Dear I Fly,
I've been sober 107 days after years on the relapse roller coaster. I believe one of the keys to my success this time has been putting my sobriety first and letting everything else go. It's been hard for me to do this because I feel like a slacker. My question is, how long can let this go on? At what point do I need to crawl out of bed and start being responsible again? I feel like I should be accomplishing more, taking care of my family and working toward goals. In particular, whenever I made the pros and cons list as to why I should quit drinking, the top item on my "pro" list was weight loss. I haven't lost any weight at all. I use sweets as my treats now. That's what I relax in front of the TV with. Instead of coming home to wine after a hard day, now I come home to junk food and sweets. A friend of mine says we should pretend to be sick in early sobriety and allow ourselves to do whatever we feel like just to get through. That seems to be working. At the same time, I really want to lose weight but don't want to sabotage my sobriety. I'm afraid the answer to this question is "you'll know when it's time." Please forgive me, but that pisses me off. On some level, I realize I'm the only one who knows myself and everything but I don't trust my brain – it's been lying to me for a long time. Any advice you can offer is appreciated. Thanks.
First of all, huge congrats on 107 (and more, now) days of sobriety. That’s really huge and I hope it feels huge to you after years of starts and stops. I know finally reaching 90 days was a big turning point to me; something shifted inside and it started to get easier, or at least it felt different.
Before I get into anything else, I want to respond directly to the part of the letter where you said, How long can let this go on? At what point do I need to crawl out of bed and start being responsible again? Let me tell you something that I think you already know, but I want to state anyway and also ask you to choose different words when you’re talking to yourself. Write the following on your forehead, put it on 100 post-it notes, plaster it on your brain:
THERE IS NOTHING YOU WILL EVER DO THAT IS MORE IMPORTANT OR MORE RESPONSIBLE THAN BEING SOBER.
Now, the rest.
When I was first trying to get sober my friend Jenny said something similar to the sick metaphor, which was, “treat yourself as though you are a newborn.” I didn’t get it at all, but now I do. It meant return to basics: sleep, eat, rest. Take tender, tender care of yourself and treat yourself as you would a sweet, fragile, growing thing. The thing about this is, as adults (and parents, caretakers, professionals, “responsible” people) we’re so far from knowing how to treat ourselves with great self-compassion and care, it’s an incredibly hard to near impossible shift. We certainly can’t do it instantly.
So often times what we take “treat yourself like a newborn” and “act as though you are sick” advice to mean is, find any way to comfort yourself other than drinking. And while that notion can be useful and even imperative, particularly in the very early days of sobriety, it doesn’t work at all as a long-term strategy. What it usually ends up looking like is a game of addiction whack a mole. Plug up one thing and another pops up. I can’t drink so I’ll eat all the cookies.I can’t drink so I’ll work around the clock. I can’t drink so I’ll _________. Brene Brown calls it being a professional “take-the-edge-off-aholic." I am familiar.
So I think what we need to do is reframe this a bit.
The first thing I thought of when I read your letter was this quote by Rumi:
“Maybe you are searching among the branches, for what only appears in the roots.” - Rumi
Whether it’s drinking or food or sex or our stupid iPhones or anger issues or whatever, when we want to make a real change, a super-lasting and profound change, we have to actually change our insides, not just our behavior. We have to deal with the roots.
The roots are the reasons why we want to escape from our lives in the first place. The roots are the causes and conditions, the discomfort of the edges we rub up against, our old stories and resentments, the heavy luggage of our past we won’t drop, the ways that we are deeply hurt, the bits of ourselves and our lives we find unacceptable.
Any one of us can change behavior for a period of time. I quit drinking six hundred times because I have a strong as fuck willpower when I want to channel it, but I couldn’t stay stopped because things like this have nothing to do with willpower. I couldn’t stay stopped until I started digging under the ground and paying attention to the roots. This is the hard and beautiful work. We do it gently and over time and with care, but we must do it. What I'm saying but not saying is, losing weight is a perfectly good motivator for sobriety and a real benefit of treating your body better, but it's not what you most deeply want. What you most deeply want is what all of us most deeply wants: to be free. Physically, mentally, psychically free.
I dealt with this in the body area, too, Blondie.
For the back half of my teenage years and the entire decade of my 20’s I hated my body. I starved myself down to 112 pounds in high school and then when I went to college I gained it all back and about 30 more. I wasn’t huge, but I was overweight, thicker, and totally miserable about it. I obsessed over it. I thought about my body constantly. I beat it up by over-exercising, binge drinking, withholding eating all day then having two pizzas at 3am when I was hammered, hating myself the next morning, getting “straight” for a few days (counting calories, writing down my food), then getting overwhelmed and shoveling candy/fries/muffins/whatever into my mouth to take the edge off.
The turning point for me wasn’t finding the right diet (tried ‘em all), finding the right balance of carbs/protein/fat (tried all combos), working out more (always had that in the mix), cutting out this or that (even drinking!), doing more cocaine (not kidding), or any other outside thing I switched up. What finally got that monkey off my back was getting happy (I know, that sounds so trite, but stay with me). And what got me happy was doing the hard, dirty work to deal with the inside stuff. I started yoga, I went to therapy, I happened to meet my ex-husband and fall in love, I started standing up for myself and setting some boundaries and I stopped thinking so much about my body. I stopped saying “I’m going to lose weight” and “I hate my body” and “I have to lose weight” and “If I was thinner” and despite myself, I dropped the weight.
Granted, this was all before my drinking took a big ol’ strangehold on my life, but still, the lesson is the same: the thing I wanted to change so desperately only happened when I dealt with the roots. My weight see-sawed all over the place until I stopped thinking about it and focused on what was making me use food to manage my mood in the first place.
The point is not to renounce everything we use to escape, but to become aware of what we're doing, and then, with a shitload of compassion when we see ourselves going for the pint of Ben & Jerry's for the 6th time in the same week (ahem, raises hand) start to ask ourselves the deeper questions. Questions like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘What am I trying to escape?’ ‘What am I afraid of?’ Sometimes the answer is no deeper than, I really just want my Cherry Garcia. And in that case, we eat Cherry Garcia.
So back to the question that is at the heart of your letter: When can I start living again?
The answer is right now. You can start living right now. But you must be patient with yourself as you learn to live differently. Throw out the timelines. Throw out every single "should" in your vocabulary. I “should” cook dinner for my family. I “should” get off my ass and do something. I “should” be responsible. No. What you should must do is take on the difficult and magical work of getting to know yourself as a sober person.
I've had to completely re-learn what it is I even liked to do. I've build a new toolbox that doesn't include alcohol. This is a concept came from my dear friend Holly. She encouraged me, and now I encourage others now, to create an actual toolbox--use a make-up bag or a pretty satchel or something--that includes things that fill you up. Mine has tea, a tincture of lavender oil, a picture of my daughter, sea shells and rocks, my 24 hour chip, quotes I love. I also now have reading, running, yoga, but those are things I had to re-learn, because the running was something I usually did to burn off a hangover and the reading and yoga both became something I couldn’t do any longer in the last year of my drinking. And honestly, in the first four or five months or so I just slept a lot and ate ice cream in my down time, and most importantly, I gave myself a fucking break.
Take the time to find what really fills you up, what gives you real comfort, reminds you who you are and what you're doing. Discover what gets you closer to free.It's probably not sweets and Netflix, although those things serve their purpose, too.
I also understand not trusting your brain, and this is why every day I put myself in the care of other people who know exactly what this journey is about. For me it’s attending 12-step meetings and talking to other people I know in recovery--like, actually talking to them with my voice on the phone or in real face-to-face conversations--every single day. If you don’t have these people, find them. Because our brains (egos) are sneaky bitches. Mine lies to me too, which is why I share and check my thoughts against others on the regular.
All the other advice I would offer is summed up in a letter I wrote to a reader a few months ago. It’s called The Pregnancy Principle. I hope it, and this, is helpful. I wish you the best on your magical journey and your next 107 days. Remember: you are a miracle.
(Note: The picture I used for this post is from April in Boston, following the Winter of Hell. I was walking to a meeting after work and notice OHMYGOD the sun is shining and I actually feel a ray of warmth. It took 2 more months for all the snow to melt. It felt like it would never happen. But it did. And then the city and everyone in it was more sparkly, green and full of life than I'd ever seen it in the 15 years I've lived here. There's something in that message, you know. Be patient. Love yourself through the winter. Things will thaw. Time takes time.)