Lying

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.

 

 

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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.

Colonoscopy

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

Ha!

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.

AA

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.