Year 5 sobriety report

I have been reflecting on how far I’ve come since I put down the bottle five years and two months ago. It’s 40 degrees Celsius outside and a good time for quiet thoughts in the shade near the oscillating fan.

What amazes me most is how quiet my thoughts have been in the last few years. Those of us who have fought alcoholism or addiction would know how loud and unhelpful our inner voices can be.

I still have strong emotions but I am better equipped to name those feelings, to wait until the uncomfortable wave subsides and to pause before speaking & acting.

I review each day and think about situations I could have handled better. And I frequently do and say dumb things, get it wrong, and issue far more apologies than I’d like. But the key point is I hold myself personally accountable and strive to be a better person.

When I have a problem that baffles me I ask for advice. While I no longer go to AA, I still call my sponsor regularly to check in as any good friend would. But I rely mostly on family and friends, who have been my North Star all along.

I guess this is what normies experience, but maybe not. Everyone carries baggage, and no one is without their faults. I guess it comes down to whether we are willing to be critically self-reflective and prepared to more closely align our words and actions with our deeply held values.

I had to change my thinking to save my life. Since then I’ve found peace and physical health in trail running and have lost 25 kilograms in the process. I marked my 5th anniversary of sobriety with a 50 kilometre ultra-marathon in hilly terrain. Five years ago I struggled to get off the couch.

I went to a wedding the other week and was reminded, while being splashed with sparkling wine by a party bus buddy who had had several too many and couldn’t keep their glass upright, of the type of drinking I used to do. It’s messy. It must have hurt like hell the next day. And I don’t miss it at all.

Boundaries

I have found that setting healthy boundaries in my relationships with others has been a key part of self care. Setting boundaries is empowering, but can be difficult for those of us (recovering from) low self-esteem. We need to have the courage to stick to our values, respect and look after ourselves, even when we may upset or disappoint others. In doing so, we must always respect the boundaries of other people.

Setting boundaries is how I define the kinds of behaviour I find acceptable or safe in other people, and how I respond when someone crosses the line.

A few helpful things to remember about boundary-setting are:

  • remember, it is OK to say no
  • be clear with yourself what type of treatment you will accept and what you will not. For example, if you value monogamy in an intimate relationship – make this clear from the beginning. Likewise if you prefer open relationships. The main thing is that each of you has to be clear on what to expect from the other partner(s).
  • accept that some people will not respect your boundaries. This goes back to the AA message that we are only responsible for our own words and actions, and cannot control other people, and
  • give yourself permission to limit or end contact with people who cross or disrespect your boundaries. Sometimes this is the healthiest thing you can do!

This resource describes different types of boundaries one might set and offers tips for setting those boundaries.

Compassionate/non-violent communication

Setting healthy boundaries is all about communication.  While I am not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundaries I am setting, I am responsible for
communicating my boundaries in a compassionate and respectful way.

A friend who I greatly respect and admire recently introduced me to the work of Marshall B. Rosenberg on non-violent communication (NVC). I have been listening to the Art of NVC podcasts on Spotify, but you can read Chapter One of his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life here.

NVC is a tool for getting your message across in difficult conversations, while at the same time empathising with the other person’s feelings. I’m just learning the basics at the moment and have realised that it will take practice in order for me to be able to use the technique confidently in the heat of the moment, for example when there is a disagreement with a loved one or work colleague.

The NVC process has four components:

First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what  are  we  observing  others  saying  or  doing that is either enriching or not enriching our  life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgement or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like.

[Second], we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated?

And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we  are.

For example, a mother  might  express  these  three  pieces to  her teenage son by saying, “Felix, when I see two balls of  soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I  am needing more order  in the rooms  that we share in common.”

She would follow immediately with the fourth component—a very specific request: “Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?” This fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for  us.

Thus, part of NVC is to express these four pieces of information very clearly, whether verbally or by other means. The other part of this communication consists of receiving the same four pieces of information from others. We connect with them by first sensing what they are observing, feeling, and needing; then we discover what would enrich their lives by receiving the fourth piece—their request.

As we keep our attention focused on the areas mentioned, and help others do likewise, we establish a flow of communication, back and forth, until compassion manifests naturally: what I am observing, feeling, and needing; what I am requesting to enrich my life; what you are observing, feeling, and needing; what you are requesting to enrich your life.

Recovery – striving to be better

When I had conversations with loved ones about how I could go about making amends for my behaviour when I was drinking, the main feedback I got was ‘keep doing what you are doing’ and ‘staying well is the best thing you can do for me’.

On this basis, I made a commitment to lifelong self-improvement based on what I value about myself and a clear view of the person I want to be. This is not to say I’m unhappy with who I am; rather, I’m proud about who I am becoming, but am wary of complacency.

As a writer and researcher, I communicate best in a written format. However, while I am generally pretty good at talking, I acknowledge that sometimes my verbal communication could be improved, particularly during times of stress.

Learning communication strategies like NVC is as important for me these days as working AA’s 12 steps. It’s all about building a toolkit to use when I really need it.

 

 

 

Staying well

It’s been a while since I checked in. This is not due to any desire for silence on my part, but more because of a lack of time. However, this was never going to be a blog-a-week enterprise. I’ve been working my ass off, running long kilometres through the Australian bush, surfing, making new friends and writing a bunch of songs.

As my health and mental focus has improved over the last few years, I have been given opportunities for career development and have taken on more responsibility at work. Late last year I was handed a monster project to manage that has consumed most of my time and energy.

The project was in the Australian media for mostly the wrong reasons, due to the actions of another that were completely outside of my control. I’ve also had the challenge of managing a workload with few resources and time available to get things done. The sensation of drowning has been ever present, but I’ve become a much better swimmer, better at avoiding rips. And now the work is done.

I had always hoped that my recovery would get to the point that the fact of its existence faded into the background, like remembering how I got a scar.  The big indentation in my upper leg that looks like a bullet hole has faded over the years but remains a reminder of why I don’t like surfing in crowds. My alcoholism is like that now. I can call up the memories of why I don’t drink, but to be honest I’ve got far better things to do with my time.

I am also pharmaceutical-free for the first time in at least a decade, having been prescribed an antidepressant Effexor XR* for panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Given that these symptoms have diminished but I experience a range of side-effects from the medication, I approached my doctor about reducing my dose in lieu of cessation. *Effexor XR is an extended-release capsule for once-a-day oral administration that contains venlafaxine hydrochloride, a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI).

SNRIs are difficult drugs to quit. This was something that I was not informed about when a doctor scribbled on a prescription pad all those years ago. If she had told me that SNRI discontinuation syndrome occurs at rates as high as 78 percent for people transitioning off Effexor XR, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to take them. But then again, I was a drunk who was afraid of my own shadow and was hungry for any quick fix.

The doctor reduced my dose from 150mg to 75mg then halved it again. This process took several months. Nevertheless, I suffered from SNRI discontinuation/withdrawal symptoms, which resulted in weeks of me behaving like a snowflake while experiencing brain zaps.

Snowflake: responds poorly to perceived criticism, cries at pictures of puppies

Brain zaps: SNRI discontinuation can mean weeks of electric shock sensations and perceived shaking in the head, loss of balance, nausea and other strange feelings and effects (see: //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3733524/).

Cannabis helped ease this transition.

I haven’t talked favourably about the use of cannabis on this blog for good reason, as many alkies and addicts I know smoked weed for much of their drinking and drugging careers and tend to lump it together within a pattern of general bad behaviour. Some say they were dependent on sucking down bongs for decades.

Most AA’s in Australia have a dim view of cannabis, while in jurisdictions (for example, California) where its use has become medicalised for mental health conditions, I have heard that opinions are shifting towards acceptance.

I don’t dispute that some people form a psychological dependence to cannabis, however there is good science indicating that cannabis is not physically addictive. A few nights of bad sleep and some residual grumpiness is about the worst someone can expect when giving the weed away.

For some people, like me, incorporating cannabis into their long term mental health plans has been a deliberate choice based on good medical advice, although it is not yet legally available in Australia as a medical intervention for mental health conditions like PTSD. It was also a choice I took after three years of continuous sobriety from alcohol. For me, vaporised or edible cannabis works to keep my mental health consistently in check without nasty side effects. For others, maybe not so much.

I’m off to enjoy the sunshine and the autumn leaves collecting in multicoloured drifts through the streets. Stay well friends!