Isolation Island

For my Neuroscience of Joyful Recovery course (the first course in my recovery coach training!) I had to create a story that explains the brain, joy, and addiction in a way that is easy for others to understand. “Isolation Island” is what I came up with. Trigger warning: a lot of addiction and wine talk in here. Please do not read if you think you will be negatively triggered.

I want to be able to use this story in my coaching to help clients gain a clear and basic understanding of how addiction impacts our brains, attitudes, and behavior. I use wine as the addictive substance because it is most familiar to me, but any addictive substance can be substituted. If you care to read, please drop me a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think! I would love feedback as I am still at the beginning of my training and this piece is a work in progress.

ISOLATION ISLAND

This probably started out as a vacation. A trip you were looking forward to, once upon a time. Honestly, it’s been so long since you’ve seen family or friends you can’t remember exactly how or when you got here.

This is Isolation Island.

You are far from the comforts (surely there were comforts?) of home. This island seemed nice at first. A welcome change of scenery. The solitude felt quiet and peaceful. But now time has passed. And maybe it’s just you (after all, you’re the only one here), but the island feels less hospitable. You haven’t seen the sun in months. It was shining when you arrived but now the sky is a uniform, infinite gray. The days are hot and humid, and the nights are dark, cold, and damp. You have no shelter, because there is nothing you can use to build. You scavenge what you can to eat, but you haven’t had a proper meal in what feels like months. Or maybe forever. You collect rain water to drink, but it’s never enough to satisfy your endless thirst.

Contentment, peace, love, joy: you have only fleeting memories of these emotions. Now, there is just a uniform, infinite gray in your head and your heart, mirroring the sky.

You are weak. You are exhausted. You are lonely. You don’t know exactly how you got here – physically or emotionally – or how you will get home. You don’t even know where home is anymore. Tucked inside the rotted-out stump of a long-dead tree is a forgotten pile of postcards from family and friends. The cards are smeared and faded beyond legibility. You stopped returning their correspondence long ago. Eventually they stopped writing to you, or maybe you told them not to write to you anymore – you can’t remember.

Despite clues that others have been here before you – a piece of rubber whose shape is reminiscent of a shoe sole, letters scrawled on the trunk of a tree that could have been someone’s initials – you’ve been here long enough that you’re convinced you’re the only one who has ever set foot on this island. You are utterly alone.

The island is home to a mountain. A mountain, and you. You have always felt ill at ease, living in the shadow of this gigantic, inhospitable mound of earth. But one day, out of desperation or boredom or probably both, you begin to climb. And just a short hike from the mountain’s base, you find it:

An outcropping of rock forming a small, dry, perfect, private cave. And inside, seemingly waiting just for you, is a comfortable cot of woven reeds, fresh food and water, and one chilled glass of wine. The food and water satiate you – but it’s the wine that makes you feel good for the first time in ages. Good, or buzzed, or probably both. You forget how miserable and lonely you feel on this island and drift off to sleep.

The next day, having exhausted your supplies, you climb further up the mountain. You have to go farther and higher this time, and the terrain is steeper and more treacherous. But sure enough, you eventually spot another campsite of sorts: no protective cave or woven sleep pad, but some leafy branches, plus more food and water… and more wine. This time it’s a whole bottle, and you drink it first before consuming the food and water. Again, you forget your woes. You don’t feel as easy breezy as yesterday but you feel even more numb to your surroundings – and your painful feelings and memories. You throw together a brush shelter using the branches, and beneath it you fall asleep fast and spend the night tossing and turning.

Another day dawns. You wake with a pounding head and start climbing again. You must find more wine. Food, water, and shelter are afterthoughts. The mountain terrain has grown steeper still. You lose your footing several times. Handholds crumble in your grip. With arms and legs covered in cuts and bruises, you finally stumble upon your next camp. There is nowhere to rest and nothing you can use to build a shelter, only sharp rocks poking into your feet. The food has already been eaten and the water drained – or maybe it was never there to begin with. But you hardly notice, because nestled among the rocks you spot two bottles of wine. The wine is warm, and tastes more disgusting than refreshing, but you hardly notice, gulping it down in search of the release it brings. You don’t want to feel like you are clinging to the side of a mountain. You don’t want to remember you’re alone on an island. You don’t want to go home – you no longer have a home – you just want to escape from it all. Your past and your present fade quickly to black.

You don’t remember when you passed out, but you wake the next morning (or is it afternoon?) feeling more horribly depleted than ever before. Still, you climb, because all you can think about is the next sip of wine. You ignore the throbbing in your arms and legs from the cuts that are starting to fester. There must be more wine at the top of this mountain. Just keep climbing. Don’t look down – if you do, if you realize how high up you are, how far away you are from the safety and relative comfort of solid ground, with no clear path back down, it may be too much to bear.

So you climb. Wine has eclipsed all your other thoughts now. Your senses are offline. You reach, you stumble, rocks tumble around you, yet you climb. Somewhere, deep inside, a voice speaks out: “This is dangerous. Is this really worth risking your life?” But you ignore it. You are almost at the top of the mountain – but there is no wine in sight. It must be there. You MUST find it.

You reach up, one last time, and hoist yourself onto the top of the mountain. You made it! You look around – not at the view, but at the thorny brush and jagged rocks around you, desperately searching. But there is no wine. No camp site. Nothing. Where is it?! It MUST be here! There is nowhere else to go!

You take a deep breath. Sulphur fills your nostrils. The top of this mountain smells like rotten eggs. You look down in the direction of the sour, steamy smell and then you realize –

You are not on top of a mountain. You have ascended a volcano, and you are precariously perched at the edge of its crater.

And there, midway down the crater, you spot what you are seeking: three bottles of wine. You will have to descend into the crater of an active volcano to get your next fix.

Then you spot something else. A faded rope anchored into the rocks a few feet away. It has frayed with time, but seems to have retained its integrity. The rope looks long enough to help you reach the wine in the crater… and also long enough to help you repel off this highest, sheerest part of the mountain and reach easier terrain.

How is there a rope here, you wonder? You are the only one who has ever made this climb. You are alone in your struggle, and you always have been. No one helped you up here, and no one is here to help you now.

What do you do?

The choice is clear, of course.

The only way to go is down.

900 Days Alcohol-Free

900 days.

This is a big number. This is a number that would have seemed completely unattainable to me back in my #winemom days. But here I am. 900 days makes me proud. 900 days feels exactly where I’m meant to be.

900 days of alcohol freedom is the greatest gift I have ever given myself. And, as the cliché goes, it just keeps giving. The more days of sobriety I accrue, the better equipped I am to recognize its many layers of gifts.

Sobriety is like the nesting doll I received as a gift when I was a child, and I have spent these 900 days opening one doll after another.

At the outset of my AF journey I enjoyed the immediate, surface-level benefits: clear skin, bright eyes, less puff. Then I started to uncover some deeper joys: decreased anxiety, increased energy, more patience with my kids, more presence in my life. And now, 900 days in, I am getting to know my true self, ponder my life’s purpose, and pursue my goals with vulnerability, authenticity, and confidence.

I once thought alcohol made me more myself. I thought it brought me out of my shell, helping me emerge more confident, flirtier, funnier. Now I know it made me silly, short-tempered, and shallow.

In 900 days I have cracked open a lot of dolls, each revealing the next nestled deeper inside, each more complex, intricate, and awe-inspiring than the last. Each doll stands on her own, but when nestled together they create the complete gift that is my sobriety.

Have I made it to the center yet? To the last, smallest, solid doll? I don’t think so. But I’m trying not to focus on her, or on what happens when I get there. Instead I’m trying to stay right here, to stay with the gifts I’ve acquired thus far. To cherish each of them as I wait for the next to be revealed.

Two Years No Booze

So here we are. Our first 4th of July in quarantine, and my second Independence Day from booze. On this day last year, I was radiant. Thin, fit, glowing. I had a fresh manicure. I felt like a million bucks. But this is not 2019. I can’t expect myself to glow while the world is sick and burning.

But this is also not 2017. If I were still drinking during this pandemic, I would be paralyzed by skyrocketing anxiety and bottomless shame. I would be risking my health (and my family’s health) and increasing my exposure to COVID by making trips to the liquor store. I would be prioritizing alcohol – an addictive poison – right up there with food as a necessity for quarantine survival.

This is 2020. I am not where I used to be, but I am also not where I used to be.

Today I give myself grace. I remind myself to be proud of where I am in the midst of all this chaos. I have not fallen from grace, I have risen up on its wings to take care of myself and my family during this unprecedented time.
When I start to compare myself with where I was a year ago, I remind myself to adjust my units of measure. Right now, life cannot be measured in kid-free hours, because there are none. It cannot be measured in kickboxing classes, because there are none. Right now, life is measured in quarantine days, alcohol-free days, miles run, yoga classes streamed. It’s measured in book pages read and journal pages written, as I attempt to stay connected to myself and record what life is like in this bizarre time that I can only hope, someday, will be a blur.

My life is not perfect and all my problems are not solved. I haven’t lost any weight. The pink cloud of early sobriety has dissolved and the magic of my first sober year has worn off. My anxiety is present again (thanks COVID). ⁣⁣
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And also:⁣⁣
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I strive to embrace imperfection. Perfect is a mirage that sets us up to fail. Imperfect is grace, humor, and life’s exquisite realness.⁣⁣
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I feel capable. Of accomplishing pretty much anything. A mountain of dirty dishes in the sink used to be enough to defeat me. Now I’m staying sober through a global pandemic.⁣⁣
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My quarantine weight gain is bumming me out a bit, but at least it’s not compounded by the shame I would feel if I were puffed up and hungover from boozing my way through all of this corona-craziness.⁣⁣
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My anxiety is present, yes, but it’s a shadow of the monster it was when I was a #winemom. ⁣⁣
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I show up, every day, just as I am. I’m learning to love this person. I’m even letting her gray hair grow out because I give so many fewer Fs. Which gives me so much more time and energy to invest in pursuits worthier than giving Fs. ⁣⁣
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And on a related note:⁣⁣
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I used to be uncomfortable with the word “sober” because I thought using it would imply that I had a Serious Drinking Problem and I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. Now I use the term because it’s:⁣⁣
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A) True⁣⁣
B) Concise⁣⁣
C) Not up to me what people choose to believe about me and my journey. ⁣⁣
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Beneath my quarantine puff and exhaustion, a quiet power is growing. Power that comes from freedom that comes from ditching my dependence on an addictive, toxic substance that never did me any good at all. ⁣⁣
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At two years AF, I may be in quarantine, but I am free. I may not be glowing, but I am grateful – more grateful for my freedom from alcohol than I have ever been. I am learning to lean into the power of my exquisitely imperfect, true self. ⁣

Holding My Words

So I noticed a few days ago that my Instagram topped one thousand followers (and I might have taken a screenshot at 1,001 and sent it to a couple of friends because OMG). I knew I had to play it cool on the ‘gram in case I lost followers and dipped back down into triple digits. But this was an exciting moment for me and over the next few days as my following grew beyond 1K to a number where I felt comfortable acknowledging it, I pondered how to do just that.

Should I buy metallic 1 and K mylar balloons, throw on some makeup, and get a blowout for a photo shoot? That’s not really my style. But what is my style? And what does this number mean to me anyway?

I thought about this a lot. And here’s what I’ve concluded: hitting this milestone means that my journey resonates.

It means the sober movement is gaining momentum, and that gray area drinking is becoming something people are less hesitant to acknowledge.

It means that getting my ass in the arena and being vulnerable is worth it.

It means I was never alone in my struggle with drinking, I am not alone now in my struggle with sugar, and I will never be alone in my quest for deeper self-love.

My journey is now being followed by over one thousand people. So what’s the most meaningful thing I can do? Keep going. Continue to share. Continue to believe in my AF-self and the power of vulnerability and connection.

In that spirit, I went to Staples. I went to Staples and I printed out the entire contents of my blog and every single word that I wrote during my one year alcohol-free. I had been copying and pasting and formatting for weeks, in spare moments here and there. When I hit 1,000 followers, I decided to pick up the pace and get it done.

Abandoning my flash drive at Staples felt like leaving my infant with a new babysitter for the first time. Completely nerve-wracking. Especially since one of my files was titled “BIG ASS OYAF.” (Oops – didn’t realize the Staples guy was going to be doing the printing.)

I returned an hour later to pick up 462 pages. Over 215,000 words. Words that are mine. Words that capture two of the most transformative years of my life.

As much as I say that I want to write a book, that I am going to write a book, on a day-to-day basis I am filled with self-doubt. Is what I have to say really important enough? Can I really write well enough? Am I really trying to help people or am I just being self-serving?

Today, as I held my pages in my hands, I realized that those questions are irrelevant at best, destructive at worst. Because I’ve already done it. Yes, I need an outline and I need to fill in a bunch of blanks and I need to write more about my background, etc. But so much of my book is already done. Now that I can hold these pages in my hands it is easier to believe in myself.

And I am holding these pages because of you. So thank you for reading. Thank you for following and commenting and believing and supporting. You are helping me believe in myself, and I hope I’m doing the same for you.

Out of the Gray

I was a gray area drinker. A wine mom who sought comfort and validation in kitsch and memes that enshrined alcohol as a Swiss Army knife to survive the wilderness of motherhood: easy to use, and appropriate for any and every situation that may arise.

I drank in good times and in bad, in celebration and stress and sadness. Sometimes I got drunk, but mostly I didn’t – except on Friday nights, when an entire bottle of sauvignon blanc was my “treat” for “surviving” the week.

As time passed, the buzz I sought on a near-nightly basis was found deeper and deeper down the bottle. Slowly but surely I became more reliant on wine and less in control of my consumption. Thinking about drinking took up more and more time and space in my day and in my brain.

#winemomlife was exhausting in all the wrong ways. So much wasted time and energy and money. So many calories. All to feed a habit from which I received no benefit beyond the wee hit of dopamine as I poured my first crisp, cold glass. It was all downhill from there; and yet I’d wake up and do it all again the next day.

This was my gray area: a sour, inescapable fog that I thought was the price to pay for the fun and privilege of drinking. Except as more time passed, I realized that I had stopped having fun and drinking now felt like a burden, not a privilege. I had fallen to what was, for me, soft rock bottom. Michael Bolton, not Ozzy Osborne. I was addicted but not completely powerless. I did not need professional help but I needed to boss up and help myself.

I am so grateful that I did not ignore my instincts. I listened to the voice inside that told me, “Enough. Enough now.” She may have just been quoting Love Actually but I heard her and I trusted her.

It has taken a long time to get to day 202. A lot longer than 202 days, to get here. I have tread water, waded through denial, been bombarded by guilt and shame, and stopped and started more than a few times. But by simply listening, and trusting myself, I saved myself from rock bottom. I saved my family from profound pain and strife. I saved my kids from lifelong scars. Even though my life was not in imminent danger, I saved it anyway.

I will never know how many drinks away from rock bottom I was. But wherever I was, it was too close for comfort.

I hesitate to give advice in this space. I’m here to record and share my journey, and if I inspire others along the way, well, that is pretty awesome. But I’m not going to tell anyone what to do or how to do it. Because everyone’s relationship with alcohol is different. And everyone’s relationships with one’s family, friends, and self are different.

But please allow me one moment to ascend a soapbox and say this, because this is the thing:

If your inner voice pipes up and demands change, please listen. You don’t have to know how to do it. And it doesn’t have to happen overnight. But listen. Trust that you will figure it out. And know that you are worth it.