling naked and vulnerable without their papery armor.  I stand shivering in the Damn Hallway, waiting for God to crack open the next door.   So far, He hasn't.  He is making me wait. 

He is making me put up boundaries, ask for help, sit with myself awhile.

And so, I do.


Monday, October 20, 2014


The hardest part of the day is the last part. Those six or seven minutes between wakefulness and sleep, as I drift off in the in-between space of moments past and moments yet to come.

Instead of those sleepy, mumbled conversations between two married people, parents downloading their day, giggling over a funny thing a kid said, or offering assurances that the work meeting the next day will go fine.... there is silence. 

Sometimes I unconsciously slide my foot over to his side of the bed, expecting the warm reassurance of his presence.  My toes are always icy, and I used to snuggle them up against his shin.  He'd wince and say "ah, c'mon!", but he wouldn't move away.

Now the sheets are cold.  My toes are icy.  He is not there.

I knew separation would be hard, in the broad sense.  I worried about juggling all the moving parts alone.  I didn't know how I would handle the morning routine all by myself.  And what would I do about dinner?  Do I cook for just the three of us?  The kids only really like to eat about four things, so I mostly cooked for him. For us. Would the kids and I sit around the table, where we ate thousands upon thousands of family dinners, with his empty chair blaring silently at us?  I wrung my hands about the schedule - how much time to spend there instead of here?  How would they adjust? How would I adjust?

What I didn't know, what I couldn't know until I was in it, is the hardest part isn't the big picture.  In many ways, because of his long work hours, I handled many of the logistics on my own anyway. Mornings he was out the door before we were all up. Many nights he worked late, and what to eat or where to eat it never bothered me before.  And managing all the moving parts of the kids' schedule?  Well, that was always my role. I'm a pro at all those things.

The part I didn't expect?  The ghosts. Every inch of my life is our life. Was our life.  Is our life.

See?  It's confusing.

Over there is the bureau we bought decades ago, as a newly engaged couple, feeling very grown up on an afternoon of antiquing.  On the mantle are the metal statues of two cranes intertwined, purchased at a funky little store down the street from our first apartment.  When Greta was born we found a little baby crane. "Look, they are a family now, like us," we said. They whisper to me of what was, what is, and what isn't anymore.

I am surrounded by my most familiar and comfortable space - my home and everything in it - and nothing is familiar anymore.  Or comfortable. 

"We marry people because we like who they are. People change. Plan on it. Don't marry someone because of who they are, or who you want them to become. Marry them because of who they are determined to become. And then spend a lifetime joining them in their becoming, as they join you in yours."  ~ Huffington Post

The funny thing about becoming?  It's not a straight line.  It's not all forward momentum. 

Before I thought of becoming like brick laying - cumulative - each brick snuggling firmly on top of the other as we build.  Upward. Stronger.

Then life happens, and that brick wall is smashed to smithereens.  Every brick is still there, except they lie in an unrecognizable jumble at my feet.  Over there is the brick where we saw our first ultrasound picture.  We made a girl, I whispered to him in awe.  That moment is still there, as solid as it ever was, except now it has a crack down the middle.  All that happy, that certainty of how it would all play out, is altered.

Because sometimes, to become, we have to break apart what is to make room for what will be. 

People do change. We know that for a fact, right?  So why is it so hard to keep up?  To pay attention to the thousands of tiny moments, infinitesimal feelings, decisions, thoughts that accumulate every day?  And then it seems so sudden, when things fall apart, or fall away.  But it isn't.  Because we're always becoming.  Changing.  Evolving. 

But our expectations stay stuck.  It's human nature, I think. I am still that young woman clutching her first ultrasound picture, a Technicolor vision of how my life - how our life - would be dancing in my head.

That vision didn't have alcoholism. Or death. Or cancer. Or depression. Or separation. All these things are just as much a part of my becoming as all the joy, success, happiness and peace.

"Marry them because of who they are determined to become. And then spend a lifetime joining them in their becoming, as they join you in yours."

Ah, yes. Sounds straightforward, right?  All Hallmark card-y.  Hopeful.  Because becoming sounds so positive.  All new-agey and personal growth oriented.

But growth, like becoming, isn't all forward momentum.  Most of the growth I have experienced feels a lot like the opposite, in fact. It feels like zooming backward, blind to where I'm headed, white knuckles bracing for impact. 

It's how we survive the out-of-control moments, the backward zooming moments, that define who we become.

Back to marriage. To becoming, and growth.  How do I ask someone to stay with me as I zoom backwards?  As I cast my eyes at the broken pile of bricks at my feet, only to stare in amazement that I'm the one holding the sledgehammer?

I guess the answer is that I don't.  This moment in my journey is an inside job. 

I can kick and scream and lament what was lost, or I can set about, well, becoming.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On Simplicity, Serenity and Struggle

I find myself in a tug-of-war.  I love writing in this space, and I miss it.

Following the chaos of my relapse(s) and subsequent 90 days of treatment, I vowed to take a break from living my life so publicly.  I have been doing serious thinking about the role blogging plays in my life, in my recovery.  I have more questions than answers.

I still receive numerous emails from people who identify with my story, have been helped in some way by my words. People offer bits of their own struggles, their own triumphs, and it comforts me, makes me feel less alone. 

I don't have regrets, because despite everything I continue to believe that being open brings more gifts to me than being closed. When I share some of my vulnerabilities with the world, the blessings I receive back are beyond measure.  I am long past worrying about judgment, censure or sideways glances on the soccer field.

This blog has been, in large part, about my addiction and recovery story. But I also wrote about motherhood, creativity, advocacy, balance and family.

The past six months have shown me that I do not need to share all the intimate details of my journey. Some things are meant for the sacred intimacy of real-life: family, close friends and recovery people.  
I have focused on living a quiet, simple life. I stepped away from the day-to-day of running Shining Strong, I took a hiatus from my jewelry businesses and from blogging.

My main focus has been on self-care and my family.  My kids are my priority - after my recovery, of course, because without my recovery I will lose everything.

I find myself in an in-between space. There are lots of changes happening in my life, and I ache to write about them.  But it's not just my story to tell.  What I say here impacts my kids, my husband, my family.  

Because I have shared my struggles here, I am stopped often - even from people I barely know - who look me in the eye and ask me, in a heartfelt manner - how are you?  

I don't know what to say anymore.  I am someone who shares; I find comfort in connecting with people.  I want to be truthful, but I find myself uncharacteristically speechless.  

I struggle with the balance between what is private and answering authentically. It feels shallow simply saying, "I'm fine!  And you?"

So what to do about here?  In the land of One Crafty Mother?  I realize, looking back, that I have never been untruthful or misleading here.  I have written as authentically as I could.  But there is a kind of safety in crafting words to describe my life to the unseen masses.  It's the parts I didn't even have access to myself - the pain, the depression, the grief and anxiety - that got me in the end. Writing is powerful, but it can allow me to skip rocks over the really hard stuff, even as I believe I am digging deep.

So here is what I can say:  I am okay. I have an incredible relationship with my kids, and for this I am beyond grateful.  My recovery is solid. I am able to live in acceptance and surrender and keep it in the day, with lots of prayer, meditation and support.  

Recently I re-opened my online jewelry shops, but I haven't been marketing them aggressively. Like sinking into a hot bath, I am slowing reintegrating into creating again.  It feels good.  I am writing a lot on the side, away from the public eye. It is healing.

I am smack dab in the middle of a fantastic recovery community; I reach out for help.  I stay active, present and involved.  I lean into my feelings, and share them face-to-face with the unbelievable support network I have right here in front of me.

I am also not okay. My husband and I are separating. I won't get into the details, because it isn't my story to tell.  It's our story. It will always be our story, no matter what happens in the end.  We are working together with love and respect for each other, and that's a lot.  That isn't to say it's not hard - man, is it hard, but I find that anger, resentment and fear block my contact with God.  It's simpler to live in compassion and faith. Well, maybe not simpler, but certainly more serene.

I know that God's got us, that we need to row the boat but that He is steering. I know I will learn and stretch and grow. 

Our little family has been through a lot in the past three years, and a lot of it revolves around my issues: the death of my Dad, my cancer, my depression/anxiety, my relapse, my absence during my treatment.  And now our separation.  

I find myself waiting for things to settle down, for life to return to normal again.  I find myself grappling for a foothold, wanting to shake answers out of the Universe because I want to know, dammit, what is going to happen.  

When I do this, when I live in the land of expectation, I suffer.  When I pry my white knuckles off the steering wheel, surrender and ask for help, I am calm and steady.  I know now that this is the only power I have over anything: how I metabolize my world.   

I have the power to let go.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pirouette On A Tightrope: On Addiction and Depression

I am emerging from my self-imposed break from writing because I feel an ache, a bubbling emotion that needs to come out in words.

Robin Williams' death hit us all hard. Just like in the wake of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death, I feel
perplexed, gut-punched, incredulous.

Their deaths touch us because their talents were so massive, their performances so vulnerable, that we felt a kinship, a connection, with them.  The thing about that connection?  It only went one way.  The unrequited first row seat to their creative genius was the gift they gave us.  And, we know now, the pain driving those staggering performances - both comic and tragic - that hid behind all those characters.

At first glance Robin Williams appeared to be the opposite of vulnerable - full of crackling energy that surrounded him like a force field.  To be honest, his brand of humor always made me slightly nervous.  When I watched him interviewed, or hosting an award show, I felt as though I were watching through squinted eyes, waiting for the wheels to come off and the whole thing to fall apart.

This may sound like Monday morning quarterbacking - all "I saw it coming".   I didn't.  But I know now why his energy made me uncomfortable.  I recognized that pirouette on a tightrope, the thin veil between comedy and melancholy.  

How many of us thought, when we heard of his suicide, "WHY?  He had so much to live for?"

As someone who battles both depression and addiction, I understand that how much a person has to live for doesn't matter in the face of these potentially fatal illnesses.   Most of the people I know who have struggled with addiction also struggle with depression and/or anxiety.   Drinking or using drugs becomes the Band-Aid over the bullet hole.

I ended up relapsing after years of sobriety because of untreated depression and anxiety.  I learned a valuable lesson while in treatment:  I can build a strong castle of recovery - massive and impenetrable from the outside - but if it is built on a foundation of sand, it will eventually fall.  The issues behind my drinking - depression and anxiety - were the shifting sands underneath my recovery.  Unaddressed, they would eventually take me down. And they did.

I had no idea I was depressed. I thought depression meant you couldn't get out of bed, that your world went grey and meaningless, that you were filled with lethargy and despair.

Mine didn't manifest that way.  My depression came out as manic energy - impulsive, compulsive, obsessive.  I didn't stop from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until the moment I fell into a fitful sleep.  My mind never, ever stopped.  To the outside world I looked on top of my game - productive, full of life, passion and drive.  Recovery is an inside job, and I stopped working on my insides. I took my validation from the outside in, and for someone like me that is dangerous ground.

If I started to feel those shifting sands under my feet I ran harder, faster. I started another venture or project. Without consciously knowing it, I was afraid to stop, like a beast was nipping at my heels and if I paused it would get me.

It got me. My addiction is my beast - it was waiting for me to run out of energy, skulking in the shadows and ready to pounce. 

When I see the recaps of Robin Williams' performances - especially the improvisational ones, or the interviews - I recognize that mad dance. He was larger than life - he was so, well, Robin Williams. How hard it must have been for him to let down that veneer, to ask for help.  His humor was his armor, and we loved him for it.  We craved that version of him, we validated it.  And he delivered, at his own peril.

Recently he checked himself into rehab, and according to his publicist it was a precautionary move, to help prevent relapse. As details emerge, it appears his depression had such a grip on him that this came too late.

Depression is such an elusive concept. Most of us, when we hear this word, think:  sad.

For those of us who struggle with depression we know sad is a woefully inadequate word.   Just like I can't really describe what addiction feels like, I don't know if I can find words to describe depression.

To me, it felt like a mad scramble. A desperation to keep moving while appearing focused and outwardly fine.  Like that analogy of the duck - calm on the surface and paddling madly beneath the water.

Like addiction, for me denial played a huge role.  It wasn't an active denial - nobody was saying, "Ellie, I think you're depressed" while I protested.   I didn't know what I didn't know.  And because I am an alcoholic, that disease got me before the depression did.  But, in time, I realize that untreated depression is just as deadly and insidious.

Today I view my recovery as a three-legged stool: a program of recovery, therapy and medication.   I have historically had two of the three legs:  program and medication, therapy and program, recovery and medication.  I teetered on two legs as long as I could, but of course I fell.  Medication is tricky in recovery, and it took a while to find a safe and effective dosage. 

Now, with all three in place, I feel grounded.  My outside life is somewhat chaotic, complicated, as I work on the wreckage of my active addiction.  But I will take outside chaos with inner peace over inside chaos and outer peace any day.

I am staggeringly lucky.  I was able to get treatment for 90 days, with a lot of help from my family and friends.  I know without that treatment my chances of making it were slim.  I also know that I wasn't able to ask for help because I was so deep into my depression and addiction that I was incapable of saving myself.  It was people around me who got me the help I needed.

Many people aren't that fortunate.  Many people struggle and don't even know that they are depressed. Many people turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain, and many of them become addicted as a result.

We are a society of quick fixes. We applaud drive, determination and outward appearances.  Vulnerability and fear sit in the back seat, shushed and scorned.

I don't know how to end this post, what kind of statement I'm making here, exactly.  I can only share my own experience and hope it touches others.  If you are struggling on the inside, ask for help. Find just ONE person to open up to.  Even if all you can say is "I don't feel okay", start there. 

And if someone asks you for help, please listen.  Resist the urge to tell them how great their life is, how much they have going for them.  Offer up pieces of your own struggles to help them feel not so alone. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014


How I wish I could find a way to share with you what the past nine weeks have been like. 

For once words fail me, because one of my greatest gifts - the gift of story - is also one of my greatest liabilities.

I love a happy ending; a hopeful garnish to ease the sting of pain.  

There is no room in my life for decorative flair these days. I am on a journey inside, to the unvarnished truth.  I am traveling through time and space, to the very core of me.   It is both a wondrous and terrifying experience.  I cannot afford to dodge unpleasantness or pain.  This is not to say I do not have hope or happiness; I have plenty of both. 

But I have learned that my preference for a neat, tidy, happy ending has allowed me to avoid uncomfortable truths about myself. 

I read my own words about the difficulties of the past three years, and I see a lot of grace, hope and gratitude.  I see myself weather the loss of my Dad, battle cancer, wrestle with depression, anxiety, and struggle with relapse.

The words I have written in this space are all true. I am skilled at finding grace in the darkness. 

It's what has not been on the page that matters now.  I wielded my words like a shield, hoping they would protect me from the increasingly shaky ground under my feet.  I didn't want to look down, at the cracks. I wanted to reach for the sky.

The thing about the sky?  It is unreachable.  What matters is what under my feet, a solid foundation. The parts that nobody sees, deep in the earth, are what holds everything else up. 

I don't know where I belong these days.

All I know is that it is impossible to go on a sacred internal journey and write about it for the world to see.  

But because I have written so publicly about recovery for so many years, I do want to share this:  I have spent the past 60 days at an all women's inpatient residential treatment center.  I completely stepped away from my life, my family, my kids, my world.   It is the hardest thing I have ever done, because I so want to be needed. I want to be the mortar that holds everything together. It is much easier to do that than to look at myself. 

Moms aren't supposed to do this, step away and focus only on ourselves.  We are hardwired, most of us, to sublimate our needs to help others.  We aren't supposed to put ourselves first - especially after the selfishness of addiction has held the whole family hostage. 

I have hurt a lot of people over the past few months.  I lost myself, and instead of asking for help, I thought I could tough my way through it on sheer force of will.  I was so, so scared, but I kept madly weaving myself a tale of strength and hope, instead of admitting that fear had me by the throat.  I would like to say I should have known better, but the irony is that all the knowledge in the world can't help against addiction.  I forgot about God. I took my will back.

When it comes to addiction, self-care is key.  In general, women struggle with this.  Women in recovery have an even greater struggle, because we wrestle with so much guilt, shame and remorse that we overcompensate and give even more of ourselves away.  At least I did.  Maybe this will sound familiar to some of you, too.

As much as I want to be with my kids, at the moment that is not fair to them, because they can't make me well.  It's an inside job.  I need to be here, among other recovering women, and I am no good to anyone, especially my kids, until I am on steadier ground.

So here I am, post treatment, sitting in a little room in a sober house on Cape Cod, living with four other recovering women.  I am taking it slowly this time, my re-entry into life.  I have lost a lot of things I used to take for granted, everything from driving to the privilege of being part of my kids' everyday lives. 

I don't know what my life will look like going forward. It's no longer up to me.  I am living moment-to-moment, praying, doing my best and letting go of the outcome.  I am sitting in lots of discomfort. I can't afford to wonder what people are thinking of me, if I am being judged or scorned.   I don't know what will happen.  All I know is that if I am sober it will all work out the way it is supposed to, and that may not be the way I would like it to.

My suburban life feels very far away at the moment.  I have spent two months living with people who are battling for their lives, and it changes my perspective on a lot of things.  I feel disconnected from the things that were so much a part of my identity: writing, blogging, advocacy, jewelry making. 

Those are things I do, but they aren't who I am.

I am a work in progress: a flawed, joyful, messy, broken, hopeful, grateful woman in recovery. 

And today, that is enough.

Friday, March 21, 2014


I wriggle in the over-stuffed chair, shifting my knees from side-to-side, searching for something to say to fill the silence.

My therapist gazes patiently at me. Long pauses don't bother her one bit.

"The thing is....", I begin.

She waits.

"The thing about blowing up your life is that you get to sift through the ashes, searching for the remains - the shards - that really mean something to you."

I speak in the second person, because it's too hard too say "me" or "I".  I pretend I'm speaking about some other person, a stranger I'm observing, perhaps.

"Interesting analogy", she says after a beat. "But it sound rehearsed, like you've said it before."

As usual, she's right. That little analogy is what I say to people who ask me how I'm doing.  I'm scrambling for the blessings in this mess, and that visual seems to relieve people of their worry.  They comment on how I'm being brave, how it's important to find the gifts in hardship.

With a sheepish grin, I nod.   "Yup."

"Tell me about the shards, then," she says.  "Which ones are most important to you?"

I brighten.  This is an easy one.  "My kids. My husband. My family. My friends."

"What isn't a shard that surprises you?"  she asks.

I think for a moment.  "My businesses. I mean, I still care deeply about Shining Strong, but it's in very capable hands. I want to keep making jewelry, but I feel so overwhelmed these days that I sit at my desk and just stare into space.  I'm done with all the crazy running around, and it's a relief."

She waits, poker faced, as I stare at my hands.  I sense I've answered wrong, and say so.

"Why do you think there is a right or wrong answer to my questions?" she asks in that infuriating rhetorical way that therapists have.

I look at her, helplessly, and shift my legs again.  I take a sip of tea.  "Well, because, you're clearly after something, and I don't know what it is."

"Ellie, we're talking about YOU.  Not me.  You do realize that, don't you?"

I stifle a surge of rage.  Of course I know we're talking about me. But, see, I don't know me very well anymore. I thought I did. I had it all worked out: mother, entrepreneur, recovery advocate, wife, daughter, friend.

She sighs. "I'm just wondering how come you aren't a shard, too", she says, quietly.

My eyes widen. "I didn't realize that was a option?" I stammer, as though her question were a multiple choice test.

"Exactly," she says.

As I drive home I realize the shard analogy is more than just a thing that I say to people. I feel shattered, stripped bare, raw. Things have happened. Things I won't talk about here.  Not yet.  I am keeping my life small, safe and very quiet.

I am trying to figure out how to just be.  Just be Ellie, whoever she is when the world isn't watching, when there are no demands for my time, when it's just me in my cozy home with my family.

I feel broken into a thousand shards myself, having fought as hard as I could against the pressures of the past few years, against my old nemeses depression and anxiety and addiction.

Words, for the first time I can remember, don't come easily.  All I know is that I give up.  And not in the scary way; in the healing way.  I feel like I have been trapped underwater, my foot tangled in weeds, with my lips mere inches from the surface.  I have struggled, kicked and thrashed as hard as I could thinking sweet freedom was just within my reach.

I didn't know that freedom would be mine if I would just stop kicking, let my body go limp and sink, loosening the hold these demons had on me.

I am a fighter. I've had to be.  For all the writing I have done about surrender, I missed something important: the bravest warriors know when to surrender.  Rushing headlong into a battle you can't win with brute force isn't courage, it's folly.

And so I sit. I sit in overstuffed chairs and wriggle. I sit in recovery meetings and listen. And cry. And talk.  I sit with the stillness of my life and the roaring silence in my mind.

And bit by bit, I pick up each shard, examine it, and ask myself where it fits with my life,  With me.

With whoever I am becoming.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: How COULD he?

I was scrolling mindlessly through my Facebook feed, the day the news broke, and I saw someone post "RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman. So sad."

My response was visceral and possessive:  WHAT? I thought.  MY Philip Seymour Hoffman?

I have no claim to him, of course. I never met him or even caught a glimpse of him in person.  It is a testimony to his strength as an actor that I felt such a connection with him.  His achingly beautiful performances, where he so often portrayed the dichotomies that lie within us all - sinner and saint, courageous and vulnerable - touched us all.

It is no surprise that he was such a talented character actor.  A hallmark of all addicts is that we're great chameleons.

His death effects me on another level, as someone who had recovery - good recovery - and then relapsed. It is hard to respond to the question how could he? because it is a question I ask myself, too.  How could I? With everything I know about addiction, with all the blessings in my life:  how could I? 

Let's start by talking about you for a moment.

Think back on resolutions you have made to yourself.  Perhaps to lose weight? Eat healthier?  Exercise three times a week?  All of the above?

You know, intellectually, that your life will improve if you stick to your plan. You come out of the gate going gangbusters.  It isn't hard to stick to your plan, because the benefits are immediate - hey! I have more energy! I'm sleeping better!  I can button these jeans!  My cholesterol went down! 

You are a disciplined, intelligent person, and you don't like to be bested by anything, so you stick with this plan.  For months.  You do this until the point where getting up in the morning and going to the gym is second nature. You reach for the carrot sticks instead of the cake without even thinking.   Friends compliment you on how good you look/feel.  The rewards for this healthier lifestyle make it easy to stick with it.

Over time, this healthier you is just, well, you.

One day you have an early morning meeting and you can't go to the gym. You haven't been scheduling early morning meetings, because it's your gym time, but hey, just this once won't matter. Things are nuts at work. The next day you decide you'll work out in the evenings because you got so much done at work early in the morning.  Except when you get home that night you're tired and don't go.  The next night there is a traffic jam and you get home too late to work out.

A few days, or maybe even weeks, later you skip your healthy home-brought salad and go out to lunch with co-workers.  While you're out at lunch, nibbling french fries, you think:  I should do this more often. It's important to socialize with work people. 

After a while, you're only bringing your healthy lunch once or twice a week, and you're only working out occasionally.  But you still feel good. Your clothes still fit.  You tell yourself you will amp up the workouts if your pants get tight.

One day you can't fit comfortably into your suit, so you head out and buy one - just one! - work outfit.  Just until you can take off the few extra pounds.

Weeks later you are mindlessly digging through your closet for your old two-sizes-bigger clothes.  It's just that you have been so busy.  You know what you need to do, and you've done it before, so you'll get back into shape when things calm down.  It's not like you're going to stay this weight.

Eventually you're not only back to your former weight, you're heavier.  How did this happen? Things were going so well!  You feel ashamed.  You feel like a failure. You feel so despondent.  Dieting doesn't work for me, you think.

Does any of this sound familiar?

What is so hard to see, in these situations, is that you didn't just end up heavy.  It all started the day you skipped your morning workout for what seemed like a perfectly good reason: work needed you.

It's death by a thousand paper cuts. It's a slow, almost invisible slide into old behaviors.

Recovering addicts need constant vigilance to stay sober. It's hard at first - everything (and I mean everything) feels different. Putting recovery before everything else is hard, counter-intuitive, because you are accustomed to letting the hectic pace of life to put the healthier, non-drinking you, last.

Eventually, though, with daily discipline, structure and support, being sober becomes second nature. You feel so good that you don't ever, ever want to go back to that dark, shameful, secretive place.

Someone who has worked hard to get fit doesn't want to go back to being heavy, either. But still it happens to almost all of us who try to lose weight. Very few of us do it once and keep fit for a lifetime.

With recovery it isn't a matter of what we want, either.  We all want to stay sober, but addiction is a brain disease, and what we want doesn't hold all the cards.

Put very simply - back when we (meaning addicts/alcoholics) first used alcohol or drugs, we triggered something in the primitive part of our brain - the part that governs survival instincts like shelter, reproduction, food, thirst.  Our addiction takes root in this primitive part of our brain, snuggled up next to the things we need to survive.  With time, as the addiction grows, our brain puts drinking first.  It moves up the ladder of needs - starting as an emotional addiction and ending as a physical one - and eventually it trumps everything. Active alcoholics will choose alcohol over food and hydration.

Their brain is literally telling them:  you need this to survive.

Additionally, the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought, and the amygdala, which controls emotional processing, get hijacked.  The site, which targets teens, explains it simply:
"...drugs and alcohol also affect a part of your brain called the neocortex that keeps you from doing dangerous things. Ira Moses, Ph.D., who used to run a drug abuse program, calls the neocortex “the brain’s brakes—it controls most of the brain’s functions.” The neocortex helps us think through consequences of our behavior, consider risks, and stop us from doing things that might feel good in the short run, but harm us or the ones we love in the long run. This part of the brain basically gets turned off by drugs and alcohol."
Once activated by drugs or alcohol, in an addict's brain the neocortex hands the reins over to the lizard/primitive brain, which is thinking:  alcohol first. drugs first.  The symptoms of addiction are behavioral, because the rational part of the brain isn't functioning.  This is why people around active alcoholics are astounded by the insane behavior we do when we're drinking. Because it is, quite literally, insane.  Our neocortex is out of the picture.

So, back to the original question:  how COULD Philip Seymour Hoffman relapse?  With all he had going for him?  With all that sobriety?

The same way I did.

There is no cure for addiction, but it can be treated; it can go into remission.  Treatment involves a daily regimented program of recovery of rigorous honesty, communicating with fellow addicts/alcoholics in recovery, self-care and - for many of us in recovery - spirituality.  It involves a daily surrender to the fact that we are powerless over our disease and all its manifestations.

Here's what I mean by that:  my relapse didn't start when I drank. It started about a year and a half before when, coming out of cancer treatments, I had drifted away from active recovery.  I stopped engaging in the daily self-care regime that treated my alcoholism on a daily basis:  meetings, yoga, exercise, asking for help, prayer.

I substituted my recovery for what looked and felt like healthy behavior -particularly in the crazy pace of today's world - workaholism.

Just like the ill-fated dieter in the example above, it was a long slow slide towards a drink.  Without my knowledge or permission, my disease was ramping up, because I wasn't tending to it on a daily basis.

I don't remember actually drinking.  I was in an emotional blackout, I guess.  I was so far away from the healthy behaviors that kept my recovery alive that my disease took over, and I was without a single tool to resist it.

So where does personal responsibility factor in?  Especially as it pertains to relapse?

This is a dicey subject, so I offer here only my personal thoughts on the matter.

I view my alcoholism like I do my cancer:  a chronic, life-long and potentially fatal condition.  I didn't choose to have either one.

Neither one is my fault, but my recovery in both is my responsibility.

In my mind, my relapse is as if I found something troubling- perhaps a lump in my neck (where I had cancer before) - and I decided (consciously or unconsciously) that it was probably nothing and didn't see a doctor. Then, months later, I find out my cancer is back and it has spread.

The moment of responsibility lies with my knowledge that I am a cancer patient in remission and I can't afford not to have something checked out.

But, particularly when dealing with hard or scary things - it's human nature to dumb it down, file it away somewhere convenient or easy, or simply procrastinate.  Like our dieter.

With addiction, just like with cancer, we can't afford to file it away, though.  Once we have surrendered and know we are an alcoholic/addict, it is our responsibility to maintain that recovery.

BUT. Relapse happens. It happens with cancer. It happens with diets. It happens with addiction.  For all the reasons I described, alcoholics find themselves with a drink in their hand and no tools to resist.  Knowing alcohol is bad for you, that it could kill you in the end, doesn't factor in.  That bus left the station ages ago, when the first of the thousand paper cuts slid across your skin, seemingly without much impact.

When I am not active in a program of recovery, my addiction is untreated.

It is my responsibility to stay active in recovery.  I drifted away from it. I relapsed.

It is not a moral failing. It is my disease coming out of remission.  But, unlike cancer, I can choose to treat it on a daily basis and stay in recovery.  Cancer treatments cannot promise such a hopeful outcome. Hopefully I will be able to treat my addiction, daily, for the rest of my life.  I know this is confusing to people not in the world of addiction:  if you can choose it every day .. why don't you DO that every day?  I will politely refer back to the dieter.

Because we're also human.  And brains - all brains - are adept at side-stepping scary or unpleasant things.

So let's not wring our hands and ask why. Or how could he?  Philip Seymour Hoffman died because of his disease, not because he was weak, or willfully self-destructive or morally unfit. The argument "well, one doesn't just find oneself with a needle in one's arm" infuriates me. Because addicts do. Addicts who are not working a program of recovery find themselves with a needle in their arm and are just as baffled and saddened about it as those who love them. And once the drug is in their system, the sober person is just gone. And they can't get back without help.

And far too many addicts/alcoholics don't ask for help, because of the damn stigma.  Far too many addicts/alcoholics don't reach for a chance at recovery because they are too afraid of society's reaction to what they, too, perceive as a personal weakness or failing.

Lets band together to beat down the stigma of addiction that keeps alcoholics and addicts stuck in their fear of being judged.

I long for the day when addiction is viewed like cancer - without stigma and with the urgency of all potentially fatal conditions.

RIP, Philip.  May your tragic death in the spotlight help to bring more understanding to the disease of addiction.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Just Because

My eleven year old daughter leans into me, out of the blue, and sighs happily.

I rest my chin on the top of her head (the top of her head? when did she get so tall?) and inhale her musky-strawberry scent.

"What's up?" I ask.

"Nothing, Momma," she mumbles.  "I just wanted you."

She wants me. 

Two months ago I lay face down on a rumpled, cramped twin bed at the treatment facility and sobbed until my eyes ran dry.  In my mind's eye I could only see the smoldering wreckage of my life.  I drank again, I thought, and the worst part is I don't even know why.

I rub her back, and we sway back and forth.  I love you, she says, simply.  Not in response to a gift she's been begging for, or as an apology for one of her mood swings.  Just because.

Love you too, I reply, afraid to say more, to overdo it, scare her off.

My mind pings back to her first visit to the treatment center; how she stayed at arm's length and only flicked her eyes in my direction twice.

With each visit she moved a little closer.  On the second visit she sat next to me while we ate lunch. The third?  She gave me a hug before she left.  By the final visit she chattered away about her life, and even smiled at me.

The card from her that greeted me as I walked in the door after a month away said:  I love you, and I am so proud of you Momma, but it will take time to build back trust. Just don't drink.  I know you can do it.

One thing about tossing a bomb into the middle of your life?  You get to pick through the ruins, hoping to find the things that truly matter to you, praying you can get them back.

Like the musky-strawberry scent of a pre-teen girl who hugs me, just because.


This post is part of Heather of The Extraordinary Ordinary's free-writing link-up, Just Write.  Click HERE to join in!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Other Side of Fear

I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all the support, love and encouragement I have received since my last post about my relapse.

I'm pleased to report that the saying "feelings aren't facts" is totally true.  My fear of being judged or alienated proved to be ill founded.  If there are people judging me out there they are remaining blissfully silent. 

I am overwhelmed (in the good way) by all the comments, messages and emails. 

When we are suffering, it is easy to feel like we're the only people on the planet. It seems like the bad feelings are never going to get better.  No matter how many times I have said to other struggling people "hang in there, it gets better", it is still very difficult to believe that when it's me who is in pain.

When I wrote about my alcoholism before - from the start of this blog - it was from the relatively safe perch of time and distance.  It wasn't as hard to write about the stigma, shame, regret and guilt of alcoholism with over a year sober tucked under my belt.  For someone who writes extensively about the power of truth and vulnerability, when it came time to share my own without the buffer of time I felt more frightened than I have in a long time. 

I had to wait to hit "publish" on my last post until I felt in my gut I was putting my words out there for my own healing, not because I wanted to dispel rumors or try to project some image of okay-ness that wasn't true.  I had to be sure I wasn't writing for anyone but myself and was able to let go of the outcome.  

I forgot about the power of truth and vulnerability.  Not everyone understands addiction or recovery, but everyone understands suffering and courage.

Because it takes courage to be vulnerable.  When someone speaks or writes their truth - unvarnished and straight from the heart - I feel awe and admiration, and no small measure of respect.  When it's my turn, however, the urge to varnish. minimize or maximize the truth is overwhelming.  

And why do I want to polish up the truth?  Why do I feel this urge to minimize my accomplishments?  


Fear of being judged, of course, but also fear of the "who do you think you are's".  

I have learned that fear is at the root of so many deflecting emotions like anger or resentment. Fear is also at the root of pride, envy, perfectionism and shame.  At the heart of it all, for me, is self-centered fear of rejection and abandonment.  

Social media can amplify and exaggerate this fear.  People don't post about their vulnerabilities often.  We aren't practiced in expressing our fears.  When perusing Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. we can find ourselves comparing our insides to everyone else's highlight reels.  

What I felt from the responses I received from my last post was relief and identification.  Even people who aren't alcoholics, who aren't in recovery, wrote to me about their own struggles, fears and experiences with falling down and getting back up.

Many, many people expressed that they wish they could be more open about their fears, doubts and insecurities but that they couldn't because of fear of peoples' reactions, of not fitting in and being perceived as weak or inferior.  

There is a chasm between how we feel on the inside and what the world sees, and at the bottom of this chasm is a river of suffering.

Every time we open up and share our truth, our vulnerability, we are building a bridge across this chasm.  In recovery we do this all the time; we open our mouths to save our lives so the chasm doesn't swallow us whole.

I will never be rid of fear, but I am learning to embrace it as a great teacher.  The antidotes to fear are self-love, faith and truth.  When I can face my mistakes, regrets and truths with compassion and love, I can find the strength to build that bridge. The only way fear wins is if I stop trying; if I avoid what is really going on inside and keep polishing up the outside instead.  The shiniest castle built on sand will eventually fall.

My relapse happened, in large part, because I didn't want to face some hard truths about what was going on underneath it all; how my foundation was crumbling as I madly kept on building. 

I can't get well on my own; when I try to fix myself I inevitably make things worse.  Thank you - everyone - for your words of hope and encouragement, but mostly importantly for sharing the vulnerable, beautiful parts of yourselves. When we raise our voices together, fear doesn't stand a chance. 

If you're struggling and have been afraid to reach out for help because of fear, take a deep breath, and speak your truth to a trusted friend or loved one. Or even start by speaking your truth out loud in front of a mirror. Tell yourself what you're afraid of.  Truth shines a light on the things that make us suffer and sends fear scuttling into the shadows.

Let go.  It's worth it.  You're worth it.

And so am I.