Three types of fear

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looking for a suitable image for my posts often helps me write the post itself. I chose this image because the kind of fear I’m talking about isn’t the sort that protects you when you cross the road, or the kind of fear connected with circumstances and events that we cannot control, such as the recent tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, which has saddened and distressed all those who hear of it.

the type of fear I’m talking about is the kind of fear about a specific circumstance that keeps us small, and trapped, and feeling as if there is no way to take the lid off the jar because we can’t get at it, because we are inside the damn jar.

if you are reading this then it is a fair bet that you are either not drinking any more, or that you are trying not to drink any more, or that you are thinking about it. so this post applies certainly to stopping drinking, but also perhaps to any other change or circumstance within your control, or where at the very least your response to that circumstance is within your control.

I’m listening to a lot of podcasts at the moment and I heard one recently that has been reverberating in my brain ever since. it was from Brendon Burchard, whom I listen to when I need a burst of energy and positivity although it has to be said he is definitely on the Gorgonzola end of the podcast spectrum and so may not be your cup of tea 😉

you can see an 11 minute video or read a transcript of the podcast here.

Brendon’s premise is that we are afraid of three types of pain:

  • loss pain
  • process pain
  • outcome pain

one thing I have found very helpful is the realisation that every behaviour has a purpose. so if I am behaving in a certain way, which I cannot understand or explain, then there is a behavioural payoff for that behaviour,  and if I can identify that behavioural payoff it will help me untangle and unpick my own motivation so as to re-orient the behaviour in the direction that I truly desire.

if you are trying and struggling to change a behaviour, would it be helpful for you to try and identify what pain you are trying to avoid?

are you trying to avoid the pain of loss? are you worried, for example, about losing the connection to others that you think can only be found when alcohol is in your glasses (not true, obvs)? Brendon suggests that instead of focusing on the loss that we focus on what we gain in making a change. I would also suggest that we seek other ways of obtaining what we are worried about losing – for example by forming new connections with others in a sober community.

are we trying to avoid the pain of the process? bearing in mind that anticipatory anxiety often means that the anticipation of the process is nearly always worse than the process itself….

here Brendon recommends that we reframe challenge as a good thing as it is how we achieve growth, variety and spice in our lives. this is difficult to do when we are feeling weak, scared and vulnerable. I would suggest that we need to orchestrate a series of small wins, minute by minute, day by day, and linking rewards to the new behaviour until we can feel stronger and empowered by our progress itself.

lastly, am I trying to avoid outcome pain? suppose we try and we struggle and it isn’t worth all the effort? or what if the outcome is something that now feels unbearable? that our marriage doesn’t survive a one-sided sobriety, or that your job isn’t enough once we are sober? here I would suggest that reading others’ experiences can reassure us that it is worth it, that when we are sober then we can handle whatever life throws at us. from my own perspective at over three and a half years sober, there is no outcome of sobriety that does not hugely outweigh any minor losses, inconveniences, or trivial social discomforts.

I’ve been finding it hugely helpful to identify what pain I am anticipating in this way. perhaps you might, too?

if you have been experiencing a particular pain in reference to getting sober, how has that come out for you – as loss pain, process pain, or outcome pain? what have you found helpful in overcoming it? I’d love to hear your experience.

here’s the last couple of paragraphs of the talk:

‘When you’re obsessing about loss pain, process pain and outcome pain, the more you focus on those the more you obsess about those types of pain and your brain and body go no, don’t do that, I don’t want to experience that. We’ve been gifted with this incredible contraption that is unbelievably driven to avoid pain and when we realize that then we have to stop suffering in our minds and stewing in our minds about the pain we might experience if we do the very things that would improve our lives.

You and I both know what would improve our lives, why aren’t we doing it? Because somewhere there we’ve probably associated a lot of loss, process or outcome pain to it. So today might be a great day to sit down and say, what do I really want in my life? Why have I not been progressing faster? When you explore that question you might discover loss, process and outcome pain at work. You can flip it and focus on the gains, the joys and the positive outcomes. When you start doing that you’ll find yourself being that joyous master, getting further ahead in life and you might just find that life can feel fully charged once again.’

Have a great weekend, sober friends. Prim xx

Square It Up Friday

(I came across this image somewhere on Instagram and then promptly lost the source so apologies for not giving a photo credit. Must Try Harder.)

feeling a bit up and down here. Whatever ‘it’ is does get easier – then sometimes it gets more difficult again, then eases up again, and so it goes on.

still here, still plugging away. if you are in a slump – keep going. if you are watching a sunrise with a glad heart – enjoy, and save a space for me…

have a great weekend, sober warriors! Prim xx

the empiricist strikes back

beliefs can feel like a bolted and padlocked door – immovable, intransigent. we can sometimes see the beliefs of others better than we can understand our own.

I had a committee meeting last week where refreshments were to be served beforehand. having realised this I’d taken a herbal teabag tucked into my purse and helped myself to hot water from the urn, cheerfully declining offers of a glass of wine. so far, so usual.

what wasn’t usual was what happened after the meeting. I was talking to another committee member when the chairman of the meeting – let’s call him Tom – came up with a re-corked bottle of wine and asked the woman I was speaking to if she’d like to take it home with her, as otherwise it would go to waste. She looked at him and said,

“Tom, I don’t drink.”

to which he said, “Ah yes, that’s right” and then offered the bottle to me. which was slightly confusing, since I thought that Tom and I had already had That Talk, but he’d obviously forgotten. So I got to have a fucking amazing sober “I’m Spartacus!” moment by repeating,

“Tom, I don’t drink.”

he literally stepped back in consternation at this response, and I added, “I thought you knew that, Tom, I talked about it to you when we came to dinner at your house, if you remember?” 

Tom’s wife is nodding in agreement with this beside him, and then Tom asked,

“Have you never drunk, or did you used to drink?”

which is a beggar of a question, with all sorts of stuff behind it. what difference does it make either way? it only matters so that Tom can put a nice tidy label on my head – either ‘weird person who doesn’t enjoy the taste or effect of alcohol’ or ‘person who HAD A REASON for stopping drinking’. and the only person who cares about that is someone for whom alcohol is quite important, actually, and they Need To Know.

I replied quite carefully by merely answering the actual question, saying that I used to drink but that I don’t drink now. and then the conversation widened into Tom mentioning another person who he knows who used to drink but doesn’t now – and why – and the woman next to me explaining why she doesn’t drink, and I couldn’t be arsed with the justification, to be quite honest, so I let them all talk about why other people don’t drink and said nothing about my Big Why, because actually it is no-one else’s business but my own and no-one was asking me in the right way (the right way is hardly ever in a general conversation, incidentally, but usually in a one-to-one chat in which you can gauge why the other person is asking and therefore which of stock answers A, B or C one wishes to give.)

it is rare for me to bump up against the Big Why question from another person these days. most people close to me know I don’t drink and I have talked to them about it at a level appropriate for both our relationship and for their relationship to alcohol.

the best answer I can give nowadays is the empirical one.

that I have tried drinking, and I have tried not drinking, and my life is better when I don’t drink, so I don’t drink.

that when I don’t drink, I use other ways to change how I feel, and those other ways work better.

to borrow another sober blogger’s phrase: that I am happier like this.

I was going to write a post about labels, and whether or not the word alcoholic is useful, but then Laura wrote such a splendid one on this very topic that it spared me the trouble! go and read it here if you haven’t already. in that post she also links to Aiden Donnelley Rowley’s writing. Aiden is another empiricist. she has been writing and asking and living questions about her life, including her relationship with alcohol, for a while. I read her blog when she did a year without wine but lost touch with her after that. I am so glad she is continuing to write and to gather evidence. here’s a post of hers on choosing the dry life – a great read. and not because she has come down on the side of not-drinking – I am far less black and white about that than I used to be – but because she is finding out what is right for her, and that is the only thing that matters, not what others think or say or do.

the other thing I wanted to record for myself here was how unrattled I felt by the above conversation. how comfortable I felt in my own skin, stating my truth, not feeling obliged to over-explain or apologise. in my first months of sobriety that level of sang-froid seemed like something impossible, unachievable. facing questions as to why I wasn’t drinking seemed excruciating, revealing of what I perceived then to be my secret flaw, my dark secret. it is not given to us to go back in time machines and tell ourselves these things… but it is possible for us to speak our truths so that others may hear and perhaps believe that it might be possible for them, too.

here is my truth: I have learnt that our own beliefs about ourselves and how the world works can change.

if you are struggling today, please know that doors can be opened. what seems impossible can come with time and effort and persistence. that perhaps all I ever had to do was turn the handle and take that step through the doorway.

‘Still Standing’ by Dominic Walter

have a great weekend, sober warriors! Prim xx

Square It Up Friday

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so what does this square have to do with sobriety?!

well, it made me smile on a recent difficult day, so that alone is enough. finding something – anything – to smile about can sometimes seem near impossible. and, of course, Tom Hardy has been clean and sober since 2002 and works with a variety of organisations such as The Prince’s Trust to encourage others to do the same.

having spent far too long on the internet looking for a Tom Hardy image or clip to include on this post, this has to be my favourite. The BBC chose Tom Hardy this year to read the bedtime story on the children’s channel on Valentine’s Day and on Mother’s Day. An inspired choice for tired mothers everywhere! Tom and his dog. sigh…

Sending love and Tom Hardy to you all, sober warriors, as a small thank you for your unfailing support! Prim xx

dark skies overhead

As a fisherman waits patiently for the fish to bite, Tavurvur belches ash and pumice into the twilight. Papua New Guinea, 2008. Image credit: Taro Taylor.

the test results for my father in law show that he has terminal cancer. I want to write about this here but am suffused by a realisation that much of this is not my stuff to discuss. so I will feel my way through as best I can, limiting my thoughts here to how the situation affects me and my sobriety.

I am doing ok. sadder than I thought I was going to be, perhaps, but less anxious. we have had eight days of waiting for the test results and in that time I found the concept of anticipatory anxiety very helpful (which I wrote about here). in that post I quote from a article which says,

anticipatory anxiety is not a true predictor of how much anxiety we will feel in the actual situation.  Although it is impossible to predict with total accuracy, the fact is that 95% of the time, anticipatory anxiety is much greater than the anxiety we experience when we actually make contact with what frightens us.’

I find this concept hugely calming when the dark clouds loom large overhead.

in my last post I wrote that I was looking for support from those who understood this position, and afterwards I thought, and who are they, exactly?

one online resource I found helpful was the cancer section of the verywell.com website, which went into the right level of detail for me about the specific cancer which my father in law is experiencing. another good website is cancerresearchuk.org who also offer a helpline to cancer specialist nurses.

but possibly my most valuable resource is the writings of Kate Gross, whom I first came across in 2014 in this Telegraph article, ‘What to say to a 35-year-old mother dying of cancer’.  I read the article, and then her wonderful blog in which she documented the inexorable progress of The Nuisance, and then her luminous, hilarious, heart-rending book.

in the Telegraph article she includes the concept of the support spiral, starting in the centre with the cancer sufferer, then spiralling outwards through partner, children, family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, friends of friends and the world at large. she says:

Where you sit in the spiral defines how you behave. The rule is simple: you provide support to those closer to the centre than you. And you expect support from those further out than you. So, to put it bluntly, you can only emotionally dump on people in circles further out than your own. 

Personally, I’m not averse to being wept on (it makes me feel special and a bit saintly) but in general, save your tears. Of course you are sad that I am dying, but most of the time I just don’t need to hear you snuffle snottily that you are so devastated that I am going to leave my children motherless. Hold it together, and weep on someone further outside your circle. And think about what you can do – practically, emotionally or otherwise – to support someone closer to the epicentre. If not the patient, their partner, mother, children, best friend. This is a powerful and important rule and I suspect you will find it applicable to almost any family crisis you find yourself involved in, whether you are rocked by the blast yourself or just dazed by distant aftershocks. 

Once you have steeled yourself not to cry, got over the threshold and said something to us, the real fun begins. Because actually, things haven’t changed. Life has to go on, and no family with small children can exist permanently in a bubble of pain, whether pre-emptive or actual. And we have chosen to angle our chairs towards the sunlight, following the words of Jane Hirshfield’s precious poem: “I moved my chair into the sun/ I sat in the sun/ The way hunger is moved when called fasting.” 

So, as you sit in the sun with us we don’t need you to be different, to suddenly speak only of serious matters or hold our words in some precious reverence. We are not made of glass; in fact, this experience reveals our family has a nugget of pure, rough diamond at our core. And you are still the same friends and family we have always loved, and what we need are people who will go on loving us.”

Kate Gross on assignment in Africa

Of course, there are also practical things you can do. But those will differ from family to family and you will have to work hard to find out what they are, to establish a rhythm of assistance which supports but doesn’t intrude. There is a wonderful book called What Can I do to Help? by Deborah Hutton, which I highly recommend. 

The key is to ask what we need and if you are met with silence, make suggestions. And then ask again in six months’ time, because the chances are that that is the point at which everyone else will have stopped offering help and your support will be really needed. And if you still don’t get an answer? Well, maybe just do it. Managing all the help that is offered in a time of crisis is tiring. Sometimes I just want someone to sweep in uninvited and quietly do the ironing.”

I was going to write ‘so my primary role is to support my husband’, but that’s not quite true. that is my role in this situation, but my role in my own life is to continue to try to bring my best self out to play in any and all situations. and to do that, I have to be sober.

so it is still sober first, here. for the record, I had zero urge to drink on the day that we heard the news, which is a relief. ongoing self-care going on here, reaching out.

thanks for listening, sober compadres. you are just the best, you know? Prim xx

Fasten seat belts sign illuminated

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tough times here at the moment. I try not to include too many family details on this blog out of a wish to preserve my anonymity… but if anyone reading this thinks they know me then they probably do (and in that case if you are reading a sober blog then yes you probably are drinking too much! please please talk to me about it!)

my father in law has been hospitalised with some serious health issues. we are waiting for the results of tests.

waiting. ugh.

this is not my first rodeo. we have lost my father and my mother in law in recent years. I am all too familiar with the ghastly tango danced between hope and thinking the worst, and the current scenario brings back sad and painful memories of our previous losses. I know that my previous hard-won experience will help me through the coming days, but I also want to shake my fist at the sky and yell, “Really? Our turn? Again?” 

as Belle so wisely says, we should look for support from those who can support us. I am doing so elsewhere with those who have experience and knowledge of these particular circumstances, but I wanted to document this time here with reference to how it affects my own well being and sobriety.

a dear friend advised me to fasten my seat belt and that is what I am doing. putting self-care (sleep, running, eating well, time off) on the agenda. ruthlessly eliminating non-key priorities. reaching out to others for support, focusing on my nearest and dearest and being enormously grateful every day for the little joys in life, like running past a bank of primroses in the rain and having their scent drift up to me like a wave of honey.

the idea of drinking right now seems positively repellent. how could I deliberately handicap myself when I need my inner strength and equilibrium more than ever? but I know the risk is heightened so I am putting my anti-Wolfie regime on higher alert, emailing Belle and checking in more often on sober blogs. so if you could all please write a little more often to give me something to read, that would be appreciated 😉

as a symptom of this Code Red status I had a drinking dream last night. I was startled to recall it this morning. in the dream I was in transit between unknown locations, and ‘accidentally’ had a large gin and tonic. in my drinking days, wine was my bread and butter, but gin was what I consumed when I needed that sledgehammer to the brain. as Douglas Adams described the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster – ‘having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.’  so in the dream having drunk the gin and tonic, I then ‘remembered’ that I had been having the odd drink throughout my sobriety, so I did not actually have three plus years of sobriety.

I’ve had this dream, with minor variations, perhaps three or four times in the last couple of years, at times of increased stress. I find it interesting that even in the dream I then return to sobriety – it is not an ongoing relapse. and also interesting that in my dream my identity as a sober person is threatened – when this is so key to my ongoing identity in real life. the only other thing I remember from the dream is having the thought, after drinking – “oh bugger, I was supposed to check in with Lou if I was at the point of drinking, and I forgot!” I see the dream as an indication that my brain is self-monitoring too, and dealing with any subconscious urges to drink for me while I sleep, smashing them over the boundary like Viv Richards.

I know that my emotional processing abilities, together with the ability to ask for and accept help from others, have both grown immensely in the last three plus years. I may need all those skills in the coming days. thank you for helping me to learn them and, as ever, for being here. Prim xx

Square It Up Friday

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what are you willing to do to be sober?

I’m not talking about wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ and plannin’ and dreamin’ (thank you, Dusty). I’m talking about doing. That could be choosing to turn down that invitation to go out with all your closest (read: drinking) buddies. Or it could be having the difficult conversation with your partner, or eating beans on toast every night for endless days because cooking anything more complicated is just TOO MUCH at the witching hour in the early days.

For me mostly what I had to do was to get through a crappy day in the belief that it would get better. It did, and it was worth it.

The answer needs to be “I will do whatever it takes.”

I am doing it. Countless others have done it.

You can do it too.

Have a great weekend, sober friends! Prim xx

“D’you ever feel as if everything you do is gonna end in failure – and flames – because you are inherently bad – on the inside?”

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‘Woman with folded arms’, Pablo Picasso, 1902

this is going to be one of my scrapbook posts, in which I record thoughts and writings other than my own which have been helpful to me, primarily to make them more concrete for myself, but also in case they may help others too.

the title to this post is a quote from a fantastic Since Right Now podcast, ‘Don’t Panic’, in which the hosts, Jeff, Matt and Chris, discuss anxiety and depression and in particular an anxiety episode which Matt had just been going through. If you have ever been subject to persistent negative thinking patterns, rumination, over-thinking, or anxiety spirals, I would very highly recommend listening to the episode. You can find links here to listen to it on iTunes, or Soundcloud, or whatever suits you best.

Matt has been in recovery since April 2014, so coming up for three years soon. Jeff and Chris both have even longer sober time. So these are guys who are well into long term recovery, talking about dealing with one of the most difficult thought patterns.

I’ve listened to this episode several times. the first time I was just blown away by the acuity of Matt’s descriptions – epitomised in this post title – of what it is like to be in the middle of an anxiety spiral. in subsequent listenings I have been enormously helped by the perspective of the other speakers, Jeff and Chris, and their willingness to help Matt understand how he reached such a point and to appreciate the universality of such intense feelings.

understanding that universality has been a HUGE thing for me, and I am enormously grateful for all those whom I read and to whom I listen, who constantly show me that I am never alone, even in my very darkest moments.

I should hastily say here that I am not at a low point myself right at this moment. life is pretty damn good, though work and family are both hectic. however I recognise this description very well from my own past experience and still feel a pull towards it at times, which I am learning increasingly to recognise and head off at the pass before it overwhelms me.

another concept I’ve discovered recently which I’ve found really helpful on this front is the concept of the amygdala hijack, a term coined by Daniel Goleman.

when I think of a hijacker, my brain conjures up an image of an aeroplane filled with terrified passengers and a wild-eyed hijacker waving a machine gun around and demanding that the plane be taken where HE wants to go. all that hi-jacker wants is to feel safe, and that is what our amygdala is trying to achieve for us, by fair means or foul.

the counter to the amygdala hijack is to re-engage our prefrontal cortices, which is shown brilliantly in this Dan Siegel Youtube video, where he uses a hand as model of the brain and shows how to avoid ‘flipping your lid’. I’ve linked to this video several times before on this blog, but I seemed to need to remind myself of it today 😉

one last piece for the scrapbook – I came across a new-to-me idea about interrupting negative thought patterns, and now I can’t find where it came from! so if you recognise it, please do let me know so I can link.

it’s called the BUT strategy. when you find yourself mentally reciting negative thoughts, you interrupt them with a BUT and then add a more positive end to the sentence. eg

“I’m terrible at parallel parking BUT I will go slowly and make sure I and everyone around me stays safe.” or

“I don’t think I can handle this dinner party without drinking BUT I will tell the hostess beforehand that I won’t be drinking tonight and bring something delicious and non-alcoholic for me to drink.”

and finally, to continue the butt theme, and because it’s Sunday afternoon, and I love you all so much, here’s a link to an article showing detailed naked footage of the 24 best man-butts in Hollywood. my vote goes to no 6, Hugh Jackman, but I think you’d better check (cheek?!) for yourself 🙂

Have a great week, sober peeps! Prim xx

In which Primrose visits a wine merchant (for all of eight seconds)

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On a recent outing Mr P asked me, “Is it okay if we pop in here for a minute? I want to buy a bottle to take with us to the lunch on Sunday.”

My reaction was um, yes, all right, so in we went.

It was the sort of small independent wine merchant that models itself on a Victorian haberdashery, all mahogany shelving, wicker basketry and individual hand-written love notes tied around the neck of each bottle in black ink on brown paper labels tied on with string. The underlying message being that alcohol is a normal and even necessary part of ‘the good life’….

I was startled by the klaxons going off immediately in my head, like in the TV series ‘Lost in Space’ where the robot blares out “Danger, Will Robinson!”

Telling a surprised-looking Mr P, “I’ll be in the art shop across the road, all right?” I shot out of the wine merchant as if all my sober buddies had taken me firmly by the shoulders and frog marched me out (which in many ways of course, you were doing, so thank you!)

It’s not so often nowadays that I write on the blog about alcohol related issues in respect of my own drinking/not drinking, I think. Most of the issues in my life tend to be not alcohol problems, but what could be called BMW problems:

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Not that I have a BMW! No, I mean Busy Middle-aged Woman problems, such as how to shoehorn the cost of driving lessons for my teenager into the household budget, or trying new tactics to deal with the peri-menopausal flourishing of my eyebrows which does not include plaiting them like a dressage pony’s mane…

I am glad that my early-warning system is so sensitive to potential dangers, protecting me from the harmful-for-me myth of moderation. I will listen to it and respect it – because it knows bull-shit when it sees it!

Sober first, folks. Have a fantastic weekend! Prim xx