I was telling my husband about the woman at dance. I noticed something about her. We made small talk. Then I missed a class and she noticed that about me. My husband, kindly said, “Aww, she’s trying, too!…Now here’s the part where you say, ‘Hey you wanna grab coffee or something?’”
I heard his words but the familiar pang of guilt and barrier arrived. With a little annoyance I said, “I can never do that, I don’t feel free with my time.”
The words surprised me. They came out so quickly. Saying them again in my head, I almost cried. They so accurately described what I’ve been feeling; I wasn’t even trying to be truthful, it just came out.
When You Don’t Practice What You Preach
I feel so overwhelmed and panicked because I cannot take listening to another episode of Daniel Tiger and yet the thought of entertaining and intervening between my two toddlers feels unbearable.
Episode number three already? Wow, well I’ll hit play because it’s only 11 a.m…and that still means I can squeeze in another episode before I need to feed them lunch. They’ve already watched Beauty and the Beast, but it’s OK, we’re all in need of rest. One is fighting a severe cold, one is fighting a lack of attention, and the other, me, is teetering between inspiration and anguish.
We were never a TV family. At least when it came to our children. We were slow to it. When we finally did start watching it was solely Mister Rogers. Then, we added Sesame Street and shortly after that we entered the amazing world of Daniel Tiger. Those were our only three shows, only watched about once a day, if that, because the rest was spent in activity or outdoors.
I felt proud about this fact. Yes, it took some effort but not really willpower because our habit wasn’t centered around TV, it was about getting out. TV time was mostly reserved for when mama or papa made dinner. Or the rare times we were sick.
Then, we moved. And we didn’t just move to a new home, we moved out of the country. Before that, we stayed cross-country for a month. But even then I still held the line of not-so-much TV. It wasn’t really needed and it wasn’t an issue.
Once we got to our new home, in our new city, in our new county it all changed. We couldn’t just do the things we did before because our whole routine was upended. TV became a comfort when we got our first colds. TV became a comfort when the rains came down. TV became a way for me to be with myself. TV became a way for me to take a little self-care in my transition to Stay-at-Home Parent.
And yet, I felt so guilty about it. But not entirely at first. At first it was still just one episode–25 minutes for me to get upstairs, brush my teeth, read a devotional, and be on my way.
But then 25 minutes wasn’t enough. I still needed to get dressed. I still needed to put in a little more effort to feel good.
I also wanted to put on makeup.
I also wanted to make the bed.
So, then we switched to two episodes.
I was spending longer increments upstairs and feeling good about my release of expectation. It may not be the best thing, but it’s the best thing I can do right now, I thought. I felt ok…for a few minutes… and in the blissful silence I began to worry that my kids had died. I had to call down to hear if they were OK. If they didn’t answer, my heart raced and I imagined them dead on the couch, strangled in a pair of headphones they found. And all because I turned on the TV to get a little me-time, all because I was negligent.
This happened again and again. I’d take some time for myself and instantly feel guilt and panic that I had walked away–that I had brought upon whatever doom had been created. Strangely, I didn’t stop leaving. It’s like I told myself, well…if they’re dead, they’re already dead. But shame would inevitably creep in and so I’d make myself holler to them or trek back down the steps.
They were never dead, just comatose and glued to the TV.
I started to ease and tell myself it was OK for me to do this–to use the TV as a buffer. Other parents do it all of the time and wow–how wrong I’ve been to judge them!
Two episodes were generally the max, but then Disney+ came out and movies entered our world. How comforting Coco and Moana were to the girls. How kinda cool it was to see them actually start to laugh at and engage with what they were watching. And now, I not only get a little time, but an Hour+. Eventually the rains turned to snow and we all became a little Frozen. I was genuinely surprised that the girls were able to sit through a full-length movie and a little grossed out by it all. I could see the suck of the screen right in front of me. But I didn’t want to stop either.
By this point the girls were pulled in–they’d finish their breakfast, grab their stuffies, and as cute as can be, ask for “Movie?” How could I deny that? Plus, the girls were genuinely interested in what they watched. They loved to sing and dance when the movies ended–which brought a lot of joy to our family. And I started to realize that the plus in Disney+ was part of the equation of granting me some much needed time to figure out my shit. Thankfully at least, the catastrophizing about my kids’ demise started to wane once I brought awareness to it. I loved putting on Frozen because it was almost two hours of time to myself. I started to get excited when I would hear certain songs because I realized how much more time I still had to myself. On the flip, some songs also signaled it was about to end and that restarted a little panic in me.
“It’s such a good feeling to play with family and friends” (D.T.) Literally this just played as I type this and the same thought emerged, “Oh shit…now I have to do something. I said we were going to do lunch next. I better follow through.”
Usually that thought is followed by others: “Ugh, now I have to put myself aside, but I’m not done! I’m still typing, I still have more thoughts, I still have more ME to tend to.”
Stay-at-Home Alone with My Thoughts
Before we knew it TV became a regular in our house. As did a growing annoyance and loose handle on my emotions. I was starting to be the person I resented. The kind of person I *knew* not to be towards children. Hell, I was a person who knew more. And yet, somehow I just couldn’t stop.
All of this felt so much more complicated by the fact that I stopped teaching so I could be home during this transition. I was excited to not be teaching so I could be home with my children. Yet I was home and I no longer knew what that meant for me. I wasn’t ready to go back to teaching because I wasn’t ready for myself. I still held hope for all the things I imagined we’d get to do together…once we’d just get settled. Plus, I still had things to figure out. Big things. In the time from when my last school year ended to the present I had decided I was going to write a book, be open to career and life possibilities, and change the world. Yes, this is not an overstatement. It was in my soul to do these things. No small feat! I was so ready for it and I wasn’t scared of the unknown–in fact the unknown of it all was the most appealing part. I was entering into a new me and I could feel it.
Then within a month of the hard transition to our new home, I started to worry. I couldn’t see past my nose. All of a sudden all the momentum that had carried me, all the inspiration that got me to this point, felt so naive. It was around this point I started having what could best be described as low-grade panic attacks. All day my body was physically tense. I constantly felt like I ought to be doing something. Something more. Something towards my goals. Something better for my kids. Something, anything, that wasn’t the thing I was doing right now. I felt the grip in my pelvis and butt, I could literally see my abdominal muscles clenched.
And then my mind went.
But it came back. It went and it came back. And this was so confusing. It was powerfully confusing because around this time I was beginning to utter the word, God. For several years, and particularly the summer leading up to our move, I felt my spirit, I felt the workings of the Universe. I believed them, yet to say, God, or declare a religion felt like too much. But there I was, entering the holiday season and I felt a pull I’ve never had before. I wanted to know more. I wanted to go behind the scenes of the Christmas season. I was ready to believe. I didn’t quite know in what exactly, but in something. And I did. And it was magical. I started to truly feel this is where I was meant to be. A rest eased over me
Within these last few months, I’ve seen how often I judged another person’s circumstances in the past and how that judgement denied me the true presence to be empathetic to their situation. When I was feeling good and clear, I’d quietly fault them for not thinking more positively. If they were full of anxiety or fear, I’d offer reminders about how thoughts aren’t facts. I meant what I said, but I wasn’t able to truly sit with them because in the back of my mind I thought, “they’re not conscious enough” or “if only they knew they didn’t have to live this way!”
Something happened around this time. I got a dose of my own medicine. All these situations I’d seen in other people’s lives–health scares, housing issues, simply being exasperated by your kids–all started happening within MY life. Our TV situation is a perfect example. It was all made worse by the reality of how I was acting towards my kids. I was grouchy, impatient, tense, annoyed. I lost the cap to my rage. I didn’t understand how I could let myself get here. And, wait, I’m supposed to try to go back to education–or write the book on it–I don’t think so?! I can’t even do the things I want to see changed. This continues to be my biggest pang.
One day a thought came to me, “It has been my experience that any time I have judged another, I have received that same situation within the context of my own life, often with greater intensity.” I thought back to those times I’d judged someone for their feelings, or what I perceived to be a lack of control, and saw how I was now knee-deep in my own pail of emotions. I thought about those times I judged someone for their emotional immaturity to only turn around and find myself in rage towards my children. I thought about the times I judged someone for getting so bothered by circumstances outside of their control to turn around and have a mice issue that cut the cord to my safety.
To my surprise, I found my heart widening. I found my heart forgiving. Forgiving my mom, forgiving my sister, my father, my brother, my friend, my husband, my neighbor. Slowly I was forgiving myself, too. Somewhere in this time I had started a “Self-Compassion and Grace” journal. I’ve journalled for 20 years and this is the one that makes me the proudest. It’s a journal where I tell myself the things I need to hear in times of trouble, as if I were talking to a friend. “I know you feel hurt right now. It’s ok. You did the best you could.” Sometimes, it’s also a cheerleader voice, “Wow, go, you, you just did something hard, I’m so proud of you!” Slowly, I started to notice how this affected my reaction to my thoughts. Rather than slip into rumination, I would pause and course-correct. I started to love myself and accept my imperfections.
That is, until, I stopped. This self-care journaling practice will go down in my history as being one of my most important and yet I stopped. I stopped simply because I stopped taking care of myself. My immediate needs were not being met and so my mental health started to waver, too.
Enter the Recovery Label
When I first stopped drinking I didn’t refer to myself as “sober” and I definitely did not have a “sobriety.” I was alcohol free. I had a mission to be free of alcohol and do the vulnerable, yet empowering work of finding myself, of freeing myself. Around the time I was looking for a sober community was around the time I picked up the S-words. Sometimes I still do a little dance around whether I want them to be part of my identity, but most often I come back to the center notion of: This is me and this gives me power. So the words stick around.
But, “recovery!” That was different. I wasn’t in recovery. I wasn’t about to feel like I owed my life to some burdensome Recovery. No, I was free, or at least on my way there.
New Year’s 2020 rolled around and I didn’t feel compelled to make any resolutions. I had already slowed myself to the season and was truly taking some much needed rest. Whenever I’d see posts about recovery I usually looked the other way. That’s not where I was. The New Year-New You hype didn’t feel any different either. I wasn’t in a frenzy to announce resolutions because I was beginning to see I was where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to go the rest of my life chasing a better way to live, I wanted to enjoy my life now. But while January 1 was beginning to feel like any other day, January 2 had a whole new meaning. It is my sober anniversary date. And this turn was my One Year. It was clear to me that drinking was not going to be part of my life anymore. All that came from me being sober was just how my life was now.
I couldn’t believe how much growth I had made in the past year, despite of, but really because of, how challenging parts of it had been–namely the parts between when we left California and adjusted to Canada. I was seeing the lessons and blessings unfolding before my eyes and I was grateful for this space to exist.
And then the anxiety started again. Was I ready to leave “this life”? This life that meant “The World is Yours; Go Out and Make Yourself; Be Free, Be Wild, Be Daring! The world that meant, Self-Compassion is wonderful. You know your worth now, you’ll be OK.” The world where I was going to write my world-changing book?
If I slowed down, leaned into my intuition, and trusted that my worth would still be there would I be selling myself short from the life I was working so hard to build? The life that meant, “You can do the hard things. You can change the world.”
How would I still do those things? I couldn’t breathe.
Then that cycle of rinse and repeat would return. I’d find the light, remember the messages I’d heard, and a new affirmation would come to me. Often the very one I needed. I’d settle once more.
This time I collected the true wisdom that the path to spiritual growth and evolution is never-ending. There is no end point. Reenter the word: Recovery.
There are two books within the sober community that have been on the tongues of many who abstain: We Are the Luckiest by Laura McKowen and Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker. They are far from the only “quit-lit” out there, but their release was palpable. Holly’s book was released December 31, 2019 and Laura’s a week later.
I knew I wanted to read them but I hadn’t decided if I wanted to pre-order. The excitement got to me and before I knew it I was clicking Checkout. Only, I wasn’t going to receive them on their release dates because of the delay in shipping to Canada. I was OK with that. I wanted a break anyway. I was growing agitated again with how dependent I’d been on other people’s words. I wanted a break from feeling like I had to constantly be gaining insight. I wanted to really start trusting myself and the path I set out on, the one that started with saying Yes to writing my own book back in July and the path of aligning myself to the seasons.
Then something out of my control happened. They arrived sooner than expected. Normally, I’d be thrilled, but I was scared. Yes, I was antsy with excited anticipation but I was also jittery with nerves. Am I ready? Am I ready to read these books now? Didn’t I just say I wanted a break? But here they are! And OMG, I just know they’re going to be so wonderful and juicy. And I just know that my voice will be mirrored. And…wait, where does that leave me?
My heart is beating a little faster right now having just typed that paragraph. Because my body remembers. It remembers that pain of stating my needs and going against them. Of the confusion of indecision.
I read WATL in what felt like a sprint. Adrenaline mixed with fear each time I turned a page. Was this going to be the page that stated the words that have been in my head? If so, how would I ever get my message–my book–out there and not feel like I plagiarized?
And hold up! Do they have the copyright on words? Who owns patterns of speech? How is that people I’ve never met are thinking and feeling the same thing as me; how certain words magically appear on their paper when they’ve been stuck in my head? Within our shared humanity and human experience, it was hard for me to tell where they ended and I began. I was worried that people wouldn’t see my ideas as original because they were already shared on this large platform.
–Please know that this is not a commentary on either of these books. They are magnificent and bold and I do not wish to even review them here because they are worthy of their own post. This is simply my reaction to them; my push against my own well-being in search of my well-being. My quest for my own confidence and unwavering worth. —
And yet, through all of this thought and emotion I tried to stay present to it. I tried to let it show me where I still needed to grow. I tried to let it shine light on my shadow self.
I will say this. I must say this. As much as those two books showed me my worried inner-child, they gave me two very different extraordinary experiences. I left Laura’s words with more compassion for addiction and Holly’s with more commitment to my own cause. But with both reads I was left with more power, with more force. I was reminded how important it is to share our stories, my story.
Maybe I am in Recovery
I’m not a trailblazer, nor a trendsetter, but I am a change-maker. For me that starts with lowering my judgement around labels and seeing beyond the words. It means seeing what no longer serves me and where I can feel my fullest self. It continues with me seeing where I am on the map and where I may still need to go. Finishing QLAW and WATL led me to recognize the shame I held around “recovery.” Of course my brain tried to make distinctions, i.e., this is what it means to be sober, this is what sobriety means, this is what recovery means…, but ultimately I had to look past the terms for the greater human experience.
I’ve come to understand Recovery as committing to a way of life that supports the life you wish to have. It is the maintenance and the glue that holds you together. This most definitely includes bearing witness to yourself and shining a flashlight into the corners where you’ve hidden. It includes cultivating habits that center you. It means knowing that you are the only person who can make the changes you wish to see. It means recognizing your needs and making them a priority. It means loving yourself, maybe for the first time ever.
So what about boundaries? What happens when you know what you need but you just can’t get it.
Recovery in Relationships
How do I make space for myself when I’ve already got a family?
This is where I was at. This is where I am still at, but slowly seeing the light again. When I first got sober it was all about me. In that I was doing this for me and I didn’t want it to interfere with anyone else. I basically wanted my new alcohol-free way to be a fly on the wall–even though I was open about it–I didn’t want it to take over my life. Really, I wanted to prove to myself I could stop drinking alcohol and have it not be a thing.
I kinda succeeded. Until I didn’t. Until it didn’t. Until the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team won the World Cup and they got hammered on national TV. Until my friends made comments about good beer. What was I supposed to say? Do I agree because I don’t want to judge them or do I nod quietly? Do I go on about the dangerous effects of alcohol and how they’re all duped? What about when my partner says he’s worried that I’ve identified too closely with being Sober? What the fuck am I supposed to do when I recognize my path to recovery but see three people standing in the way?
After our move, I started growing resentful of my children. I started growing resentful of my husband. I started projecting that they were the ones stopping me from being able to reset and recharge. And honestly, I’m still here. Rather, I am here again. I weave in and out of this space because I haven’t learned yet how to articulate my needs. I haven’t learned how to ask for my needs. I haven’t learned how to take the time once I get it. (Ok, ok not entirely true–I see my growth entering because even typing that, it’s trying to knock on the door and say, “Well…actually…you have made progress. Little steps count, too! Don’t discredit those because I’m really proud of you for that.” ← Self-Compassion and Grace Journal carryover)
So, I’ll start again. Yes, I have made progress. I am so proud of myself for the progress I have made. I recognize that I will no longer be able to get it perfect. I recognize it was only ever an illusion to think I did it perfectly.
Recovery in Childbirth, a Prior History
The last time I was in recovery, I was recovering from a C-Section. This is not the first time that I have made connections between Sobriety and Motherhood, and I know it won’t be the last. These are two areas of my life that have brought on the most profound change and transition and resulted in major identity flux. It’s quite astounding to me how similar these two areas can be and what I experience in one is often simulated in the other. And yet, it’s not that surprising. Human emotion is the common denominator. No matter the circumstances, the emotions are often the same. And that is what I connect to; that is what I remember. Seeing these similarities helps me make sense of them. It helps me make order and remember that I’ve been on this path before.
The last time I was on a recovery path was when I brought home two newborns from the hospital. Unlike the empowerment of sobriety, entering parenthood scared the shit out of me. I immediately felt two steps behind with a cloud always over my head. That fog lasted over a year. And the truth was I knew something was up, but I didn’t recognize it enough to know it was even a fog. This was just my new normal and though it didn’t feel good, I didn’t know any different.
People told me I would be in one, but I didn’t want to believe it would happen to me. I didn’t recognize that I had a problem. It wasn’t until I started to get out of the fog that I realized I was even in one and I realized how much I had denied its existence. Nonetheless, but probably the cause of the troubles was that, I had never learned how to ask for what I needed. Ok, there is a whole host of explanations including but not limited to TWINS!, no immediate family around, balancing full-time work with full-time parenting, and managing and making room for a new relationship with my spouse. But I still didn’t know I could ask. I’m only really learning now I can do that (and spoiler alert: It’s still hard as fuck.)
And that’s how recovery feels for me. I didn’t feel I was in recovery for the majority of my sobriety to date because for so long that word held a stigma (much like addiction, alcoholic, and postpartum depression) and so I didn’t want to be associated with something out of my control. Or something I had to be in the rest of my life. Up to this point, I was in control of my sobriety–it was inspiring and life-changing and full of wonder. It was and always has been a state of personal growth. It had confusion and uncertainty but the freedom outweighed the struggle. Sobriety was my new calling card and I wanted to give everyone the number. But I still wasn’t in recovery.
Interestingly to me, I came across Laura McKowen’s Pregnancy Principle (author of We Are the Luckiest) around the time I adopted Sober on my name-tag. The essence of the Pregnancy Principle is that you are allowed to put yourself first, no matter what, during this most precious time. Just as you do when you are growing a new person when you’re pregnant, you need to treat yourself with the same attention, care, and tenderness when in recovery. After all, you are trying to become a new person. No guilt, no shame. Just do what you need to take care of yourself.
I had never heard of her (or Holly Whitaker for that matter) until about six months into my sobriety, which was also when I started calling it “My Sobriety”. At that point I had started writing blogs on the This Naked Mind community page, and one was even titled, “My Sobriety, My Baby”. That blog was focused on if I wanted to even make my sobriety a thing. In short, it was asking myself if I wanted to make a special life around sobriety or if I wanted my life to just be special (you know, with sobriety in the background). At the end of that blog post, I made a small reference to the Pregnancy Principle and forgot all about it until I read her book.
Which now that I think about, isn’t too far from my current dilemma. Because that’s where I am again. Do I want to make a special life around boundaries and self-care or do I just want my life to be special because I do these things? Do I have a life in recovery or am I a life recovered?
And now that I know I am allowed to take time for myself how do I do that? Perhaps my sobriety got off to the right start–little to no FOMO, exercise, inspiration, connection to self, spouse, and children, a willingness to work on myself–or maybe it was the pink cloud. The beginning was easy. It was great. And then life got hard. And sobriety got hard. I was starting to understand the reasons behind this. To be clear, abstaining from drinking was easy for me, dealing with unresolved trauma and having a flashlight shined on all of my dark corners was hard. Being willing to have my world turned upside down to see where I stand was hard. Learning to love myself and see how much growth I’ve made and how much growth I still have ahead was humbling.
And holy hell, when and how do I do that? How do I make myself and my recovery top priority? Am I in recovery? Can I call it that now? Am I allowed to make it a priority now, a year later? I’m only now realizing I am allowed to ask for what I need as a right of my existence. Here’s where that sobriety and motherhood connection comes back in. I feel a little sad that I didn’t know I could ask for my needs at the beginning of sobriety the same way I felt sad about the lost beginning-should-be-beautiful time with my babies. I feel a loss for the things I didn’t know to ask for that would have made such a difference.
Because I shied away from the label, the term “recovery,” I denied myself existence on the other side. I denied myself the help I could have received, which in this case, is the literal asking of help. The taking of time that you need and not having to explain it. The knowing that while you may feel guilty, you have permission to not be. It’s not a surprise to me, then, that I forgot all about Laura McKowen’s Pregnancy Principle; because I had sobriety, but I didn’t have recovery.
That’s what’s been so difficult for me. The now-that-I-know-what-I-want-and-need how do I ask for it within the realm of my already existing relationship? If I didn’t need it at the beginning am I allowed to still pull the card now? What if I didn’t need it then, but I need it now? Does recovery have a shelf-life? Do you only get one time to declare you’ll be in recovery or is it on-going as you need?
How can we allow ourselves to expand within our relationships and not judge ourselves for changing?
This leads me back to the bitterness I’ve been feeling towards my husband and children. I *know* they are not the problem but it sure damn feels like it some days. I know my sobriety is made unique to me because of my greater awareness to my family and I recognize the grass is just as green on my side but lately as I read posts from single people, or those without kids, I couldn’t help but feel a growing resentment there, too. Like, “oh must be nice you get to do all of those things for yourself.” I know it’s the tired and envy coming through, because in this conversation, I hear their pretend voice of reason say back, “Yeah, ok, well it must be nice to not be alone.”
But again, really? How? How do I take the time when I don’t want to ask for the time? I don’t want to have to “take” the time because I just want to be able to do it. I don’t want to have to guiltily ask for time to tend to my needs. I don’t want the uncomfortable conversation. And it’s so hard because I had no idea I’d be sober when I got married or had children.
How could I know what I didn’t know? I didn’t know I was entitled to boundaries and now that I know, I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want to lose myself, especially now that I am just finding her. How do I grow strong in me whilst in relationship?
And here’s where that flashlight of sobriety came through again. Because I’ve been willing to ask myself the difficult questions and explore my emotions it’s also made me much more perceptive to what the true issue is underneath the top layer of hurt. Even if it takes a little weeding, I can pretty quickly see where there is a hold-up.
All of this hurt, all of this annoyance has illuminated the truth that I don’t know how to ask for my own needs. By saying, “I don’t know,” I’m really saying, “I am scared to do it.” (Thanks to Amber Rae for that gem.) As this thought circulated around I noticed that somewhere deep in me I feel guilty that I even have needs. Yet the whole reason I feel guilty meeting my own needs is because you have needs, too, and I want to be sure they’re met. Or at the least, they’re met and I don’t get in the way. Codependent much?
But again, that’s where I am. And I suspect some of you are, too. I didn’t know these things when I was single. Hell, I’ve been in the same relationship since I was 18, which begs a whole other set of questions, but ultimately still comes down to needs and how we recognize, honor, and make space for our changing selves once we’re already in committed relationships.
I know that we have boundaries to be in relationship with others, that is the whole point, but, Man, why does the reason have to be the cause that makes them so hard?
(Continued in Relationships, Recovery, and Replay – Part II)