Not only is Brooke a badass sober nurse and an out-loud recovery advocate, she is Canadian! And I have to admit, I have a major girl crush on all my sober sisters up North.
Brooke has been a Licensed Practical Nurse for seven years, and in recovery for nearly as long. In addition to the usual suspects – drugs and alcohol – Brooke has overcome codependency, gambling and a binge-eating disorder. Her story illustrates how stubborn our blind spots can be, even if we’re educated and the source of our problem is right in front of us.
Brooke worked as a nurse in a treatment centre (Canadian spelling in her honor!) caring for patients with addiction and mental health issues. She recalls colleagues at the centre who were in recovery as well. Yet it took tragic consequences, including the overdose death of a friend, before Brooke woke to the fact that she too needed serious help.
This month’s spotlight nurse is proof that we do recover, from all the things! May her story bring you hope, and serve as potent ammunition against stigma and shame.
MaryBeth Murphy has been a nurse for over 30 years, the majority of that time spent in pediatrics.
Just over 3 years ago, she broke her ankle and decided to use the time to get healthy. This included challenging herself to not drink alcohol. One seemingly “small” habit change and the trajectory of MaryBeth’s life changed forever.
Not only did she embrace an alcohol-free lifestyle in 2016, she took the opportunity to look honestly at her career and personal goals, bravely admitting that working at the bedside was no longer on that list.
MaryBeth is a holistic health and recovery coach, yoga instructor, reiki healer, craniosacral therapist and more!
I am in awe of this woman’s character and determination and honored to have interviewed her.
It is most certainly the Year of the Nurse, and I’m proud to share one nurse’s journey from daily drinker to holistic health coach!
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.
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?
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.
I spent many hours in my head thinking about my lifelong friendship with the bride, transitions, and my own failed marriages and relationships. A lot of emotions bubbled to the surface and not a lot of time to think them through realistically or pause to hold them compassionately.
Unlike an addiction to heroin or amphetamines, alcohol will appear on a weekly, if not daily basis. Grocery store aisles, TV commercials, restaurants…these are basically unavoidable circumstances. Learning to live with the trigger of alcohol is essential in sobriety.
Other well known craving-heavy settings are birthdays, holidays, and weddings.
On Saturday, I attended my first wedding since being in active recovery, and I’ll spoil the ending: I stayed sober.
I won’t lie though. It wasn’t a piece of (wedding) cake.
In everyday life, alcohol doesn’t usually get to me. The aforementioned grocery aisles don’t make me twitchy like they did in the early days. I’m also not immune. It’s not the appearance of alcohol on it’s own; it’s a combination of factors – emotional stress, nostalgia, feeling left out or wanting to fit in – these culminate to create a “trigger” (the situation) and an urge – an intense physical and/or psychological craving.
This wedding was special to me. My best friend was getting married and I had the joy of helping, including curling the hair of her two beautiful daughters. Arriving early in the morning at her hotel, I stopped to get breakfast and coffee, but realized I hadn’t brought any water for an 8 hour day.
Grabbing a glass off the counter in my friend’s room, I filled from the tap, took a sip, and spit it out making a face. “The water here’s disgusting!” I said. My friend’s eyes went wide. “Yep there was lemonade in there last night.” I clarified…”Not JUST lemonade, was it?” No… It was definitely spiked.
Figures. I’d started my sober wedding by using a glass with remnants of alcohol in it.
The wedding went beautifully, despite a few bumps in the road. One minor cake disaster that happened on my delivery (but not my fault I swear!), and due to rain we had moved the wedding from outside to inside. Otherwise, it went gorgeously smooth, and I was honored to help the bridal party prepare.
Throughout the day though, I spent many hours in my head thinking about my lifelong friendship with the bride, transitions, and my own failed marriages and relationships. A lot of emotions bubbled to the surface and not a lot of time to think them through realistically or pause to hold them compassionately.
Weddings can be hard for this exact reason. Single guests, including myself, may start to think they’ve missed out on something. Jealousy may rise up along with sadness, regret, and worry about the future.
It didn’t help that I scrolled through my emails and staring in my face was a note from someone I haven’t heard from in a long time. Someone who at one point I thought would stand at an altar with me. One made of snow, to be fair, but an altar nonetheless. The timing of the message couldn’t have been more distressing.
Regardless, even if the sober person in question is partnered up perfectly, there are still challenges. Time consuming, or difficult family members/guests to attend to can make one long for escape in a glass. Celebrating can be just as tough to withstand sober. Wine and champagne advertisements exclaiming “Elevate the moment with every drop” perpetuate the idea that a happy moment is made even happier by a poisonous, addictive substance.
The wedding turned into a cocktail hour, then a reunion. Open bar. Flowing pints of beer and glasses of wine. I stood near the door, partly to avoid the bar, although it wasn’t a conscious thought. I didn’t know many people, didn’t have a date, and was there sort of helping, so I didn’t cozy up to a table right away.
“Not the easiest day to be a non-drinker” I said casually, to the person next to me. Turns out it was the exact right person – brother of the bride. He smiled enthusiastically “I’ve got a six pack of La Croix in my car, want one??”
I could have kissed him. Which would be weird because he’s married, and might as well be my brother. He’s the guy I called an “atrocious butthole” when I was 9, trying to get a reaction using big words and ended up grounded for a week.
26 years late, he’s also the guy who was totally there for me in my moment of need. (I hope you read this and feel my gratitude)
La Croix gripped in one hand, I sent out a couple SOS texts. One was to a dear friend who’s not an alcoholic, but is a teetotalling, single, badass woman who somehow sees right to my heart.
“I delivered a smushed wedding cake, drank from a tainted glass, got an email from you-know-who, and am hanging out at an open bar reunion.”
“I need a drink. Or a cigarette. Or a brownie. Any of them will do.”
She’s a genius, and texted back:
“None of it’s going to fix it. No hot guy. Or drink. Or brownie. Or whatever. It’s just heartbreak. It’s awful and ugly and no one is prepared for it. So you just have to feel it. And know that it’ll pass. In a way. Just breathe through it.”
That could have been hard to hear – that NOTHING is going to fix it. But it wasn’t. With all the mindfulness I’ve been reading and practicing it made sense to me; it was reassuring. She was saying: ‘this is suffering. This is part of life. We all experience some of this, and we all survive in our way. You can meet it with compassion and acceptance, or you can continue to feel resistance and aversion and make yourself freaking crazy.’ I chose not to be crazier than I’d already been.
All the tools I’ve learned about surviving events sober were utilized that afternoon:
“Keep a drink in your hand” I had LaCroix, coffee, and water in front of me.
“Reach out to a friend” – Yep. Did it and felt better.
“Eat something sweet” – Wedding Cake. Times two. Check. (I don’t always buy into this one, because I was out of control for a long time with dessert. But it was prudent this time.)
“Breathe”- This is essential. It brought me back in to the present, and allowed me to let go of disturbing thought patterns.
I enjoyed myself, smiled, chatted, had pictures taken, then I hightailed my ass to a meeting.
(It also doesn’t hurt that I remember in the back of my mind the random tests done to ensure my sobriety. Accountability is a crucial part of my success.)
An additional suggestion would be bring a sober buddy. In fact, that could have eradicated most complications.
My friend was right. Nothing would have “fixed” my feelings, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to realize this. Learning how to be clean and sober has been an education in learning how to tolerate emotional and physical pain. Running away, numbing with substances, controlling with restrictive eating disorders – none of this has ever solved a problem. Self compassion, gentle awareness, and connection with others goes a long way towards easing them though. And I have an abundance of that these days.
I’m not invited to any upcoming weddings, I don’t think. But I won’t be avoiding them either (Please don’t throw out my RSVP!). My goal is to LIVE, to participate in all aspects of life, and to learn how ride the waves with grace. Weddings are stellar grounds for this lesson.
(P.S. Congratulations to the Bride and Groom. My dear bride friend apologized on my way out for the drinking that was happening around me. I’ll write on this another time, but the bystanders are never at fault. And there was absolutely no drunken debauchery – you would have hardly known anyone was drinking. I’m simply hyper-aware. The reason the wedding was triggering has NOTHING to do with the wedding itself – it’s all about my relationship to my emotions, my current circumstances, and my process. And frankly, it made for a great sober blog subject matter and hopefully will help another who may be heading to a summer wedding themselves. So THANK YOU. And may you live happily ever after. I love you.)