Alison's Insights

Accepting Mid-Life Addiction Recovery One Slow Deep Breath At A Time

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Don’t Think, Just Jump

It’s a fact.  Addiction is a disease of both body and mind.  It’s a mixture of physical need and an overwhelming mental obsession.  This is precisely why most people struggle desperately to free themselves from it.  I’m no exception.

Like many others, I hit an inevitable cross-road not once, but twice.  I came to a point where I had to choose between getting help or continue on not breathing a sober breath and years later, barely eating enough to stay alive.  In both cases, I was hanging on by a thread mentally, emotionally and physically.

I tried many times to stop the addictive behavior on my own.  But after decades of drinking like I did and not fueling my system properly, my body reacted rather unfavorably to the abrupt removal of alcohol and sudden increase of food.  What exactly happened to me is further explained in the book I’m writing, but suffice it to say, neither experience was one I have any intention of reliving.   I knew, based on practical experience, I needed medical supervision to physically heal.

Mentally, I was completely incapable of formulating a plan that didn’t include having alcohol every day and robotically checking the scale to assure a specific number appeared.  I had to have alcohol.  I had to see that number.  I was terrified to think what would happen if I didn’t.

For those who have not gone through any type of recovery, it’s very difficult to understand the mental obsession part of addiction, so here’s an analogy.

When I was a little girl I could not wait to jump off the highest diving board at our local swimming pool.   However before I could, like everyone else, I had to reach a certain level of swimming ability. For days on end I worked toward meeting that requirement.  Although the two lower diving boards were fun to jump from, I really wanted a shot at that high dive.  I remember looking up at it from the water’s edge, thinking it didn’t seem high at all.  I just couldn’t wait to get up there.

When I was finally given that golden approval, I heard the angels sing.  I rode my bike as fast as I could to the pool, patiently waited in line, and when it was my turn, I scurried up the ladder and down to the end of the board.  And then I froze.  My heart was racing.  I was paralyzed in fear as I looked down.  It seemed as if suddenly the distance between the board and the water had increased ten-fold.  I turned around and in the blink of an eye, made my way back down the ladder.  I felt like such a chicken.

I couldn’t image what happened and why I freaked out.  I had wanted this so badly but since I was not a quitter, I kept trying.  Each day I’d arrive at the pool telling myself that would be the day I’d leap off that board.  I’d stand in line, wait my turn, make my way up the ladder, walk to the edge of the board, panic, and scurry back down the ladder as fast as I could.   This went on for days. I couldn’t understand why I wanted to jump but couldn’t.

What I didn’t consider was, while I stood in line waiting my turn, I was obsessively thinking.  I kept watching everyone else ahead of me make their way to the board’s edge and become terrified.  Without realizing it, I was projecting what was to come for me.  I was engaging in a game of mental ping-pong with one side I saying, “Oh for God’s sake, just jump!” and the other side saying, “NO!  You’ll get hurt!”

Then one day there wasn’t a line.  I was able to climb right up the ladder.  I walked straight to the edge of the board, and with one brave deep breath, I jumped.

I didn’t have time to think, I just jumped.

When I hit the water, I felt free.  I felt free from all that self-messaging about it being too scary and I’d be hurt.  In that moment, I taught myself that what challenges me will set me free and when I circumvent fear I’ll remain stuck.

This is exactly what happened when I came to that cross-road in my addiction. I had to discontinue thinking about what would or could happen.  I had to shut down all attempts to rationalize why I’d be better off living just as I was.  I ended that ping-pong conversation in my head, picked up the phone and asked for help.

I stopped thinking and jumped.  I was finally free.

Recovery: A Process, Not a Project

Before I got sober and overcame an eating disorder, I used my daily “to do” list as a means to determine my self-worth.  Each morning I would craft a list of things I needed to accomplish for the day.  Not what I hoped to get done, but WOULD get done. Upon review at day’s end, I would calculate how much I’d accomplished and how much I had not.  What had not been done would roll over to the next day, somewhat punishing myself by making the next day’s list all that much longer.

Little did I know this was simply an exercise to determine my worth.

All items checked?  You’re acceptable and good enough for today.

Items not checked?  You’re lazy and inferior so your day tomorrow will be that much harder.

Guess what message I’d always fall asleep to?  It was a horrific, vicious cycle I continued to swirl in because I was addicted to fueling my belief of being a failure.

What’s important to note, part of the reason my list was never complete was because each day there was a line item relative to treating myself better.  Unfortunately as the day progressed, these would never be considered, let alone completed.  These were the line items which always begin with one of two very definitive words, “stop” or “start.”  For example, “Stop drinking” or “Start eating three meals a day.”  There was never any room for grey area.  There was never any room for baby steps.  It was all or nothing, and like any good perfectionist, if it couldn’t be done perfectly and completely, it wasn’t done at all.

I just could not figure out why I wasn’t able to immediately start or abruptly stop an action or behavior.   So without a solution, I had simply resigned myself to living as an alcoholic anorexic fighting to keep my head above the waters of addiction death.

I’ve since learned why I was totally unable to attend to those line items.  I didn’t understand recovery is not a project, it is a process.  It isn’t something to be “checked off” and done with.  It is fluid.  It requires a lot of grey area and a lot of time.

Recovery means respecting the fact I’m human and incapable of making miracles happen.  I did not become an alcoholic anorexic overnight.  How could I possibly expect myself to become completely sober and healthy overnight?  I couldn’t.  No one can.  Further, even though I did indeed stop the action of drinking and started the action of eating, I did not make the recovery shift changes overnight.  That my friends, takes time.  It took time for my body, mind and emotions to adjust.  It took even longer to believe I’m not the woman I was then.

Today I’ve become respectful of what recovery truly means.  If I continue to do one healthy thing for myself today, I might be inclined to do it again tomorrow.  I don’t need to put that on any list to remind me.  It’s in my heart where no checking off is required.

Recovery is indeed a process, not a project to ever be done with.

They Don’t Kow Me Anymore

The moment I finally admitted I needed help was the moment I started to change, and I haven’t stopped changing to this day.  I don’t believe I’m a different person per se, but there is a lot about my behavior that’s different.

As I started eliminating the layers of addiction, something rather profound emerged.  I stopped fighting against my life and started fighting for it.

While this awakening happened for me, it didn’t just magically happen for those around me.  As a matter of fact, it’s really no wonder  some of the people I grew up with have a difficult time seeing me for who I am today versus who I was then.  Yes, they know I’m not drinking or pushing food away, that’s not what I’m referring to here.  What I mean is it’s hard for others to erase what they had seen or unhear what they had heard.

Years of emotional baggage rest between us.  Years of memories include varying forms of my unhealthy living.  Years of promises left unfulfilled.  My words became white noise.  They had seen it all, heard it all, and feared it all again and again and again. Some took advantage of my weaknesses, some refused to deal with any of it, but they all eventually stopped listening to what I was saying.  They couldn’t trust my words anymore because I hadn’t given them any reason to do so.

The destructive cyclone I created does not get erased overnight.

I know all this intellectually.  I do.  Yet for whatever reason, I fail to remember the members of my family who were with me as I grew up simply don’t know me anymore.  I suppose I could point to the fact that we’re older now with points of focus going well beyond what used to be held under one roof.  I could also point to time and distance between a physical get-together as a reason to not really know me anymore, but that would simply be a copout on my part.  I’d be avoiding the truth.

The truth is, as we grew up we taught each other how we wanted to be treated.   My teachings included how to navigate around someone swirling through many chaotic years of addiction.  As we shifted into adulthood, not only did my addictions escalate, so did the intensity of their education.  I taught them I didn’t need them, they were always wrong and I was always right when it came to how I was managing stress and my emotions.

Fast forward to today.  I’ve been sober for over a decade and free from an eating disorder for almost four years.  During all this time I’ve continually tried to show through my actions, not just words, how my life has changed.  Yet I must remember the winds of change take time to settle within a family dynamic.  At present there are those who can’t or won’t see me any differently than the person they grew to know.  I’ll never be anything other than someone unable to manage my life and/or have a healthy perspective about it.   However I can hold hope for a day when I’ll be seen through a lens of non-judgmental clarity.

If that happens, how long might it take?  I have no idea.  It’s not for me to guess or even impose an expectation it even will. I can’t control how others perceive things.  I’m not that powerful.

In the meantime, what I can (and will) do is continue moving forward in a healthy direction, carrying with me the belief someday they’ll choose to know me as me.

Never Being Called “Mom”

I woke up this morning needing to write.  That’s what happens when writing becomes more than holiday cards, letters, texting, emailing, business reports and grocery lists.  It goes well beyond that for me.  It has become as necessary as breathing.

Within my writing my truth arises.  It is not only a way expressing myself, it allows me to be myself.

I’ve always been far better at communicating what is in my head and my heart by way of writing.  It’s almost expected there be an “Alison card” whenever a birthday or special occasion is celebrated.

Today is one of those special occasions. It’s Mothers Day.  I won’t be with either my own mom or my mother-in-law, both are out-of-town.  So for today I feel what I need to write is not about them, what I need to write about what this day means to me.

I don’t have children.  Medically speaking, I couldn’t have children.  I have thought endlessly about what a wonderful father my husband would have been.  I dream of what could have been if we were able to widen our family.  But the truth is I wonder if subconsciously I ever wanted to have children.

I can’t validate this last part other than, now with 20/20 hindsight, I’m able to connect dots and consider how my addictive lifestyle might have contributed to my infertility.  At the time, being drunk and thin was more important to me than anything else.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility I subconsciously did all I could to avoid getting pregnant because that would have required me to stop drinking and gain weight.

But, having children was what society told me I was “supposed” to want, what I was supposed to do and I’d be less of a woman without that experience.

There are medically proven reasons I was unable to get pregnant.  I’ve poured over those reports and the pages of notes I took during many doctor visits.  I know the medical facts as they were uncovered, but what I don’t know is how much alcoholism and an eating disorder contributed to the inability to get pregnant.

But I kept trying until one day, my doctor looked me in the eye and said, “Look, I could keep removing the cysts (polycystic ovarian syndrome), but how many surgeries is your body able to take.  We’ve already done eight of them.  I think you might be well served to talk with your husband about whether or not you are ready take the next step to alleviate what is causing your ongoing pain and other reproductive health issues.”  What he meant was a hysterectomy.  I felt the wind knocked out of me.  That seemed so final.  But at same time, it felt relieving as the emotional pressure lessened.

That night my husband, my knight in shining armor, held me as I sobbed uncontrollably.  I wasn’t sure I was ready to accept what closing that chapter in my life really meant.  As those tears fell, out poured my profound inability to fully acknowledge how my addictive lifestyle might have contributed more than what was medically proven.

It has been over eight years since I did indeed take that huge step yet each Mothers Day I still find myself grieving.  I grieve for what wasn’t.  But I also grieve for what my part in that might have been.

There are all kinds of consequences I’ve had to face as a result of my addictive life.  Each carrying a level of intensity unique to the situation.  This one however, the inability to get pregnant, carries a very, very deep impression on my heart.

The grief for what could have been saddens me, specifically on this day.

However I do realize deep in my soul that while I may never hear someone call me Mom, I am able to express my ability to nurture each time I am honored to help another women forge her own recovery destiny.  Maybe in those quiet moments, I can finally feel what it means to be called a mom.

A Moment To Honor My Marriage

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
~Henry Ford

Today is my 13th wedding anniversary.  To know my story is to know how monumental this is.

It’s no coincidence I came across this quote from Henry Ford today.  It sums up exactly why I believe my marriage has withstood the many tests of time.

My husband and I got together 15 years ago on a golf course in Southern California.  We’ve stayed together because we’ve supported each other through many obstacles with respect, dignity and perseverance.  Our marriage has succeeded because through it all, it has been teamwork and nothing less.

It’s hard enough these days to keep a relationship healthy and strong.  When a marriage includes one partner struggling with addiction, it’s a mess of epic proportion, but that’s a blog for another day.

It is not uncommon for marriages to fall apart as recovery enters the picture.  The dynamics of the relationship change, typically in dramatic fashion. It has to because that’s precisely what recovery is, change.

My marriage did not fail but it got close … very close.  There were words said that I can still hear in my head as clearly as the day they moved past my husband’s lips.  While I have long forgiven, I don’t want to forget because I don’t ever want to be in that place again.

In early recovery I was told many things but there is one piece of advice I clung to and have never let go.  Recovery has to be the number one priority.  It must come before everything else.

It did and it still does.

During those early days, months, even years, I had to forge on in my recovery regardless of what was going on at home.  It’s like the flight attendant telling you to put your oxygen mask on first and then tend to the people around you.  You can’t think clearly if you can’t breathe.  If I don’t continue to keep recovery filtering through my system, I will be right back to where I was.  I don’t mean I’d be drinking or starving myself, but the old attitudes and mannerisms I used to live by would seriously affect those around me.  And that, my friends, is a roadmap to destruction.

The interesting thing is, as I got healthier, so did my marriage.  By showing respect for myself, the mutual respect for our marriage and our partnership escalated.   As I changed, so did my husband.  Not because I asked him to, but because he began to trust me again and in so doing, was able to relinquish the anger so deeply imbedded in his being.  This was the anger toward for the disease of addiction, not toward me per se.

Through the years we’ve worked through things together, honestly, openly and yes, sometimes loudly.  Change does not come without moments of adversity.  And sometimes it even comes down to a good fight which, in many cases, can be rather cathartic.

As I reflect on where I was in my life 13 years ago to where I am today, I get chills.  I think about what it felt like back then to hear my husband say he was embarrassed to be seen with me, and what it feels like today to hear him say, “I’m such a lucky guy, I’m in love with my best friend.”

I’m not sure it’s luck, but I am sure with love, gratitude and continued work, we’ll keep this team of ours going strong.

I’m Not Ashamed Anymore

I’ve always loved Vogue magazine.  I remember reading it when I was younger and feeling glamorous for simply turning the pages.  I envisioned myself all swanky and sophisticated.  I imagined how I’d look tall, thin and elegant.

So I spent a good deal of my life trying to be just that.  I had the tall part down.  God helped me there.  I did my very best to be elegant but after a few too many glasses of wine that image went down the tubes.  Clearly I achieved the physical shape I had idealized but we all know I went way too far and then way too deep.

It took me six years after getting sober to admit I needed help for an eating disorder.   There are more reasons for this than blog space to list them, but for now we’ll focus on shame.

I was ashamed for how I looked.  I was ashamed for how I was behaving.  I was ashamed each time I looked into my husband’s eyes and saw his fear.  I was ashamed each time my father hugged me and I felt that slight pull as he tried to keep his tears from falling.

I was never so ashamed than the day I walked into the eating disorder treatment center.  I felt like a failure and a woman in mid-life who had no idea how to live in a healthy manner.

Upon leaving there, I stepped out of the shadows as a repurposed woman.  I was no longer ashamed, but proud.  I was not longer in fear of what others would think but rather what I could do to help another woman in mid-life who struggles in secret.

This is why I blog.  This is why I’m writing my book.  This is why I welcome the opportunity to tell my story if only to say, “I know.  I’ve been there.  You aren’t alone.”

Over these last few years I’ve been interviewed for, and featured in, several articles.  Some include my last name, some don’t.  I don’t care.  I’m not ashamed.

Last September, Meghan Casserly, staff writer for forbes.com used my story as the subject for her article, “Eating Disorders and The Executive Woman.”  Although my last name was not used, I heard from some friends who saw the article, knowing it was me. What most of them wanted to tell me was how proud they were of my willingness to take my private experiences public.   They’re right, I’m not ashamed anymore.

Today I’m reminded of this.  After sending my husband off to work with a kiss, I shifted focus to working on my book.  My usual routine is to grab a cup of coffee and pursue online articles about alcoholism, eating disorder recovery and if available, anything specifically related to women in mid-life.

A smile mile-wide spread across my face.  There is was, Vogue magazine taking a stance on eating disorders.  According to the article, “Vogue’s New Beauty Standard:   No Underage Models or Eating Disorders”, beginning with the June issue (on sale this month), Vogue will not work with models who appear to have an eating disorder.

My how things come full circle.  Once I turned to this magazine to look at those swanky woman and today I’m turning to it in support of their stance to bring light to the dangers of eating disorders.

As I scrolled down the page, my eye caught a link to that article from last September.  My heart opened knowing the editors of forbes.com felt compelled to link these two stories together.

And then I clicked onto that September article and for a moment, time stopped.  My eyes locked onto the number of hits …14,575.

No, I’m not ashamed anymore, I’m hopeful because if only one of those 14,575 people reaches out for help, my shame turned into my gift.

Being Addicted to Problems

I have an addictive personality.  One glance over my 50 years of life and you’ll see evidence of this.  Not only did I overcome two addictions that nearly killed me, but I can fall into addictive-like behaviors when it comes to things like my intense need to get more done in less time, perfectionism, the book I’m writing, soap operas, department stores, brands of makeup, the list goes on and on.

One that stands out to me today is the propensity to be addicted to problems.  And I know I’m not alone.

I grew up in a home where there was always a problem of one kind or another.  Now, I’m not talking about things like a stuck drawer or which kid broke the lamp.  I’m talking about relationship issues, communication issues, and more profoundly, emotional issues.  It didn’t feel right if there wasn’t a disconnect happening somewhere.  It became a habit and over time an addiction.

And I don’t think our home was all that unique in this area nor are homes today devoid of this.  Yet the impact it has when we step outside our home is overwhelming.

Think about this, when was the last time you had a conversation which did not include some sort of problem.  It doesn’t have to be a negative problem.  In some cases, we share a humorous situation which contains a problem.  That’s funny and we enjoy it.

And then there are occasions when talking about problems can be almost life saving.  When we share personal stories of transformation it may very well be just the thing others need to hear to overcome their own issues.  In the rooms of recovery, that’s precisely how we all get well.  It’s our saving grace knowing others may have gone through something similar and found their way through it.  It’s a way of finding our own individual solution.

Yet from a wider perspective, think about a conversation you recently had and consider the content.  If you were sharing a problem of your own, were you doing so as a means of defining who you are or proving where you were emotionally? Were you sharing that problem to get attention or validation for having it?

If you were talking about someone else’s problem, were you using it to feel better about yourself by way of judgment or gossip?  Were you trying to solve the problem with or without their permission as a means to boost your ego?  Were you using their problem as a way to validate your own as being more difficult and therefore you win at some sort of twisted “your problems are nothing compared to mine” game?  Or were you talking about another person’s problem to deflect attention from yourself?

Sharing problems (personal as well as those of others) with an intention of being superior, judgmental or critical can be terribly destructive, hurtful and dangerously addictive.  It feeds the ego which in and of itself is a very big problem.  Yet if we chose to stay silent and live alone with our mentally draining issues, we become stuck.  We can’t see beyond and it’s painful.  Terribly, emotionally painful.  The trouble is, if we chose that path and stay silent, we end up trying to self-solve, going around and around in circles with no answer in sight.

It’s an addiction to which we all are susceptible to experience at some point throughout our lives.  We can avail ourselves to the right course of action as long as take the time to choose wisely.

So as much as we all try, it’s very difficult to get away from talking about problems.  In my case, it’s not like I don’t want to be supportive and helpful.  On the contrary.  My entire life’s work these days it to share my own experiences in order to help someone else.  However, for those who use their problems as a nothing more than a conversation starter or as a means of validation for their current temperament, I feel like I’m in some sort of vortex, getting sucked in with no doorway out.

Therefore, I need to have a healthy outlet.

Every single day I give myself the gift of a gentle meditative yoga practice.  I focus on how grateful I am to be relatively devoid of really “big” problems.  During my practice, I find a place of contentment.  I go inside where I’m able to rest my head and heart.  It’s quiet and I’m peaceful.

And then the phone rings or the email dings or the text message alert comes on.  I know it will only be a matter of moments before I’m encountering another problem.  But just prior to that, I was free.

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