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

As flat as a flounder eating pancakes in Norfolk

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Finally putting a photo of myself up on the blog.

bah.

writing to hoick myself out of the grumps – nothing major, possibly just far too many consecutive hours of rain meaning I am reduced to doing housework or paperwork, neither of which make me feel like a sparkling fountain of joy.

course correcting, by referring to my list of potential treats in the back of my diary. writing to you was on the list. tick.

tell me a joke, or a happy thing? Prim xx

she learned to open up her heart so that the whale could swim away

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The title of this post is a quote from ‘A Tale For The Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki.  You can read the extract where I did, in Gretchen Rubin’s great post here.

Ozeki’s compelling parable illustrates how we can let go of the largest, most seemingly impossible pain, such as that of grief, or loss, or addiction.

If you are struggling today, please know that it can be done, and that it is worth it.

Prim xx

First sober Saturday night?

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I might have to actually go and make one of these now, drat it.

Firstly, apologies for being hugely behind on responding to comments. Kids are still on holiday here (despite the fact that they haven’t been to school for what feels like about 17 weeks) and their presence severely cramps my access to computer…

I have been thinking a lot about anyone starting (or re-starting) their sober journey this January, and wanted to just send any such readers my sincerest words of congratulation, some virtual Victoria sponge cake, and a few links.

Firstly, here’s a post I wrote to myself-at-the-start-of-my-own-sobriety when I was 11 weeks sober. I thought you might like to read it because with hindsight I am still entirely gobsmacked at how much my life changed in such a short time. How much could your life change by mid-March?

Secondly, another post of mine about not mistaking getting sober for being sober. The former is like voluntarily sticking your arm in a red-ant hill – I know this. If I could give you one gift it would be the reassurance that the pain is worth it.

Lastly, if you do podcasts, here’s a great one with Glennon Doyle Melton on Eric Zimmer’s The One You Feed. In it they discuss, among other things, how we can’t selectively repress emotions, the power of the words “Me, too” and how getting sober is like recovering from frostbite.

More soon!  Hang in there, sober heroes! Prim xx

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!