Thursday, May 12, 2022

Finally, A Safe Place to Land

Ten years ago, just a few weeks shy of my 24th birthday, I was arrested for my first DUI. Over the next eight years I was arrested 4 more times and admitted to rehab 6 times. I was what the recovery world and the criminal justice system called a “chronic relapser.” I was the person who drank the same day I completed probation or rehab every single time. I was the person who was kicked out of two different halfway houses in just 10 days. I was the person who could not, for the life of me, figure out how to live an alcohol-free life.

I think the reason I kept drinking, even after each new rock bottom, was because our current system of recovery didn’t feel like a safe place to land. I was forced into a recovery system that didn’t make sense to me. People (ab)use substances because they are in pain or have unresolved trauma; and rather than providing adequate mental health services and time to heal, we criminalize, shame, and abandon folks who self-medicate with drugs (alcohol is a drug, btw.)

We live in a world that uses punishment and shame as foundational tools for treating addiction. Each time I relapsed, my pain was met by a harsher consequence. The repercussions for my second DUI were much worse than my first; and if I had gotten a 3rd DUI, I would’ve been given a prison sentence and felony charges. Finding a job with no drivers license and two DUIs on my record is hard enough. Imagine what further damnation would’ve done for my already dying shell of a self.

After each relapse I always wondered, does our criminal justice system actually believe humiliation and oppression are the path to sobriety? Does our current system actually believe sharing my mugshot in the criminal section of my hometown newspaper for everyone to see is the first step toward healing?

Worse yet, in my experience, the system never seemed to care about treating the thing that caused me to self-medicate in the first place. All they seemed to care about was making sure I understood that I was powerless and full of character defects. My worth as a human being became solely dependent on my sober day count, or lack thereof. I was given a label (alcoholic) rooted in shame. I was told I was crazy, broken, and unworthy of basic human rights. So I continued to drink, unwilling to land in that unsafe place.

Luckily, in 2016 while on probation for my 2nd DUI and stuck living in my parent’s basement with a beeping alcohol-detecting-ankle-tether to keep me company, I found a blog called Hip Sobriety. Finally, someone (Holly Whitaker) was speaking my language. Finally, someone was putting words to my experience in a way that made sense. Finally, someone told me there is no such thing as an alcoholic; I wasn’t crazy or broken or powerless. Finally, a breath of fresh air. *Finally.*

Unfortunately, and also unsurprisingly, I immediately drank when that stint of probation ended in 2018. Then I lost everything. Again. I didn’t know what the point was. I absorbed all of the bullshit the system wanted me to believe about us low-life alcoholics, us chronic-relapsers. I felt forever doomed; my disease forever doing pushups in the parking lot just waiting for me to relapse.

But, I continued to drunkenly follow Holly’s work for a couple of years and eventually joined Tempest in December 2020. Not only did Tempest give me a safe place to land, they also taught me to forgive myself for landing here.

In my perfect world, Tempest would have existed and been prescribed ten years ago after my first DUI. With all of that shame-based recovery in my system, it became impossible to forgive myself each time I landed at a new bottom. Those other programs believed making amends to others was of utmost importance, but they never taught me that I, myself, am worthy of love and forgiveness. They never taught me how to forgive myself for landing here in the first place.

Tempest welcomed all parts of me with open arms. Tempest understood that I was a traumatized human in need of a holistic approach to recovery. Tempest works to remove all of the shame from my story. Tempest is a label-free space rooted in life-changing and unconditional compassion. Tempest told me there is no fixing because I am not broken. Tempest gives me agency and encourages me to create a recovery path that is just as special and unique as I am. Tempest, and reading Quit Like A Woman, truly changed my relationship with alcohol. Tempest saved my life.

Tempest understood that people like me, known as “chronic relapsers,” are actually the people in the most pain, with the most trauma. We don’t need more shame or punishment. We just need to be seen, heard, and loved. We just need a safe place to land.

I am writing this fourteen months in my alcohol-free journey, and can’t help but wonder what type of world it would be if everyone who struggles with substance abuse landed at Tempest, rather than whatever is happening with our current criminal justice system.

Imagine what type of world it would be if we all had a safe place to land.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

I plant seeds of hope

Spring has sprung! Yesterday was the first short sleeve, Birkenstock wearing day of the year in Michigan. The snow is melting and the birds are singing. Soon the tulips will bloom and the trees will be bursting with bright green buds. I was able to soak up some much needed vitamin D on my second story apartment balcony. In my opinion, spring is the most exciting time of the year.

At this time last year, I was only about two months into my alcohol-free journey and struggling. For as long as I can remember spring has been greeted by Detroit Tigers baseball and an orange slice wedged into the first Oberon of the season. Spring, as wonderful as it is, still triggers memories of sitting on the back patio with an ice cold celebratory drink in hand.

Last year in an attempt to start a new sober tradition, I decided to plant a balcony garden. This 4’x9’ space became my own little jungle oasis. I grew cherry and Cherokee purple tomatoes, red, orange, yellow, and green bell peppers, banana peppers, jalapeΓ±os, pickling cucumbers, carrots, spinach, radishes, strawberries, mint, basil, catnip, and zinnias.

Each morning while my coffee brewed, I filled large watering cans and gave my precious plants a drink. I didn’t know it back then, but that garden allowed me to plant seeds of hope during a seemingly hopeless time. The garden gave me something to nurture before I could nurture myself.

When I first got sober I didn’t have a job or a driver’s license, but I had my garden. Drinking made me feel trapped; the garden allowed me to grow. Drinking kept me stuck in cycles of craving instant gratification; the garden taught me lessons about delayed gratification. Drinking made me resent folks who were outside enjoying the warm weather while I was hungover in bed; the garden welcomed me back out into the sunshine.

The garden gave me something to call my own. My own tradition. My own something to look forward to. My own calming space. Maybe all of us could benefit from celebrating patio season with a tiny garden (or just one indoor plant) instead of drinking. Maybe all of us could plant seeds of hope and watch them grow.

It might take a few years of practicing new traditions before I stop associating spring with drinking, and that’s okay. At least this year I am also craving seeds, growth, fresh blooms, and the smell of potting soil. At least this year I know there is immense, life-giving power to be found in a small patio garden.

I plant seeds of hope.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Of course I feel this way

The first therapist I ever had, at 15 years old, told me I have a strong not-good-enough schema. Which means I developed a core belief that I don’t measure up long before my brain was fully developed. To compensate, or in an attempt to “better” myself, I developed a nasty habit of constantly beating myself up.

The tricky thing about sobriety is, the longer I remain alcohol-free, the more aware I become of this horrifyingly harsh inner dialogue. When I first got sober, I don’t think an hour passed without some form of self-beratement. Oftentimes I would beat myself up simply for experiencing a negative emotion.

Last summer my current therapist recommended I step back, breathe, and jot down each time I catch myself ruminating about my (fake) inferiority. She suggested swapping out, “I shouldn’t feel this way; what the hell is wrong with me?” for a much gentler, “Of course I feel this way.”

Of course I feel pain
Of course I feel anger
Of course I feel grief
Of course I feel afraid
Of course I occasionally lose my shit and become emotionally reactive
Of course there is tension in my shoulders
Of course there are tears
Of course I am exhausted
Of course I crave escape and numbness
Of course my eating disorder flared up when I quit drinking
Of course I feel overwhelmed by current politics and world events
Of course I feel pissed off my driver’s license has been suspended since 2015
Of course it’s hard to focus on work right now
Of course I’m beating myself up; that’s all I’ve known for 20 years
Of course I feel lonely
Of course I need some extra rest
Of course I need some extra TLC
Of course I need some extra support
Of course, sweetheart, of course

Now, each time I catch myself in that not good enough schema I choose to stop, validate my own experience and emotions, shower myself with care, and then get curious. These emotions are not here to use as fuel for negative self-talk. What is this feeling trying to teach me?

Changing a two decade old pattern hasn’t been easy or perfect; I am forever learning. But continuing to beat myself up was never going to help me quit drinking. I am good enough. I am worthy of love and support and positive self-talk. By simply noticing my emotions and welcoming whatever pops up with open arms, I begin to reclaim my truest, always-been-good-enough self.

Of course I feel this way.

"Life is alchemy, and emotions are the fire that turns me to gold. I will continue to become only if I resist extinguishing myself a million times a day. If I can sit in the fire of my own feelings, I will keep becoming." -Glennon Doyle

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

I am loved

If you’re reading this, you understand that alcohol destroys relationships. You understand what it feels like when people stop being your friend because they think you keep “choosing” to drink. You understand how it feels to wake up in a panic; unsure of the texts and social media posts you sent the night before. You might even understand how it feels when a sibling stops speaking to you. You understand the loneliness, the shame, and the fear of being forever misunderstood.

You can also understand why I created a story in my head that says I am unlovable.

In today’s world we teach people to abandon folks who struggle with substance abuse. My rock bottom was met by a criminal justice system that told me I was a disgrace to society. I needed to be locked up in order to keep the general public safe. I had become otherized; “one of them.” This system made me feel less like a human, and more like an unlovable hollow frame fueled by shame.

One thing that has truly helped reroute this deep, unlovable groove in my brain is showing up for Tempest group calls. Hearing your stories and feeling the nonjudgmental love from the facilitators has honestly changed my life. We’ve all been through the same shit. We’ve all been beaten down. Thankfully, this space is slowly building me back up. Slowly infusing my hollow frame with the love I have been missing. Your faces and your stories have become my medicine.

Now, each time I experience a trigger, I step back and think of all of you. I breathe in your love and your kindness. I breathe in the statement, “There is no fixing, because we are not broken.” No matter how triggered I might feel, I know there will be another call in a few short hours and I can, once again, bathe myself in your love.

Here’s what I have learned by showing up in this space: The story I created in my head about being unlovable is not true. Thanks to all of you, I know I am never alone. Better yet, this space is teaching me to cultivate a self-love that I can bring with me anywhere.

It seems like we live in a world that doesn't know how to help those of us who struggle with substance abuse. I think The Beatles were onto something way back in 1967. Maybe all we need is love.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

I flow like water

When I was in grade school, my family took spring break trips from bitter wintry Michigan to sun-bursting St. Augustine, Florida. Without understanding why, my preteen Pisces self became utterly obsessed with the ocean. Each morning I would rise with the sun and, as weird as it might sound, I would have full conversations with the ocean.

There was something mystical about the ocean; its vastness, its awe, its mystery, its never-ending flow. Walking along the coast provided space for and connection to a meditative part of myself I didn’t know existed. It felt like each time I shared a worry or a fear with the ocean, it’s crashing waves would respond with a nugget of inner wisdom.

When spring break ended and my family returned to Michigan, instead of Dear Diary entries, I’d fill notebooks with Dear Ocean entries. I would communicate with and pray to the ocean from afar. I couldn’t wrap my adolescent brain around the idea of a God who lives in the clouds, but I could sense something much larger than myself in the ocean.

Naturally, when I recently stumbled upon a Taoism tradition called the Water Course Way, my interest peaked. The Water Course Way suggests we flow like water. Water is always moving, always shifting. Water never fights against the temperature or the wind or whatever vessel it might be in; it simply adapts and fills space. Water goes with the flow. Water is powerful and gentle, loud and quiet, soothing and drowning. Water is a true paradox.

Alcohol, bulimia, and drugs kept me removed from the natural, waterlike flow of life. I numbed out the bad stuff, along with the good. I was fighting against my own emotional tides. But, when I attempt to flow like water, I too, possess a vastness, an awe, a mystery, and a never-ending flow. Water knows that all emotional waves - the good and the bad - will eventually pass, just like the waves always passed in St. Augustine.

Getting sober continuously forces me to face emotions I have been avoiding for decades. Maybe my preteen Pisces self somehow knew deep down in my bones that water is an excellent teacher. Water knows nothing is permanent, everything passes. When I attempt to flow like water, there is space within myself to hold grief and joy, anger and excitement, fear and wonder. Like water, I too, am a true paradox.

I flow like water. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

I walk on rainbow clouds

We’ve all heard the “pink cloud” sobriety metaphor. Many people, from various recovery programs, have told me stories about this sparkly pink cloud of joy they walk on during the first few months of sobriety. They say it’s as if they are suddenly gliding through a life that is filled with bliss, hope, and rose-colored glasses.

I just celebrated one year of practicing sobriety (πŸŽ‰). I have only slipped three times in the past 365 days (πŸŽ‰πŸŽ‰). To be exact, that is a 99.18% success rate (πŸŽ‰πŸŽ‰πŸŽ‰). This has been the most sober year of my adult life, and I am still waiting to experience this so-called pink cloud. The first year of recovery, for me, often felt closer to trudging through mud in holey boots, than it did walking on some glittery pink cloud.

Yesterday while bundled up for a 19-degrees-below-freezing walk, my dog Teddy and I witnessed the most breathtakingly vibrant sunrise. It looked like the sky had been painted with brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, green, dark blue, pink, purple, and gray. It was a full rainbow of colors in the clouds.

I like to think of my first year of sobriety as walking on rainbow clouds, rather than a pink cloud.

❤️ Some days I have red clouds of fiery anger and passion beneath my feet.
🧑 Some days I walk on orange clouds filled with optimism and curiosity.
πŸ’› Some days I walk on yellow clouds filled with creativity, joy, and light.
πŸ’š Some days I walk on clouds that are green with envy and resentment.
πŸ’™ Some days I walk on midnight blue clouds filled with depression, grief, and loneliness.
πŸ’— Some days I walk on pink clouds filled with love or the rosy cheeks of embarrassment.
πŸ’œ Some days I walk on purple clouds filled with fear and sensitivity.
☁️ Some days the clouds beneath my feet are just gray and blah.
🌈 Most days there is a rainbow of clouds and emotions below my feet.

I used to feel a tinge of shame for never reaching this presumed pink cloud in sobriety. It felt like I was doing something wrong. But, by pretending to walk on rainbow clouds, I can welcome and normalize the full spectrum of emotions and colors that I travel with in early sobriety. Is there anything more beautiful than a rainbow?

🌈 I walk on rainbow clouds. 🌈

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

There is nothing wrong with me

The first time I heard the word “Normie” was in 2015 during my stay at a 90-day women’s rehab facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Roughly ten of us patients were crammed into an oversized van, named the Druggie Buggie by staff, and were headed toward an AA meeting. One of the girls, Nicole, longingly gazed out the window at a young couple holding hands outside of a bar and said, “Fucking Normies.”

Instantly, my mind began to race, my stomach churned, my clothes soaked in sweat, and the walls closed in around me. Unable to breathe, panic set in. My drinking led to a world of multiple DUIs, 24/7 lockdown rehab facilities, and road trips on the Druggie Buggie. There must be something wrong with me. I must be the polar opposite of a Normie; I must be batshit crazy.

After leaving rehab and reentering the real world, I noticed this Normie mentality everywhere. My family continued to drink daily. Pop culture promotes, even celebrates substance use. People bring coolers of booze to their kid’s t-ball games, and then drive home. Everyday occurrences like going to the grocery store resemble walking into a drug dealer's house. There are rows and rows of my drug of choice available round the clock; all I need is 10$ to black out. 

How is any of this normal? 
What is wrong with me?

Back in 2015, I didn’t have the words to explain why the word Normie triggered a low-grade panic attack. But now, I can see there is nothing normal whatsoever about society’s relationship with alcohol. The list of abnormal things our society does with (this drug called) alcohol could fill book after book after book.

My favorite tool to combat society’s backwards, “Normie,” relationship with alcohol is a simple loving kindness meditation. With eyes closed and hands over my heart, at each inhalation I can repeat phrases I’d want a struggling friend to hear:

May you know there is nothing wrong with you.
May you know there has never been anything wrong with you.
May you be gentle, kind, and patient toward yourself.
May you know freedom from alcohol.
May you feel seen, heard, and loved (fur baby affection absolutely counts).
May you become your own BFF as you create a beautiful new normal.

There is nothing wrong with me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

I am gently guided by wonder

One of my biggest struggles in sobriety is the idea that I need to find my purpose and have some impressively grand plan for my future. I spent most of high school attempting invisibility; not actually thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Getting into college wasn’t easy and I struggled to pick a major. How was my brace-faced, painfully sheltered, 18-year-old self supposed to choose a single career path for the next 40+ years of my life?

A couple of weeks into my first semester of college, while feeling overwhelmed by the crowds and paralyzed by my own lack of purpose, I stopped going to class altogether. Unsurprisingly, I failed out after the third semester. I couldn’t see a future for myself. Bulimia and an older boyfriend who introduced me to alcohol quickly trumped showing up for the shit show, college dropout life I had created for myself.

During the next decade of my life, I was arrested 5 times and admitted to rehab 6 times, which continued to distract me from finding this thing people call “purpose.” After being degraded and dehumanized by the criminal justice system, I struggle to feel worthy of looking within and trusting myself to make decisions about my future.

Unfortunately, I don’t think my story is unique. I think many of us, after years or decades of addiction, struggle to find purpose. The world labeled me an alcoholic loser. How do I put that bullshit label aside and learn to compassionately look within for answers? How *the fuck* do I get from: Day One, 32 years old, no job, no job references, no driver’s license, no therapist, still no clue what the hell I want to be when I grow up - to peace, lasting sobriety, and a sense of purpose?

I would be a wealthy woman if I knew the answer. But I do know something magical happens when I am guided by a gentle sense of wonder, rather than pressuring myself to know. Brene Brown says wonder is what fuels our passion for exploration and learning, for curiosity and adventure.

Hmm, I wonder if sobriety will create space for the treasure hunt of self-exploration I buried while attempting to be an invisible high schooler who couldn’t find her damn purpose.

Hmm, I wonder if there is no such thing as an alcoholic loser who can’t be trusted with herself.

Hmm, I wonder if I don’t need to have it all figured out today.

Hmm, I wonder if allowing myself to be gently guided by things that fuel my passion for exploration and learning, for curiosity and adventure, is good enough for now.

I am gently guided by wonder.

Monday, February 7, 2022

I collect moments of peace

A few years ago, I bought an off-white porcelain travel mug with the word HAPPY written on the side. During the colder months, this mug is never out of arm’s reach. I refill it hourly with coffee, tea, or cocoa, cups of comfort. But recently, I have noticed the word written on the mug rarely matches my mood.

I carry around a mug that promotes happiness, like it’s the only acceptable emotion, all day long. And honestly, this nonstop reminder to be happy has filled me with more rage than smiles.

When I was kid, and well into my adult life, I thought happiness was the ultimate #lifegoal. I thought adhering to social norms would make me happy. I thought a college degree, a husband, babies, vacations, botox, diets, and a two-story, 4-bedroom home with a pool was the only path to happiness because, unfortunately, that’s what my adolescent brain was exposed to.

Now, as I continue down the path of sobriety, I am learning to collect moments of peace, rather than striving for whatever happiness is. Peaceful moments happen when I slow down, notice how I am actually feeling, and mindfully re-enter my body after a long day of pretending to be “happy.” Peace, to me, is like an inner sense of calm. No matter what I am feeling, peaceful moments help bring me and my big, scary emotions back toward middle ground.

I have turned peaceful, quiet moments into daily rituals. Lighting a candle, cuddling with my dog, long walks at the nature trail up the street, preparing a comforting meal, watering my plants, hot baths, frequent trips to the library, deep breathing practices, fresh air on my lunch break, journaling, and wearing fuzzy socks are all things I can do to help collect a little peace.
In her latest book Atlas of the Heart, Dr. Brene Brown describes 87 different emotions humans experience. *Eighty-seven.* If this is true, why am I so hung up on happiness?

Maybe it’s normal to feel 87 different emotions in a single day. Maybe, as Brene suggests, the North Star to healing isn’t happiness. Maybe the bright light guiding us home lives in naming, feeling, and learning from all of our paradoxically messy emotions - while refilling our cups with moments of peace along the way.

Let me know if anyone finds a travel mug that says:

I collect moments of peace.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

I get cozy & hibernate

One of the hardest parts of recovery, for me, is learning to regulate my emotions. I have always been an extremely sensitive and emotional human. It often feels like I live in a constant state of emotional overwhelm.

When I was in middle school, binging and purging became my go-to emotional regulator. I felt forced to restrict my emotions and food in the daylight; while animalistically binging on junk food and purging to release the day’s emotions at dusk. After I finished, while sprawled out on the bathroom floor, my brain and body were exhausted to the point of blissful numbness. Years before I ever touched alcohol, this was my daily emotional regulating system.

Luckily, sobriety provides space to explore new ways to regulate my emotions. After much trial and error, I have created a new ritual: I get cozy and hibernate.

This process begins as soon as I get home from a long day at work. I slip into my favorite oversized fleece onesie PJs and fuzzy slippers. I play soothing music, boil water for tea, wash my face, and light all of the candles. I gather a giant pile of pillows and wrap up like a burrito with my dog, Teddy, in a soft blanket cocoon. I fill up my introverted cup with some cozy quiet time.

Next, while in my safe, cozy space, I prioritize a cathartic release. The word catharsis literally means to purify or purge emotions - like pity and fear - through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal or restoration. My cathartic releases of choice are endless Taylor Swift and Grey’s Anatomy marathons. But, if sappy isn’t your style, comedy, cute dog videos, and upbeat dance-in-your-underwear-jams will also do the trick. Maybe a cathartic release is what my middle school self actually needed.

Once I have cozily released some of my daily emotions, I like to hibernate. When I feel extra emotional, it usually means I need extra rest. My hibernation space is free from all distractions. I don’t have to worry about my to-do list or check my Instagram. All I have to do is drift off into a sweet, lavender scented slumber. Sometimes I hibernate for 8 hours, sometimes 12, sometimes more. I have learned that by resting, I am eventually able to rise without harming myself.

I have struggled most of my life, long before ever touching alcohol, with emotional regulation. And it turns out, emotional regulation is an integral part of sobriety. What would happen if I tried to regulate my emotions with rest and self-compassion rather than numbness?

The only way through is cozy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

I am powerFUL, not powerLESS

Yesterday I was listening to Ashley C. Ford as a guest speaker on Glennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things podcast. Hearing Ashley was like the motivational speech I didn’t know I needed. She might not have been talking about sobriety, but she kept using Tempest-worthy affirmations like, “I won’t give up on me,” “I’ve kept me alive this whole time,” “I can trust me to take care of me,” and “I’ve got me.”

The best thing Ashely said was, “When I let people see me, I am powerful.”

To me, this means, when I show up without any masks and allow people to see the real me, I am my most powerful self. This message from Ashley feels empowering; like it gives me a superwoman cape.

Ashley’s statement about power also reminds me of Step One from the Big Book, which says, “We admitted we are powerless over alcohol.” Step One always makes me scratch my head in confusion. If I quit drinking and let the world see me, does that mean Twelve Steppers believe I will have less or no power? Do they really believe disempowerment is the first step toward sobriety?!

This quote from Ashely seems profound because she is saying my real, sober self is powerFUL, not powerLESS. I struggled to get sober for 15+ years because of fear; fear of what would happen when I let people see the real me. Making the choice to reevaluate my relationship with alcohol and practice sobriety does not make me less powerful. Rather, it fills me with power.

Sobriety, for me, requires vulnerability and letting people see the real me. Let’s ditch this old idea that showing up as sober and real requires powerlessness, shall we? Today I will remember, “When I let people see me, I am powerful.”