Standing In A Snow Globe

351 days sober feels like standing in the middle of a snow globe right after a small child shook it so violently that an adult had to intervene. I am standing on two feet, which is good, but I’m also (still) disoriented and dizzy and unsure of what is actually happening and also I can’t see a damn thing because of

all

that

snow.

***

351 days sober is really close to a full calendar year and I almost feel paralyzed by everything I know. The mind is a tricky thing. It’s possible to lock parts of it up and hide the key from yourself, which is exactly what I did. I was depressed for years but did not want to be, so I found chemicals to perk myself up. I drank to deal with the emotions I wanted to avoid: fear, anger, resentment, PTSD, and heartache.

I was like this when I met my husband — he knew I had problems, but doesn’t everyone? Yes, everyone does. We married and vowed to stay with each other in sickness and in health and I guess this whole addiction thing is my sickness.

It’s easy to hide from the truth if you don’t want to see it. I believed all of the lies I told myself: I’m not good enough. Something is inherently wrong with me. I’m a shit mother. My husband doesn’t really love me.

In therapy, I described how, for a very long time, I blamed my family for causing me to believe those lies. If Robbie would just bring home flowers, I would feel loved. If only our children were easier. Then, I would know I was a good mother.  If only my own mother wasn’t so sick. I mean, that’s why I drank, right? Because I have a sick mom and a child on the spectrum and a husband who works crazy hours?

Searching for evidence to support the lies I tell myself occupied my thoughts. If I wasn’t busy thinking that I suck at life and finding examples to support this self-fulfilling prophecy, then I might actually have to look at myself, and clearly, that was out of the question.

So, no. I didn’t drink because of the people in my life. I drank to hide.

“What you just described to me is the definition of addiction,” my therapist said, when I told her how I would nitpick Robbie and blame his scatterbrained-ness, his work hours, his messiness, for my issues.

Oh.

At nearly one year sober, this is what I know: no one can MAKE me feel anything. I am in charge of my emotions. I am in charge of how I allow others to affect me. It’s like standing in the middle of a hula hoop — I can control everything inside of the hula hoop. That’s it. Everything else is outside of the hula hoop, which means it is outside of my control.

The only other thing I’ve figured out in the past 11 months is that the people I blamed for making me want to drink are the same people who loved me when I was at my lowest point. They are the ones who cleaned my vomit out of the car and the bed and went with me to the doctor and loved me, no matter how much I yelled or how unpredictable I was.

Not one of those people stopped loving me. They are living proof that the lies I told myself are, in fact, lies.

I have a lot of love to celebrate on my first sober Valentine’s Day.

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This is me. Can’t you tell?

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What I Cannot Do For Myself

I twisted my hands together, fighting the urge to pick at my cuticles as I watched my therapist’s eyes widen. She put down her pen; I bit my bottom lip to the point of pain, waiting for her to continue.

“That just doesn’t happen, Harmony.”

“I know.”

“No, I don’t think you do. I mean, I think you’re grateful for the people you have in your life. I think you know that you wouldn’t be sober today without them, but Jesus – you are incredibly, incredibly lucky.”

“I know.”

She picks up her pen; I exhale. I want to feel lucky: I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic who is still alive. I have not lost my husband or my kids. My friends still speak to me. I love and I am loved, even though a loud, persistent voice tells me every day that I am unworthy. The other shoe will drop soon, says the voice, and no one can be trusted except for my best friends, alcohol and uppers. Figuring out how to acknowledge that voice and then actively choose not to listen to it is an invisible, exhausting task that is hard to explain to people who have never had to battle with an almost constant feeling that everyone would be better off if they were dead.

I want to feel brave and fortunate and strong. People call me those things all the time – someone from my past recently called me “courageous” – but all I feel is a heaviness that never leaves, no matter how many hours of sleep I get or how many lattes I drink. Some people call it depression, but for me, it’s simply darkness. For years and years, I took uppers to snap me out of the sadness that wouldn’t leave.

It worked. No one noticed how messed up I was.

When that person called me courageous, I wanted to yell the following proclamation:

“I AM NOT COURAGEOUS. I AM EXHAUSTED AND WANT NOTHING MORE THAN AN ENORMOUS BOTTLE OF VODKA TO WASH AWAY THE PERSISTENT PAIN AND DISCOMFORT THAT I CARRY WITH ME ALL THE TIME. I AM DESPERATE TO FEEL BETTER.”

Is bravery the same thing as desperation?

***

On January 9, 2018, my dad had surgery. It was supposed to be minor – my mother couldn’t bring him, because she has virtually no immune system and is almost always narrowly avoiding hospitalization herself. I was happy to do it, especially because I knew this would be the first January 9th I faced in recovery and I needed a distraction.

January 9, 1999 is the day my life imploded. Now that I’m no longer drinking to avoid thinking about it, I’m thinking about it a lot. Here’s where I am: when those people made the decision to cross the multiple lines that were crossed, I was forced to make a series of decisions. First, I pressed charges. Second, I broke up with the man I was planning to marry and spend the rest of my life with, because I could no longer fathom a happy future with him. It wasn’t because of anything that was lacking in him as a person, or in our relationship. It was purely because he happened to be related to the kind of people who thought it was acceptable to slam me, choke me, kick me, punch me, and lick my face. I just … I couldn’t. I was done.

Maybe walking away from that relationship means they won. Maybe becoming an alcoholic means they won. If they wanted to destroy me, they were successful. Not one of them ever acknowledged what they did. Not one of them ever uttered an apology for smashing their brother’s relationship into pieces. They did what they did and pretended it never even happened, and we were left to figure out the rest. I chose to walk away from the relationship, and that is something I drank over for a very, very long time.

When I got sober, it was like awakening from a deep sleep. Like, oh! Okay. I made that decision and now my life is this. That choice led me to point A and then to point B where I seriously screwed up, but how did I get here? It’s a super involved process of turning over every rock and analyzing the how and why of my current situation. Was I sober when I met Robbie? Was I sober when we married? What about when we decided to have kids – was I sober then?

***

This year, I spent January 9 in a hospital waiting room working really hard not to self-destruct. I made it through the day – my dad went home, and so did I – but then I had to rush him back to the Emergency Room two days later.

The E.R. is a terrible place, something I can say with certainty because we spent 16 hours there before he was finally admitted. I was awake for 36 hours straight. My dad was hooked up to morphine. At a few different points, he and I both thought he was going to die.

I’m very good in emergency situations. I fold into myself, feeling nothing until it’s safe to do so. It wasn’t until I’d pitched a fit while holding a barf bag full of my daddy’s vomit in the middle of a flu-infested E.R. with a crazy man sitting in the corner yelling about how he was going to kill us all and they finally found a room for us that I allowed myself to cry.

Recovery feels like that for me. It didn’t feel safe to feel until it was safe to feel.

***

I don’t know how long I was at the hospital before my friend Kate flew in from Virginia. She was there to take care of the kids so I could be with my dad, but she admitted later on that she was mostly there to make sure I was able to take care of myself so I could take care of everyone else.

She came so I could remain sober.

My girlfriends sent food to my house and to my parents. Kate grocery shopped for my kids, bought them balloons, and assured them that their real mom would be home soon. My mother-in-law did all of the laundry, and then, Kate did it again.

“All you have to do is press the button on the coffee maker,” she told me before I fell into bed one night. “The coffee is ready to go.”

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She taught my children ballet poses.

Kate mothered me. She cooked food and encouraged me to eat it. She sent me to my 12-step meetings. For almost a week, she reminded me that it was okay to need and accept help. Her presence made me remember to keep doing the things that keep me sober.

Robbie bought a desk for my office and had it assembled when I got home. He did everything he could think of to make my life easier while I was preoccupied with getting my dad better. And really, that’s the part that touches me the most – how everyone in my life just SHOWED UP. Maybe before now, I was so walled off that I wouldn’t allow people to truly help me or love me. Maybe now I can learn how to do a better job of that, even though the voice still whispers that I don’t deserve love because I’m not good enough.

***

My 50-minute therapy session is drawing to an end, and I kind of don’t ever want to leave but I also kind of want to make a run for it and never come back. Getting better is hard work, something my therapist acknowledges and encourages me to talk about. Owning my issues will help me get better, and I really am proud of my progress, even though right now I’m pretty much constantly in a state of discomfort, shame, or self-loathing.

“Let me sum it up for you like this, Harmony,” she said, snapping her notebook shut and leaning forward. “God is doing for you what you cannot do for yourself.”

Yeah. No kidding.

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This is Kate. She is my sister.

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Learning To Swim

Every rental we’ve lived in since we left Alabama came with a disappointing bath tub.

Our town home, although small, had a large garden tub that I kept scrubbed clean. A hot bath with Epsom salts is the only thing that relaxes me the way wine does. When I was pregnant with Maverick, and later, Asher, I soaked in that tub almost every night to relax the muscles wrapping around my midsection.  As I floated, belly protruding, I could breathe.

Weightlessness. That’s what I am always searching for.

After we walked away from our mortgage in 2012 like so many other young couples who found themselves trapped in the real estate market crash, I either drank myself to oblivion or crammed my body into the dingy tub of an overpriced rental home to relax. Sometimes, I did both.

A few days into sobriety, my brain still fogged over from detox, I wondered what would happen if I sank under the murky water and inhaled.

The dense fog has lifted now, and most days, being sober feels like a heavy weight. Drinking was like a weight, too, but this is different. Life is what feels heavy. Alcohol let me block it out but did not provide an escape from my problems. Sobriety opens up the curtains and lets the light in: painful, but promising.

I voluntarily opted to birth my middle child without any pain medication whatsoever. It was an amazing, horrifying, terrible, awesome experience. There were a few points when I was absolutely certain that I was going to die, but I had no choice but to keep going. With the help of my support system, my son and I made it to the other side alive.

It was exhilarating.

That is what it feels like to be in recovery. As terribly uncomfortable as it is, I just have to keep moving forward. Neither stopping nor going backwards is an option for me.

Some days I really wish I hadn’t made the choice to get better. At this particular time in my life, with small kids who have a lot of needs, true recovery can feel like an impossible undertaking. But, just like childbirth, I have to remind myself that I’m not the first woman to do this and I certainly won’t be the last.

Recovery from addiction is painful, but it’s not going to kill me.

My addiction is what will kill me.

Merriam-Webster defines heartbreak as “crushing grief, anguish, or distress.” I define it as something I worked really, really hard for a very long time to avoid. I thought if I moved on fast enough, planned well enough, and accomplished enough, I could somehow escape it. I ran, literally and figuratively; I recoiled from it like someone might from a thing that has the potential to kill you.

I thought it would crush me if I allowed myself to feel it, so I refused to. I masked the pain with a number of relationships, walled myself off, and became an alcoholic. I met my husband and we built a life, but as much as I love him I never allowed him to truly love me.

We can’t ever truly escape the past. My story will never go away, no matter how many times I try to pretend it didn’t happen. On January 9, 1999, I suffered emotional and physical trauma followed by a heartbreak so profound that I never allowed myself to address it at all. I smashed myself back together like a car wreck survivor might if lost in the woods without access to medical care, and I never healed properly.

Just like a broken arm that never healed correctly, I have to re-break my heart in order to allow it to fully mend. There is never, ever an ideal time for heartache. I procrastinated for 18 years, but now, if I want to remain sober from alcohol, and I do, I have no other choice but to surrender.

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I am learning to swim.

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Downward Facing Spiral

I’m going through a really scary time in my recovery: processing major events in my past that my alcoholism is rooted in. Maybe normal people wrestle with terrible things that happen in their lives within a reasonable time frame, without having to hit rock bottom half a lifetime later and narrowly avoiding rehab. Clearly, I am not a normal person.

For half my life, I stuffed and avoided and blocked out and denied and channeled all of the pain and sadness into defiance, drive, and misguided attempts at controlling the outcome of almost every situation I found myself in. When I had fully exhausted myself of all those options, I turned to alcohol.

I would drink anything that was handed to me. I knew it would make everything better, if only temporarily. The liquid burned; I didn’t care. The burning hurt less than the pain inside my chest.

I’m in a really uncomfortable place. I can’t eat and I can’t sleep and I’m sweaty all the time and it sort of reminds me of my first 30 days of sobriety, except without the shakes. I’m afraid. Feelings are terrifying — I’ve spent half my life running from them — but they aren’t fatal. I have to remember that.

Trying to stay focused on today is hard for a planner. Even as a child, I would lie awake in bed at night thinking about the next day, preparing my outfits in my head, making sure I don’t repeat anything twice.

Recovery has hills and valleys. There have been times that I felt amazing and everything was great. This is not like that. Right now, I’m in a valley, a dark one, and someone stole my flashlight.

I won’t stop moving forward, but I gotta say — I DON’T LIKE THIS PART AT ALL.

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I found this meme on Instagram via @hallelujahnellie and I LOVE IT SO.

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Finding Serenity

My first sober Thanksgiving is probably not the ideal time to work my 9th step, and yet, here we are.

I spent Thanksgiving Eve on the couch, reading trashy celebrity gossip and texting my friends who were running around town or traveling, so our conversations happened in snippets. I tried to boil my feelings down to a few short paragraphs.

I got up from my spot on the couch only a handful of times throughout the day to feed the kids and brew more coffee. We left the house exactly one time, and that was to run over to my parent’s to borrow a Crock Pot. There were things I should have been doing instead – I had complicated holiday dishes to assemble, and my house was not suitable for guests – but I felt rooted to the cushions. Almost 9 months into recovery, I have learned not to fight the exhaustion that sometimes comes in waves. I give in.

Change is exhausting. Finding the willingness to learn how to react differently to emotional situations or stress or heartache takes a deep level of mental energy that I’m not sure I have at this stage in my life. I have three elementary-aged kids, none of whom know how to brush their teeth properly, and sometimes I barely have the bandwidth to get everyone to school on time. Digging for the emotional strength that recovery requires is often beyond me.

Thankfully, miraculously, admitting that I JUST CAN’T is enough. I don’t understand how it works exactly, but announcing my powerlessness to another person or group of people gives me just enough strength – not a lot, but just enough – to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

I’ve literally drank or pilled my way through the past 16 or 17 year’s worth of holidays. I’d start drinking hard around Halloween and blast through to Thanksgiving, Christmas, December 26th (my birthday), and finally, New Year’s, which is when I would get so shitfaced and feel so horrible after months of unbridled eating and drinking that I would dial it back a bit to get myself straightened out for awhile.

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This was me. Literally.

Time ticked by like that, for years and years, without many people noticing a pattern. I’m a reserved, controlled drunk, until the end, when I hated everything and everyone — especially myself.

As a kid, holidays were my favorite time of year: magical and fun. The Christmas I turned 19 was the worst of my life. I never fully recovered from what happened that year, so from that point until I entered recovery almost exactly 18 years later, I found different ways to mask the pain that always crops up. I bulldozed through it. There is never a convenient time to feel pain or deal with uncomfortable emotions. You either face it, or you numb yourself.

This year, there’s no numbing or masking or bulldozing. There’s simply the experience of being awake. I want to say something nice about blessings and gratefulness and all the jazz, but I’m still too freaked out to feel blessed just yet.

I feel, in the words of my friend Amber, like a vulnerable dumpster fire. But at least I know that is how I feel, and not what I just drank an entire bottle of wine in order to pretend like I feel. So, as crazy as that probably sounds, I think what I’m feeling might be serenity.

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Dealing With Feelings Is A Real Drag

Recently, I took a major risk and wrote about how my issues with addiction are directly linked to a traumatic event in my past. Everyone has been amazingly supportive, and for that I want to say thank you.

Living through an emotionally and physically traumatic event affected me in ways I still don’t quite understand. It wasn’t just that four people I knew physically attacked me in my own bedroom — the emotional pain is my problem. The multiple levels of betrayal, the shame of being involved with something so appalling, and the grief that comes from a terrible breakup all rolled into one big ball of horrible feelings that I didn’t know how to deal with.

Because I was living in a Conservative Christian bubble, I first tried praying it away. I tried ignoring it. I tried throwing myself into religion, and when that didn’t work, I threw myself into the world.

Even though what happened to me wasn’t my fault, there is a big part of me that still wonders if I somehow deserved it — mostly because I chose to ignore major red flags during the course of my relationship with the boy. I wanted to fit in with his family. I wanted them to like me, and they did, at first. I was a sweet, friendly, smart girl — unassuming, eager to please, nonjudgmental, and mostly, I loved the boy.

They liked me, but they underestimated me.

Sometimes, really stupid people mistake kindness for weakness. They think that because I smile a lot, I’m easily manipulated, but actually I am just too polite to speak up and say, “Hey asshole, I know what you’re doing.”

Rather than be rude, I nod and smile. Or, I used to.

The boy’s family eventually realized that I have limits to how far I’ll allow other people to push me. Even at 18 and 19 years old, no one was going to dictate my life, and I encouraged the boy to do the same. My encouragement of his independence is what sealed my fate, and the rest is what I’m dealing with in therapy.

The point of sharing my story is this: my past trauma infects every relationship in my life. I have walls up in my marriage that I didn’t even realize were there. I freak out over stupid things my kids say or do because it reminds me of people who hurt me in the past. I don’t trust ANYONE. I am terrified of people turning on me. And while I have a ton of friends and acquaintances in my life that I could call for anything, I almost never do; vulnerability scares the shit out of me.

I have a guilt complex. My self worth is nonexistent. People call me courageous, but I’m not. I’m terrified. Being sober scares me, the truth scares me, and thinking about the future and the unknown paralyzes me with fear. Things I cannot control are what scare me the most, and guess what? LIFE IS BEYOND MY CONTROL.

So I stay afraid, unless I practice the things that have kept me sober for the past 6 months. I go to exercise classes, even when I don’t feel like it. I cut out junk and eat more protein. I sleep a lot. I meditate. Today, I went to yoga and breathed a lot of deep breaths and then I cried, because that’s what happens when people sober up. They yoga and they cry.

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Yoga helps.

I’m putting one foot in front of the other, and re-learning how to take care of myself. I’ve accepted that I’ll be in therapy for probably a very long time, and I continue to mourn the loss of alcohol because dealing with feelings is a real drag.

People keep telling me I’m worth it. Maybe one day, I’ll actually believe them. Until then, I’ll just keep writing.

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What I’ve Learned In Six Months

Six months ago, I took my last drink.

I didn’t really believe that it was going to be my last drink, since I wasn’t yet fully on board with the idea that I am an alcoholic, and occasionally when I’m feeling really sorry for myself, I fantasize about all the different ways I would have done my last one differently.

Sometimes I get the feeling that people who aren’t in recovery think that sobriety is something that just happens to a person. It does not just happen.

Getting and staying sober is the hardest, most painful work I’ve ever done. It’s harder than all of the other hard things I’ve publicly written or privately whispered about. It is an exhaustive shedding of my former self, a dissection of every component of my personality that makes me want to reach for a bottle of whatever will drown out the thoughts echoing through my brain that tell me I AM NOT ENOUGH.

It is a systematic dismantling of what I believe to be true about myself.

It is complete surrender to an unfamiliar way of life.

It is saying, daily, “I don’t understand why I’m like this, but I want to be better. Help me be better.”

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Six months.

Sometimes I really resent the hell out of my situation. Cramming recovery into an already overflowing schedule can be very difficult. Sometimes I get mad at my best friend when I’m ranting to her about how stupid everyone is and she responds with, “Have you meditated today?”

INFURIATING.

But also, she’s right.

This process isn’t just about putting my sobriety before everything else and learning how to cope with the stresses of life in a healthy way. It’s about learning how to stop myself from boarding the crazy train. The things other people do or say that have always made me inappropriately upset? There’s a reason why! And guess what? I CAN FIX IT! I can re-train my brain not to immediately jump to irrational conclusions (my favorite is “Robbie thinks I’m boring and regrets marrying me,” or, “I am not and never will be good enough at anything I try to do.”)

There is hope.

All of us struggle with some kind of sickness. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be terminal.

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Back To School (Sober)

My big kids started school yesterday, entering 1st and 4th grade without new sneakers. This happens every year; I tell myself we will be better prepared next time, and before I know it, it’s August again.

I’ve historically blamed my lack of back-to-school planning on external factors beyond my control, like finances, but the truth is, I obsess over things that don’t matter (dirty dishes in the sink, the emotional state of the family pet, the clarity of my skin) and ignore the things that do.

The truth is, we have — well, had — the money for new shoes, but I spent it on something that didn’t matter. It mattered in the moment, certainly. That’s what always happens. I don’t drink or take pills anymore, but I still make terrible decisions. Some people call this irresponsibility, but I think it’s more like misplaced responsibility. I have no idea why I do this, but I have high hopes that working a recovery program will help me sort it out.

Please note: I HAVE A LOT OF REDEEMING QUALITIES.

This is my first back-to-school experience as a sober mother. I don’t know if my family can see a difference since I got sober almost 6 months ago, but I certainly feel different. Yesterday, I stood at the end of our driveway with my sons, holding a cup of coffee, waiting for the school bus to arrive.

After about 20 minutes, when it became clear that the bus wasn’t coming, I announced that I would drive them to school. My littlest was awake and had already dressed herself in a pair of inside-out pants, so all I had to do was unlock the van and tell them to load up.

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First day of school, August 2017.

 

Maverick is almost 9. He, more than anyone, knows what life used to be like, before therapy and diagnoses and I quit drinking. If anyone is going to notice changes, it’s him. He’s my barometer.

As we sat in the carpool line, I commented, “This isn’t that bad of a wait — if y’all would rather not ride the bus this year, I could drive you to school.”

“Wait — what?” Maverick’s eyes were wide.

“I don’t mind driving you. Unless you want to ride the bus. Just think about it, and let me know! It’s no big deal either way.”

I looked into the rear view mirror. My big boy, all arms and legs and overgrown, shaggy hair — another back-to-school task that didn’t get accomplished on time — was looking at me quietly.

“I thought you didn’t want to drive us,” he said, lowering his voice.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean … you always seemed like you couldn’t do it.”

I turned around and put my hand on his knee. I knew what he meant. It’s not that I couldn’t physically drive them in the mornings — there was nothing I couldn’t do without the help of an extra-strong cup of coffee and a pair of sunglasses — but I lived in such a constant state of stress that any unforeseen circumstance or extra task would send me over the edge. I was always one event away from a nervous breakdown, and my kids could sense that. I mean, obviously.

I looked at him, dead in the eyes, and studied his face for a long time. A car honked behind us. I continued to look at him.

“I can.”

And he smiled.

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Progress Report

It probably means something that the intake form I printed and filled out in preparation for my therapy appointment has a big ol’ wine ring on it.

This was something I wrote last year, when I was floundering in depression and didn’t know how to get better. The intake paperwork sent to me from a potential therapist in town overwhelmed me, because everything overwhelmed me: the laundry, my kids, money, unforeseen circumstances, forms sent home to me in my children’s backpacks.

I found life overwhelming.

So, I tried therapy. But the thing about therapy — and self-help in general — is that if you aren’t completely honest about what’s really going on, how is anyone supposed to be able to truly help you? I sat in several different, very nice offices in town and spoke about my difficulties; those sitting across from me were kind, albeit confused, about why I was struggling so hard to cope.

No one asked me if I was an alcoholic. Why would they? I clearly have my shit together. (Sidenote: I clearly do not have my shit together.)

I kept the truth about the scale of my drinking to myself — after all, the thought of giving up alcohol was more overwhelming that anything life was throwing at me. It simply was not an option.

The biggest lesson I’m learning in recovery is that when people are in addiction of any kind, they don’t know how to stop doing that thing that they’ve been doing for so long. Asking an addict to stop drinking or using is a lot like asking someone to stop breathing or eating or sleeping. How is that done? How will we survive?

My last drink was on February 28, 2017, and I still have to talk myself through taking a shower, blow drying my hair, and putting on clothes every day. Some days are worse that others. Sometimes, I require a nap in the afternoon or a good cry mid-day. I have gained 12 pounds from eating my feelings. THERE ARE SO MANY FEELINGS.

I started exercising because I need the endorphins, and then it occurred to me that I haven’t fed myself normally, meaning in a non-disordered way, since high school. It’s time for me to re-learn how to care for myself: the care and feeding of a 37-year-old woman. It’s amazing how eating the right things at the right time can pep a person right up.

Amazing.

We — and I’m talking about myself as well as other people who struggle with substance abuse — are brain-damaged people. We’ve re-wired our brains in our addiction, and reversing brain damage is no easy task, but the miracle is that it can be done.

Today is day 138.

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