Choppy waters


HMS Primrose is navigating some high seas at the moment. My mother in law, who has been ill for some time, is now in her final days, perhaps final hours. It has fallen to me to be the person in closest contact with her medical team, making sure she is being cared for as she and her family would wish. My mother in law and I were never particularly close but had grown into a comfortable relationship over many years, especially since my children were born. I am doing the necessary yet painful work of walking alongside her in her final days, as I hope someone will someday do for me. Alongside that work is the role of supporting my husband and children as they make their own journeys, and allow them to do so in ways that meet their needs.

As is to be expected I am feeling emotional, over-stretched and fragile at the moment. In particular I am missing my running as although I am still doing short runs daily, I find it difficult to justify going for long runs – also long runs give far too much opportunity for rumination, which is always a potential risky area for me. I will keep up the short runs and extend them as much as I feel able.

Last night I settled down to watch some television and realised that drinking thoughts were popping up, partly prompted by the television programme I was watching in which a soldier described vividly why he drank to escape the memories of the violence he had seen. The thoughts were without that visceral tug of wanting – it was like watching an old fashioned alarm clock going off, and seeing the clapper bang bang bang from one side to the other, but without hearing the insistent ringing. I had a replacement drink – Rochester’s Dark Ginger cordial in a brandy glass – and a big chunk of cake, and the thoughts retreated. I’m not concerned that they arose, in the circumstances, and I know how to deal with them – I wanted to record them here as a further way of de-fusing from them.

I am at no risk of making an intellectual decision that it would be okay for me to drink. My focus therefore is upon taking sufficient care of myself that I don’t end up having a fuck-it moment, and I know how to take care of myself too – it’s a case of making that a sufficient priority in these dark days.

Sober First.

Thanks for being here, sober warriors. Prim xx

Square It Up Friday

The title of this post is a quote from the brilliant recovery podcast Since Right Now, in which the hosts Jeff, Matt and Chris describe the process of Instagramming a motivational quote over a sunset to form a square entirely filled with cliche, rather as an After Eight chocolate is filled with delicious minty fondant.

This might be an occasional series, or a one off – who knows?!

I remember how tough Friday nights were in the beginning and thought I’d like to share a hopefully sunset-free thought with you. Here’s one which I came across this morning and just loved:

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Hang in there, sober peeps – you are doing a marvellous thing!

Prim xx

“If I let this thought dictate my actions, will it help me create the life I want?”

a little while ago I listened to a Brian Johnson podcast on a book by Dr Russ Harris, called ‘The Confidence Gap’. you can watch Brian’s summary here. it interested me enough for me to buy the book, and I’m really glad I did.

the book title almost put me off, as if you asked me I wouldn’t necessarily consider that I have much of a problem with confidence as it is often perceived in our world. things like public speaking, talking to strangers, or complaining about shoddy service, for example, are not things that particularly bother me.

what I do have a problem with, though, are some deep-seated and recurring negative thought patterns in two particular areas – about my relationships in my extended family, and my ability to perform at my job. in those areas I am very vulnerable to repeated, ongoing ruminations which do me no service at all. this book has been really helpful in giving me actual tools to tackle those stubborn negative thought patterns, and so I thought I might review it here.

the book has a LOT of good stuff in it, more than is practical to cover in a blog post. here are my favourite three big ideas:

firstly, the idea of de-fusing from our thoughts. when we hear that voice in our heads and we believe it implicitly? yeah, that. it ties in very well with all I have been doing on the Headspace app in learning to note feelings and emotions, and let them pass by, rather than becoming hooked by them. Russ gives a number of techniques for doing this , one of which I’ll come back to later.

secondly, the concept that we will never get rid of our negative thoughts entirely, so we shouldn’t even try. when I first got sober I found the idea of questioning negative thoughts helpful – “is that even true?”

this goes a step further even than that, asking us instead to consider the ‘workability’ of a thought. this requires firstly the ability to note that we are having a thought, perhaps by using the phrase,

“I am having the thought that…. (I can’t do this, I am not good enough, insert your least favourite phrase here)”

and then to ask ourselves the question I’ve used as the title of this blog post:

If I let this thought guide my actions, will it help me create the life I want?

no debate, no engaging, with the thought: just considering its likely outcome and proceeding on that basis. I find this incredibly simple and liberating when that nasty voice pipes up when I am feeling low.

finally, Russ gives two useful acronyms as to how we get stuck in behaviour that doesn’t reflect our true values. he quotes Dr Seuss’s splendid book, The Waiting Place, and asks, what keeps us stuck in that place? he suggests that we get stuck when we are in FEAR:

F – fusion with our negative thoughts

E – having excessive goals

A – avoidance of discomfort

R – remoteness from our true values

and that these can be overcome when we DARE:

D – de-fuse from our negative thoughts

A – accept discomfort

R – having realistic goals

E – embrace our own true values.

I am always a sucker for an acronym but more to the point have been engaging these now when I am at the coal-face of my usual negative thought patterns and have been finding them really helpful – perhaps you might, too? I would really recommend reading the book, though, as I don’t think I’ve done it full justice here.

one specific way I’ve been putting it into action is by deciding what my most upsetting, recurring negative thought is, and coming up with a way to de-fuse from it, based upon the advice in the book. being in the last days of the school holidays, juggling work and children and self-care, my most frequent mental lament is “I don’t have time!”

so I have de-fused from this by, firstly, putting it into the second person, so when I find myself thinking it, I re-phrase it as “You don’t have time!” And then I decided upon a suitable persona for the person saying it – someone outwardly intimidating but ultimately powerless – and decided upon J.K. Rowling’s glorious creation, Dolores Umbridge.

I imagine Imelda Staunton piping those words, at first menacingly, then – as in Belle’s brilliant ‘Dehydrate the Wolf’ post – more and more shrilly and squeakily as she shrinks to a tiny, Borrower-sized creature on the palm of my hand, and is eventually chased away while being dive-bombed by the Weasley twins. Hurrah!

what phrase could you de-fuse from? could these techniques help you in unhooking from unhelpful thoughts and therefore allowing you to take helpful actions? I’d love to hear from you! Prim xx

what the hell is ‘recovery’, anyway? here’s what 9,341 people in recovery actually said

when we were still drinking, it’s bizarre how we judged recovery on what people who still drink (like ourselves) think it is: that it will be dull, and confining, and a continual struggle.

that’s like asking someone who has never sat on a horse in their lives to explain the intricacies of dressage. or expecting someone who has eaten fish and chips to grasp the finer details of fly fishing.

recovery is not simple, at the beginning anyway, because we are usually starting from a place of high confusion, stress and muddle. “my life is completely fine as it is, so I think I’ll stop drinking” – said no-one, EVER. my experience was that I was just teetering on the brink of external consequences, having crossed several personal Rubicons with my drinking in the preceding months and years – starting with hiding empty bottles, moving on to hiding full ones, and going rapidly downhill from there.

in the last month or so I’ve had a number of new subscribers to my blog. when I see a notification of a new subscriber, my heart always lifts with happiness… not out of any ego boost, but at the idea that someone out there has had the courage and the strength to start this complicated journey – that someone is reaching out for company on the path. so if that is you, reading this, you are HUGELY welcome here!

my recollection of the early days of not drinking is that it felt hugely un-natural, uncomfortable, to the point of almost being grotesque. I was not at all sure that I had made the right decision.

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rather like this chap.

my regular routines were so disrupted that I felt adrift, and rudderless. the only thing that felt worse than the prospect of a life without alcohol was the prospect of my future with alcohol, so I kept going. I reached out for help and was given it unstintingly. the mere act of reaching out changed me fundamentally and forever.

the subsequent weeks, months and years have taught me so much about myself, and about other people. I have given up expecting to be ‘done’ and instead watch with intense curiosity as the next step unfolds.

I was really fascinated therefore by this study I came across recently, in which a broad cross section of people in recovery, from all recovery pathways, were interviewed, and a number of characteristics of being in recovery were defined. 9,341 people in recovery were then asked about whether those characteristics met their definition of recovery, and the results were collated. here’s an extract:

‘Here are a few examples of the elements of recovery. For the full list, go to the Recovery Definition page.

  • Recovery is being honest with myself.
  • Recovery is being able to enjoy life without drinking or using drugs like I used to.
  • Recovery is living a life that contributes to society, to your family or to your betterment.
  • Recovery is being the kind of person that people can count on.
  • Recovery is about giving back.
  • Recovery is striving to be consistent with my beliefs and values in activities that take up the major part of my time & energy.’

what if we believed THOSE definitions of recovery, instead?

could it change how you think of recovery? 

I love all of those characteristics, but particularly the first and last ones.

being honest with myself is hardly ever a comfortable process. I’ve mentioned a couple of books on this blog previously which have helped me see through previously opaque behaviours to the motivation behind them – Kelly McGonigal’s ‘The Willpower Instinct’, and Gretchen Rubin’s ‘Better Than Before’. both of these books were really useful in helping me see that I am never alone in choosing less than stellar behaviours as an initial reaction, and have given me vital tools to identify such behaviours and to gently choose others which are more helpful in the long run to me and those around me.

we need others in this journey so much. if you are starting out (or indeed re-starting, as so many do) then this is possibly the best piece of advice I can give you:

don’t drink. reach out. be very, very kind to yourself.

it’s so, so worth it. and recovery will become the simplest, most natural feeling in the world. Prim xx

Thoughts from 1,000 days sober

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I’m feeling hugely grateful, to start with. I listened to Paul’s Buzzkill podcast yesterday in which he read out his listeners’ recollections of their first 30 days sober – hell on toast, basically, with a shit side-salad. As the other couple said about dating in When Harry Met Sally: “Tell me I never have to be out there again?”

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Well, I don’t ever have to be out there again. I could be, of course. My sobriety is not incised, inch deep, in a granite slab. In some ways it is as vulnerable as those letters written in the sand, capable of being washed away by a seemingly random wave… I have been irritated for some time by the often-repeated assertion that relapses happen more often when things are going well than when things are going badly. (Often repeated in online relapse articles, that is. It’s not a phrase I hear frequently in every day life. My dentist hardly ever mentions it, for example.)

Upon what study is this statement based? Sez who? Perhaps given its universality it is derived from the AA Big Book? I would love to know if any AA readers are aware of a such a link.

An eminently reasonable question might be: “So, why are you reading online articles about relapse, Prim?”

And there’s a number of answers to  that.

Because I’ve been changing the way I interact with my sober online supports, due to technical issues, and that has unsettled me. Which worries me that I am drifting unawares from my sober anchors.

Because 1,000 days is a Big Deal and comes with the usual anniversary remoras of doubt and uncertainty clinging to its soft underbelly.

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Because one of the (few) sadnesses of being further along in sobriety is having seen so goddamn many sober warriors struggling on the path, perhaps falling away back into the darkness, and not being able to do a thing about it other than to hold up the lantern and call to them, “See, here – it can be done!” Which doesn’t feel nearly enough, many days. And so I try to understand relapse and in doing so I prick my own awareness that I too am vulnerable to it, and that a healthy vigilance is still required. Relapse rates do drop significantly the longer one continues. After five years relapse drops to ‘only’ 7%, apparently. I’ll take that, as a remission rate. Have to get there, first.

This all seems unexpectedly dark, for a soberversary post! If you’d like a more upbeat one then pop over to inotherswords and read her 365 days post, which is hugely inspiring. She says that she guards her sobriety ‘like a junk-yard dog’, which is really what I’m trying to convey here: a recognition that what I have achieved is so valuable that I will protect it with all my strength.

Things are going pretty well around here, after all. I seem to be using capital letters on this blog for a start which may be indicative of something or other. A change in pace, perhaps? I was trying to describe it to Lou the other day and the best I could come up with is that nowadays is sobriety is something I am, rather than something I do. In the same way that I am a mother, I am a runner, I am sober. I just am. I sometimes have to work out ways to do that, in the same way I have to try and devise ways to stop my kids from bickering over the washing up (let me know if you’ve cracked that one, by the way) but it is a part of me in a way that I never, ever dreamed it could possibly be.

I am dealing with some relationship issues in my extended family, too, in a way that I never thought would be possible. The longer I am sober, the more obvious it becomes that there are things that need dealing with: crap up with which I will no longer put. And I am dealing with some of those things, carefully, whilst protecting myself and my emotional stability. I hope it will pay off in the long run because the process itself is painful.

Lastly, I am hugely grateful to all those who have supported me in this process. Some (not enough!) of you I have been lucky enough to meet in real life, or to form a more personal bond with by email correspondence. You know who you are! Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. And to the many bloggers and writers whom I read, who read me, whether I comment or not, if I listen to you on podcasts, whether you lurk or comment or whatever: I love the fact that we can support, uplift and encourage one another in this space.

Thank you all! Prim xx

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Life is not an opera

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the above splendid specimen of womanhood has been a screensaver on my phone for a little while, much to the hilarity of my children. (I enjoy causing them occasional consternation: I consider it good for a mother to be intensely supportive and present whilst at the same time a teeny bit unpredictable.)

I have never needed her example more than in the last week. feelings continue to run high here in the UK and the political clusterfuck shows no sign of abating. thank you all for your helpful and supportive comments on my last post. I am absurdly behind in answering comments but will probably not be answering those comments individually as is my usual wont as I think to do so would tempt me into the sort of detail that this blog is not about… but it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them, ok?

other than this Wagnerian stunner – and considerable quantities of a wide variety of continental cheeses consumed in solidarity with our other European chums – what has been getting me through the last week? and what has been getting you through? all answers gratefully received.

one thing I have found really helpful is noticing where I am identifying too strongly with my feelings. the meditation practice really helps with this one, of course. the distinction between saying to myself “I am worried” or “I am experiencing a feeling of worry” may sound like mere semantics but for me it inserts that vital space necessary for enabling me to respond, rather than to react.

to do so of course requires labelling and thus going back to my much valued wheel of emotions, now looking a bit tattered and battered on the fridge door. it has been interesting for me to see how much I have set up camp in the top right hand corner, red and orange segments of the wheel. I consider these feelings to be normal responses to my current external circumstances, and so it doesn’t mean that I ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling them – it means that I need to keep them in perspective.

a final thing I have found immediately helpful is to ask myself the question,

“Is there anything I can do about this problem right now?”

if the answer is no, then it probably means that the problem is outside what Stephen Covey called my Circle of Influence. there’s an article on that here, if you haven’t come across that term before. which means I should let it go, focus on something inside my Circle of Influence, and conserve my energies for problems where there is something I can do about them. I wonder whether the UK as a whole may have considerably cleaner kitchen floors, well mown lawns, and tidier cupboards under the stairs than it did last Thursday?

sending you love and poetry for your weekend! Prim xx

heartsick

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as you may well be aware, the results of the UK referendum on whether to leave the EU came out yesterday. I am trying to find some sort of acceptance of what seems to me a truly terrible outcome.

the factors which were most important to me in coming to my own decision to vote to remain in the EU were economic factors and those of tolerance and inclusion. I am not alone in finding it difficult to comprehend the decision of 51.9% of people in this country of mine.

three things to consider here: what is upsetting me, what I believe, and what I think happens next.

there are what I consider to be strong, valid arguments for exiting the EU. I disagree with those arguments, but respect them. I appreciate that, actually, no-one really knows what the economic impact will be of a decision either way, and so can tell myself that who knows? maybe it won’t be that bad.

what is upsetting me is my belief that many of that 51.9% based their decision on beliefs rooted in intolerance and ignorance. that my fellow countrymen and women are not the people I thought and hoped that they were.

what is upsetting me is the deep divisions in our society, and what that will mean for my children in their future.

what is upsetting me is the message it has sent to others around the world, within Europe and beyond. I am also saddened at the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom, with the likelihood of another independence referendum for Scotland.

I am with Winston Churchill, who said that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ 

I believe that many decent, thoughtful people will have voted to leave for reasons that were priorities to them. the fact that I do not hold those same values does not make those votes invalid: it makes them part of the jigsaw of what I want for this country, to be a place where all such votes are counted and valued equally. I would like to believe that every one of those voting to exit voted in this way – to do so would certainly make life easier for me. unfortunately, my head tells me that they did not.

I think that there will be a period now of uncertainty and political upheaval.

I think that there is very little possibility now that we will not leave the EU, so I need to accept that.

I think that worrying about things I cannot control is like stabbing holes in the sides of my own life-raft and then worrying that it will sink. far better to put down the penknife, pick up the oars, and start paddling.

sending good thoughts to those reading this in the UK, in the rest of Europe, and around the world, particularly those in the US for your upcoming elections.

doing what I have learnt to do:

go for a run. keep my family close. practice gratitude. don’t eat ALL the cakes – one is fine. reach out to online and real-life friends. try and find some hope.

Choosing

this is the first in what may be a few posts arising from thoughts I’ve had since doing Belle’s podcast. I’ve been mulling much over and they are coming to the surface bit by bit!

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I am currently re-reading Rick Hanson’s fantastic book ‘Buddha’s Brain’, in which he quotes the Nepalese Buddhist teacher and master, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, as saying:

‘Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.’

the process of becoming aware of my mental afflictions has certainly been less than comfortable, and the process of doing something about them even more so. I have talked through my pre-contemplation and contemplation stages of change with other sober people before, but doing so with Belle really gave me a perspective upon them that I found quite disturbing. when casting my mind back to those dark days, it is easy to fall back into the self-condemnatory talk of that time and judge myself harshly for taking so long to come to the realisation that I needed to stop drinking. I am focusing on ‘when we know better, we do better’ (my Maya Angelou mantra) and forgiving myself for all that is past, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer…

another aspect that came to me very strongly when thinking about the podcast is that my pattern of stopping drinking is not a common one. I am very aware that it is sadly quite rare to not have relapsed (insert obligatory *yet* here). if I were someone listening to that podcast who had experienced the far more frequent path of one or more relapses, I worry that someone could easily become discouraged at my proceeding through sobriety without the hiccups he or she had experienced.

I’ve written before here about my survivor guilt about this, and Mished in particular has given very helpful comments, saying that my role can be to show that relapse need not be a part of recovery. and I am content with that role, whilst at the same time acknowledging that there is a gap in my experience.

so, as I am unable to offer my own experience in this area, I thought I might use this space as a place where others might do so. All comments welcome as ever, but I would be particularly be interested to hear from anyone who has had more than one attempt before achieving a period of what they felt was stable sobriety (I would not like to define this for anyone else – but for me I felt relatively stable some time around six months sober).

in particular:

– what was the period from when you started to attempt complete abstinence, until your final Day One?
– what did you think changed to enable you to achieve your final Day One? was it a change in a behaviour? a change in a belief or thought process? an change in an external circumstance? a combination of any of these?
– how long did it take for you to achieve what you feel is ‘stable’ sobriety?
– how do you feel about that period of struggle now? what did it teach you?

if you’d rather not leave your answers as a comment, you can also email me on primrosebeatingwolfie@outlook.com and I will add your words to the post for you.

I am interested in others’ answers to these questions – not because I think there is ‘an answer’ out there which could magically save those who are struggling – but because I think anyone who is struggling needs to know that others have done so, and made it out of the maze.

because my experience has been that hope is the string that can guide us out.

Maze at Glendurgan, Cornwall.

what’s new round here?

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image credit: guyawford.com

well, it’s the English asparagus season, of course. nicest I think when roasted with olive oil and flakes of sea salt.

in other news I am still adapting to the recent technological constraints on my sober blogging. I am now getting used to using the family computer rather than my laptop, which has been quite a change for me. my laptop is (obviously!) location independent and as private as I wish it to be, whereas the family computer is in a highly visible spot and I can only really be reliably alone with it before the rest of the family get up. also I am getting used to its settings which as a techno-idiot is challenging. I have discovered private browsing and am hoping perhaps unrealistically that my children have not discovered it too😉

it is as if I were a keen runner and suddenly found not just that I could only exercise at one particular time of day, but also I had to use an stationary exercise bike that was totally unfamiliar to me. I found the restraint highly irksome at first, preferring rather to use my phone to visit sober blogs. but then I found that I couldn’t comment as I’d wish to, as I couldn’t mentally compose comments when I couldn’t see on the screen what the post had said and what I’d said… bah…. so I mentally bookmarked those posts to comment later so I felt I had a back-log of comments I wanted to leave, and I missed the connection with others.

also bizarrely at the same time I discovered that the silver ring I bought myself to mark my two years sobriety, which I’d got into the habit of not taking off, had been digging into my finger and had left a ridge under the skin which was becoming painful. so I realised I would have to leave the ring off, till the ridge healed itself, and perhaps not wear it again, which made me sad. I could have it re-sized but it is engraved inside so I don’t know whether that’s possible.

and because I have been wearing it as a sobriety token for the last 7 months it made me feel unexpectedly wobbly not to have it on my hand. not ‘I’m going to drink now’ sort of wobbly, but ‘oh, where’s my recovery talisman gone?’

I have to catch myself at these sort of times in not seeing all this as A Sign that I should, literally, be wearing my recovery more loosely – that I need to be on guard in case my recovery becomes constrictive of my new sober life. watching Amy Schumer’s video on The Universe (which I think I’ve put on here before but I love so will link to again) is helpful when I succumb to these tendencies😉

listening to one of Belle’s One Minute Messages the other day I heard something helpful in this regard. she said:

the reason to keep in touch with my recovery supports is that my new life is built upon my sobriety. 

I am catching up with comments here and elsewhere so hopefully I will get used to the new arrangements. making my recovery check-in more deliberate is possibly a good thing.

so, that’s what I’ve been up to. wobbling and eating asparagus. how about you?