Recovering Balance

I don’t do well with extremes (my drinking problem is proof of that).

This past week has been one of extremes for me:  I started a new job that requires that I am on my feet all day (my previous position was in front of a computer)…I spend nearly all of my working hours supporting children- and, energetically, they are demanding (my previous job required very little energetic output)…and I’m housesitting for friends, which means I’m out of my daily routine (clothes in two places…dogs who are confused and out-of-sorts, etc.)…

Most disorienting?  I put my recovery on the back burner.

Over the past seven days, I haven’t been getting to AA meetings (and those meetings are my true North).  Instead, I’ve been collapsing, lifeless, on the couch after work.  Honestly, I’ve been exhausted.  My body isn’t used to the physical and energetic demands of working with elementary-age kiddos.  And, believe me, they aren’t shy to tell you what they need, want or expect (and that’s a good thing!).

I’ve been completely off-balance this past week.  I feel like I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone while I’m awake…and then, while I sleep, I’ve been dreaming about unusual things:  making spiritual treks to see the northern lights…having detailed conversations with my friend Tom who passed away many years ago…It’s been an interesting week.

Do you ever have such periods?  Ones of complete disorientation?

I want- and need– to regain direction and balance.  It’s time to get into a rhythm.  In order to morph with the craziness of each day, I need to do two things:

(1)  Set- and adhere to- a workable schedule of AA meetings.

(2)  Honor, rather than admonish, myself when I am too exhausted to do so.

It’s a fine line between holding ourselves accountable and giving ourselves leeway when needed.

I swore to myself that I would write about my experience in recovery every day for one year.  Consistent writing simply didn’t happened this past week.  And, I’m okay with that.  During the first week of school/work, I had no energy to put into writing.  What I genuinely needed was rest.

So, now, I’m working on recovering balance, and managing my energy, so that I can show up 100% for kiddos, recharge when needed, and stay true to my word and commitments.

It kind of feels like walking a tight rope.  Can anyone give me lessons?

Travel Buddies

I have a travel buddy (today is her birthday, so our explorations are on my mind).

Exactly 15 years ago, we were in Budapest.  We had been backpacking our way through Western Europe at neck-breaking speed and had had nothing but luck and good fortune on our side.

So, as young adventurers often do…we got cocky.

While partying at a club in Vienna, we decided to make a spur-of-the-moment trip to Budapest early the next morning.  So, seven hours later, we were on a train to Hungary, passports in hand, hungover as hell.  From there, things went downhill.

Exhausted and still recovering from the previous night’s charades, we stumbled our way around the city, appreciating it as much as we could in our current state.  At the end of the day, we shuffled back to the subway station to catch our return ride to Austria.

But, life had other plans.

While descending the escalator to the subway platform, we were “greeted” by police officers.  They asked for our subway tickets and accused us of having the wrong ones.  Threatening to throw us in jail, they demanded a hefty wad of cash in exchange for letting us through.  Needless to say, we gave them all of the money we were carrying.

Given the go-ahead, we jumped on the subway and prayed for a miracle.  No such luck.  As we raced into the station, we saw our train’s caboose as it made its way out of town.  We sat at the station for hours, waiting for the next one.  Joyful when it arrived, we hopped on and breathed a sigh of relief…until the conductor announced that we would soon be departing for Bucharest (we had apparently misread the schedule).

All of the hostels in Budapest were fully booked, and we opted out of spending the night on the floor of the train station.  So, off to a hotel we went:  me skipping joyfully…my budget-conscious companion silently fuming.

Emerging from a luxurious bath (in a private bathroom, no less), I found my friend sprawled across her bed in PJs, reluctantly enjoying watching the Miss Universe pageant (SO not her usual preference).  Too priceless for words.  After a good, long sleep, we were back at the train station, toasting her birthday, ready to take on our next adventure.

Budapest is on my mind today for two reasons:  I’m nostalgically reliving my friend’s 22nd birthday, and I’m vicariously living through my parents as they explore the city while celebrating my dad’s retirement.

This afternoon, three worlds collided:  my world of travel nostalgia, my parents’ world of travel celebration,and refugees’ world of travel for safety/necessity.  My mom texted that they were at the train station, handing out juice boxes, chocolate milk, cookies and lollipops to the children of the thousands of refugees who are waiting to be transported to a better life.

It blew my mind and busted open my heart.

I can’t begin to imagine the heartache and challenges those refugees are going through.  And those with children?  I have no words- only love.  And that is what my parents’ offered today:  love, generosity, acceptance and encouragement.

Their adventure in Budapest has been much different than mine.  While I dealt with the superficial road bump of a missed train, they are dealing with the soul-level challenge of supporting thousands of people seeking a better life for their families (and, I am so freaking proud to call them my parents).

We all are adventurers in this crazy world.  Our adventures may vary, but our journey is the same.  My current adventure is sobriety- and for that, I need hard-core travel companions. It’s a hard, ugly, scary, soulful road.  And, it’s smoother when travelled with a true friend.

Whatever adventure you are embarking on, I hope you have a buddy to keep you company.  Fourteen years from now, you may look back on your shared experiences and notice how they shaped you.  Your life- and the lives of those you touched- may not be perfect, but they’re unconventionally beautiful.

And the train moves on…

Exhaustion, Self-Care and…Kindergarten

Today was my first day at a new job at a local elementary school.  It was a crazy, wonderful, chaotic, delightful launch of a new school year.

During the final recess of the day, I saw a sweet five-year-old boy sitting by himself, looking overwhelmed. Approaching him, I asked how his first day of kindergarten had been, and he said, “Whew…man, I’m exhausted.”  Fighting the urge to burst into laughter, I sat with him and wholeheartedly agreed that, yes, the first day of school is/was complete madness.  And- like him- I too, felt exhausted.

It got me thinking about introversion and extroversion- and I have a hunch that that little guy may very well be an introvert like me. While many of his peers were chasing each other around the playground, he was taking a bit of (highly necessary) quiet time for himself.  Without even consciously knowing that he needed solitude and down-time to recharge his energy, he was doing just that.  Deep down, he knew what he needed most in that moment.

It reminded me about the necessity of self-care.  I’m more attuned to the concept now that I’m in recovery.  It’s said that addiction is a disease of self-centeredness.  I can vouch for this.  We addicts put our drug(s) of choice above anything and anyone else, despite how doing so causes harm.  In recovery, we are learning how to be selfless and supportive while also caring for our own mental/emotional/physical/spiritual health.

Unfortunately, people often equate self-care with self-centered indulgence-or simply misunderstand the true meaning of the concept.  Coach and author Renée Trudeau has devoted her entire career to the subject and clarifies the meaning:

Self-care isn’t a goal you strive for.  And it’s not about becoming YOU Version 2.0.  It’s about meeting yourself where you are with a soft and open heart.  It’s believing “my ordinary self is enough.” It’s feeling safe enough to show up in the world 100% you and inherently giving others the permission to do the same.  Self-care is about attuning and responding to your needs and desires moment-to-moment.  It’s about forgiving yourself when you make a mistake, being compassionate with yourself when you bump up against your faults and treating yourself with the same love and tenderness you would have for a four-year-old who’s had a really hard day.  It’s not about adding something to your to-do list, cracking the whip, or finally getting in shape.  The true art of self-renewal is about cultivating a kinder, gentler relationship with yourself and asking for the nurturing and nourishment you truly need- whether that’s a hug or a kale smoothie.  It’s knowing that YOU have your back. And that no matter what you say, do or flub- you will not abandon yourself.

Wow.  That’s a beautiful, tall order (NOT of a Starbucks grande macchiato with eight pumps of caramel and a large dose of whipped cream.  Well, maybe sometimes…).  I believe self-care looks and feels different to each of us.  For me, it is first-and-foremost about putting down the wine bottle.  After that, anything (healthy and genuinely nourishing) goes.

Tonight, I’m starting with an Epsom salt bath, a good book and an early bedtime.  Hopefully by the time coffee is brewing tomorrow morning, my batteries will be recharged, and I’ll be ready to help kiddos navigate the crazy (often extrovert-oriented) world of kindergarten.

Ode to My Sister

When I was growing up, I dreamt of having an older sister; someone to braid my hair, create art with me, show me how to sell lemonade, stand up for me at schoolset me up on dates…I imagined looking up to her, wanting to be like her.  I imagined her taking me under her wing and showing me the ways of girlhood and adolescence.  I could see it so clearly.

Alas, my wish for a big sister never came true.  But, I believe I received something even better:  the gift of being a big sister.

I was only two years old when my brother was born, so I can’t recall the experience or excitement of becoming an older sister for the first time.  However, the day my little sister was born is etched in my brain.  I was desperate for a sister.  I mean, I loved my brother and the fun we had making up storylines with He-Man, Skeletor, G.I. Joe and Smurfs figurines.  Throw in a few Barbies, Transrformers, a Glow Worm, and an amazing public park across the street form our house- and you’ve got hours of entertainment.

My brother and I had a blast together. But, the fact of the matter was that he was still a boy.  And I wanted another girl in the family.

The morning my sister was born, my grandmother joyfully shared the news with my brother and I.  Two very different reactions ensued:  Jumping, screaming, cheering, laughing from me.  Big ol’ dramatic, tragic tears from him (until he decided having another sister would be alright as long as we could name her “Sugar”).

My life completely changed the day “Sugar” came into our lives.

I literally and figuratively held her hand throughout our childhood and adolescence.  I took immense pride in being her big sis:  From changing her diapers…to dressing her up like a Cabbage Patch doll…to teaching her math in our makeshift “school”…to planning her Halloween-themed birthday parties…to crimping her hair…to doing her makeup for Homecoming dances…to visiting her at college and in L.A. when she stepped into adulthood…I loved it all.  We were always close.  Inseparable at times.  I swore that I would always make her proud.

Our years of adulthood have still been woven together by our close connection.  But a darkness infiltrated our friendship.  My alcoholism has been an ugly, shadow-casting third-party.  While drinking, my behavior- and change in demeanor- negatively impacted my sister in more ways than I’ll likely ever know.  I always had a shadow side (as I believe we all do), but this was a different kind of darkness.  When I was drunk, I picked fights with her and said unkind things.  To protect my drinking, I asked her to cover for me…make excuses for me…make sacrifices on my behalf…I  put her in situations that were simply unfair and, frankly, unacceptable.

And that’s ugly.  I don’t ever want to be that person again.

I had transformed from a Mary Poppins-esque sister into a Nightmare-on-Elm-Street kind of sibling.  And no one deserves that.  Now, I’m working on re-gaining her respect.  I don’t want to give her any more reasons to be embarrassed by- or ashamed of- me.  I can’t imagine how hard, and often lonely, it must be to have older siblings who are addicts.  My heart hurts for her, just thinking about it.  And she doesn’t deserve to hurt.  She is one of the kindest, smartest, most open-hearted, loyal people I know.  And she deserves to have a big sister who is fully present, supportive, loving and available to her.

Today, as I work on re-gaining my sister’s faith in me, Katherine Mansfield’s quote feels apropos:

“Bless you, my darling, and remember you are always in the heart- oh tucked so close there is no chance of escape- of your sister.”

She will always be cozily tucked away in my heart. And I hope, in spite of my ugliness, I will live in hers.  I can’t imagine life any other way.

(Love you so much, “Sugar”!)

Trainwreck

Some days, it feels like creativity runs through my veins.  Other days, it feels like I’m all dried up.  This weekend, it’s been the latter.  I’ve been feeling creatively “flat,” so I decided to see the movie ‘Trainwreck’- for laughs and in hopes that it might inspire something for me to write about today.

I definitely got both.

Comedienne Amy Schumer plays a heavy-drinking, promiscuous journalist who decides to review her life and concludes that, perhaps, it’s time to make some lifestyle changes.  I can relate.  I’m in the same boat- but sitting in the less promiscuous section.

As I drove away from the theater, cheeks sore from laughing, I thought about Hollywood- based actors and actresses and my experience living in Los Angeles.  I recalled one surreal moment.  I was driving home from work, sitting at a stoplight on Wilshire Boulevard, when four paparazzi popped out of the cars next to me.  They swarmed around actress Jennifer Garner and her daughter as they exited a nondescript nail salon.  Jennifer held her daughter’s hand and smiled sweetly as bright lights flashed around her.  I felt like I had entered an alternate universe.

Then the stoplight turned green, and I emerged from the land of the surreal.  I remember driving away, shuddering and thinking to myself: Good thing I’m not famous.  That shit would drive me to drink.

It got me thinking about alcoholism and addiction in the entertainment industry.  It’s no wonder why so many actors find themselves on this slippery slope.  For many of them, it’s the perfect storm:  intense competition for roles…immense pressure to perform, once those roles have been secured…an abundance of cash…constant public scrutiny of their appearance and relationship status…intrusive behavior from paparazzi…being (often falsely) negatively portrayed in tabloids…

I would want to escape as well.

When I first decided to get sober, I created a list of celebrities, authors and other public figures who are in recovery from addiction.  Then, I made myself a cheesy little book of inspiration that included the sober celebrities’ photos and a personal quote.  I kept it in my glove compartment so I could look through it when I was tempted to stop at a liquor store.  Or bar.  Or grocery store.  Or 7-11.

I had forgotten about my little book and decided to flip through it today.  I smiled, reading a few of my favorites:

“I don’t drink these days.  I’m allergic to alcohol and narcotics.  I break out in handcuffs.”- Robert Downey Jr., Actor

“We stuffed scary feelings down and they made us insane.  I think it is pretty universal, all this repression leading to violence and fundamentalism and self-loathing and addiction.  All I know is that after 10 years of being sober, with huge support to express my pain and anger and shadow, the grief and tears didn’t wash me away.  They gave me my life back!  They cleansed me, baptized me, hydrated the earth at my feet.  They brought me home, to me, to the truth of me.” –  Anne Lamott, Author

“I don’t drink or do drugs anymore; being sober helps a great deal.  I remember looking at my life, my apartment, my dogs (when I was still using) and thought, ‘What’s happening??”- Bradley Cooper, Actor

“Even as a junkie, I stayed true to vegetarianism- ‘I shall have heroin, but I shan’t have a hamburger.’  What a sexy little paradox.”- Russell Brand, Comedian

“I’m proud of people who have the determination and the fearlessness to actually go and face their demons and get better.  This is a life or death situation.”- Eva Mendes, Actress

Reminding myself of the many, many famous folks who have chosen sobriety and are committed to their recovery helps me put things in perspective:  if they can stay sober while under the spotlight, then I can do so while living life far from Tinseltown.

And I will do so.  I really don’t want to be a trainwreck.

The Danger of Glamorized Collegiate Drinking

Alcohol marketers are brilliant.  They really are.  They know exactly how to reel us in.  They make drinking look so appealing: the sexy woman in a black mini sipping a rose-colored wine cooler…the gorgeous guy in a suit (tie undone) holding a glass of fine red wine…the rugged, outdoorsy-looking stud with a stein of some Oregonian micro brew in his hand…the feisty-looking gal with spikey red hair laughing with her group of friends as they toast with tequila shots…Of course, it’s not really the drink that draws us in; it’s the idea that we mere mortals can have what the “chosen ones” have.

The advertisements never worked on me in high school, even though I often felt desperate to be cool and desirable.  I wasn’t a drinker back then; I was a “good girl,” and good girls chose soda and movies over keggers.  My group of close friends weren’t really into it, either, which made it easy to keep my distance from the hard stuff.  Of course, my disinterest in drinking baffled my younger brother: “You’re not even curious about it??”  Nope.  Honestly.

But, all of that changed my first night of undergrad.  I was now a college kid- and college kids drank.  Drinking felt like an equalizer; it leveled the playing field.  Whereas, in high school, I often felt “behind” my more mature, quicker-to-develop peers, I now felt right on par with them.  I, too, held a red party cup.  I fit in.

Alcohol fueled my college adventures.  Arriving at a party, I was eager and ready to roll:  Pop the fuel cap…insert: Cheap rum and Coke…Jello shots…spody…Jager…Busch Light…fraternity punch laced with Everclear…

Repeat.

Those college days are on my mind today as university-bound students are gearing up to head back to campus, if they haven’t done so already.  Those days are also on my mind because of all of the recent news coverage of college women being sexually assaulted while drunk.  This scares me.

We are in an era where it’s considered cool- even admirable- for girls to mirror guys’ drinking, shot for shot.  And we are seeing time and time again how dangerous this notion is.  Slate.com ran an article back in 2013 entitled: College Women: Stop Getting Drunk. The piece, written by Emily Yoffee, focused on the connection between heavy drinking and sexual assault:

“Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.”

And prevent, we must do.

In her book ‘Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girl,’ author Koren Zailckas speaks to the issue of American society equating college students with heavy drinkers: “…in college, we can wear our alcohol abuse as proudly as our university sweatshirts; the two concepts are virtually synonymous.”  I certainly found this to be true back when I was in school, and I think it’s even more accurate today.

I hope we can somehow show female undergrads that they don’t have to party hard in order to own their status as a college student.  I hope we can convey to them that their health and safety are so much more important than that buzz or impressing that guy/gal.  I hope we can show them that, just because they are undergrads doesn’t meant they are expected to drink like fish.

And, I hope we rally around these young women and help them feel that, above all, their well-being is of the utmost importance.

I’ll drink (lemonade) to that.

There’s No Life Like the Good Life

My maternal grandfather (“Opa”) had a favorite phrase:  There’s no life like the good life!  Every time he wanted to celebrate something or someone, he would raise a glass (usually of red wine or Heineken) and enthusiastically say those words.  We all loved it.  So much, in fact, that we had it engraved on his tombstone.

He delighted in the fact that he grew up in Friesland, a province of the Netherlands that distinguishes itself by its own unique culture.  Friesland is the only one of Holland’s 12 regions that has its own language; they do things their own way.  My Opa loved that.  He did things his own way as well.

By trade, Opa was an engineer with Boeing.  But, I think in his heart of hearts, he was an artist.  In the basement of his home, he designated a warm, cozy, well-lit space as his creative corner.  There, he created drawings and richly detailed oil paintings while smoking his favorite cigars.  Or sometimes a pipe.  I can still smell them now.

As a child, I felt connected to my Opa through art.  I, too, loved to create.  While I saw him as a real artist, I was just a dabbler and a wannabe.  But, he saw something in me- not talent, per se, but a love for- and genuine interest in- artistic pursuits.  He bought me my first set of real artist’s supplies:  a charcoal pencil and eraser…instructional drawing books…a sketch pad with heavy-weight paper…high quality colored pencils…nice paint brushes…I cherished those gifts.  They were special.  They were ME.  Opa and I “got” each other.

He paid me a visit (in spirit) today when I was at a small neighborhood bookstore.  The first thing I noticed when I walked through the door was a display of adult-friendly coloring books.  Since NPR’s segment on this topic a few months ago, it seems every book shop is upping the ante.  Now, we have so many choices:  Want to color intricately-detailed enchanted gardens?  Done.  Want to fill in the lines of connect-the-dot pictures for adults?  Done.  Want to shade the empty spaces of gorgeous images of Paris?  Done.  It’s fantastic!!

After playfully thumbing through the coloring books, I browsed the used-books shelf.  There I found what I was meant to find:  ‘Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood’ by Koren Zailckas.  I’ve heard the book is worth a read- and at a discounted price, it felt divinely orchestrated that we find each other.

When I got home, I looked up the author online.  One simple quote of hers hit home: “Since I’ve quit drinking, I’m not sure I’ve found the good life, but I’ve certainly uncovered a better one.”  I thought to myself:  GIRL, thanks for speaking for me- and, I imagine, almost every single human in recovery.

I believe Opa would toast to that.

He was proud of his wife.  He was proud of his children.  He was proud of his grandkids.  He was proud of his life.  I, too, would like to be proud of my life.  The only way that will happen is to choose sobriety and “own” my recovery.  And, in the process (almost as an after-thought), live a good life.

My Opa lived a good life into his 90’s.  Let’s all lead good lives- whatever good means, personally, to each of us.