A self- admitted perfectionist, Khara graduated from nursing school Suma Cum Laude, married her high school sweetheart, and had two children together. But beneath the surface dark secrets were brewing.
From a young age, Khara experienced anxiety and depression. By college, she was perpetually bingeing on alcohol and chronically high on weed. Becoming licensed as a healthcare professional didn’t help Khara eliminate her toxic habits; in fact, the culture of nursing normalized them for her.
Like many of us who searched desperately for relief from emotional pain through substances, Khara tried for years to moderate before ultimately facing and overcoming her addiction to being numb.
She came to a realization: there is no escaping discomfort through drugs or alcohol. Trying to do so only kept her separate from herself and the beauty of life around her. Four years ago, Khara found her freedom in sobriety.
Khara’s story is so empowering, I felt bad having to edit it down to one brief interview! But Khara’s on a journey to becoming a recovery coach, and I have a feeling she’ll have many opportunities in the near future to share her story of hope and healing.
Shannon McDonald’s smile is contagious. She’s funny and kind and has a passion for refurbishing furniture and hitting the trails with her family on their ATVs.
But it wasn’t always this way.
In 2009, Shannon’s life was the stuff addiction is made of: a lack of coping skills “I was a negative person”, a troubled relationship “My husband and I were awful to each other” a legitimate cause for pain prescriptions “migraines and herniated discs” and high-stress job as an emergency room nurse in a Level 1 Trauma Center.
Similar to my experience, Shannon learned the hard way: marijuana’s not the gateway drug, opiate prescription pills are.
This post is longer than usual but worth it! In the following interview, Shannon opens up about procuring drug hookups in jail, suffering withdrawal from heroin, and finally, the joy of recovery.
Recover and Rise: Shannon, how long have you been sober, and what do you define yourself in recovery from?
Shannon: My sober date is Dec 2, 2015. I’ve been in recovery for 4 years and 3 months from drugs, alcohol, job burnout, and a generally crappy attitude – LOL!
There is a strong cultural acceptance within our collective culture, but I think especially for nurses that feel they need a quick stress reliever. We are particularly complacent about alcohol’s overall impact on our lives. I believe there is a lot of shame attached to this as well.
Brittany is a wife, mother of 3, and nurse of almost 13 years.
Raised an ultra-conservative Mormon, Brittany never considered touching a drop of alcohol until after she experienced a crisis of faith and left her church nearly 6.5 years ago.
Once she got a taste of alcohol’s so-called benefits, the drink became increasingly difficult to put down, even as the consequences became increasingly unbearable.
This is an all too familiar tale for many of us.
In the interview below, Brittany bravely shares how she’s overcoming self-diagnosed perfectionism and codependency, (two common conditions for nurses), and how she decided to put down alcohol outside of any religious, moral code. Brittany lives alcohol-free because it’s right for her and her family. Choosing sobriety aligns with her newfound life of radical self-love and acceptance.
I had a secret weapon to deal with anxiety, pain or discomfort: simply self-medicate with substances. Being a little tipsy, a little numb and a little checked out helped me tolerate the surfing situation (not to mention all other hard things in life). The day would pass in sea-salt tinted haze.
“I own a surfboard, but I’m not a surfer.” This is my go-to script when discussing the salty sport.“Surfing is the hardest sport I’ve ever tried.” Is the next sentence that flows off my tongue. It’s all true. I purchased a 9’6” bright red longboard before ever attempting to tackle a wave, and once I did, found it to be the most challenging, intimidating and exhilarating activity I’ve pursued.
Surfing requires balance, coordination, strength, mental composure, a love of water and proclivity for adrenaline. When I first donned a wetsuit at age 30, I didn’t possess many of these attributes. I was physically clumsy, preferred reading on the beach vs. frolicking in the waves, and I’ve got a weird quirk about putting my face under water. I hate it. While I grew up thoroughly enjoying swimming in pools and lakes with my dad and siblings, I would rarely immerse my head. Like a cat, when water touches my face, I instantly recoil. Even in the shower. I know, it’s ridiculous.
(I have a couple theories why this is, but not enough blog space to elaborate. Perhaps another time we’ll examine my two near drownings along with early belief that maintaining a perfectly made up face to gain male attention was more important than letting go to playfully swim. I’ve predominately overcome these, gratefully, but I still swim with my face fully above the surface!)
Submersion underwater is non-negotiable in surfing. My face was going to get wet; no way around it. But when one is 30 years old, in a new relationship, leaping into life in a fresh, adventurous way and one’s boyfriend says, “I want to take you surfing!!” one does not say “I can’t do that, I don’t like to get my face wet”. One purchases a surfboard and wetsuit and faces their watery foe head-on (after vomiting in the grassy dunes on the way to the waterfront.)
My first surf adventure was at Short Sands on the Oregon Coast. Lucky for me, my older brother is an excellent surfer and was there to walk me through the process. I’ll never forget laying shakily atop the unfamiliar red surfboard as he held tightly to the sides, chest deep in the water. When the right wave was near, he’d say “Paddle” and push me ahead of the wave. Next, he’d instruct me to “Get up!” as I struggled to get vertical. The ocean was threatening and unpredictable. My brother: reliable and serene.
I’ve surfed a few dozen times since then, but not well. I’d schlep out into the cold liquid and hours would pass as I fell again and again. I’d make it up to my knees a handful of times, but rarely to my feet. The water was frigid, salt relentlessly stung my eyes, and the neck of my wetsuit suffocated me. Mostly, I stood waist deep with my feet firmly planted on the sand, looking out toward limitless rolling waves, hoping everyone was too busy to notice I hardly tried.
Besides avoiding plunging my face under, I was burdened with all the “normal” fears associated with entering a vast, creature-filled body of water:
Deep, primal fear of what lies beneath the surface: jelly fish, stingrays, and sharks oh my!
Fear of possible and probable injury: surfboards are hard when they hit your head and fins are VERY sharp when they cut your ankle, thigh or arm
Fear of unpredictable, merciless currents, waves and riptides: the ocean has a reputation of tumbling people like socks in a giant washing machine.
Signage along the shore warns of the risks assumed by stepping into the sea. The ocean plays by her own rules, and if you don’t know or understand them, you can easily end up a victim to the game.
All of that sounds awful as I put it on paper. “Why do it at all?” you ask. (I’m asking myself as I write this as well.)
I persisted because my partner at the time was into it and it was something to do as a couple. It was also an activity in common with my brother and bonding moments with him were rare and special. I persisted because it was the sexy thing to do. It feels young and trendy to wear a bikini top and a wetsuit pulled up to my waist, flaunting natural beachy waves in my hair. I persisted to belong; to join the after party without feeling like a fraud on dry land when everyone else had kicked ass in, or had their ass kicked by, the ocean.
More significant were the few exceptional moments when I got it. I mean really got it. The wave swelled under me, my body found its way upright and I maintained a balanced, athletic posture all the way to the foamy whitewater at the shore; the moment I caught a wave. That was a feeling I wanted more of. A feeling of alive seldom achieved in any other sport.
That sensation was so pleasant, so magnetic, it was worth facing all my aforementioned fears. Besides, I had a secret weapon to deal with anxiety, pain or discomfort: simply self-medicate with substances. Being a little tipsy, a little numb and a little checked out helped me tolerate the surfing situation (not to mention all other hard things in life). The day would pass in sea-salt tinted haze. Somehow, I’d make it safely to dry land and move on to more savory pastimes such as reading, beach combing, and more drinking. Alcohol washed away worry and Vicodin dulled the dread as I hesitantly paddled out into the Pacific, though they certainly never assisted in gaining balance or expertise.
WARNING: Do not ever surf under the influence. I am in no way insinuating substances ACTUALLY made me brave. They simply numbed my fear. Which means they also numbed my joy. And then I became an addict and lost my job and many relationships and almost my nursing license along with my dignity and it’s taken me years to overcome the shame and sickness that ensued from thinking it was a good idea to self-medicate. I’m simply relaying how my brain worked at the time, before I understood the catastrophic consequences and life-threatening risks I was taking and before I truly loved myself. Ok, with that out of the way….
The seductive call of surfing sang to me again in Costa Rica, while traveling with family. The waves were comparatively warm and small, but I was no less terrified than I’d been in the polar Pacific. All my previous fears remained, with one major distinction: I had no addictive crutch to calm my shaking nerves.
In Costa Rica I would be surfing sober, and I lacked a backup coping mechanism. I longed for a super strong IPA and little white pill to transform my cowardice into (false) confidence.
I’m happy for the opportunity to make amends to the organization, my coworkers, my patients, and the nursing profession. It’s not a privilege I’m taking lightly. I know the rate of relapse. I know this could be my last chance at a blemish free nursing license.
Two point five years ago, I had to leave my position as a nurse in Critical Care due to probably the most shameful and disturbing reasons a nurse can imagine.
It feels nothing short of miraculous that I’ve been given an opportunity to return.
(Although some might say I’m returning to the scene of the crime, and they would technically be correct.)
For nearly five of my 14 years as a nurse, I worked in CCU and loved the job, despite its flaws. I felt at home in the role. But I completely mismanaged the stress in my life, making tragic and regretful decisions.
For the background on my detour away from “overachiever” into “Real Life Nurse Jackie” check out this BLOG I wrote, publicly declaring myself as an addict.
I was let go from the job, spent three months in treatment and submerged myself in recovery. Since returning to work, I’ve been employed in lower acuity areas than CCU, working my way up – but stayed on night shift because it’s where I’ve always felt most comfortable mentally and physically.
Probably beginning somewhere early last Fall, I felt in my soul it was time to take another step forward. I reached out to key people in administration, asking their blessing to apply for a new position. I also talked it over with my case manager and my sober support system.
The last six months I’ve been writing a lot. But not all my blog posts are ending up here, on scrubbedcleanrn.com. That’s because as I work towards (YIKES!) more exposure, I’ve pitched essays to a variety of websites. To my delight a few of them have been picked up and published.
If you follow me on instagram (@scrubbedclean) or Facebook, these may not be new for you, since I always advertise when I get the honor of being published.
But maybe (GASP!!) you’re not following me yet??
Helloooo???!!! Why NOT?????
If that’s the case, here are a few of my favorite posts in one easy place for you to click and read!
(1) Sober Dating is a tricky predicament indeed. My most recent date delivered the trifecta: Alcohol, cigarettes, pills….OH MY!! Read all about it HERE .
(2) Suboxone is increasingly prescribed as part of a comprehensive treatment program for opiate addiction…yet it’s controversial, and opposed by many (especially 12 step programs). This ARTICLE shares why I feel Suboxone users deserve to proudly call themselves clean and sober. Drugs are often used to escape reality – even drugs that are meant to help with addiction. My experience with Suboxone and how it differs from other Medication Assisted Treatment and harm reduction plans can be found HERE.
(3) Imposter Syndrome is very real. Does it sometimes seem as though everyone else has it under control, while you’re smiling, trying to look like you have a clue? In this ESSAYI write about overcoming self-doubt, using some of the lessons I’ve learned traveling around in my van.
Imposter syndrome is a form of self sabotage; HERE are my top seven tips for learning to let go and love ourselves.
(4) Cravings Most recently, I blogged about surprise cravings emerging during a recovery conference – of all places. The situation was tough, but all’s well that ends well…. The Light Hustler publication on Medium accepted this ARTICLE.
Since this blog has turned into a self-aggrandizing free-for-all, I might as well continue the theme. Head to my website and sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get the latest pictures and news from my corner, plus links to some of my favorite people, podcasts, and platforms in the recovery/sober/wellness arena. Let’s make this fun….
The 100th person to sign up for my newsletter gets a FREE Recover and Rise Mug + 1 FREE hour coaching session!!! (I’m at 85 right now….so do your timing and math right!)
I’ve never been what you would call a tidy person.
Just ask my ex-boyfriend from 15 years ago, who got fed up with my unkempt ways. He was former Navy and I couldn’t keep up, no matter how many times he stressed the significance of folded socks or scolded me for walking outside barefoot and tracking dirt into the living room. One morning, home from my new job on nightshift after graduating nursing school, I tripped over a package sitting in the doorway. It was a bag of cleaning supplies; Windex, Lysol, dish soap etc. I got the hint, and he got the boot. Soon he was living in his own apartment, free to scrub and fold to his military heart’s content.
Like most people, I’d rate myself near the middle of the spectrum between hoarder and clean freak. I sometimes joke that it looks like REI threw up in my living room – especially during a change in season, when skis come in and out and bicycles aren’t yet put away. I always choose sleep over cleaning; it never bothers me to go to bed with dishes still in the sink.
In recent years, my life, like my house, has been messier than usual.
My prioritization skills went haywire, but are getting back on track, which means my personal well-being and physical surroundings have both been getting a makeover.
Staying clean and organized emotionally are essential to my mental health while recovering from addiction, trauma and co-dependency. Rearranging my home has played an important role as well. I started small. A couple years back, freshly sober, I bought trays to organize and display my jewelry. Such a simple accomplishment, but I remember smiling with pride as I looked over the gift I’d given myself. It had been awhile since I’d had the energy and focus to complete a project like that.
Next came cupboards, junk drawers, the pantry. One area in particular needed more help than I could handle on my own. I’d stopped going there altogether, other than to hurriedly grab an item, averting my eyes from the disarray.
The clutter, chaos, mementos and memories had been sitting stagnant, waiting their turn to be sifted and sorted.
The Garage. I couldn’t put it off forever.
It wasn’t just the vastness of the garage project that bothered me. It wasn’t the act of moving items from one shelf to another or dismantling boxes that made the task so daunting. My garage had become pathological and taking it on has been a major source of anxiety for me. The garage had witnessed and survived too many breakups and held the leftovers of too many losses. Last winter’s ski poles, the star-covered journal my daughter never wrote in, fabric scraps from a decade-old Halloween costume, an unidentifiable metal contraption I think belonged to the camper I once shared with an ex. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling. Procrastination was the safe choice; just toss Dad’s leftover oxygen meter in a random box and shut the door. I sometimes treat health problems or family conflict the same way. I shut the door on the issues, but they gather dust and multiply until I find the tenacity to tackle them. Forgetting doesn’t eliminate the problem. The boxes just grow heavier and the emotional burden does too. Each decision meant a look at the past, and it takes energy and fortitude to endure this. Filtering through my clutter feels like sorting through my soul. Eventually, I was going to run out of room: in my storage space, and in my psyche. I needed “clean the garage” wiped from my to do list, before the summer ended.
My garage was beyond do-it-myself help. It was going to require a professional. Just the thought of standing on the cold cement floor amidst the mayhem was enough to cause heart palpitations. Luckily, I know a stellar resource – Lauren at Casual Uncluttering. I’d found her awhile back through thumbtack.com, which was suggested to me by a coworker when I was looking for a handyman. I didn’t even know professional organizers existed until then.
Lauren helped me when I renovated my daughter’s old bedroom – turned – junkroom into a tidy, organized guest area that I now rent out.
Daughter’s Room Turned Guest Room!
I love the outcome of “spring cleaning”. There’s nothing like order and method to calm my nerves. But the details of getting that outcome can be arduous. Emailing Lauren and scheduling the date gave me immediate peace, and when the day came I was ready. She arrived and right away we started separating and labeling items into categories, deeming them necessary, useful, donation-worthy, or garbage. (Can I tell you the utter relief I feel when she confirms a piece of trash is indeed trash, and that there’s no need to for guilt when I toss it in to the can?!)
As we emptied boxes, she shared resources such as who I might call for art restoration, which companies are best at custom shelving, and what animal shelter takes old dog beds (Homeward Pet in Woodinville, WA). Her toolkit includes painter’s tape, sturdy cardboard boxes, fat sharpie markers, a portable garbage can gadget (that I totally covet), and a vehicle to haul away most of the “To Go” pile that inevitably mounds up as the hours go by. Lauren has a keen eye for space, and a vision for what arrangement might work best, as it relates to a client’s routine and customs.
But Lauren’s qualifications go much further than utilitarian tools and sensible words of advice. She has a special magic that alleviates pressure and pain that can come with these jobs. Her compassionate, yet no-nonsense demeanor settles my nerves and fills me with confidence. The garage I had deemed untouchable became manageable as we moved through it together.
Going through this process reminded me that I don’t have to do life alone. There are times when it’s possible – and advisable – to call for help. Whether that’s sorting picture frames and eliminating dust bunnies, or consulting someone on relationships or careers.
Hiring Lauren’s services feel like a luxury – and I don’t feel guilty indulging. For a long time I held the belief that I “should” be able to accomplish everything on my own, especially when it came to household tasks.
I believed I should be able work full time, parent full time, maintain a clean house, keep a man happy, and pursue my dreams – all without chipping a nail. Anything less was failure. Even though I ended my relationship with the ex-military man, I hung on to the shameful belief that I wasn’t “enough” for a long time. I’ve even carried judgmental and jealous feelings towards others that hired help for themselves. I know better now: these distorted beliefs are false and toxic. No one should feel that asking for help from a friend or a professional is anything other than a wise choice.
The garage is ¾ done and I’m no longer agonizing over an unmanageable mess. There’s always more to do, but I’m proud of the results. And I’m proud that I stopped procrastinating and gave myself permission to ask for help. I’ll never be perfectly spotless, but my life is so much cleaner these days – inside and out.
There’s only a few minor things that I still want organized…. Just a few stacks of boxes in the corner of a room that need sorting through. Does anyone know an accountant who’s willing to work with brand new business owner who’s avoided paperwork and taxes for a year?
I will have been transported through the air, like magic, to Iceland ….and For the next 2 weeks, my risk of death is marginally higher than during my daily routine. At least I think so – I’m not going to research the actual I-5 Corridor freeway death statistics.
I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way – The Peerless Quartet
The impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life – Agnes Repplier
Travel: A metaphor for life. Do you go alone, or with a partner? Do you plan or do you wing it? Are you safe while wandering, or adrift without direction? Can you find yourself totally lost, yet know that you’re still connected, and the universe supports you completely?
In a few hours I’ll hand my passport over to the TSA at Sea-Tac airport, board a plane, begin to read, then immediately fall asleep reading (ideally after I’ve secured my head from bobbing around with a trusty neck pillow). When I wake up disoriented, shirt wet with drool (hopefully my own shirt and my own drool) I will have been transported through the air, like magic, to Iceland.
I’ve been to very few countries, although I’ve traveled within the states quite a bit. Iceland is a dream trip come true, but wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list. Mostly because I’ve never really made that list … At least not such a venturous one. My list was comprised of solid basics: become a nurse, buy a house, get a job, marry happily ever after. Three out of Four – near perfection, right?
But now, my perspective has changed. Suddenly I’m afforded the time, means and motivation to go far far away, by myself. (Not suddenly as in overnight lottery. It takes planning to ask for time off work, to save money, to get dog sitters, and to clean out the fridge so I don’t come home to a fungi garden in my kitchen).
It feels a little sudden though. The time is HERE. I leave in 12 hours.
I’m lucky to have friends and coworkers who have traveled these places (did I mention I’m going to London and Paris, too?!) and are willing to share their insight. A few have traveled solo, others are shocked I’m going alone. All have offered well-wishing and I’ve just been percolating with gratitude and excitement.
“You are so brave to go alone!” I hear this a lot. The former me, the girl that lived life as though she was ticking off inventory items, and trying to awkwardly fit into a strict set of guidelines, feels a bit stunned herself. But the new me that knows life is short and meant to be lived with abandon….well, she’s thrilled – and only a fraction nervous.
This new me became a tiny fraction more nervous as I googled last minute things to do “across the pond”. The internet warned: There’s Danger Out There. Bridges actually do fall in London. Sounds like it’s not uncommon to be a pedestrian “under attack by motorized terrorists”. The Chunnel, which I’m using to travel underwater to France, could collapse, and there’d be no swimming out of that scenario. Any one of the 3 flights I’m taking could be hijacked, veer into a mountain, or lose an engine in the air. A clumsy Icelandic traveler could stumble into me, bringing the view of hot geysers up close and personal, leading to my very toasty demise.
For the next 2 weeks, my risk of death is marginally higher than during my daily routine. At least I think so – I’m not going to research the actual I-5 Corridor freeway death statistics.
I’m a little surprised to find my own mortality doesn’t scare me. What does scare me is not speaking French and accidentally asking for directions to a strip club instead of a bathroom. (just for instance. I don’t know how to say either one). I’m scared of being inadvertently served wine or alcohol while politely tasting foods served to me in Iceland or France. What if they don’t have a word for “Sober”?
But I’m not afraid to die. (In theory of course. If the Chunnel goes dark and fills with water, chances are I’ll freak the F out. But who knows? I could stay Zen.) Does travel make everyone think about this? I guess I’m my father’s daughter. When he flew, he always sent me an email with his itinerary, and a reminder of where to find his will.
Mostly, I’m overcome with joy at the opportunity. If I was still actively addicted, this trip would be unlikely. If it happened, chances are I’d jeopardize myself by getting lost, going home with the wrong person, or getting kicked off a plane for being impaired and obnoxious. Instead, I’m wide eyed, awake and life feels quite complete. If I die, it will be knowing I’ve made amends for my mistakes, and I won’t be embarrassed by what anyone finds on my phone or in my closets at home. (Maybe a tiny bit embarrassed, but whatever. I’m human. I’m single. It’s not that weird.)
While last minute planning, I could hear my dad – the life insurance agent’s – voice, so I decided to ensure someone had my flight and lodging info. Six months ago, I would have pitied myself at this task. Once, at the doctors, I cried to myself when I had “no one’s” name to write in the space “Emergency Contact”. The idea that there was “No One” looking after me caused an unnecessary amount of suffering, because having “No One” wasn’t based in reality. I have lots of wonderful “SomeOnes”. It just takes some re-affirming and filtering out limiting beliefs and saboteur thoughts about being incomplete. Today, I simply reached out to one of my favorite “Someones” and gave her my itinerary. No self pity.
Just because my emergency contact isn’t a “significant other” in the usual sense, doesn’t make me deficient. I still need to remind myself of this. Living alone, answering only to myself, feels kind of wobbly -almost unnatural. Especially since society dictates that until the “Soulmate” piece is found, the jigsaw puzzle of “Life” isn’t complete. As though snaring a partner is the ultimate accomplishment, and as long as we have one to lean on, things will be OK. (We all know that even in a committed long term relationship, with a dependable name to scribble in the “emergency contact” section, nothing is guaranteed. One could argue the more people involved, the more precarious the dynamics.)
I’m learning that even when things aren’t OK, they’re OK. It’s an empowering sensation: feeling complete, despite not having all the answers, despite wishing some things were different. It’s like I’m un-tethered, but fully supported. Not quite balanced, but definitely moving towards it – even though I don’t know what “It” looks like.
“Even if things aren’t OK, I’m OK”. I’m finding that it’s true, no partner necessary. I’m learning to glean security from a deep sense of intrinsic wholeness, and the community of support I’ve enmeshed myself in (yep, another She Recovers shout out. It’s true though). So while I’m wild and free to explore as I please, I’ve also got a wide net underneath of me, in case my feet falter. Which they have. Which they will again.
One of the concepts I work on with my clients (and myself!) is trusting the inner compass. Some call this intuition, the Universe, or a higher power. Some relate to this as their Soul, their Spirit, or a Source they are connected to.
I believe my inner compass was calibrated from the beginning, and my choices along the way have created inconsistencies. But I’ve always known when I was steering off course – I’m just a pro at ignoring red flags. Veering off path felt wrong – like striving, craving, desperation, or trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. When my compass is set to True North, I may have doubts, I may have to check frequently, but I’m inhabited by an overwhelming sense of contentment, peace and safety.
That’s where my head and heart are at now: content and safe, as I set out with wanderlust, to find new places. And to find a new place within myself. Circumstances waver, but I’m fully protected. On uneven ground, but with a soft place to land. Often without company, but definitely never alone. And I’m grateful for this approaching adventure – the 2 week vacation I’m about to enjoy, and the adventure that is the rest of my life.
Cross your fingers that no disasters occur; the Eiffel Tower won’t topple over onto the apartment I’m sleeping in, no rogue polar bear takes me out while I’m basking in the Blue Lagoon. I’m crossing my fingers too: that I continue to trust myself, to rely on my amazing support system, and to fly – literally and figuratively – as often as possible.
Continuing to Recover and Rise, … somewhere around 30,000 feet in the air…
You may have read my blog post “Sober Wedding Success”; In a triggered moment I texted a friend: “I need a drink, a cigarette, a man, or a brownie.” A variety of stressors had accumulated, thrusting me into “Fight or Flight” mode. The pressure rising, impulsive thoughts bounced off each other: “You need to feel different and better NOW.” In hindsight, I could have done some stretching, gone for a run or a walk. But the wedding was going to start, I was all dolled up in a dress and heels, and rational thought was hijacked by panic.
What I didn’t mention in that blog was the part where I gave in to a craving. About an hour before the bride was due to walk down the aisle, I changed into flip-flops and stealthily drove to a store.
(Ok not stealthily. Side Note – The story of my life is that I ALWAYS get caught. Sneaking out in the middle of the night at age 15… My friend’s parent saw me and called my parents. Skipping prom to go to Denny’s and hang out at a hotel… I accidentally recorded myself on the answering machine sharing every detail with a friend. A couple years back, during a sober attempt, I hit “facetime” on my phone at the exact moment I took a drink of a beer. But have I learned? Noooooo. )
Someone, who shall simply be called Aunt D. in order to keep her anonymity, (haha, love you Aunt D.) saw me drive away from the church. On my return, I was met with: “Where’d you go, huh? We know you left. Aunt D. told us.” I mumbled about needing to help the bride and hurried away.
The truth is:
I drove to a gas station and awkwardly bought a pack of Camel cigarettes. On a scale of surrendering to cravings, it’s better than a bottle of vodka, worse than a giant brownie. I found a parking lot near the water and walked around in the rain (still in my dress and flip-flops, holding a sweatshirt over my head to save my wedding- hair) searching for a secluded place to smoke my first cigarette in years. It suddenly seemed crowds of people were milling around, screwing up my plan. And I certainly wasn’t going to smoke inside my own car. I have boundaries, after all.
Settling on a spot, I opened the pack. The cigarette fit neatly between my fingers, muscle memory reminding them exactly what shape to make. I lit it, pressed my lips lightly around the filter, and inhaled. Then I made a face. They were gross. I forgot that I actually like menthols, when I do smoke. Which isn’t often. I’ve done this 3 times in the last few years. Once during a (temporary) breakup, and again when I started treatment for addiction and had quit everything else. People smoke like chimneys at recovery meetings, and for a few months I made friends by blowing smoke outside the treatment center doors alongside them.
I’d like to say the non-menthols were gross enough I threw them away, jolting myself back to more effective coping skills. But I didn’t. I finished the pack, and returned to the store to buy the “tastier” minty selection.
Days turned into weeks, and before I knew it, I’d been smoking steadily for a month. I was disgusted with myself. Smoking made me lazy and nauseated. Addiction is dishonest, isolating, depressing, and anxiety inducing; smoking re-awakened all of that, along with the clinging, craving monster inside. Instead of going to the gym – I smoked. Instead of writing – I smoked. I wasted hours lighting them up and putting them out. And yet, a part of me relished every single drag. My dirty little secret made me feel self-righteous, cool and aloof. Emotionally, I was wrecked and seeking relief. I’d found a solution that both soothed and fueled the addiction monster. Returning to this behavior was like slipping back under the mud after a period of living in the sun. I was sober, but acting very much like my non-sober self. Literally playing with fire.
Participating in addictive habits can give one a case of the “F-it’s” and the “Might as wells”. For example “F it. I’m already smoking, might as well eat what I want too.” The mud got deeper and stickier. I ate fast food, ignored deadlines and neglected obligations. I toyed with ideas of “just one drink”. Thankfully I have accountability to my treatment program. When it’s hard to trust oneself, impending drug tests are a convincing reason to abstain. So I didn’t drink, but I smoked nicotine incessantly. Good thing the tests don’t look for nicotine or caffeine. (Treatment centers everywhere would be out of business.)
When I first smoked at 14 years old (and continued for 8 years, minus 9 months of pregnancy), it was the best kind of dangerous fun. I was rebellious, wise, untouchable. Slinking into a store at age 36, making sure no one recognizes me, and asking for “camel crush – yeah the blue box” without meeting the attendants’ eyes, doesn’t have the same ego-stroking appeal. Honestly I was miserable. I succumbed to an obsessive-compulsive drive to do something I was bizarrely convinced would help me overcome anxiety. It only managed to increase the compulsion, all the while invoking deep shame and disappointment. It was repetitious, unfulfilled desperation, with nausea as a side effect. The empty, achy place inside of me found minor temporary relief, but I was simultaneously cognitively aware that the tobacco/poison filled paper sticks offered nothing but dirty lungs, yellow teeth and nasty headache when I eventually quit. Ruminating over all of this, I lit another smoke.
That, my friends, is addiction.
In the past, these episodes of smoking have been brief, due to two compelling factors: a boyfriend and daughter that despise the habit. Smoking is tough to keep secret for long around others. But I was grateful for their disdain, as it forced me to give it up quickly.
During this recent trip down Tobacco Lane, with no suspicious glares or accusations of “You smell like smoke” pressuring me to surrender, I needed motivation. My own willpower and half-assed “This is your last pack, Tiff” was proving ineffective. I needed a reward, ultimatum, or serious kick in the ass.
The light at the end of the smoky tunnel was a shining She Recovers Retreat. The timing was perfect; divine some may say. At the end of July, one of the more challenging months I’ve survived in a while, I would board a ferry and meet my favorite women on Salt Spring Island for a week of rejuvenation. There was no way I’d smoke while enjoying nature, doing yoga, and working on recovery. There was no way I’d admit this to my friends or smoke in front of them.
Tricky thing, addiction. Embeds itself deeply, even when one is determined to set themselves free. Not the retreat, my admiration of the women, or my horror at being found out as a smoker was enough for me to quit. When my fancy Camel Crush ran out on day 2, I bought very light, very bad tasting, non-menthol cigarettes in a Canadian store (they don’t sell menthol in the Gulf Islands!!)
While puffing away on these bland, thin smokes I made a promise. By the time I got on the ferry heading back to America, I’d untangle myself from their grasp. I wasn’t sure how, or if I was ready, but I was WILLING to be ready. I was tired of fighting to stay afloat, and afraid of getting pulled further down into addiction’s muddy grasp.
My answer came on the 3rd night of Retreat, in the form of a letting go ceremony (I also strategically ran out of cigarettes on the very last morning in Canada, and swore I wouldn’t touch another pack back in the US.)
The ceremony symbolizes liberation. We are all carrying some unwanted weight…unspeakable trauma, substance abuse, disordered eating, codependency, unhealthy shopping habits or persistent fatigue and apathy. The ceremony is an opportunity to look these hindrances in the eye, and love ourselves enough to begin to let them go.
The ceremony doesn’t require forgetting our past, but gives us permission to stop suffering over it. Permission to accept experiences, mistakes, relationships, and addictions while releasing the shame, self-loathing, and guilt we’ve attached to them.
We were asked to write down our intentions and a list of what we needed to let go. I wasn’t sure if this would work, but it felt like a legitimate start. I put my heart, soul and energy into that pen and paper as I scrawled out the words
“Let go of SMOKING”.
Then, as instructed, I lined up with the others and waited my turn to be “drummed”. A musician beat a rhythm on a percussion instrument while moving it up the front of my body and down the back – close, but not touching my skin. My understanding is this was meant to improve the alignment of my chakras, a component of self I don’t totally grasp, but am more than willing to offer up for re-structuring. The drumming ended, and as I paused before the next step – a meditative walk – I noticed the outer aspect of each of my hips burned, as though a fire spread across them. The fire pulsated, intensified, simmered, then disappeared. Coincidence? Psychosomatic effect? Bug bites? I can’t say for sure, but it felt significant.
Two days later, on the final morning of the retreat, my heart was light. I’d experienced the fullness of She Recovers retreat magic, and felt empowered to return home renewed. I smoked 3 final cigarettes before leaving the island, that I had ashamedly bummed off a couple of friends (but obviously not too ashamed, since I asked anyway. Love you ladies.)
I haven’t smoked since that morning. Re-entry into real life post-retreat was pretty rocky, but I still did not pick them back up. The first few nights, my sleep was riddled with drinking nightmares. I also had a cigarette-smoking dream (Amy Dresner was there, also smoking, and super pissed off about having to order pizza for a bunch of hyper women in recovery. Bizarre!)
Thoughts of buying a pack – picturing the inhale, the hot menthol taste, the instant and very temporarily relief – flitter through my mind on occasion. But they’re just thoughts. They come, they go. They pass. As do all thoughts, feelings, emotions, if we let them.
Quitting was hard, but not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. (I remember trying to quit after 8 years hooked on those things- not sure there’s a drum big enough to beat it out of me then. Torture.) Smoking wasn’t the only thing on my “let go list” either – that was a month-long distraction; an outward sign that my insides were sick. I have a multitude of situations and self-limiting beliefs to shed. But the weight of it all is lifting. Did the drum vibrations shake it off my shoulders? I believe so… along with all the other blessed moments that week. (Read my BLOG to learn more about the Magic of She Recovers retreats) I entered the ceremony with a piece of paper, a trembling hope, and a soul full of desire for health and wholeness. I have a deep, intuitive certainty that this will come to fruition. Where I had felt clouded, uncertain and lethargic, I now felt bright, anticipatory and strong.
In the center of the gardens at Stowel Lake Farm where the retreat is held, there’s a big muddy pond. Across the surface of the murky water, giant Lotus blossoms stretch their pink petals eagerly toward the sun. The lush flowers would be nonexistent if it weren’t for the rich, complicated, nourishing mud beneath them.
Like the flowers, we need rich, complicated, often painful experiences to cultivate growth. “No Mud, No Lotus” as Thich Naht Hahn’s book tells us. Smoking wasn’t mandatory for my growth; it was an outward sign that helped me become more aware of my inner strife. For a month, I was slogging through mud; sluggish, sticky, uncomfortable and difficult to see any light through the darkness. During the retreat, I spent a lot of time being honest with myself, uncovering the source of pain and revealing it’s purpose.
I wasn’t overcome by the mud, but transformed by it. Smoking was a brief detour, and a close call. But I saw the light and persisted. I ascended above the surface; back into the fresh air.
Continuing to Recover and Rise,
Do you have habits you’d like to explore letting go? Perhaps you’re sober but still attached to food, smoking, relationships, and want to set yourself free? I’d love to offer you a system, support and accountability as your coach.
Interested in learning more about She Recovers and their retreats and conferences? Go To www.sherecovers.co
Please contact me! You’re beautiful and deserving of health and wholeness.