Time

My first few weeks of sobriety, the amount of time I had available to me in a day overwhelmed me. Sure, I was busy from 8:00 a.m. until about 4:00 or 5:00 p.m.… but then what? Should I go out for coffee immediately after work, like I used to go out for beer? Should I go home and… I don’t know.. what did normal people do? Cook? But, if I went home, it felt so final. Like putting a period at the end of my day, when really, I just wanted a semi-colon. I wanted something to DO. But what? I wanted to talk, but I didn’t have anything to say. I wanted to engage, but I was disconnected. And just as I would finally settle in each night, finally finish wrestling with the vast expanse of time looming before me, it would be time to head back out to hit a meeting. I felt out of sync. Frustrated. Restless.

After a couple weeks of existing in a state of pure time suckage between work and a meeting, I began to perk up: I had TIME. Time that wasn’t consumed by frantic efforts to grade papers so that I could get to the bar. Time that didn’t involve trying to piece together hazy memories of drunken conversations, wondering what mortifying things I had said this time and to who. I could use this time to leaf through recipes, purchase ingredients and actually cook. Or to go for a run. I could read a book if I wanted—and I didn’t have to buy it from the discount section in Barnes & Noble; I had enough cash to buy any book I wanted, since I wasn’t spending it all on cheap beer & Taco Bell. These things, such mundane things, drew me in. I was finding a rhythm. Comfortable. Peaceful.

And then it happened…Somewhere between 30 and 60 days, I became obsessed with time. For starters, there wasn’t enough of it. The day only offered me 24 hours. 24. That was it. And part of the time had to be spent sleeping. And then, if I went for a run, I had to waste time getting dressed to run and showering after a run. I needed those wasted minutes. I wanted them back! I needed each second to make up for all the time I had sat in a bar and hadn’t read, hadn’t been involved in politics, hadn’t cooked dinner, hadn’t LIVED. Shit. How as I going to make up all that time? How?

Here’s the rub: I can’t. I can’t make up the time I spent staring into the bottom of a Miller Lite can. Nor can I be frantic about it, consumed by regret. I can only start again from here. Right now.

People in meetings are forever telling newcomers to stay where their feet are. This used to frustrate me immensely. I mean, what the hell? It is physically impossible for me to be anywhere other than where my feet are. But I finally got it (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, they say). While it may be impossible to physically be somewhere other than where my feet are… psychically, I can be just about anywhere. My mind can whir faster than a hamster on a wheel; it gets just about as far, too. So, I have to reign it back in with prayer, meditation, hugging it out… whatever it takes. I have to bring myself back to the now. Hamster brain makes me feel hopeless, like too much of my life has been wasted for me to even try to make a difference in the world. And that is a lie, pure and simple.

Each day I get a choice about how I will spend my 24 hours. I can get bogged down in regret, overwhelmed by the future (and the never-ending pile of laundry in my house), or I can embrace what I am doing in the moment. I can relish the book I am reading (even if I haven’t read every book on my reading list). I can listen to my preschooler’s epic school adventures (instead of mentally ticking down my to-do list). And I can reach out and share hope; because for all the things I haven’t accomplished yet, I know this: WE DO RECOVER. Tremendous hope and power exists in that message, and I can use this moment to share it.

That is Okay

I glare at the dishwasher, which needs to be unloaded AGAIN. I am living on some rung of hell in which I finish emptying the dishwasher, only to turn around and find it full again. I have a working theory that my family takes spoons out of the drawer, licks them once, and puts them into the dishwasher. That is the only reasonable explanation for the number of spoons that our family of three uses in a day. And why am I the only one who seems capable of emptying the dishwasher? Sure, one of the family members isn’t even 4 years old yet… but come ON. Self-sufficiency is a noble goal.

The dishwasher seems to be winning our staring contest, so I begrudgingly begin to unload it. On an intellectual level, I realize that my ire falls somewhere between petty and gross ingratitude. I can easily parse out that I should feel grateful to have enough plates to fill a dishwasher; to have a dishwasher at all; hell, even to have running water to operate the dishwasher. But I don’t feel grateful. I feel annoyed. And that is okay.

When I was newly sober, I sat in plenty of meetings in which people explained that they were alcoholics, so they were selfish and self-centered. It almost sounded immutable…and definitely sounded hopeless. Wasn’t the point of recovery to move past being selfish and self-centered? I didn’t want to sit in meetings, sip bad coffee and painstakingly examine my character defects so that ten years down the road I could look at my own behavior, shrug and note that I was simply a self-centered alcoholic.

After spending a bit more time being sober and actually participating in the world around me, I noticed something remarkable: alcoholics have not, in fact, cornered the market on these particular defects of character. Many people are, to a degree, selfish and self-centered. Some people find themselves completely stymied by their own inward gaze, too caught up in themselves to even grasp the magnitude of their astounding self-absorption. Other people gain a bit of perspective, acknowledge their tendency toward self-centeredness, and take steps to surmount it.

But when I was newly sober, I didn’t have a terrific grasp on human nature… or on anything really. But I did find a tremendous amount of comfort in knowing how I “should” feel. I envisioned a gold standard of emotional maturity, and I was determined to intellectualize my way into feeling “right.” Poor, misled, over-caffinated newly sober me. Shoving down feelings, needing to be right, and obsessing about my emotions (commonly known as mistaking feelings for facts) had already led me to a dark, lonely place where I needed to a drink simply to be around myself. I didn’t need that in sobriety.

A lot of talk about “rigorous honesty” flies around recovery circles; the most difficult part of honesty for me is simply acknowledging how I feel, even when it isn’t “right.” Even when I don’t look like a saint. Even when how I feel is ungrateful, angry, self-righteous. Acknowledging my not-perfect feelings is central to my sanity and my sobriety. Because as soon as I acknowledge them, they lose their power. And because, sometimes, I just need to bitch about the dishwasher.

I think about all of these things: the selfish, self-centered alcoholic; the newly sober self-righteous me; acknowledging and moving on as I empty the dishwasher. As I stretch to reach the top cabinet shelf, I notice the smooth finish on the plates and their newly-washed shine. I reach for another plate to put away, but I’ve already finished. My resentment about unloading the dishwasher seems to have magically dissipated.

I look over the kitchen counter to the family room, where books, toys, shoes and various and sundry items are strewn about the floor. I glare at the family room floor. And that is okay.

Finding Balance

She waits for her turn on the balance beam. My heart clenches. She’s only four years old; the beam stands as tall as her head, and she is afraid of heights. In fact, she asked to quit gymnastics because of this very beam. 

As I watch my daughter standing in line, waiting her turn, I realize that I spend a lot of time hoping that she isn’t like me.

Maybe I should amend that to read: I spend a lot of time hoping my daughter isn’t like original me.

When people find out I am in recovery, they often start poking around in my childhood trying to figure out what drove me to look for my solutions at the bottom of a Miller Lite can. Truth is, there isn’t a lot to find. What they really want to know is what my parents DID to make me this way. While their investigations used to be a sort of morbid curiosity about my sordid descent, now there is a desperation to the questioning… because now most of my friends have kids. They want to know how to spare their kids from the complete demoralization of addiction… and who can blame them? Addiction destroys. And they want their kids to live fully. I get it.

But here’s the rub: my parents didn’t DO anything to send me running to hide in the buzzy bliss of a drink. They loved me, provided for me, encouraged me, and cared for me. They were not abusive, neglectful or cruel. But I did somehow manage to grow up devoid of any coping mechanisms. I never really grew out of the egocentric stage—not in that I thought that everything should be mine, but I believed the world was always thinking about me, always laughing at me, always rejecting me on some level. I was constantly on stage, naked and ashamed, a dream I could never quite shake. These thoughts consumed me to the point that I could not find room for compassion, empathy, and big, radical love for the world. Instead, my love was always a tight, clenching love that craved constant approval, approbation, attention. This constant striving and reaching created original me: an overly sensitive kid, prone to anxiety and hopelessness. It created the perfect internal environment to brew an alcoholic.

So, yeah, I kinda don’t want my kid to be like that. Before she arrived in this world, I had these intense hopes that she’d be born with an adventurous spirit, kind but not too sensitive, with a deep desire to simply be her own person. In short, I wanted her to be exactly the kid I was not. But, either way, I knew my partner and I held a secret parenting weapon: we could teach our daughter to practice the principles of AA without ever having to learn them in a meeting. This is a perk no one tells you about when you walk into the rooms; but it has incredible value in the topsy-turvy world of parenting.

We talk to our daughter often about trying her best. In the preschool world of always wanting to run the fastest, to be first in line, to win the game, we try to remind her that her best is all she can give. That she isn’t defined by her successes or failures. That kindness and bravery count more than a perfect soccer kick. Just trying is sometimes the biggest win.

She climbs up on the beam. She teeters a bit. I can see her arms shake as she holds them out from her sides to balance. Then she takes one step. And another. And unlike last session, she doesn’t freeze and wait for an adult to help her. She talks halting steps … all the way across the beam.

She breaks into a huge grin, waving like a maniac at me. Her mother. Who did nothing more than encourage her to let go of her fear and to really live.

And she owned that beam.

The Coziest New Year’s Eve

I wish I could say I didn’t remember most of the New Years I rung in in my 20s. But being able to forget them would probably be more mercy than I deserve; at the very least, I remember the drunken highlights… always drama-fueled, sometimes dangerous, and entirely cringeworthy. A personal favorite: squealing out of a parking lot in my CR-V into a steady snow in Atlanta as my best friend stood in the parking lot begging me not to drive. My friends finally found me at the next bar, flat on my ass because I slipped on ice coming down the steps. I decided to forgo telling them the car had spun out twice in the snow on my way to the bar; they all seemed so mad already. I had a hard time deciphering why. It was, in fact, often puzzling when people valued me… I had so obviously lost the ability to value myself.

Even on tamer New Years Eves, I carried with me a constant sense of longing. I could always quickly identify something missing in my life on New Years Eve, and I would fixate on it intently. I held an almost subconscious belief that this melancholy made me mysterious, sexy, alluring. Turns out, it made me a sentimental drunk rather likely to cry in her Jim Beam and Coke. I wasn’t sexy-tragic…I was annoying as hell.

But, as it often does in stories such as these, something changed. For me, there was no tragic rock bottom moment. Through all my drinking, I kept my job (barely), my house, my dog and my best friend. But I did lose my self-respect. Maybe that was what I was longing for all those New Years Eves: my ability to look back on the year and know I lived with integrity, that I gave myself wholly to the task at hand regardless of the outcome. When I drank I tended to lose track of what the task at hand even entailed. And resolutions were kind of a wash for me. I found it pretty hard to set my intentions for the year ahead when I was nursing a hangover, trying to choke down a greasy hangover-easing breakfast, and waiting until the time seemed appropriate to have a cocktail. After all, I deserved a cocktail; New Years Day was a holiday, too.

My history of less than stellar New Years Eves made this past New Years Eve stand out for its perfect simplicity. I’ve been sober for 6 years. My first sober New Years Eve was disorienting; I felt a bit hazy, like I wasn’t sure exactly how to hold a conversation, or what I should be doing with my body at any given moment. How did sober people stand? What did people talk about when they knew they were going to remember every word they said? But, despite my awkwardness, I was with my best friend, my partner and some casual acquaintances in a cabin in the mountains. And I felt no longing to be anywhere other that where I was. That seemed pretty groundbreaking.

This New Years Eve found me back in the mountains of North Georgia with my best friend & her family, the lovely folks she calls friends, and my partner and our little girl. After we settled in, we ate homemade lasagna; we chased kids around the cabin. When all the kids piled in the bathtub at bathtime, I laughed–not the self- conscious, measured laugh of my drinking days, but a full-on, deep laugh. Because come on… 5 kids in a bathtub? That is comedy right there.