A Plug for Women for Sobriety

I’m home for a visit and I get to see my kids and some friends. I’m also going to drop in on the lone Women for Sobriety group in my home city. I decided this post should be a commercial for WFS because I am surprised that WFS groups have never achieved the kind of traction they should. I got this idea from my daughter’s girlfriend. I was telling her all the things I liked about WFS and she suggested a blog. So here it is!

I am not going to diss AA, but I will respond here to some common criticisms of AA and talk about why WFS might be an alternative. (This is directed at women, of course, but I’ll point out that WFS does have a Men for Sobriety branch.) I’ll also offer the very important caveat that I have not attended AA meetings. So, I’m just going from what some other people have told me has been a “put off” for them in AA. I’m agnostic on AA; I really can’t offer a personal opinion.

BUT well hey, the point is that if you are not into AA for whatever reason(s) here some reasons to think about WFS as an alternative. Because I do believe we need, need, need sober communities to stay sober, and it is great that there are alternatives.

AA Objection: I Don’t Like Dwelling on the Past

I know, I know. AA folks will immediately object that they do not encourage stuck-ed navel-gazing once you’ve done the grown-up work of accepting responsibility for dumb shit you’ve done in the past, and/or forgiven those you need to forgive. Nonetheless I expect that some AA meetings and members have trouble getting out of stuck, and that this may contribute to the perceptions (fair or unfounded) that AA is too much about remorse and regret.

In WFS, twelve steps are replaced with Thirteen Affirmations. The affirmations are written specifically to encourage women to think forward about building a new, positive life and self-image. In fact, the ninth statement explicitly stated: “The past is gone forever. No longer will I be victimized by the past. I am a new person.

In my experience, this statement doesn’t preclude the work of reconciling past actions and relationships; it’s not like you’re chastised for talking about the past. Instead the statement is a reminder that we only have control over how we direct our lives in the future. Which kind of leads to the next objection:

AA Objection: I Don’t Do/Get/Like the “Higher Power” Thing

I have consistently stumbled over the idea that I am powerless over alcohol and have to give my power over to…yada yada. I get why you have to admit defeat in the sense that you quit the futile effort to “control your drinking,” but I’ve had some unease around the way that AA frames agency, or one’s personal power to act and change.

WFS affirmations address this by focusing on taking control over one’s life in positive ways. This is captured in the first statement, “I have a life-threatening problem that once had me.
I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility.
” I think this focus on assertive self-care may be especially important for women, who generally tend to give away a lot of their personal power in their focus on caring for others.

AA Objection: Guys

I have nothing against guys. I like guys, and I have no trouble attending my mixed-gender Buddhist recovery group. But, for some women, substance abuse issues are tied in to past or present traumas that may include sexual or domestic abuse or violence. Someone or something (I can’t remember) made the very valid point that as a women-only space, WFS may provide greater safety for women who have had traumatic experiences with men in their lives. I’ve also heard that some AA groups have difficult managing those members who think the meetings are a great place to meet women.

Positivity

Something I really like about Women for Sobriety is its focus on the positive. I tend toward cynicism (I think its an occupational hazard), but its hard to stay cynical when a meeting discussion turns on something like the tenth affirmation, “All love given returns.
I will learn to know that others love me.
” It’s possible that these affirmations can be interpreted as “Pollyanish.” However, meetings are, like AA, focused on a given statement/affirmation, so they are places you can explore any feelings they might prompt in you – even cynical ones.

I think it is also helpful that these affirmations are stated aloud among a community of other women. It’s more powerful than trying to say things to yourself in the bathroom mirror. If you’re someone like me who has a default loathing of affirmations saying these things out loud can be challenging, but… well it’s a good challenge.

If for whatever reason you’re not feeling AA, Women for Sobriety may be an option for you. If I still lived in my home town I’d be back at my group in a heartbeat. At the end of the day, though, you really do have to find the group that’s right for you. Some of the folks I’ve met at my Buddhist group have told me that the “culture” of AA varies considerably from one group to the next, so if you’ve been put off by a past experience with any group, don’t give up!

 

 

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Right Now, It’s Like This

I’ve mentioned in the past that Buddhism and recovery are intimately linked for me. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon podcasts from Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. I didn’t even know at first that its founders had come to Buddhism through addiction and recovery, and when I first started listening to the podcasts, recovery wasn’t even on my mind. Who knows. Maybe that was what planted the seeds for me that quitting drinking was desirable and possible.

Noah Levine, started Refuge Recovery as a Buddhist alternative for recovery. Another founding member, Mary Stancavage, is a recovering/recovered alcoholic, and is, I think still my favourite speaker. One of the first things she said that really stuck with me was “Right now it’s like this.”

Well what’s that supposed to mean? Without a context it sounds stupid, right up there with the banal tautology, “it is what it is.” But it actually contains an important Buddhist insight for recovery, which is that you have to learn to sit with your unpleasant feelings, without judging them, and without going off all half-cocked trying to fix them.

Part of Buddhist philosophy is recognizing that shitty things are going to happen, and that the pain that comes from shitty things happening is just part of the human experience. Which sounds like a total bummer, I know. Who wants to hang out in a faith where the first noble truth is “All life is suffering?”

But the big paradox is that we suffer way, way more when we fight what hurts in life by denying it, numbing it, trying to beat it up, trying to fix it, or otherwise get rid of the pain. So, the challenge is to instead observe what makes you feel hurt, uncomfortable or angry, and just let yourself feel your feelings.

I need to stress that this doesn’t mean inaction. You don’t just go “Oh well, life sucks,” and give up. It’s just that you don’t take action until you are calm, and you’ve made some peace with the fact that something in your life is hurting.

Anyway, if you are someone like me who goes all reptile brain when confronted with shitty feelings, every fibre of your being screams “Do something!”[1] For me in the past “doing something” has included, among other bright ideas, running away from home, burning furniture, attempting suicide, and in less drama-fuelled instances, impulse buying and drinking.

Freaking out in response to my own pain has always been in part out of panic: “I’m going to feel like this forever!” That panic has been amplified by the extreme and instant reactions of my body to emotional stress. I just want the bad feelings to stop. So, you do stuff. Stupid stuff. Which, in the words of David Bowie, amounts to putting out the fire with gasoline.

Right Now, It’s Like This. But Not Forever.

The hardest thing in the world when you are in the throes of “do something!” is to sit and, as Stancavage describes, repeat “Right now its like this.” The “right now” part is a gentle reminder that you are not, in fact going to feel this way forever, no matter what your amygdala is screaming. The “it’s like this” part is recognizing that you’re not doing so great, and bringing some compassion to that. You acknowledge your own pain, and notice the tendency in your head to make it bloody worse by feeding it.

You know this thing? Say something simple where someone cuts you off in traffic or has thirty items in the 16-item express line. And you go off on this monologue in your head about what an asshole the person is. And by then you have a bunch of cortisol in your system and you feel like shit. And you wouldn’t have felt like shit now, fifteen minutes later, if you hadn’t fed the beast of your own annoyance imagining the person probably also beats her kids or cheats on his taxes, and it just isn’t fair and what is wrong with some people and…uggggggh.

Now think about how we do that stuff with our relationships and with “big problems.” The monologues are even worse. Buddhism helps adherents to recognize that we actually grow our own suffering when we dig into our pain, create stories around it, justify it, punish ourselves for it, punish others for it, or play the blame game. You feel worse. And you further elaborate on why you feel worse. Hence drinking, or your pathology of choice.

“Right now it’s like this” is a way to turn off the mental gymnastics. You acknowledge that you’re hurt or angry or anxious or scared, but you also try to stay with the recognition that in our lives, all of our feelings, good and bad, are in constant motion. You can stop panicking, and stop trying to fix and explain things when you are least equipped to deal with them. Honestly, you start to figure out that most of the feelings do in fact pass, and most weren’t half as big a deal as they felt in the moment.

For the tough stuff that doesn’t pass right away, you can call a truce with the fact that you are going to feel pain in your life. You just are. And that’s not fun but if you just breathe a bit and give yourself some space, you can deal with it like a grown up. Over time, you forge faith that you’ll figure out what to do about the pain once you’ve got yourself calmed down and your heart and mind are back at full capacity.

I’ve been learning that most of my awful feelings do pass. Really. My cravings for alcohol pass. My sadness passes. My anger passes. My anxiety passes. Every time I let myself just sit and feel those feelings without succumbing to “do something!” I feel a little less panic-struck the next time:

“Remember that thing and how you didn’t react, and if you’d reacted in that way you wanted to it would have been ten times worse?”

That. It’s a learning process. And I can safely say that every time I handle my pain – great or small – with calm dignity, I feel just a tiny bit better about myself.

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Endnotes

[1] It’s worth noting that the compartmentalization of brain functions has been critiqued as overly simplistic, and hence misleading. There’s a brief summary of this critique and an account of the origins of the “three brain” model via Wikipedia.

I Suck at Asking for Help

So yesterday was… a day. I went to my recovery meeting. Something hit me the wrong way there. Our reading was about recognizing that you are already whole or something like that and I had a tantrum in my head while meditating: “Dammit I don’t feel whole.” Lots of crap rushed in: Missing my kids. Financial insecurity. Feeling like I lack purpose and a place to “belong:” two things I deeply crave. And WINE. Wine in the big beautiful glass that looks beautiful and elegant and helps you to think you are drinking less than you are.

Folks go for coffee after the meeting. For me that’s a loaded proposition. I’ve enjoyed going for coffee but am highly self-conscious about it. I’m always great in structured settings: board meetings, seminars, even recovery meetings, because there are rules of sorts there — social rules that determine who belongs, and how people behave. But I get super unglued in casual settings because I expect to be rejected.

There’s a lot of backstory to that statement I won’t go into, but the deal is I am loathe to be vulnerable in these unstructured social settings at the best of times. So when I’m hurting and close to bawling, forget it. I didn’t go for coffee after the meeting. I didn’t ask for help. I stood on the corner by the coffee shop for ten minutes trying to will myself to just go in there, and I couldn’t do it.

Thus far I have been trucking along pretty well on my own with this recovery business. What was different about yesterday, I think was it was the first time I’ve had a hardcore case of the fuck-its with their accompanying cravings for alcohol where it just didn’t feel like enough to sit and ride it out. It was the first time I realized that I might need people to talk to on bad days.

I guess I’ve had some sense all along that “community is good.” It’s why I sought out a weekly meeting and have been attending. But it turns out I probably suck at doing community in ways that require risk and vulnerability. I loooove being there for other people. Having people be there for me is another matter entirely. It scares the shit out of me.

Clearly I’ve got some thinking to do here…

Playing the Tape Through

tapeI guess this is an AA thing: a recovery tool you can use when you are experiencing a craving is to “play the tape through.” That is, instead of rationalizing your way into a drink, you “play the tape through” by imagining what happens after that initial, satisfying “Ahhh! Fabulous.” It goes like this: “Fuck it. Might as well have another one! And another.” And… hangover. Shame.

I recently spoke to a lady who had fallen off the wagon and quickly regrouped — how fortunate! — and this was precisely her experience. A drink with dinner turned in to an all-nighter, just like that.

The thing is, I wouldn’t do that. The first 24 hours of my tape, even the first few weeks, would be pretty tame. But you really do have to play the tape all the way through, whatever that looks like for you.

I was thinking about this a little bit last night when wine was calling out to me: “Drink me! Wouldn’t I be lovely with that big steak you’re about to tie in to? Steak is a special occasion! You can do it just this once!”

But I know, I know I know what this would lead to. My tape plays out something like this:

“Well. A glass of wine with dinner. That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I really can have a drink once in a while.”

One or two weeks later: “I think it is probably safe to have a glass of wine. I’ve waited a while.”

One month(ish): “Well so long as I’m having wine with this nice dinner a beer while I’m cooking wouldn’t kill me.”

Then the caution starts to dissipate, and false confidence kicks in: “Hey, I’m a responsible drinker now! I’ve totally got this. I will only drink if we are having a nice meal on the weekend, or if we are going out for dinner.”

Going out for dinner: “It’s a going out night so I’ll have a beer or two before we go out.” *Ends up hammered that night.*

“Oops that wasn’t good. I’d better be careful. I’ll do better next time.”

At this point I’m well on my way to getting back to daily drinking. “Being careful” is vague and means nothing, so this is about the time you start making rules for yourself, and you’re back in to the hell of moderating. Then you get tired of trying to moderate, and you just give up.

So, if you are a “high bottom” kind of girl like me and prefer the slow dull daily drinking to the more dramatic binge/bender pattern, your particular challenge might be like mine. Your “tape” might play out longer and more slowly than that of someone who cannonballs in to the deep end and gets smashed the first time they pick up the next drink.

This is a little bit sneaky. Well no actually its a lot sneaky because your ability to moderate in the early days of being off the wagon makes for a longer slower descent. So I find I’ve had to really think hard about all the stages of my rationalizing, because my tape plays out over a much longer time period.

I know this because I have had one experience with it already.  I’ve mentioned I quit for about 40 days three years ago. The first few times I brought a beer home — just one! Not keeping it in the house! — I was delighted that I’d achieved normal drinking. I think it took about two months before I’d fallen back in regular drinking, and maybe a couple more months before I was drinking daily again. But I was drinking daily again. This is the inevitable consequence of that first drink, months earlier.

In this sense, past efforts to quit or moderate are really useful sources of information. This means that any effort to quite for any period of time is a good thing. It might not stick this time, but it’s one more opportunity to learn about what your “tape” looks like.

Maintaining Sobriety

In my last post I said I don’t spend a lot of time these days sweating acute cravings. When I decided to do the  “100 days sober” thing this time (I’m on 111 days today), it was because I’d discovered (the hard way as always seems to be the case) that 30 days sober was not enough to make a decision about how I wanted to proceed in my relationship with alcohol. Cause honestly, most of the first weeks you’re white knuckling — you’re in a tailspin trying to figure out what the fuck to do with yourself besides drink. You think about drinking constantly.

This hanging-on-for-dear-life stage doesn’t characterize the long term experience of “being sober,” though, so you really can’t make an informed judgement about sobriety based on these first, crappy, difficult weeks. This was wisdom I received from others, particularly my daughter, who told me that you have to give yourself enough time for sobriety to feel at least semi-normal before you can grow your brain back and actually start thinking about sobriety without a hull full of emotional baggage.

I’ve reached the stage where sobriety feels (more) normal, but as I am learning, the risk that comes with this is complacency. It’s another one of those wicked paradoxes that seem to accompany both the depths of addiction, and its cures. The more normal sobriety feels, the greater risk that you’ll stop investing in maintaining it, and the greater the risk that you’ll lapse. So sober has to feel “normal” enough for you to get on with your life, but not so normal that you stop looking over your shoulder.

dinosaur-car-wing-mirror-600x391I don’t mean “looking over your shoulder” in the tin-foil-hat/I-hear-voices kind of way. It doesn’t require that kind of obsession or energy. I think it’s more like checking your mirrors regularly when you’re driving. It’s a good, important habit that you do without thinking hard about it. So in that sense its easy. BUT if you don’t actually observe what you’re seeing and respond effectively, “checking the mirror” becomes an empty exercise: you’ll see but not see whatever is coming up to bite you in the ass.

I check my mirrors now which is cool. But doing that attentively and well is, I think, the long-term and more subtle challenge of maintaining sobriety. That part is definitely still a work in progress.