Friday, 4 November 2016

Round 3, Day 416: New thoughts on never being "normal"

After writing to celebrate being one year sober again this time around, I've been quiet online. Just in case anyone follows and wonders whether that means I've fallen away from being sober, no worries. I'm here, and I'm sober! I'm not actually counting days anymore, so when I post I have to go to the wonderful Living Sober site and see what the number says. Last time when I got sober I drank at somewhere around 500 days, so I'm keeping track of some numbers here at least until then.

Whew! OK, that's it for the accounting. But what's been going on?

Last time I wrote, I said I was heading into some serious thinking about myself. Who am I? What do I want? What makes me happy? Now that I'm sober, I feel like drinking was a period of partially putting myself under a big rock. The parts that fit with the world were allowed out. The rest either stayed put, or just came out when I could pleasantly blur myself.

Part of the work I've been doing has been paying attention to what's going on with me, and tracing some of it to what may be very old patterns. I've been doing that reasonably intensively for a month or so, and I am somewhat shocked with what I'm finding.

First, I have so much trouble with people. I'm drawn to people in some ways. I really do want to participate in the world. But being in a room with a group of people is so much work for me, in a way that I just don't think is the case for most people. I like the buzz of the city, but mostly I prefer it when it's kind of impersonal. Actually being in a room with people, I take on board too much of what's going on emotionally with them, and as you can't expect people to bring only their settled and neutral selves out in public, there is usually an awful lot going on. This feels overwhelming. Usually I experience this as, "They hate me." And even though I can (mostly) rationally get to knowing that this isn't true, it takes a fair amount of work moment-to-moment to stay aware that it's not true. That's exhausting, and I can only do it sometimes.

As an aside, I see that that's one of the reasons AA didn't work for me. I liked hearing the stories, but being around people who could come into a room and know how to be with the others was more alienating than recovering home alone. I'd do better out walking in the rain, and that's what I usually did do. It's a lonely road sometimes, though. (And please don't tell me I didn't try hard enough. I did this for several months. I tried staying at the end and stacking chairs. I tried going up to talk to people, who said "keep coming back" but looked like they wanted to add, "But please talk to someone else when you do come back." There might be a better way of doing this, and that might work for you, but what I am saying is that is was massively uncomfortable and it didn't get easier and no one was friendly and my attempts to be friendly didn't work, and I generally felt so alienated that I worried I was at greater risk of drinking than I had been without the meeting. That's my experience. Maybe not yours, but mine.)

Recently, I tried signing up for a five-week meditation session. But when I went to the first class, it was clear to me that I wasn't going to be able to tolerate being there. The room was stuffy, and slightly smelly, and there were 25 people sitting in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs (the kind that are too high for me, so my feet can't reach the ground), and the chairs were splayed around the room in a kind of squiggly oval. I was a few minutes late, so I couldn't settle myself before it started, and when I joined the class, I could feel my whole body buzzing with the energy of everything that was going on in the room. We were about to do an exercise that involved paying attention to ourselves, except that's what I'd been doing since I arrived, and I was hearing, very clearly, a single, clear message in my mind: "Get me out of here." After twenty minutes, I stood up, took my bag and mu meditation cushion (which I saw no way of using), mimed a stomach problem, and walked out into the night. Walking to my car and sitting for a few minutes before driving home, I felt such clear relief, the kind you feel when you didn't know you were thirsty and then you drink a tall cool glass of water and you go, "Ah, yes, that was exactly what I needed."

Also, I have been so overwhelmed by what I need to do lately that I haven't been able to do anything except the things that are absolutely necessary to avoid crisis. That doesn't stave off the crisis for very long, but it means I keep out of one many days. Other days I have to lie around reading a mystery as the only way I can drop out of the world. Or sleep for ten or eleven hours, just to restore myself.

Besides the other people problem, and the probelm of feeling like I can't quite get anything done, there's the problem of getting too easily overstimulated. This is something I've had my whole life, but I've been paying close attention to it lately, trying to see if there are ways I can set up my life so I can cope with what's coming at me. It's partly why I've been trying out things like yoga and meditation classes, and partly why I've been thinking about how a person would feel way overwhelmed and overstimulated in a quiet room doing yoga (which happens to me more often than not.)

Several weeks ago at work, we had had a flood and so we were working in a temporary set-up that was so unbelievably busy and noisy. I felt like my whole body was vibrating. I spoke with a woman who is kind of a co-worker about it (she had a master key that could open a quiet room I was arranging to use later in my shift and I was explaining why I needed to do that) and she said something about having friends "on the spectrum" and understanding exactly what I meant. I knew she meant the autism spectrum, but I was kind of gob-smacked. What did she know that I didn't? A week later I asked her about it, and (after clarifying that she hadn't meant any insult) she said she had quite a few friends with Aspergers (now called high-functioning autism in the new blurry category of the DSM5), and she assumed by my description of my problem that I was signalling to her that I was, as she put it, "on the spectrum."

I went home and looked it up, and of course, being me, I read a few books and a whole lot of articles about all this, and then I did the many online tests you can do to see if you have any of the features of Aspergers. I have been somewhat stunned to find out that I do. I score up into the middle to high ranges of people with Aspergers, well beyond the cutoff points that indicate you might want to get this checked out. Apparently Asperger's looks very different in men than women, and most of what I knew about it came from pop culture stories about men with Asperger's. I'm not Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates or even Temple Grandin. But the descriptions of women with Aspergers are terrifyingly apt. They capture the exact way I find myself to be a little bit weird. They sound like me.

I'm just coming to terms with this and trying to figure out what to do. I may talk to someone about getting an official diagnosis. It costs money, but it can also help get some services and accommodations at work when needed. But it costs money, and you get little in return for that, and even the experts say that once you're an adult and there are very few services to help, sometimes just knowing is enough.

Emotionally, I have conflicting reactions to what I'm learning about myself. On the one hand, I am saddened to think that I'm not going to find my way to the kind of "comfortable with people and OK in the world" normal that I had been hoping to reach. But the more important part of all this is a huge relief. Whenever I describe a problem that seems insurmountable to me (like something with people, or getting overwhelmed with tasks or sounds or something like that) people often explain how I need to do things differently, as though I hadn't been trying to do that my whole life. Seeing that I may be different in a way that I can (and have) learned to work with but never quite change means I can maybe stop trying to find a way to be a person I'm not. I may not be able to get over extreme jumpiness, aversion to loud noises and bright lights and extreme sensory anything, difficulty with people, or problems with getting some things done. But I can accept myself as myself, and find a way to live that works for me.

(It also helps explain some of what I loved about alcohol. Drinking was a way of turning the volume down on the whole world. God, I loved being able to do that! Interestingly, there's at least a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people with Asperger's drink as a way of helping negotiate the otherwise overwhelming social world, and that's sure true for me, though I know it's also true for many people who are what the Aspies call "neurotypical.")

This past year has been very different from my first year sober. I think I have a better handle on the things I need to change, and on what matters to me in living a good life. Starting to learn all this about myself fits pretty well with that. Three years ago I thought I'd quit drinking for a while and then become a normal drinker. Later, when that wasn't on, I thought I'd get sober and be one of the sober people who ends up with a big warm group of sober friends, but that's not my life here either. Now I think I'm getting rid of any images of "normal" altogether. It may just be that I'm a little bit weird in a way that no amount of time sober or yoga class or therapy can change. I think I'm OK with that. I'm getting there, anyway.

Because all this is so tough in person, I'm all the more grateful to be able to come here and talk about it with you all. Thanks as always for walking the road with me, and for your kind support. Wishing you peace and joy.

Monday, 26 September 2016

One year sober, second time around: belonging, healing

It's a week or so late for me to celebrate on the blog but I am here now and I'm celebrating anyway! Today is day 376 of the third round of committed sober living for me, which means it's 10 days past my second time reaching a full year sober. Today I want to reflect on what's different this time, what's working for me, and what I'm learning now that I didn't know before.

First, some numbers: Because one thing I've learned is that cumulative sober time matters. Since July 2013, I've had three stretches of living sober. Over the past 3 years and 2 months, I've been sober for 2 years and 8 months. During that time, over two periods that totalled almost 6 months, I drank. For me, both times when I returned to drinking, stepping back into that world meant I quickly lost the day-to-day gains I had gleaned from being sober. The first time I came back to sober again around 2 months later. Last summer I drank -- lightly, then eventually at times heavily -- for just over 3 months before I decided that I genuinely enjoyed sober living more. Both times, drinking initially seemed to allow me to reconnect with the world I missed, the late night camaraderie and raucous humour of drinkers, the softer edged glow of wine filled evenings. Both times, it didn't work for long. Being sober worked its magic on me even when I tried to leave it behind. The longer I'd been sober, the more I felt drawn to the living with a clear mind and enjoying the quieter pleasures of sober living. After long stretches sober, late night boozy conversations (that no one could completely remember afterwards) and the warm glow of drinking with others seemed a poor substitute for the kind of real connection with others I longed for.

Getting sober again didn't entirely bring me that connection. I still only have tendrils that I am starting to see are growing into real connections. But I see that I do need to feel connection, I need to feel a sense of belonging to the world. And I see that alcohol gave me just an occasional, fleeting taste of that. Not one I could rely on. And eventually, not one that I could continue to substitute for the real thing.

This past weekend, I attended a conference, one I've attended now for three years. It's a very small group, about 16 people, and we spend three days living together, sharing meals and walks, listening to papers and discussing them. Three years ago, I was newly sober (3 months), and I was excited to spend days talking with people about ideas. Nights I sat up with the drinkers and sipped fizzy water, happy to be part of the group. It was all new and exciting, and I think that newness substituted some of the buzz that drinking used to bring. The second year, I led a discussion that went very well, and I felt like a contributing member of the group. I was newly sober, again, (one week!) and suffering a very bad flu, so at night I went to bed at nine and ignored the festive part of things. This year, I was, for the third time, sober at the conference. But this time I was solidly sober, and the newness of the event had worn off. And this time, I felt strongly the damage drinking does at these events, and how central it is to the social thing that's happening there as it's currently structured. People spend nights sitting up late drinking together, where they knit together a sense of belonging that's an important counterpoint to the solitude of of academic life. Evenings people knit themselves into the group via the social, and if during the day the conversation gets heated and even mean, the sense of belonging to the group helps heal the rifts. It's all ritual, and all the parts matter.

But it doesn't work. Some people don't sit up drinking. This year, I didn't. The first night, when I said goodnight early, one of the hard drinkers made a joke that all that San Pellegrino had done me in and I'd have been better off joining them in the wine so I could stay up. I said, "I'd rather go to sleep." And this was the tone of the evenings this year. The next night, I went to a yoga class after the days talks. I ate dinner with the group but by then many were already well into the drink, and as a group they were rude and boring. I noticed that only about a third of the group were hard drinkers. Among the others, some slipped in and out, seemingly enjoying the fun but not completely merging with the group. But that hard drinking group was a core of the event, so that belonging to it conferred a kind of glow that changed how what people said was taken up in conversation during the days, and there were many unexplained references like "as we were talking about last night" as though the whole group had been there, or at least anyone who mattered had been.

As you can tell from this description, I found the event quite alienating. At times, I didn't belong, nor did I want to belong to a group who would carry on in that manner. There's a lot to say about his that I'll skip here, because I really am talking about my changing relationship to alcohol, and my deepened awareness of the social role it plays. I see that alcohol is used to replace the hard work of finding ways to communicate with each other. Drinking was the route to instant membership in the group, and members were relieved from having to take responsibility for their statements. Rudeness and stupid comments were accepted from people because they were "good guys" and "you can't take him seriously." People who didn't join in during the evenings, (not just me) had to work harder to be heard during the day. So alcohol divided the group even as it knit a smaller one together.

It makes me feel sad to see that this kind of belonging is what used to feel meaningful to me. I'm happy to say that it's not what matters to me any more. After this full year sober, and three years of working on figuring out this drinking thing, I feel I see more clearly the great lie that alcohol offers. We all need to belong. But belonging means real sharing of yourself, making yourself vulnerable and being open to opposing perspectives and finding common sources of meaning through the real, hard work of communicating and authentic being with each other. That's what matters to me now. Ephemeral feelings of belonging that are built through conversations no one can remember and the camaraderie of shared hangovers is a sad substitute.

Of everything I've learned in my three years working on this, and especially over this past year living sober, that's been my most powerful lesson. These days, I don't have the kind of belonging that I know I want, and probably need. I am very happy with my husband, but in the wider world I'm still lonely, still on the outside a lot of the time. That may have been why this weekend was, for me, so very painful. But I do know that we all need to belong. And if alcohol offers a false way into that, in a world that doesn't offer much in the way of real belonging, I can see why it had such power over me for so long, and why it still has power over so many. I feel a deep compassion for the me of several years ago, and for anyone who needs alcohol for the glimmer of belonging it offers.

This time, at one full year sober, I feel like I am finding my way to bigger life changes. One is my shift away from the academic world, as I've found that it can't be the source of meaning and intellectual companionship I had hoped it to be. I have to look elsewhere for that, but I think I'm better equipped to find it now. Also, I am finally beginning to understand what people talk about when they talk about the wisdom of the body. I am loving this yoga thing I've started! (Imagine, me, loving yoga! It's like saying I finally realized turnips are delicious (still not likely) or that sleep is overrated (equally unlikely!)) And through it, I am starting to be able to know my own reactions. Yesterday, driving back to the airport after the final meeting of the conference, I realized I felt very sad, and that I wasn't quite breathing. I couldn't. I stopped at a little health food cafe to buy myself something to eat on the plane, but as I sat there, I realized what I really wanted was to sit in what felt like a healing space. Later, once my flight had landed back in Vancouver and I was walking home from the Skytrain, still not quite breathing, I noticed the red leaves still on the trees, and I felt lifted up by the beauty, surrounded by the flashes of that quick fall red and by the dark, constant green of the tall firs that line the road to my apartment. Walking along, I acknowledged to myself, "I really hated a lot of what went on this weekend," and with that I felt as though a metal band around my chest had fallen away and I took a deep, healing breath. (And that same deep, healing breath just breathed me again as I typed about it.) This is something that the yoga is bringing me, and it's what I have needed, though I wasn't open to it before now.

At this celebration of one year sober, I am confronting some big questions: Who am I? What makes me happy? What do I love? Where do I belong? I don't have answers. But I feel I'm on the road to some answers, and some joyful exploration of these meaningful questions. That's the next stage of sober living for me. And I feel blessed to be here.

Thanks as always, fellow travellers, for reading, for your fine company and your supportive comments. This sober blog space is one place of belonging for me. I hope it's one for you, too. Peace and joy to you.



Monday, 12 September 2016

Round 3, day 362: Language, people, bodies

I think the biggest thing I'm learning as I find my way through sober living is how much I have let other people influence me. I mentioned this in my last post, and I've been thinking about it since then. One thing I need to learn as I head into another sober year is how to live respectfully with others without being overly influenced by them.

I am sometimes complimented on being so intuitive about other people. I sense people's moods and interactions, I notice small reactions and upsets, and I find quickly ways of acting to soothe and care for these small upsets. Which would be fine if I did the same thing for myself.

Now don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying I'm so unselfish and kind that I care too much about others and too little about myself! What I mean is that I don't know how to know my own reaction to many situations without first taking in the reactions of others, and even then it can be hard to find what part of it all is me.

Here's an example: I have started doing this yoga thing. And I'm liking it! Hooray! But I have a very hard time understanding word descriptions of physical actions. It's like I'm hearing a second language that I don't speak fluently. Someone says, "move your right foot to the left," and I think "foot, OK, right foot is that one, left is that way, so I move this part that way," but then I wonder how my weight is supposed to shift while I'm doing that, and I see that here are quite a few ways one could move the right foot to the left. It's really only when I see someone else doing the action that I think, "Oh, OK, something like that," and then I try it. I can copy actions well enough, and I'm not a perfectionist about getting that kind of thing right. I just find the language-body links are not very clear for me. I used to be a potter and when I first started taking classes, I was much the same. I loved working with clay, but I found the descriptions of what we were supposed to do incomprehensible, and it wasn't until I found a teacher I trusted enough to ask her, "Please stop talking when you're showing me and just show me," that I could get the most out of instruction. In many ways I'm all about words. But words get in the way of my body. And when I am trying to be grounded in my own body, I seem to operate best when I step outside of language.

So in my yoga class, I often don't know what I'm supposed to do. Sometimes that's frustrating. But if I'm left to figure it out on my own, and I have someone to watch, I'm kind of OK. I'm very surprised to find I like it a lot, despite so much not knowing. But this morning was rough. The instructor was extremely verbal, and I had more trouble than usual following what he was saying. And he wanted to be attentive. So he rattled off instruction after instruction and noticed when I stopped moving and just watched people. Once he brought me blocks and showed me an alternate to what the others were doing, and I felt I had to do this alternate thing, which left me balancing pretty awkwardly, holding myself up by my arms, instead of just watching to see what the others were doing. Another time he came up to ask me to see him after class if I needed help with a pose. Another time he suggested I drop my left hip, and I had to stand up to face him, figure out which was the left hip, then figure out what "drop" meant. I completely lost what I was doing, when I know he was trying to give just a slight correction. Later again he asked if I wanted him to go over a certain set of moves with me, and I just shook my head without even making eye contact. There were breath instructions that seemed to go too fast for me, so I would be exhaling when people were being asked to inhale and then I'd try to shift myself to the breath instruction but that just left me short of breath. Eventually I was so frustrated I was in tears. It was the exact feeling I'd experienced years before when I took a yoga class, which I called "Yoga rage." I could hardly catch my breath, and I felt trapped in the room with what felt like an endless list of action instructions I couldn't understand and an instructor who was taking much more notice of me than I was comfortable with, and who I felt I has to placate somehow, though I had no way to do that.

All that might make it sound like the guy was a poor instructor, but that's not where I'm going here. It's that there were just too many things going on at the same time for me. The language-body thing is already a very challenging translation effort for me. And then when the instructor started to interact with me, I really just wanted to do whatever he wanted so he would leave me alone. I get that he was trying to help me. That's his job, and he's likely good at it. But talking to him while I was trying to do the moves meant all my focus was on him, and making sure he was OK (not frustrated with me, not distracted by me from what the class needed, etc). So it was just about impossible for me to engage in any conversation with him and stay in my body.

In the first class, I think I started to understand this, and I remembered this moment after the class today. A different instructor was showing me a pose I wasn't understanding, and he asked whether I could feel the movement in my hip. I answered, "When I'm talking to you, I'm just talking. I don't feel my body at all." And I think that's the crux of the problem I'm trying to talk about here. It's not an issue of yoga, or good teachers, though those things likely matter. It's that when I'm talking to someone else, I am (often) so out of body that I have little or no physical feeling. It's not that I go numb. It's more that I shift to living in language, and when I'm there, there's not a lot of body going on.

I think this is what I mean when I say I am overly influenced by others. I mean that I lose touch with my own physical being when I talk with people. And that means I am caught in noticing everything that's happening in the emotional world of the other person, and in the language, but there's not much me there. I come back to me when I'm biking or walking or running, and that's probably why these things are so good for me. When I'm with one of the (few) people I'm close to,  I'm less cut off. But it still happens.

I know this has something do with my drinking. I used to love that moment of bringing a glass to my lips, and I think some of what I loved about that was the sheer physicality of it. I'm never, never going back to that. And I don't need to. These days I get some of that same pleasure with coffee, or ice cream, or fresh peaches in season, or a whole host of good tastes. So it's not that I'm always only in my head.

But what I want to learn is how to stay in myself so that I can talk to people without shifting so much into a "being in my head" mode that I lose touch with my physical being. I think this is the beginning of how I might start to know my own reactions. I'll be less influenced by others if I have a reaction that's separate from theirs, and I know what it is!

This is a little convoluted in my description, but maybe at least some people will know what I mean. Anyway, for now that's enough tangled words. Thanks as always for keeping me company while I figure this out. Peace and joy to you.


Monday, 5 September 2016

Round 3, day 355: rambly post about NOT crashing headlong into crisis!

Hi blog world. Sorry I've been silent for such a long time. I've been in an odd patch, hunkered down thinking things through, and I seem to have needed to do that thinking away from talking with others.

First, don't worry, I'm not drinking. I say that just in case anyone is following and reads into a long silence that I might have slipped back to that. And I have no plan to drink, no desire to. Before when I drank again after long stretches sober, I spent some time thinking about how I was deluded about being sober, or hating the whole sober thing, that kind of thing. If you've been sober for a while or if you follow sober blogs, you know that lots of people go through that once in a while and drinking isn't the answer. But that's not what 's going on here.

Instead, I think I'm getting to the part of being sober where I realize I need to make some changes, and I need to do some more of what is probably called "working on myself," or anyway, taking care of myself. It's been a rough summer. My mother died -- and thanks for kind comments about this on my last post, which I very much appreciated but couldn't bring myself to answer. Mom's death was expected, and I'm doing OK with coping. Still, it's the end of a long, difficult process, losing my mom to dementia after a lifetime of dealing with the vibrant, intelligent, difficult person she was. So there's that.

Also, I've been struggling to figure out what I'm doing with my life, in particular with my academic work. I've talked about this here so many times I'm sure it's getting dull, and I still don't feel all that coherent about it, though I'm getting there. As it stands now, I've decided not to continue with pursuing a PhD in what I've been studying once my MA is complete, though preparing for a PhD is very much the main purpose of my MA program. Instead, I've been accepted into a library science program that starts in January, and I've decided to do that. So after more than 15 years of working in libraries/bookstores/publishing in one way or another, I've decided to train as a librarian. Now I feel compelled to say it's not the calm and peaceful quiet job people think when they think of the cardigan-wearing, glasses and hair-in-a-bun lady they remember from childhood libraries. I think there are lots of dynamic, interesting things I might be able to do with the degree. I think I wrote about this a while back, but since then I've done a fair amount of waffling (PhD? librarian? quit everything and move to a small town? just quit everything?) Now I've made a commitment to the program. Hooray for commitment! It means I have to finish my thesis and get it defended some time in the next few months. But it feels good to have made a decision I can stick with.

The even bigger issue, in which all this is nested, is that I see how important it is to find ways to stay connected to myself. Since I've started this blog (three years ago!) I've written over and over about finding my own way and finding my own voice. It's something that plagues me. On the one hand, in my life I come off as a strong, independent-minded woman who has no trouble speaking her own mind. And that's true, in part. But I find myself susceptible to losing my way, getting swallowed up by trying to figure out how the world works, and in doing so losing touch with what is matters most to me in that process. I think the academic world in which I've been immersed isn't so good at supporting people. In that world, I'm good at academics, and that's what counts. But though I started out keeping myself firmly planted in a healthy, day-to-day life, as I've got busier I've lost track of doing the things that support me as me. I don't cycle as often (in part because my husband's accident last summer means he can't cycle as much, but it's not just that.) I don't walk outdoors as often. I don't revel in the small moments of silence that keep me going. But more importantly, I've lost tough with how to connect what I'm doing day to day with a deeper source of meaning in my life. Starting last summer, I've been trying to speak with my supervisor about this, but those have been tough conversations. He ends up thinking I'm being critical of the work he's done, or even the way he's lived, and then the focus of the conversation shifts to me reassuring him that that's not what I'm saying instead of exploring how to stay connected to a world of meaning. I just end of feeling bad about needing to find meaning in my work, and then feeling like I'm alienating someone I've had a good connection with on top of all that. That's no fun, and it hasn't served me very well. I see that now.

In a way, I've been here before. Over the years, I have been swallowed up by the world, and eventually crashed into massive depressions. Once that happens, the world lets you go. If all you can do is sleep and cry, no one asks too much of you. At that point, you have all the time in the world you need to find your way to yourself, except you have no strength to do that with for quite some time. When I got sober (each of the THREE times I've done that! ack!) I did it by retreating into a quieter, more nurturing world. I slept well and ate well and walked/ran/cycled plenty. I treated myself like I was a living thing that needed care in order to stay alive, like I would treat a major depression. I know what works for me in that kind of crisis. After a while though, I felt better, and I got myself back to getting schoolwork done, writing papers and going to conferences and all that stuff. And I like that world. At the risk of outing myself as an even bigger nerd than you all know I am, I find academic conferences exciting! People getting together, stepping away from their day to day lives to talk about what they are thinking about and working on. But I have not been able to find a way to make the academic project sustaining for me. I feel like my studies have morphed into an area that's critical of some things that need to be criticized, but what I want to do is be part of the active world of living, not the stepping back world of criticism. I think people can do both. But I have not found a way to do so. And without being immersed in the active world of living, with all the messy hopes and sorrows that that world entails, I just dry up.

I think that's the best way of describing what's been happening to me over the past year or so. In my personal life, I'm happy. I love my husband, and I love our life together. But to follow this academic path, we've been considering moving to a bigger city in a less hospitable climate, farther away from his family and the ocean and mountains we love. And I've been feeling quite torn by it all. At the same time, I've been getting sick more often, and having spells of depression that are getting worse and closer together. I know what I might be heading into if I don't make some life changes, and it's been scaring me, but I haven't known what to do, what changes to make.

I don't think life has to be so hard. If everything looks super difficult, maybe there's another way. I've figured that out before. So recently, I've been trying to see what the easier way is. One thing I've been doing is noticing what I like doing and what I don't. What brings me joy, what doesn't. And trying to imagine a life that has more joy in it, without trying to ignore the inevitable pain and suffering that's in the world.

My answers have surprised me, though they might not surprise people close to me. I want to stay where I am. Same city, same apartment, for now. Same field I worked in before returning to university, though I'll be changed by what I've learned there. I want to write more. Blog more. Maybe take up a different kind of writing project again, rather than the academic writing I've been doing (or avoiding doing this summer.) I want to go outside more. Walk in the evenings with my husband. Do more hot yoga! (Ok that one's a big surprise to me, but I just started it and I love it. Oh, the joy of the hot room, and sweating!) I want to read novels, read mysteries, read poetry. I want to reread Rebecca Solnit and Thich Nhat Hanh and all those people who inspire me, and  figure out how to live an engaged life, one that engages me with the world, one that sustains me and contributes to the world.

So I'm going to write a serviceable thesis and defend it, pronto. And in January, I start a different kind of school program, the MLIS, which is geared to working with projects and people in a way that I can connect to differently than my academic work has allowed. I'm almost one year sober this time around, and I think I'm looking at the kind of personal life changes that I need to make to sustain being sober. No, that's not quite it. I'm seeing that there are things I can do to help myself live more fully and joyfully, and being sober helps me see that way. Avoiding seeing them is easier when you drink, but that's something I don't do any more, and I never plan to do again.

I'm a bit under the weather this week with yet another of the mild illnesses that have been knocking me sideways as I've struggled with  all this. But I feel filled with hope, and I think I am onto a solid way out of what I believe would otherwise end of in another of the kind of crash I never want to see again.  I expect I'll have more to say on this later, but for now I think I'll get out of my big yellow chair and go outdoors for a walk.

If you're still around after the long gap between my posts and then this long and possibly tortured post, thanks very much. As always, I am grateful for your company as we all figure out how to live. Peace and joy to you.


Thursday, 14 July 2016

Round 3, Day 302: Life, death, life

I left a few more weeks than intended between my last post and this post. But I'm still here, still sober. More and more, I'm settling into being sober as a source of strength for me.

My mother died a little over a week ago. It wasn't unexpected. She had dementia and we all knew she was in the last stage of that illness. A year ago I visited and spent some time with her, when she still had some of her faculties. At that point she could sit up and interact with people, and she loved to laugh. After that visit people often asked, "Did she know who you were?" but one thing dementia teaches the family, or should teach the family if they are open to learning that lesson, is that visiting the sick person isn't about you, and it isn't about getting what you need from the person the sick person used to be. By last summer, my mother was years past knowing who I was. But she was alive, and somehow still vital. She was still herself, in a way that we understand as people but that the medical and scientific descriptions seem to miss. I was able to connect with her during our visit, and we laughed a lot. Over this past winter, she mostly lost her ability to sit up unassisted. She slept most of the time. Eventually she could hardly swallow. Occasionally, when she woke up, family members said she still smiled or laughed for a moment. Thanks to the wonders of the iPhone, I have a recent photo of my mother laughing with my youngest brother. By the end these moments happened very rarely. Now they are gone, except in memory.

My husband and I flew across the country at short notice, the way people living away do when family members die. The trip to where I'm from takes pretty much a whole day. We stayed with family, participated in the wake and funeral, then spent a couple of more days visiting and resting. The wake was a traditional Catholic wake, with an open casket, so for two days people who had known my mother, or who knew members of my large family, came to pay their respects to our family, and to the memory and the body of my mother. There is something about the open casket wake that I find comforting. For two days, in that room, the person who was my mother and the body of my mother were the same and not the same. My mother looked beautiful. She was dressed in a pretty blue dress, which made her look more like herself than she had wearing the drab easy-to-wash clothes she wore in the nursing home. Her hair was done in a way she would have liked, artfully mussed by a hairstylist relative who was horrified by the old-lady do that the morticians had done. From some angles, her face looked as it did when she was alive. The set of her mouth made it easy to imagine she was about to make the kind of sharp (and likely cutting) comment she was known for much of her life. But of course she lay perfectly still, still as only the dead can lie. In that room, we had photos of my mother laughing and dancing, and stories of things she'd said and done, but she wasn't coming back with any more sharp remarks or one more quick laugh. Yes, we all knew that, but the wake gave us space to be with that knowledge, to try it on and take it into ourselves. We did this for two days, and after that we closed the coffin, had the funeral, and then we put the coffin, with the body of my stylish, still mother in her pretty blue dress in it, in a hole in the ground. At the graveside, I was bent with grief. A hole in the ground is a lonely place, and my mother hated being alone. It seemed wrong to leave her there. I wanted to stay. But there was a funeral meal to be shared, and more stories to hear. The living have to eat, and talk, and I had to get on with that part of the funeral. For the rest of the day, I stood and sat with relatives and friends and talked some more about my mother. She was still with us, and at the same time she was alone in that hole in the ground.

My family lived in a small rural area, but my mother was born and raised in the city. A couple of days after the funeral, my husband and I walked through her childhood neighbourhood, past the house she grew up in and the school she taught in starting at age 16. It helped me see the city differently, walking from one end to the other, thinking about my mother's hard childhood and how she loved teaching and what it must have been like for her to be a young person so long ago, before she was my mother. One of my nephews had a sports event in the afternoon, so my husband and I walked across the city to meet up with some more family members and watch the young boys rowing on the lake. Some of us went out for fish and chips, and then my husband and I went walking some more, through the downtown and up a big well known hill that overlooked the city and the wild ocean.

When I sat down to write this post today, I didn't mean to write what I did. I was going to talk about drinking, or more accurately, not drinking. On the Saturday morning at work when I got the phone call from my family, Saturday afternoon at home making travel arrangements for the long flight, all day Sunday reading and doing sudoku and passing the time on the flight, at the wake and the funeral and during the days visiting afterwards, and then in the always somewhat guilty return flight home, I didn't drink. Many people did. I come from a drinking family and a drinking culture, and wakes and funerals are steeped in booze. People got drunk and loud. At least one person got drunk and passed out. A few people got drunk and, only then, cried. I didn't want that. I wanted to be sober. Just once, getting the bus on the way home from work the morning I got the news, as the bus passed a wine store I used to frequent, I wondered whether I might have some wine. But I didn't want to.

Somehow, over the past three years of being sober and then not, and sober and then not, and then sober, I have become sober. It's who I am. I was so grateful to be able to face the news and the travel and wake and funeral and all that time with family, to feel the grief I feel in my mother's death. I was able to experience the complicated love I feel for my family and the straightforward love I feel for my husband, and enjoy the powerful connection I have with the people and the place I come from, even when it was sad and painful. I had some amazing conversations, including one with a woman whose son I used to tutor, who took me aside at the wake to tell me about her near-death experience and caution me that death isn't something to fear. I was able to live in the presence of death. I didn't need to turn away from it all and find solace in drink. Life itself is solace, even when it's sad and filled with grief. And I'm grateful for that.

If you're still reading after this long post, thanks for keeping me company through this getting sober thing. I'm grateful for all your support. Peace and joy to you.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Round 3, day 259: Not just bobbing along anymore

Recently, this odd image has been flitting through my mind: a cork, bobbing along in the waves. It's insistent but fleeting, like a fragment of an old childhood memory you're not sure really ever happened, or a dream you had just before you woke up and now can't quite recall. Every now and then, when I'm out walking, crossing the street maybe, or when I'm sitting down to dinner, or just picking up a book, and I glimpse this cork, somewhere in my mind just for a moment, bobbing along.

And from the first time I saw it, I knew without doubt, that cork is me. It's taken me a while to understand it, but it's coming clear.  I'm getting a sense of myself as a cork that's been bobbing along in the waves all these years. I see how much I have been pushed and pulled by the forces around me. And part of what's interesting is this: I see this as something that's in the past. I used to be like that. I'm not anymore.

There's something that many people talk about once they become sober, and that's happening to me, too. I realize what a people pleaser I have been! Now if you knew me in person, you'd probably say, No way! I mostly come off as decisive, sure of myself, quick to speak up. I'm someone who has no trouble putting myself forward. I'm not all that nice at times. When I hear people talk about people pleasing, they always sound like they fold themselves passively around the will of others, or anyway that's what I've always pictured, and that's not me.

But maybe it has been me. Despite seeming to be a strong person at times, I simply haven't been all that aware of myself as someone who can shape a life of my own. It's the old, "not good at wanting" thing that I have talked about here in at least one earlier post. Years ago, I was dating a guy who had such a forceful personality, and whenever we were going to eat out, I'd refuse to make a suggestion because I knew he would just make the case for going somewhere else. I didn't want to be attached to a plan only to have it argued away. For me it was easier to simply not want to do anything in particular, and then I could be happy with whatever we did do. At the time I thought it was all very zen, not needing to be attached or in control, that whole story. Later I saw I was being swallowed up by him, and I left him. (And that's a whole other story.) But these days I think I've done too much of that in my life. I've let myself fall into this or that situation and then made the best of it once I was there. I've done a whole lot of accepting, but not a lot of wanting.

One great exception to this is my relationship with my husband. Being with him has been an active choice, and it enriches my life. Meeting him was lucky. But we chose each other.

But in work, and school, and in so many things, I feel I am only now coming into a sense of myself as someone who wants this and not that. I'm just feeling my way with it all. It's early days for these shoots to be growing here. Some are barely peeking their teeny green heads out of the dirt. But I have a strong sense of me, alive and hoping, and learning how to want whatever it is I want. I don't know much how to do that yet, and I don't even have much of a language for it. But I wanted to say all this today, write it down here, so I can remember the new green feel of it all later once it's not so new anymore.

That's me today, glad to be here, sober and learning all this. Peace and joy to you all. And green shoots all around!

Monday, 16 May 2016

Round 3, Day 243: Finding my way back to joy

I quit drinking (again) eight months ago today. This is my third major stint of sober time, and I'm starting to realize how much I've changed.

Recently I wrote that I have realized I've been going through a bit of a depression lately. I have a lot of uncertainty about what I'm doing with my academic work, which means a lot of my life has been uncertain, as it meant I didn't know where I'd be living or what I'd be doing a year from now. It felt like my whole life was up in the air, and that's a pretty unsettling place to be.

Somehow, over the past year or so, I’ve lost the joy in what I’m studying. When I returned to school a few years ago, it was such fun to encounter so many new ideas! I earned a degree and am most of the way through another, and I’ve learned a lot. But without actively sharing what I’ve learned, something essential is missing. In my area (and  probably in a lot of academic work) learning is such a solitary exercise. I always have spent a lot of time alone, reading and writing, and I love that. But I also need to interact with people. I realized that I don't want to do work that means I'm mostly alone in an office, struggling with something that I can't quite connect to any real person or worthwhile purpose.

This has been the central struggle for me over the past year. Surprisingly, no one I've spoken to in my academic life seems to have understood me on this, which may just be that I haven't expressed it all that well. But more recently, I've been reading stories of people who have left the academic world--people who quit their PhD programs before they completed them, people who finished and then worked outside academia, and people who worked as tenured faculty but left to work in what academics sometimes call "the real world." Many of their stories resonated with me. I see that, for now at least, leaving is for me. I'll finish my thesis and get my MA. But I'm already withdrawing from many things that are not directly connected with that project, and I won't continue on with the PhD as I'd planned. It's just not for me right now.

Part of what's happening here is that I am starting to have a better sense of who I am. A lot of what I have been experiencing as alienation over the past year is, I now see, a great thing! (Though if you'd told me that last September, I'd have bit your head off!) I don't have a clear direction yet regarding what I will do. But clearing a lot of this out of the way has helped me gain clarity on what I might want, and on what I definitely don't want.

I know enough about how depression works in me. I go into a kind of system shutdown, a deep winter of the soul. I become unable to do things that are not good for me. And if I accept that, and wait and watch carefully, and force nothing, I know I will find the tendrils that connect me back to joy again. This isn’t a quick process. I’ve learned to trust myself on this. I’m not generally patient. But there is no other way. I know that if I don’t do this, things so very badly indeed. 

That's where I've been lately, following those tendrils. Spending lots of time alone, doing whatever I want, which is often a whole lot of nothing. I've been reading a lot of mysteries, and running sometimes, and doing a few hikes. Lot's of cooking-- the spring vegetables are starting to show up at the farmers markets, and there's so much that's fresh and green right now! And the rhubarb is out, so there's that tart sweet pleasure to enjoy. I've been working library shifts, which is one of the ways I earn enough to go to school, and it's a way of being in the thick of people in the right sort of way. (Spoiler alert: I'm actually applying to train as a librarian, which seems like such a better fit for me and how I want to live. I won't hear for a month or so whether I'm accepted, and I won't start until January, but it's a tentative plan that has a lot of joy and hope and openness in it, and I'm very pleased with that.)  I've been doing enough of the academic work to keep things ticking, but not a whole lot. I've been hanging out with my lovely husband, walking and eating and going to some great concerts. 

All of that is starting to feel pretty good. There really is a lot of joy here in my life, right now. 

What does this have to do with being sober? Well, everything, I think. For me, the first two times  I quit drinking, I didn't feel a need to reevaluate everything in my life. But sooner or later, the tensions in my life pulled me back to the drink. (No need to get into too much detail here, but I will say that the busyness and stress and alienation of my academic work was part of that.) Now I am committed to not drinking. It has no appeal anymore, and if it ever did bring me fun and connection and some of what I'd longed for, that had stopped working for me ages ago anyway. And along with living without alcohol, I'm committed to finding a way to live that suits the person I am. Some of what I find seems obvious (after 14 years of working in libraries, I find I like libraries!) But it wasn't obvious to me earlier. This process of becoming more myself is a slow one, and it's not so easy, but I'm liking it. I think a lot of the pain and angst that I have felt (and that I've inflicted on people kind enough to read along here) has been the result of me not fitting too well in my life and not being able to see that. People talk about laying down the big burden that they don't need to carry anymore. That's exactly what this all feels like to me. 

So that's me these days. I'm still a little low, but I also have a lot of moments of hope and joy, and that's what always gets me through these low spells. And I have a new appreciation for who I am, which means making some major life changes and avoiding others. I feel like I'm figuring this out, and I'm so very glad to be sober and finding my way.

Thanks as always for your company and support. Peace and joy to you, and a good dollop of hope, too!