This Will Be Our Year

the title of this post is that of a song by The Zombies which I’ve had on my brain for the last few days. as usual my musical references here are totally bang up to date 😉 I love this song for its mix of optimism and pain which seems appropriate for today when many of us are thinking new thoughts, trying new things, whilst maybe already prepared a little bit in our hearts that it won’t work, can’t work, because it never has.

there’s a name for this phenomenon – sabotaging ourselves by our own belief that we can’t do something, even as we try to do so for the umpteenth time. it’s called learned helplessness. I discovered it after listening to my own podcast with Belle. we had been talking about why I believed that I wouldn’t be able to stop drinking, because I hadn’t been able to moderate. And Belle asked me, “So, you can’t do hard things?” and I replied, with utter certainty in my voice, “No, I can’t.”

and we had sort of been talking in the past tense, so my answer sort of related to my beliefs in the past – except, of course, that it didn’t, it bloody didn’t, and I’ve been trying to come up with a different answer to that question ever since.

There’s a lot of information out there about learned helplessness, most of it referring to some pretty ghastly experiments involving dogs and electric shocks. the basic premise is that as humans, if we fail enough times at something, we stop trying. the best (and most hopeful) summary I’ve found is on the podcast You Are Not So Smart which you can listen to here. in that podcast they describe the way out of learned helplessness (involving CBT techniques) to change what is called one’s explanatory style. if something goes wrong in one’s life, then it can be tempting to ascribe it to causes which are personal, permanent and pervasive.

e.g. “I drank again because I’m a fuck-up. I always will be, and I am in everything I do.” 

(NB – I could have saved myself a lot of notebooks in the last three years of my drinking if I had just written this on a postcard once and for all.)

whereas in fact the cause could well be external, impermanent, and specific:

“I drank again because I let myself get hungry and tired. In future I will…xyz, and remember that I am an excellent *whatever you are proud of yourself for doing* “

if this former, acutely painful attributional style is a behaviour, then what are we getting out of it? I have blogged previously that every behaviour serves a purpose.

could it be that this belief saves us from the necessity of doing the hard work that is necessary to make a change? because, after all, if it is true, then there is no point in doing that hard work – so I am off the hook. I am squirming here as I write this – I am longterm sober now yes but I have a whole understairs cupboard of other behaviours that I keep closing the door on and ignoring…

if today is your first day sober, please know that you are not alone, that it is possible to change, and that others have done so. the question of whether it is possible for you to change is like a snake biting its own tail. if you have come to believe that you cannot change then that will make it difficult, maybe even impossible, for you to do so. it depends to a significant extent what you are trying to fix… I can’t remember where I read this and please do let me know if you recognise the quote, but if I ask myself the question

“Am I fixing my feelings, or fixing my behaviour?” 

then it usually throws an uncomfortable light on the situation. the impulse to change is a powerful one, but if I am doing it to make myself feel better, without accompanying it with the painful necessary behaviour change, then the impulse will soon peak and crash without achieving its objective. and then I re-commit to another feelings-fix, then crash and burn again, and the snake goes round and round.

there is a world of support and tools available for us, whatever we are trying to achieve, online and elsewhere. they can help us, but we need to seek them out and use them.

that is my wish for me (and perhaps too for you?) for 2017 – that I work out what it takes to change my behaviour, and DO THAT THING.

if your Big Thing is not-drinking, and you would like to show yourself that you can DO SOMETHING, however small, towards that – would you please consider leaving a comment here below? especially if you haven’t commented on a blog before, or if you have been round the non-drinking block once or a gazillion times before.

I’d truly love to hear from you. it’s our year, after all, and I’d like to get to know you!

with all best wishes, Prim xx

PS if you haven’t already done so, please go and read Lou’s post today. it’s a corker!

singing my recovery song

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I was at a carol concert last night and was struck as always by the immense power of music to buoy us up and weld us together as a community. if my recovery had a song, it would have to be – as I suspect it might be for many others – Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, which I remember hearing in the early dark days and feeling it like a splinter in my heart, cracking the shell of pain and fear and opening me wide to feeling and emotion again.

after Leonard Cohen died earlier this year a friend sent me this version by Choir! Choir! Choir! with Rufus Wainwright and 1,500 singers in the Hearn Generating Station, Toronto.

I thought I’d post it now, when it can feel very lonely to be sober – as if you are busking, solo and probably badly, with passers-by ignoring your efforts or even mocking you.

whereas in fact you are part of a HUGE community, online or otherwise, raising their voices in unison and hope. a tremendous variety of people, united in their belief that life can be better than it was, and a preparedness to do whatever it takes to achieve that.

keep singing, my friends! Prim xx

What a fourth sober Christmas feels like

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I’ve written about my first, second and third sober Christmases in the past here (sorry, am on phone so can’t link but if you search on ‘Christmas’ in my blog you will find them, with a couple of images of Sean Connery thrown in for good measure).

It sounds too obvious even to mention but it’s usually the run-up to Christmas that is most stressful, rather than the day(s) itself. This year I seem to be more on top of things, much because I have been making more effort with the bleeding housework for the last couple of months, so the place is tidier and cleaner already with 5 days to go.

Ssome alcohol related milestones:

Having noticed we were out of white wine I offered to pick some up as part of the weekly shop. Since I stopped drinking my husband has been buying any alcohol that he drinks or that we offer to guests. I have bought the odd bottle here and there but not in bulk, not deliberately going into the alcohol aisle and perusing labels, choosing what wine would go with which food when I’m not going to be drinking it. I surprised myself slightly by offering to do that, and I don’t think I’ll be doing it on a regular basis. The actual doing of it was fine – I was more cynical than anything else, reading the marketing guff that wine labels consist of, translating it in my head into either ‘pretentious to be served to someone you want to impress’ or ‘glugging’. Smoke and mirrors, guys – it’s all just ethanol!

Had a dinner out with some friends and took along a bottle of pink non-alcoholic fizz. Having something which is a different colour is really helpful as there’s no chance to mix up your glass with something alcoholic. I felt pleased that I’d made it out into the boozy world and floated through it without feeling as affected by it as I have in previous years.

The last item is the trickiest to accept, for me… When I asked what they’d like for Christmas, a family member asked for an alcohol related item – the sort of accessory I would have appreciated in my drinking days. I bought it with hardly a pang, but the real twinge came later when I thought, “Hang on, they know bloody well I don’t drink – but they think it’s ok to ask me to buy something drink related?!”

I know that people who drink can have a pretty sketchy understanding of what not drinking is like. I get that, and I understand that the drinking norm is so deeply ingrained that this didn’t even raise a red flag for that person. I can choose to be hurt, or I can choose to let it go – my choice.

Overall I am pretty much over the whole idea of alcohol. I need to handle where the world’s attitude to it impinges upon my life, but it’s not something that has any significant power over me these days. That’s such a powerful, steady place to be, and I am so immensely grateful to have reached it.

Wishing you a peaceful and sober Christmas, my dear online friends! Prim xx

tunnel, towpath, or lock?

one of the purposes of this blog is to record insights that have come to me: new ways of thinking about things, whether hard-fought for or bolts from the blue. (my erratic typing just wrote that as ‘bolts from the blur’ which is often nearer the truth.)

one such insight came on a recent weekend when I was cycling along a canal tow-path, considerably to the rear of my children with their teenaged legs. the inland waterways of this country are a wonder of the Industrial Revolution. this map shows how comprehensive is their spread. even today there are 2,200 miles of navigable canals, which is almost as much as the 2,300 miles of motorways in the United Kingdom.

Map showing canals of the British Isles. Canals in orange, rivers in blue. image credit: Wikipedia

spurred on by the potential profits and un-encumbered by today’s worker safety legislation, those original engineers dug, blasted and constructed their way through the British landscape to make the impassable routes passable for a horse drawn vessel.

when the option was to build a tunnel, it became necessary to power the progress of a barge. one way was to use manpower in the form of hired ‘leggers’, who lay on their backs, tied onto boards on the sides of the barge, and physically walked the narrowboat through the tunnel. it was menial, arduous and dangerous work – there were cases of leggers drowning after falling from the boat.

Legging through the Butterley Tunnel on the Erewash Canal, Derbyshire, 1895.

Legging through the Butterley Tunnel on the Erewash Canal, Derbyshire, 1895.

for me the early days of recovery felt very much like legging through that tunnel – deeply uncomfortable, repetitive, and not sure if I would ever come out of it. and those phases still happen in my day to day life, too, however sober I am – days when the only option is to keep going and trust that I will see daylight soon.

what kept me going in those days was the promises of others that it gets easier, as in this wonderful post from Carrie which I read in November 2013 when I was less than a month sober.

the hope that eventually we will come to a sunlit towpath, and we will progress through life as effortlessly as a barge floating upon still waters drawn by a carthorse guided by a photogenic bandanna’d bargee with accompanying dog .

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image credit: tivertoncanal.co.uk

and yes, that happens, for a while at least – and thank goodness! but it is by no means the end of the story…

sometimes to get where we need to go, a level path is not going to get us there. floating along cannot change our elevation dramatically. for that, we need to navigate the locks in our lives.

the 5 Rise Locks at Bingley, Yorkshire

it is then we need to stop struggling, and just wait. allow something to flood into our lives. that thing is often just that priceless commodity: time, or something that comes with time, such as the returning trust of others. some might say that thing could be grace. others will experience a new, unsought for opportunity that appears to come from nowhere to change our lives, but in fact is in itself a function of our continuing to live according to our new principles.

for me sitting still and allowing change to work in me can be the hardest path of all.

when legging it is getting me precisely nowhere, it often turns out that I am not in a tunnel, after all, but in a lock. and vice versa: there is no point just sitting there hoping I am in a lock, when actually I need to put my hobnailed boots on and get going.

where are you, today? tunnel, towpath or lock? I’d love to hear. Prim xx

an enormously useful list of suggestions of how to change how we feel

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there was a great post recently on Mrs D’s website, where Sabien, an occupational therapist, gave her perspective on helping people in recovery. at the end of that post was a ‘Distress Management Checklist’ which gave a list of tools to use in changing how we feel when we are distressed.

this was one of the things I found most difficult in early recovery after decades of using alcohol as a kind of Swiss Army knife to manage all emotions. it can be hard to think of anything else to use, but this comprehensive list is a real eye-opener. I particularly liked how it is divided into the different senses – tools that come through the sensation of movement, or touch, smell, sound, sight and taste. do go and have a look if you need inspiration on how to change your emotional radio station.

we can take a fair-ground ride, or crochet. watch a fountain. cut a lemon in half, and inhale deeply. there are so many riches in life: let’s go and spend some!

 

thoughts from three years sober

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I came across this (sadly unattributed) image and was struck by how well it conveyed my experience after three years of sobriety.

I would hope I’ve changed because that’s what I yearned for – hence the name of this blog – and it has been bloody hard work. I’ve now been sober for as long as I was at university, for example – a period that seemed as lengthy and transformational as this one does.

I also love how the image shows the growth and new interaction of my head and heart. Thoughts and feelings are far less frequently at odds, and more likely to peacefully co-exist and reinforce one another.

Looking back over my third year of sobriety, I think it has resulted in improved relationships with those closest to me. My increasing ability to set appropriate boundaries, to be honest with others and most of all with myself, has had a cumulative effect over time which just keeps bearing new fruit.

In some ways I am a good deal less certain than I was in, say, from my six months sober to eighteen months sober. Reading some of my posts from that time they seem more ebullient, more confident, far more black and white in many ways. This was partly perhaps the relief I felt at having escaped the trap I had known I was in. I remember feeling as if I was nearly, surely, ‘done’ and had every expectation of the changes I was seeing fading to a mere trickle. Nowadays life can feel more like Mary Poppins’ handbag – the more I look for in it, the more extravagant and outrageously wonderful the things I find!

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I am also hugely grateful for the deepening friendships with those I’ve encountered through my online recovery, some of whom I am now privileged to consider real life friends. Your steadfast support, wisdom and humour are highly valued pillars of my ability to maintain any semblance of an even keel. I didn’t know, three years ago, that I needed you all so much, still less that you would be there every single time that I needed you. My belief in other people has skyrocketed in recovery. Thank you all, as ever.

I thought you might like to see my necklace I bought as a my three year present!  It is a pendant of three concentric silver circles around a crystal (mine is a clear one, not blue as in the picture below). I appreciate the symbolism of the circles expanding, as my life has expanded, around the clarity of my sobriety at the heart of it all.

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At the start of 2015, inspired by Mished, I chose a Word of the Year, which was ‘Peace’.  I then decided to start my next ‘word’ year at the start of my third year of recovery in November 2015, and my word for that year was ‘Attention’. The latter has been a real eye-opener, concentrating my focus on particular areas of my life and relationships, and I have worked hard to incorporate it into my day to day being.

Having spent a lot of time thinking over my word for my fourth year of recovery, I have decided upon ‘Choices’. It feels like a natural step on from ‘Attention’ – a declaration that I will not merely look, or consider, but take action. Also, it reflects the sage words of Albus Dumbledore:

“It is our choices, Harry, that tell us what we really are, far more than our abilities.”

Looking forward to making more exciting, terrifying and meaningful choices in your excellent company! Prim xx

Recovery cliche #76: running along a beach at sunrise

Okay – strictly speaking, running to beach then standing still for five minutes taking photos to show you lot 😁

I’ve never run along a beach at sunrise before. I am 2 years and 364 days sober today. This time 3 years ago I was also on holiday, but drinking, and so unhappy that it makes my stomach contract thinking about it. Tomorrow will be the last day of our holiday, and the last day of my third year sober.

I’m looking forward to going home and to some sober celebrations on Friday…The future’s so bright, I’ve gotta wear shades! Prim xx

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Scratching the surface

I don’t think I am particularly good at taking holidays.

I try to be. I consciously watch my children, relishing their energy, their quick-silver smiles, their healthy, strong bodies tussling in the pool or walking faster than I do up a coastal road. I have conversations with my husband which muse on the big things in our lives, conversations for which we have time and space, for once. I notice the light dancing on water, the scent of jasmine over a fence, an old man shelling a carrier bag of almonds on the beach at sunrise. I go for runs, switch off my phone (yes, really!) and float in warm seawater.

I do and see all those things, but the darkness still rushes in.

I woke this morning at 5.30 and before I opened my eyes the thoughts swarmed in of the work undone at home.

I worry that one of my children (the physically daring one, who climbs trees taller than houses and walks the top of five bar gates) will swim into an underwater cave and never return to us.

I receive a text message from home and let my interpretation of it drive my thoughts like a cowboy marshalling a herd of cattle towards a cliff.

And I know these worries are irrational – that’s the thing. They are a layer of darkness of my own creation, painted repeatedly and incessantly over the true glowing colours of my life.

Were you taught the technique as a child – often used for portraying firework displays, or bonfires – of crayoning a sheet of paper, then washing over it with black poster paint? When the dried paint is scratched away it reveals the contrasting brightness below.

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I’ve discovered that this technique has a name – scratchboard. I’ve discovered the illustrator Douglas Smith (I’ll put some links in later, please do Google him yourself).

This piece struck me hard – it sums up my own hollow eyed perfectionism uncomfortably well.

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This piece, on the other hand, shows how we can CHOOSE to reveal the colours beneath our own darkness:

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Stopping drinking has helped me understand that I have that choice, even if I have to re-make it seemingly constantly. Wishing you an emerald, coral and aquamarine day today! Prim xx

Sober postcard

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Second full day of sober holiday today. Yesterday had a nice run in the morning followed by a very lazy day reading by the pool – Kate Morton’s The Lake House, a terrifically gripping mystery novel.

We had asked for a welcome pack at our villa which unexpectedly contained a bottle of rose wine and a six pack of beer. The latter didn’t bother me but at six pm last night whilst getting ready to go out for dinner I could hear the wine singing madrigals to me from the fridge. I had forgotten to ask my husband to pick up some tonic water when he went shopping so there was no replacement drink available, drat it! I put on my headphones and listened to the latest Since Right Now podcast whilst drying my hair, which did the trick.

I’ve also followed Mrs D’s advice and created a sober kit which I keep in a little makeup bag. Mine has some scented tea lights, a vial of Penhaligon’s Bluebell, and a bottle of lavender essential oil. I will be reaching my three year soberversary on the day after we return to England, and my sober kit also includes the necklace I have bought myself to mark that, which I can look at to remind myself of who I am – a very sober woman!

There is also the edible version of the sober kit, packed separately as I don’t want everything to taste of lavender, too. A variety of Pukka herbal teabags, Nakd fruit and nut bars, and some Nakd Salted Caramel  Date nibbles which are delicious despite looking exactly like rabbit droppings. The last edible item is the Chilli and Lime Chocolate. I have a row of squares last thing at night so I always have something naughty to look forward to and avoid that dangerous feeling of deprivation.

right, off on today’s run now, shortly to be followed by tonic on the terrace, darlings. Holiday hugs to you all! Prim xx