Life During Wartime: Early Sobriety

So sorry I’ve been AWOL these past couple of weeks. I’m in an MFA program, and we had our big residency week last week. It’s always completely draining, especially for those of us many years out of university, but this one was particularly brain-sucking. I graduate this time next year, so I sat through the “graduation requirements” meeting at which all those thesis and other deadlines got articulated. It’s not that I didn’t know they were coming up. It’s just the fact of them being spoken into public air made them all too real.

In years’ past, I would have needed a drink (or ten) to calm the panic that meeting stirred up. This year, I settled myself down with the thought “thank God I’m not drinking anymore.” Because I’m going to need every one of those formerly wasted hours and brain cells to get finished.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

Before I left, I commented on UKAnnie’s blog (Dappled Path, currently shut down, I believe, but that is often a temporary state) with a link to a live performance of the Talking Head’s “Life During Wartime” (link at the bottom of the page). I want to elaborate on the point I was trying to make there. And in doing so, I want to emphasize, this was MY experience of early sobriety. I know it’s not everyone’s, and maybe not anyone else’s. So I’ll make that disclaimer here, and go on as if the rest is the word of Buddha — and you all will just have to make the necessary adjustments.

When I was first gobsmacked with the realization that I had to get sober, I was in a state that feels very much like David Byrne sings and dances in this video clip. It wasn’t a matter of figuring out whether I was an alcoholic or devising some sort of moderation plan (I had noodled on both of those for years). Nor was it an endeavor I saw as a clear path to mental and physical health — like taking up race walking or eating more vegetables. I was petrified. I did not know what was happening to me. I did not know what to do to survive beyond doing everything I could not to drink minute to minute. I was willing to try anything I thought might work — and that included walking into my first AA meeting, 90 in 90, and, had that not done it, rehab or medicine. I did not know — and this is the important part — whether I would survive, whether I would escape the addiction. I just knew that I had to try.

“This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.”

Had I not been this desperate and scared, I would have continued to half-ass sobriety attempts, making excuses about why I couldn’t stop drinking now, or maybe I didn’t really need to. I had to make stopping drinking my number one priority.

“No time for dancing, or lovey dovey. I ain’t got time for that now.”

One of the things I love in this clip is the way the whole band is in constant motion. They are working so hard. And that’s the way I felt at the beginning. I spent all my time working so hard for my sobriety (and when that voice came that said — but you need to take care of your family and your job too — I had to answer, that’s what I’m doing. Because this war is threatening us all). I went to meetings, I got a sponsor, I read books and blogs, I walked and ran miles, I took up yoga, I gave up parties, I learned to meditate, I did sit-ups, I ate donuts, I journaled, I read books on religion, I volunteered everywhere that would have me, and I would have checked into a rehab facility. The only rule was no rules, no plans, just action after action, minute by minute, to stay sober.

“Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock,
We blended in with the crowd.
We got computers, we’re tapping phone lines,
I know that that ain’t allowed.”

And you know what? I didn’t keep doing all of that. I kept what worked. I discarded what didn’t. I became what I needed to be to not drink that day. To survive.

“We dress like students, we dress like housewives,
Or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle, so many times now,
I don’t know what I look like.”

What I did not do was plan ahead. Because I knew (know) myself. If I decided the way to get sober was to go to a meeting…tomorrow…or the doctor…next week…or to stop drinking…on Monday, I would have a new plan the next week that put it all off until the week after that. I could have (and did) stay in the planning and reading and researching stage for a very long time. Which is how one should behave if one is buying a new home or adopting a dog — not how one should behave if one is fighting a battle for one’s life. In that case, you do what you need to do in the moment to make it to the next moment.

“Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive.
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace,
The burning keeps me alive.”

The burning kept me alive too.

Now watch the video, and I want to make one more point.

There’s so much there — paranoia, fear, insanity, sure. The very real feeling that this may not work — there are no guarantees. But also, dare I say it, there’s a pulsing, thrilling euphoria that was unavailable to me during my drinking days. Surviving is a rush! It’s terrifying, and it’s so hard, but it has all the beat and energy of real life. Yes, you will get to the better sleep and calmer outlook and peaceful afternoons with the family — but even in those first awful days, you will feel more alive than maybe ever before.

Big Baby II

I am thrilled so many people found my post yesterday on the RAIN technique for learning to sit with difficult (or any) strong feelings. I have used it I don’t know how many times, and still do. I do hope you will read Tara Brach’s explanation (linked in yesterday’s post). She covers it more eloquently and in more detail than I could or did.

I’m following up today to make one point, which may sound obvious, but isn’t to many, and wasn’t to me when I first thought about getting sober. RAIN and other awesome sobriety tools work only if…you’re sober. That’s right, there are many, many paths to the sober life, but they all, without exception, have one thing in common: You have to stop drinking.

I know many of us follow the brave and heartbreaking UKAnnie over at Dappled Path. And I don’t want to pick on her — her complete honesty in talking online about her struggles to get sober have done a huge service in letting newbies see how hard it is — worth it, but really, really hard. When I was in my first thirty days of sobriety, Annie’s blog was the first I ever followed. Because of her, I didn’t feel alone. She expresses the fears and doubts so many of us had and still have. Hers was the first blog I ever commented on. Because she had helped me get sober, I wanted her to get on over to the bright side too. She deserves it! As do all the others who comment “me too!” on her blog.

So in thinking what to say to Annie recently — in trying to make sure I had shared everything that helped me get clean, every tip and technique — I remembered what a good (now sober)  AA friend told me. My friend was at a meeting, complaining that he really wanted to get sober, but just couldn’t. He was drunk at the meeting, by the way, and had a bottle in his coat pocket. An old timer turned to him and said, “Well, at some point, if you really want to get sober, you’re going to have to stop drinking.”

My friend is a smart guy. But he said, that hadn’t really hit him before. If he wanted sobriety, he had to give up drinking. He couldn’t have both.

Which brings me to my present to all of those who are struggling with this — the desire to life a sober life and the equally strong, sometimes stronger, desire to keep drinking. Though this film was made in the 80s (and stars some famous folk who are looking a lot younger than they do today, obviously), the message is almost perfect (there are a couple moments that suggest relapse as an option — but in general the message is clear). Basically Ernie learns that he can’t hold onto his beloved rubber duck AND learn to play the saxophone (You gotta put down the duckie…). And we have to accept that we gotta put down the bottle, if we’re gonna live the sober life (I sing along with those words). You can do one or the other, but not both.

Oh, just watch it: Sesame Street, Put Down the Duckie





Big Baby

Most alcoholics, and I suppose most addicts,  are pretty self-centered. I certainly was (and probably still am — but I’m working on it). We spend so much time figuring out when we’re getting our next drink, organizing all social events so we can drink, and eventually, when things start to go off the rails, hiding our drinks and making all sorts of excuses about how we MUST drink in order to be the happy, friendly (wife, friend, mother, coworker) we always thought we were (ha). Everything is about ME and my next drink.

And worse than that is what one of my AA friends calls the Big Baby Syndrome. We meet every set-back, fear, social awkwardness, discomfort of any sort with, you got it, a drink We also drink when we are happy or celebrating. Basically, any emotion is met with a drink. We never learn to feel, we just learn to drink to — and over –our feelings. Like a big baby, when we are at all off balance, we start crying for our bottle.

So when we quit drinking, suddenly our go-to response to any feeling is taken away. We have to sit with our big-baby selves, and feel. I truly think dealing with all these feelings, which for me manifest as crazy-making anxiety, is why it is so damn hard in the first few months of sobriety.

I was greatly helped in those first day by a great technique from the Buddhist tradition for this called RAIN (See Tara Brach’s explanation here). I won’t explain this in the detail the article goes into, but the idea is to sit, for me in meditation, and experience the emotion as a physical sensation, not identified with you — a physical sensation which, like absolutely every other phenomena in life, will move on (notice I just snuck the Buddhist notion of impermanence in there?).

So for me, here’s how it would work. Lets say I was hit by a massive craving. I would try to go sit someplace peaceful (eg., not a bar). Then:

Recognize (R) it (“Oh, that’s a craving alright).

Accept (A) it. One monk I love says, welcome it with open arms. Give it a hug, and say, oh, your poor dear, this craving really hurts. Let me rock it and soothe it like a baby (you would not, I hope, give a baby gin)).

Investigate (I) it — what does it feel like physically (is it a burning in your chest? Your throat? Is your head pounding? To what beat?) DO NOT try to figure it out (this is because I am a worthless drunk with low self-esteem) and DO NOT think of solutions (If I drank, it would go away. One drink wouldn’t be so bad). Pretend it is a feeling that floated over from your next door neighbor — it is HIS craving, and you are just trying to describe it so you can report it as lost.

Then, in most cases, as I scrunched up my eyes and tried to locate the exact place in my chest the flaming ball of fire that is craving was located, the craving would start to pass. I would realize, it is something that I observed, and it is NOT ME (N, non-identification).

This helped me so much in my first months. And here’s the great part for the budding Buddhists out there. This ability to observe and detach from our feelings — without trying to get rid of them is or smother them in alcohol or some other distraction — is the beginning of a serious practice, one in which we open our eyes to what is real versus the smoke screen thrown up by our over-active, ego-driven minds. But that is another post…



I could not be more thrilled with the response my last post on lying, and Buddhism, and how the two don’t jibe even if you mix them with vodka. A real great discussion of the role of spirituality in recovery broke out in the comments. And one of my sober heroes, Sober Mummy at Mummy was a Secret Drinker (a wonderful, relevant, helpful blog, if you haven’t read it), did her own clever post on Buddhism (read it here).

This is a conversation I hope all of us keep having. Because being able to nourish the spirit is one of the wonderful benefits we reap when we stop trying to nourish ourselves with the spirits(see what I did there?). In AA meetings and on sober blogs, I heard lots of people’s stories about what they did to get through early sobriety. Some of their experiences resonated with me, some didn’t, but I always appreciated hearing from those who had trudged that path before me. I think the same goes for building a sober soul to go with one’s new sober life. Everyone’s experience is valuable, even if I don’t find it relevant to me in its particulars.

So keep it up, y’all.

I want to add a little to the Buddhism talk, because the practice has come to mean so much to me, but I think, had I dove in too quickly, I could have missed this particular spiritual boat.

When I first stopped drinking, I loaded an app from Meditation Oasis called “Learn to Meditate.” It is a multi-week course which includes some very basic instructions on meditating, which I needed (stuff like “what to do if you keep falling asleep — answer, go ahead and nap. You probably need it), and 25 minute guided meditations. The voice is so calming and the guidance was just what I needed to bring me gently into the present moment. I made myself do them everyday and was hooked by the end.

I did this initially because I was desperate for something to shut down my nattering brain — so full of anxiety and self-loathing, and regrets. I had used alcohol to do this for so many years, I don’t think I ever learned how to sit quietly with my feelings (Why should I, when there is a nice crisp Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge??). Though sometimes I struggled mightily to stay with the meditation, I always ended up feeling more grounded and rested after. I even would meditate at the time I used to pour my first glass of wine, a substitute cocktail hour.

I got a couple more of Meditation Oasis’s apps (the rest and sleep ones are awesome!) and then picked up another app called Insight Timer. This app has a section that allows you to search for guided meditations (which are rated and sorted by teacher or subject or time). Through it, I discovered Tara Brach, a buddhist teacher, who helped me take my meditation practice to the next level. I also started listening to her talks (she has a podcast) and learning some of the basics of Buddhism, in a very user-friendly, this-is-how-this-applies-to-real-life sort of way.

Her teachings brought me to many others (I’m skipping a bunch of steps here), and I did all sorts of reading and continued to meditate without fail every single day. Today. I practice Zen Buddhism, which involves silent meditation and a mix of more challenging and Tara Brach-like texts. It is just what I need right now…BUT, had I started with Zen, I think I would have never continued, with Buddhism or meditation, and what a loss that would have been.

Silent meditation would have been impossible for me in those early days. My addicted brain was wailing way to loudly for me to know how to be able to hear through it to the real sober world. And some of the Buddhist texts can sound quite abstract (they are really quite the opposite) if you come to them with no experience in mindfulness and no guidance (and I am talking about online here — you don’t need to climb a mountain top and look for a monk) from teachers who can make Buddhist principles relatable.

This is a very long way of saying, I hope that all of you who have expressed interest in Buddhism do pursue it. And if you do, I would (did) start with gentle mindfulness meditation and see where that takes you.

Oh, and one more recommendation: James Salazar’s book (also and audio tape, also an online class) called Awakening Joy. I have the book, which I have read through and done the exercises, I’ve listened to it on Audible in the car two times, the last just recently. And I’m taking the online class right now. Really great stuff, based on Buddhist mindfulness principles. This is one you can start right away, even if you never meditated a moment in your life.




One of the very many wonderful  things that happened to me after I quit drinking was I was able to fully commit to Buddhism. I was raised in a very liberal Christian church and had exposure to (and gained respect for) many different religions. But the basic tenets and beliefs of Buddhism had always spoken to me the loudest. I won’t go into why here, because this isn’t a religion blog, and I’m not a proselytizer. Just take my word for it — it was a spiritual path I really wanted to take.

But I couldn’t.

Buddhism doesn’t have a lot of rules. But the five precepts are its ten commandments. Whatever else you do in your practice, you gotta buy into these. They are (according to the BBC — and pretty much everyone else):

All Buddhists live by the Five Moral Precepts which are refraining from:

  • harming living things
  • taking what is not given
  • sexual misconduct
  • lying or gossip
  • taking intoxicating substances

See number five? You see my problem. There is healthy discussion among Buddhists about what the first four precepts demand. They are clear, but there is some definitional wiggle room around the edges, and that leads to (positive and friendly) discourse among practitioners (eg., the first precept is not just about not whacking people or becoming a vegetarian (plants are alive, after all) but about a broader sense of moving through the world causing the least suffering to all of our living earth, you know, environmentalism, leave no trace camping, that sort of thing).

But number five? Not a lot of room for discussion. And I gave you the most generous translation. Quite literally, it can be read as “No fermented liquor.” Not “a social drink is fine once in a while” or “don’t get drunk.” No drinking period. Now go meditate.

So, I stopped drinking. Learned mindfulness meditation practices (which got me through many a cravings freakout, but that’s another post) and, once those intoxicating substances worked their way out of my bloodstream and my thirsty synapses, dedicated myself to a serious Zen practice. And it has been more mind-expanding and happy-making than drinking ever was. In fact, those times when I flash on that thought — I would love a drink right now (rarely these days, but it does happen), I think, no — I would have to give up Zen, and I’m hanging onto that the way I used to hang on to a nice bottle of Malbec.

What I didn’t realize at that time was that it wasn’t just precept five that was keeping me for Buddhism. Precept four would have also blocked me — the one that says (again really clearly), no lying.

Because alcoholics are liars. Really good liars. We lie to the people we love the most. We tell them we don’t have a problem (and justify it by not wanting to worry them or have to stop drinking and become less entertaining to them (as if)). We lie by omission — drinking in secret. But worst of all, at least for our hopes of recover, we lie to ourselves.

You know those lies. The ones where we convince ourselves we’re not as bad as [FILL IN THE BLANK — AA members, people on TV, our friend so and so]. At 3 AM, we wake up and (before we can get our lies on) know we have a serious problem. By afternoon (or morning for some), we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have a problem after all, by telling ourselves, you got it, more lies.

I was so bad that I would drink half a bottle of wine before going to a social or work dinner, then I would have maybe one or two glasses of wine at the cocktail hour and one or two more at dinner. When I went home, I would congratulate myself for being “a moderate drinker” — seriously — over a couple of glasses of scotch.

Buddhism is very much based on seeing the world as it really is — in all its wonder and beauty — and seeing ourselves as we really are — in all our wonder and beauty. In a way, giving up lying about booze was more liberating than giving up the booze itself (of course, you can’t do the former without the latter).

I want to leave you with a story the writer Alice Walker tells about lying, and lying to someone you love, but mostly about the wonderful freedom that stopping the lies brings, even if that means we have to speak hard truths:

When I was three or four, I broke a jar, and given that I had siblings I could have said that they had broken it, or I could have said that it had slipped. I remember that he asked me if I had done it, and I looked at him and I thought, gee, this is a person I really love and he would be happy if I hadn’t broken this thing. On the other hand he was looking at me with such expectancy that I found myself coming up to meet his expectancy with a real need to express the truth, because that’s the most wonderful feeling there is. So I said, “Yes, I broke the jar.” His response was not to fuss and not to spank me or anything but rather to beam this incredible love in my direction, and that was his way of teaching me about telling the truth and what is possible. It is possible that if you tell the truth not only will you be delivered yourself from the prison of untruth, but the person who hears the truth will also be opened and can be delighted.



People, Places, and Things

One of the first thing AA newcomers are told is to beware of “people, places, and things.” Not all of them, of course, the old times would say, but those that trigger the urge to drink.

Unfortunately, for me in early sobriety, that would be pretty much all people, places, and things. My friends and I always met over drinks or dinner and drinks. I had worked for a long time in a very boozy industry, so any “meeting” after 5 pm, and there were a few, involved drinking. My family is chock-a-block full of functional (or dead) alcoholics — oh, excuse me, wine connoisseurs.

And places: I drank everywhere in the house, including bed and the bathtub (Bathtub gin — no thank you, but gin while IN the bathtub — sure). Things — things like insomnia, stress, anxiety, worry, worry about drinking too much — I drank for (to?) those. So how was this supposed to work?

At first, I thought, what the hell — I’ll just keep going as I was going, but pour soda water in my glass instead of (INSERT BOOZE OF CHOICE HERE). And I did, for exactly one night, a trip out to my family’s favorite Mexican restaurant for some celebration or another (probably nothing, in fact) — a place that makes the best margaritas in the universe, and trust me, I have made a statistically significant sample.

I went into the event shaking, a really lovely lady from AA’s number clutched in my hand, and my almost-non-drinking-and really-supportive husband at my side to intercept the double margaritas they always bring (brought) to me the moment I crossed the threshold.

I survived the night, sobriety intact (all 24 hours of it). But it was hard and miserable and I didn’t ever want to do it again.

And after that — I hid out as much as I could for the next 9 months. I am so lucky that I was in a place in my life I could work from my (remote) home. My kids are grown and weren’t ever that interested in partying with me in any case, so no school events (except one college graduation, at which I organized the large family presence, something I had planned before getting sober. Again, miserable from the “getting through while everyone else was drinking wine I paid for” standpoint but actually fairly amazing from the “wow, I am present for this great moment in my kid’s life, and I am not missing it in a haze of booze and self-centeredness” POV. Was I the life of the party? No. Did I behave appropriately and affectionally at an event that was, after all, NOT ABOUT ME? Yes. For once, yes).

I did really cut back on social events, something I needed my husband’s support to do. I started seeing friends at times other than dinner, and when I couldn’t manage that, I didn’t stay as long. I found out lots of people don’t drink, and most don’t drink anywhere near as intensely as I did. I hadn’t noticed because I was too busy pouring my own.

I think if I had not had the support of AA, and my husband, and my flexible schedule that allowed me to stay away from “people, places, and things,” I’m not sure I could have made it as far as I have (423 days according to the handy counter on my phone). It was not advice I would have thought I was capable of taking at the beginning of this, and yet it is what I did, and I’m sober. It is why I can see rehab might be a really great option for people who might have a lot of trouble getting away from people, places, and things. Sometimes, I kind of loved (and still do) the thought of a peaceful few weeks detoxing somewhere where I didn’t have to navigate people, places, and things.

Oh, and one other thing. I thought for the first few months of all this that I had lost this huge part of myself — the party girl, the sophisticated wine collector, etc. etc. I had lost a huge part of myself, but I wasn’t accurately looking at who that alcohol-defined person really was. Today, I still have the friendships, I still find a way to get to sleep at night, I still love cooking dinner and visiting my kids in their interesting new cities.

But I have learned that it wasn’t the booze that made those people, places, and things special. It was the people, places, and things themselves. And finally, I am getting to enjoy them straight up, without diluting them first in a bottle of Pinot Noir.


In my last, rather tortuous, post, I tried to connect the skills I learned getting sober “one day at a time” with the calm attitude I strove for before my colonoscopy last week. In that post, I also talked about my experience with breast cancer. I got lots of lovely, supportive “so glad you are well” notices when I announced my bowels were clean — of cancer and everything else (OMG, let’s just acknowledge I have now defined “oversharing”). Thank you all for those, by the way.

But I need to clear a couple of things up. First, the breast cancer. That was all in 2008, with one last little teeny operation in early 2009. Since then, I have been cancer free and healthy, if fairly paranoid about a recurrence (though sobriety and the mind work that accompanies it has helped tremendously in healing that bruise). The colonoscopy had nothing to do with the breast cancer — it was just why I was so nervous about the procedure.

So I want to be clear — everyone should have one of these puppies (colonoscopies that is) when they reach 50, or earlier if there is a history of colon cancer in the family. That’s the current recommendation in the US — not sure about the UK and beyond, but I am betting it is similar there too. It is one of the most effective diagnostic tests against cancer. Colon cancer starts as a polyp in the colon and grows slowly from there. Not all polyps are cancer (or will become it) but all cancer starts from polyps. If such a thing is found during a colonoscopy, they can snip it off — no pain at all — and end the chance it will become cancer. If the polyp is allowed to grow into a cancer, there will be likely no signs until it is too advanced to treat, and from what I’ve heard, it is a terrible way to die.

Ladies, this is not unlike a pap smear (though the prep is admittedly gross — but not nearly as bad as I thought and not nearly as bad as 90% of the Internet stories about it): an easy test that can nip a devastating cancer in the bud (or butt).

Here’s some more info on the procedure the U.S. Dana Farber Institute.

And to be clear again — a colonoscopy is not to be feared, and it is not just for people who are sick or suspect they might have cancer. So don’t put it off — I’m sorry I did as long as I did.

One Day at a Time

So, I just got home from my first ever colonoscopy (four years late — I’m 54 and have been putting it off since the strike of 5-0).

Do you love how this post dives into TMI by the ninth word?

I’m not going to regale your with horror stories of the dreaded prep (two days, one gallon of laxative — and it really wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be) or the procedure (couldn’t anyway, I was blissfully out) or the recovery. Groggy but not too bad (light sedation, no narcotics, probably best because — unbelievably for someone with my appetites — they make me sick), no pain, some not too pretty bloating (you get pumped full of air — oops, TMI again). Results were great — no polyps, come back in ten years.

Wait, let me write that again — NO POLYPS or any signs of cancer or pre-cancer. I am a NORMIE as far as colons go (except for the aforementioned and hopefully temporary gas-filledness).

So what does this have to do with alcoholism (mine, maybe yours) and that sometimes-maddening-sometimes-life-saving adage: one day at a time?

First, some backstory: Like SoberMummy on the wonderful blog Mummy was a Secret Drinker, I had breast cancer (actually I had TWO separate, unrelated breast cancers, one in each breast, at the same time). Mine started as DCIS (pre-cancer) in one breast. My doctors suggested a bilateral mastectomy, because it was pretty wide spread, with a routine test of the lymph nodes on the left side. Only 1 % chance they would find anything there because this was, as I said, precancer.SO, just a quick surgery, new boobs (I did get those), and home in time to make it to parents’ day at my daughter’s camp


I woke up from the operation to the news that not only was there some cancer in three lymph nodes, but there was also invasive cancer in the left boob (supposed to be only DCIS) and invasive cancer in the right boob (suppose to be nothing). Not a lot in any of those places, but enough to buy me a half year of aggressive chemo.

I’m fine now, by the way. And did I mention — NO POLYPS?

Fine, except for a nasty case of PTSD. Which brings us to “one day at a time.”

I used all my latent scheming alcoholic skills, which have been a bit dormant the last year, to avoiding doing this colonoscopy because, as I had learned, SCREENING TESTS MAKE YOU HAVE CANCER. And, as I had learned, when they say, “Oh there is only a 1% chance we’ll find anything,” I AM THE ONE PERCENT. So with it scheduled this week, I was ready to go into full blown panic mode.

But you know what? I didn’t (I just heard my long-suffering husband faint dead away at that characterization). Okay, I didn’t as much as I usually would. And I think it is because of all the practice with “one day at a time” I have had in getting sober.

I tried to take the colonoscopy — or worrying about the colonoscopy — one day at a time. I didn’t allow myself to obsess (much) about how awful it would feel when they told me I had cancer, the operations I would endure, the chemo that would wreck another beautiful summer  — the same way we alcoholics should not obsess about how we will be miserable at the next office happy hour, and how we will never get to have a lovely Pinot Gris on the porch in the summer, and how we will be miserable outsiders forever and ever and never have a moment of joy again. I wasn’t right about the colonoscopy, and I wasn’t right about what my non drinking life would be like.

Channeling my worry into “one day at a time” meant, on Monday, enjoying a mountain hike in the newly warm weather and making myself feel its beauty — and not sitting in a dark room, looking up colon cancer horror stories online and making plans for a horrible future I was inventing on the spot. Even if I HAD had cancer, how would living in that future make reliving it later any better — and I would have missed the hike.

In case my metaphor is too vague (or self-obsessed, sorry, haven’t shed all the alcoholic’s egotism yet), let me translate to my early sobriety experience. I was most unhappy with not drinking and most in danger of a relapse when I was existing in my head, spinning sad (and completely fictional, it turns out) tales of my even sadder, lonely existence without alcohol. When I put that aside and lived one day at a time, trying to experience what was in front of me right then — a pretty sunset, a nice pile of beans to snap, a funny movie — the anxiety disappeared, and it was so easy, even natural, not to drink.

One of my Buddhist heroes, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it more beautifully (and succinctly) than I ever could:

Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.

One day at a time.


On UKAnnie’s beautifully written and often heartbreaking blog, Dappled Path, there was a conversation today about AA meetings. It is a discussion that pops up quite a bit in the blogosphere and other places. AA saved my life, so you know where I stand. But there are plenty of seemingly happy sober folks who never used it, and others who prefer some of the non-AA twelve step programs.

In an earlier post, I’ve addressed, based on my own experience, some of the criticisms I hear most often: It’s a cult (No it’s not — membership is voluntary and open to anyone who wants to stop drinking; it is free; you can, in the words of some AA sage, “Take what you can use and leave the rest.”) It is too Jesus-focused (I’m a Buddhist, and sometimes I think it might be too Buddha-focused).

Many of these concerns were addressed for me in an article by the late and great movie critic, Robert Ebert in a blog post called “My name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Another criticism I hear is that AA (and perhaps more often NA, though I don’t know) discourages members from taking lifesaving drugs — related to their treatment or related to other mental or physical illnesses. AA is a diffuse and anonymous enough organization that I couldn’t say whether this sort of thing goes on in other places. But in the meetings I go to — and that includes meetings all around the U.S.– I’ve never seen anyone in a meeting suggest that a medically necessary drug be forgone as part of the AA program. I HAVE heard people discuss how they will be careful with pain killers, say, to avoid triggering a relapse. But that’s the extent of it. I would not hesitate to find another meeting if your experience is different.

But the topic UKAnnie brought up today is that of the “hitting bottom” stories one can hear in a meeting and that might drive away those in early sobriety (the old “at least I am not THAT bad” defense). You can read how I answered that here.

I know this can be a touchy subject, but I’ll probably write on it again, and again, and again. And I’ll probably keep telling alcoholics who ask me how I got sober that AA was a good part of that and still is. Not because I’m on the AA payroll (if there is such a thing) or I am trying to get you into a cult (MWAHAHAHAHAHA), but because, as I learned in AA, I stay sober if I can help someone else stay sober. And recommending AA is the best way I know to do that.

Cruisin’ Part Two

A week ago, I disembarked in LA after a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise with my mother (steady drinker, possible alcoholic, definite enabler) and stepfather (active alcoholic dying from alcohol induced dementia), my brother and his wife (both 12 years sober), my elementary aged niece and nephew (sober, duh), and my 23-year-old youngest daughter (a normie — drank, on average, 3/4s of a glass of wine or fruity cocktail each night). Yeah, interesting dynamics, and someday I will do a post about this family and this family disease, but for the moment, I want to talk about the cruise. What it was like to be on a boat where alcohol flowed freely (or seemingly freely since a “drink-what-you-will” package was included in most tickets — including mine. BTW, there is no way anyone on earth can drink $80 a day worth of soda water, believe me I tried).

Short answer: It was great. Maybe one of my favorite vacations ever.

On the first night of the trip, I watched my mom and stepdad — as well as about 75 percent of the rest of the passengers — struggle with the (not much) boat rocking (it really wasn’t bad) and getting to sleep that first night, mainly because they were mixing drinks with a transition to an physically unbalanced environment. They were miserable. I slept great, rocked (not spun) into deep (not restless) slumber.

The first morning at sea (and every day after), my daughter and I went to a 7 AM stretch and abs class in the gym then to the (really nice, empty) sauna, steam rooms, cold plunge, hot tub, warm stone benches looking out the front of the boat at the beautiful ocean. The sauna-plus-cold-plunge alone was a better high that I can remember ever having drinking (and I went back a couple times a day the rest of the trip — addictive personality much?).

I spent time with my niece and nephew, who are hilarious and brilliant. I read books. I saw whales. I hiked to a cool waterfall in a tiny Mexican village. I meditated on a full moon over the pacific. I really got to talk to dear, dear members of my family whom I don’t see often — without being distracted by getting over my hangover from the night before or by starting working on my hangover from the coming night.

I never once yearned for a drink (of alcohol that is. My niece and I had a nice cocktail hour ritual of ordering Shirley Temples with lots of cherries — a fine choice not available to the sophisticated wine drinking crowd). I was never jealous of the fun the many groups of drunken revelers seemed to be having (and maybe they were). I was so grateful for types of fun I haven’t had since I was a kid myself.

At once point, my mother said to me and my brother — “I am so proud of how hard you both work at your sobriety,” and I think we both looked stunned. Because it didn’t feel like work at all. It felt like we were the lucky ones, and she was the one having to work to interact through a haze of wine and to care for her seriously unpleasant and usually drunk husband.

So yeah, five stars for sober cruising.

But here’s the fine print: I celebrated my first year of sobriety on February 25. Had I tried this last year, I would have been a sad, edgy, cravings-swamped mess. I had first to quiet the chattering alcoholic voice in my head, telling me: “look at those people, having all that fun — but not you, you poor, sober, wallflower.” Telling me: “I cannot eat another piece of ship-beef (cruises are not a place for vegetarians) without a decent glass of cab to wash it down.” Etc.

Last year, at this time, I hid out, only going to professional and family social obligations I had to, and then gritting my teeth through them. I was in the midst of 90 meetings in 90 days. I learned to meditate. I got through cravings and regrets one day at a time. I did not believe I would ever get to the sort of peace and fun place I was on this vacation. And going on it would have been miserable.

I guess I am adding that for my friends in early sobriety. Sometimes I think posts like this can be discouraging, only because it probably seems that you will never get to this point, that maybe you are different than those with longer sobriety than you have. All I can tell you — what I would have told the me of a year ago is — you are capable of becoming sober and happily so, but don’t expect it overnight or without a lot of work. In fact, don’t expect it, or anything else at all, beyond another day and night (this day, this night) of no drinking. There is a path, and you can get on it, but at first, please don’t go looking beyond the next step.

I’m starting to sound a little woo-woo here, so time to sign off for now.