More scrabble life lessons

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After I posted yesterday we had a really lovely day, took the dogs to the beach, ate a delicious pub meal. I was keeping the feeling the week had cultivated in me. Until we played Scrabble. The thing is since I wrote the last Scrabble post C has been winning; most games. Remember at the start of that blog I said ‘God I love winning’? Well I really wanted to win this game.

It didn’t start well. C played first. I’d drawn nearly all vowels so was relying on some consonants. He played Qi. Q fucking I! I flipped out at him, half joking but then he tried to placate me and I went too far. Couldn’t pull myself back from it so carried on sulking as I drew more and more shit letters, dumping my hand 4 times. We played on in silence, no one having any fun and eventually my luck changed and I won.

Winning felt crap. I wanted to berate C but I knew it was all my fault. I still tried to as that’s what drunk me would have done but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d not followed any of my own advice; and cared too much about the result to enjoy the process; alienating C and spoiling the fun. I realised I might be able to talk the talk but I sure as hell wasn’t walking the walk yet. Not even when playing a game!

We eventually talked and I persuaded him to play another game. I wrote ‘voided for bad behaviour’ on the previous result and C won. I praised his good play and we went to bed feeling amicable again.

When we talked C commented that although I’m not doing the 12 step programme this was like Steps 6 & 7; which are to do with removing your shortcomings and defects of character – (well asking God to which is one of the reasons AA isn’t for me). Having looked them up I think I’m more at step 4; making a moral inventory of myself. If I’m honest the way I behaved playing that game of Scrabble happens quite a lot. A lot less now I’m not drinking but it’s an old habit. When it does it leaves me feeling crap and then I project that out; minimising my causal behaviour – ‘you over reacted, I didn’t mean it’ – that kind of thing. At its worst I end up really upset, hating myself and everyone else; desperately trying to figure out how to get back from it and start to repair. Without booze I can often catch myself now, change the direction of the wind; blow the clouds away before the storm really gets up and everyone gets drenched. Slowly learning to walk the walk.

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Nature and healing

Today is our last day in Cornwall. We arrived late last Saturday as I’d been at a memorial event for a young person I’d worked with through her adolescence who had tragically died. She’d been a success story for us at the time – gone to University, stopped self harming. Her death and the event had put me in full blown life is futile mode (what is the point? Why are we here? etc etc). You can imagine it wasn’t the most fun car journey for C. We arrived late to our tiny cottage and there was a bottle of wine in the fridge. Once again I was reminded that the above train of thought leads to justification for drinking. ‘Fuck it – we’re all going to die anyway, may as well enjoy myself’ – you know how it goes. Anyway I didn’t and the wine is still there. I’m much better at fast forwarding the movie to the end (a tool from Kate Bee’s sober school) and reminding myself I don’t actually want to feel worse or go through the early stages of sobriety for a 3rd time.

For the first time that I can remember since childhood we’ve abandoned clocks and time. No routine, no mealtimes, just gone with the flow. Like the summer holidays from school where a day would just unfold. We’ve not done very much at all and I’ve let nature wash over me and bring me some peace of mind just as it did when I was little. I grew up on a farm and spent a lot of time outdoors alone. Walking with the dogs, riding in the fields, sitting by the brook. Just being. This week I’ve reconnected with that part of me which can be hard to find in my busy urban life now.

One of the ways I repeatedly live in the gap (see Scrabble post) is to focus on C’s age. He’s 20 years older than me and I can get preoccupied with what he can’t do and the likelihood that he’ll die before me. He’s pretty fit but he can’t walk very fast or very far compared to me. These thoughts are corrosive; burning away the feelings of love and contentment that we’re lucky enough to share right here right now today. Fears for the future eating up today’s happiness.

Mid week one of my oldest and dearest friends messaged me to say a dear old friend of hers had died. My last memory of him is him dancing with his daughters at her 50th. He wasn’t yet 50 when he died. Completely tragic.

I could have gone back into fuck it mode but really I’d have been using someone else’s tragedy as an excuse to drink. Far better to turn it to gratitude. So yesterday I went for a walk along the coast path with just the little dog for company. I figured that instead of focusing on what C can’t do, I could appreciate all the things he can and do the other stuff by myself or with others. I’m not really a co-dependent sort of person so don’t get why this has been so hard for me to work out? Seems so obvious as I write it now!

The walk was breathtakingly beautiful. The changing coastline; waves crashing on the rocks; birds circling above; wild flowers and wild ponies. It felt good to exert myself, to connect with the land and sense it’s deep history. A reminder of how little time and space we actually occupy in the big, universe scheme of things but without the sense of futility. Appreciating being alive.

I’ll be back in the city and living by the clock again next week. I was depressed when I left and I’m not now. I need to keep this nature filled, timeless space in my heart as full as I can if I’m going to stay grateful. Thank you beautiful Cornwall.

Life is a game of Scrabble

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Since I stopped drinking me and my husband have been playing a lot of Scrabble. So much so that we’ve got a tournament going. Best of 3 games means a series, and I’m currently winning the series 11-4. God I love winning! Half the fun is C’s half pretend upset – ‘what’s the score now……Goddamnit!’. On holiday in beautiful Cornwall this week, we’re playing 3 games a night and I’m noticing how much of a metaphor for life the game is.

I’m prone to sudden switches of mood. A prime time is when I get home from work. If anything is not quite how I expect it to be I go from calm and relaxed to irritable, grumpy and unreasonable. A glass of wine would knock it on the head but now I’m having to figure out other ways. I think it comes from the anxiety of coming home from school not knowing what I would find. A clean house, tea cooking and mum smiling; or an almost empty bottle of gin with mum and her drinking buddy slumped over it, unwashed pots from breakfast in the sink. Anyway, C often asks me ‘What is it you’re telling yourself?’ (He’s a therapist if you hadn’t guessed!). I know what he’s getting at – what’s the automatic negative thought behind the emotion? What are you thinking that’s suddenly made your world appear so full of shit and deeply unsatisfying? It’s hard to catch those pesky thoughts and beliefs though when the bad mood has taken centre stage. Whilst playing Scrabble I could see them in action. A simplified version of life with the same processes at work shaping the direction of travel.

There are two variables beyond your control in Scrabble, the board and what letters you pick. The bit you can control is what you do with them but more importantly how you think about them. Do you see obstacles or opportunity? Whenever I focused on having shit letters ( 5 I s goddamnit!), or was thinking of throwing them in I invariably missed a place I could go or made a bad play. C did the same. The more we complained the worse it got. When I was more curious and open minded; treating each set of letters as a puzzle to be solved in its own right then I found the words and the scores.

Last night we were playing the 3rd deciding game. I was about 20 points ahead, all the letters were drawn and I knew C must have the Z and the Q. Both worth 10 points. I was nervous. It was his turn. He played Zinque – a made up word, laughing that I’d won anyway. ‘You could have done Zen for 22 points’ I said. ‘Yeah but then I’m left with the Q and nowhere to put that’. ‘You could have made Qi here for triple letter score’ I pointed out. ‘So I could’ve won?!’ C exclaimed. Yes he could. What stopped him winning was his focus on the barriers instead of looking for the opportunities. He’d mentally thrown in the towel and already decided he’d lost. To be fair this isn’t how C approaches life in the main at all. He just gave me the clearest Scrabble example! I’m the one who does that in real life, in spite of having a pretty damn good set of letters most of the time.

I read this morning about Dan Sullivan’s concept of ‘The Gap and the Gain’. Most of us focus on what we haven’t got, what we haven’t achieved, what went wrong – this is living in the gap. Happiness is not right now but when I have a better job, the kids are older, I’ve retired etc etc. Living in the gain is to focus on what is and how far you have come rather than where you are going. Judging yourself by what you have achieved relative to where you were, rather than where you would ideally want to be. Living in the gap is giving those automatic negative thoughts free rein to run around your mind so all you can see is what’s wrong. It’s fixing your mindset and closing doors to change. Or making changes and still being unsatisfied. Life never feeling quite good enough. Alcohol promises a temporary escape but really it’s rocket fuel for the gap mentality.

So I’m going to try and cultivate my best Scrabble attitude in my daily life. Each day is a new set of letters and it’s up to me what I make of them. Appreciate life as it’s happening, rather than focusing on what could be different. See opportunities not obstacles. Next time I come home from work I’ll take a moment to be appreciative before I open the door so I can enjoy what’s waiting behind it for what it is.

Gratitude for my mum

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If I’m going to write about my past; unpick the reasons why I drank so much for so long; then my mum is going to be the leading lady – Judy Garland to my Liza Minnelli, cast as an unpredictable drunken purveyor of chaos and she’s not going to look good frankly. I feel bad about this. My mum is still alive, about to celebrate her 81st birthday and I love her dearly. I want to share the good stuff more than the bad right now. Maybe the bad will just appear in passing, maybe not at all – I don’t really have a plan for this other than writing this right now. So here are 5 of the reasons I’m grateful to have my mum in my life today.

My mum is great company. She can make any situation fun; find the humour, taking the proverbial out of herself or others when gleefully recounting a story. Prone to exaggeration we’re never quite sure how much is true. The more we laugh the more she embellishes it.

My mum is great in a crisis. Through my divorce she managed to be emotionally supportive of me; naming my unhappiness when I couldn’t myself and encouraging me to do what was right for me; whilst being kind and respectful to my ex and being there for our girls.

My mum is a wonderful granny. When the girls were little she came to stay every month so we could have a night out together and a lie in. She would go to the park, bake, play and cuddle whilst we slept off our hangovers! Now the girls are young adults they still love to spend time with her. Knowing they have her to turn to if they don’t want to come to me is a big comfort.

My mum is my No 1 supporter. I remember getting a rosette at a horse show and my mum was cheering so much the guy handing them out commented “I see you’ve brought your fan club”. She listens to my moans and groans, my hopes and dreams; encouraging and enthusing me. When we were younger she used to say ‘Aim for the stars, if you don’t reach them you might still get the moon’.

My mum has been sober for 8 years now. She moved closer to me 9 years ago just as her health started to deteriorate. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy misdiagnosed as asthma for a long time. When I ask her why she stopped she simply says ‘I realised it was going to kill me’. She did it on her own, quietly, no fuss. I’m in awe. Sobriety has definitely brought her more years in her life but also more life in her years. She’s learnt to paint and crochet; and had 4 celebrations for her 80th birthday last year with family and friends. She’s supportive of my efforts, without judging or criticising me. She is my inspiration.

Thank you mum for all that you are and all that you do – I love you💖.

Grieving my drinking self

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For the last 6 weeks I’ve been feeling very low in every sense of the word. Low on energy, low on motivation and low in mood. It’s almost 3 months since I had a drink, and I’m very aware that it was at this point last year that I decided I would try moderation again. This year I’m not taken in by the idea that drinking will improve things but I am feeling the loss. Not of alcohol per se but of who I was. I started drinking regularly in my late teens like most people. I remember being very uncomfortable around alcohol and drunk people. Growing up with an alcoholic mum meant my radar for the transition between tipsy and drunk in others was extremely sensitive, and it signalled danger. My then boyfriend suggested I’d better find a way to get used to it as everyone at Uni got drunk. I took his advice. I soon learnt that being drunk myself dealt with that nicely. I duly went off to Uni and started to have fun, seemingly freed up from that anxious attention to others that I’d needed growing up. I wasn’t like my mum; I drank to enjoy myself, to have fun. I partied long and hard and I liked it. I met the friends that I still have today – we’ve been there for each other through all life’s ups and downs. Every occasion oiled with alcohol. Motherhood didn’t stop me, nor did my career. In my mind I was functional, sociable and having a good time.

Now over 35 years later I’m seeing the past a little differently as well as feeling a lot less sure of myself in the present. I don’t want to go out and when I do I feel anxious and awkward like my teenage self before alcohol. I’m ok on a 1:1 – it’s groups – particularly my good friends that’s hardest. My drunk spotting radar is turned on full, and when things start to get loud or messy I don’t want to be there. Then I get to thinking about all the times I’ve been that person and how others most likely saw me. Having a good time or being loud and obnoxious? Coupled with this intense judgement of people I actually really love, as well as myself; is the feeling of missing out, not being in the gang, being boring. ‘You’ll never have fun again’ whispers the wine witch as I’m checking my watch to see if I can leave yet.

So I’ve been pretty unsociable and pretty miserable. I keep thinking about mistakes I’ve made; impulsive decisions where the consequences only now seem important. The money I’ve wasted. The flaky parenting. Recognising that all along alcohol has been the real centre of attention and how much it got in the way of everything else. The what ifs and the could have beens. I’m not usually one for regrets, so I’m in unfamiliar territory. The loss is both what I could have been without alcohol and who I was with alcohol.

I don’t want to be the drinking me again but I’m not sure of sober me yet either. I know sober me is enjoying work more without the hangovers. Sober me is getting on better with my daughters. Sober me loves Scrabble. Sober me is smoking a lot and eating tons of chocolate.

This week I’m on holiday in Cornwall – just me, my husband and the dogs. I don’t have to socialise or see anyone. I can just be and allow the grief. Like a caterpillar in it’s cocoon I’m waiting to emerge anew.

I’m going on a bear hunt…

The good news about quitting drinking is you get in touch with your feelings; and the bad news is you get in touch with your feelings as many a reformed addict will tell you. When you’ve used alcohol for years to keep those pesky emotions firmly locked away in the psychological equivalent of an escape room it shouldn’t be a surprise that removing the lock of alcohol creates some problems. Feelings that don’t belong to the here and now but feel like they do, can cause havoc with your current life, relationships and perceptions of same. Trying to disentangle the real meaning and the real source is not easy. The initial joy of quitting is replaced by self-doubt, questioning and intense reactions to anything and everything. My husband only has to take longer than a millisecond to respond to me and I feel abandoned, unheard and unloved. The more I berate him for it, the further he withdraws confirming my deep-seated belief that I am not loveable. This morning we managed to get through one of these exchanges and finish up with a hug. That’s usually what I need but I’m not very good at communicating it, preferring to see his failure to mind read and second guess me as further evidence of his and my own failings. It’s easier to show my anger than my vulnerability and pain. So what can I do differently? How do I learn to respond within an emotionally appropriate range, without attaching all this baggage?

Understanding where the baggage originates is important. I sometimes liken therapy to opening up cupboards in our mind, crammed full of stuff that spills out and has to be slowly sorted; carefully looking through it; throwing away what you don’t need, and eventually neatly putting away what you want to keep, with the door now closing easily. However, finding new ways to manage my emotions, past and present in the here and now is the key task that will help me off the hamster wheel of addiction; allowing feelings, not suppressing, not projecting on to others and not turning them into self-loathing.

In the moment I need to be able to clock that the emotions don’t belong to now and not respond as if they do; and find a way of telling myself that in a split second. Breathe and count to 6. Keep that mouth shut. Neuroscience and attachment theory teach us that these implicit reactions come from our early experiences, and danger in any form has the biggest influence on what we pay attention to and what we don’t. That makes sense as staying alive is the unconscious priority for all of us. The trouble is these automatic responses are from the unthinking part of our brain, the subcortical regions, primed to sense any hint of danger and to activate our fight/flight. After an unregulated outburst, guilt and shame ensue or an attempt to justify: ‘He doesn’t love you anymore, things have changed, I’m right to be upset etc’. Both perpetuate the cycle – increasing your self or other hatred and filling up the negative emotion tank ready to burst all over again. Without the lock of alcohol, it’s a pretty regular occurrence! I have to learn to accept my negative feelings and remember that they will pass. I have to unlearn my old ways, or figure out which ones I can keep.

 This process is complicated by having to suppress them in order to function. I can’t allow my feelings when I’m at work, or rather it doesn’t go well when I do! I have to help others deal with their emotions; contain their anxiety, offer hope and ways forward. I have to be reflective, open and measured. All of this helps me to an extent; being in my more functional mode does lift my spirits and I love what I do; but it is part of the disconnect from the murkier parts of myself. When the murky stuff is bubbling up to the surface then it’s harder to be that functional person. Both parts of me are real and compliment each other. Without my demons I wouldn’t be as good at my job; I wouldn’t have as much empathy and understanding. Without my job I wouldn’t have the self-esteem to say I’m good at my job! Integrating these parts, not judging or valuing one above the other and not blocking either out is the task I’m facing now. To paraphrase the wonderful children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – I can’t go under it, I can’t go over it, I can’t go round it – I have to go through it.

Yoga and meditation really do help calm my mind and body. When I’m really low I struggle to do them, a perverse self-denial. I rarely denied myself a drink! Sometimes it’s hard to be kind to yourself and allow yourself things that help. Self-destruction is an easier path to choose than self- care. I allowed myself some comfort this morning and I’m writing this now. Small steps. I’ll post this now then go do some yoga!

‘Physician Heal Thyself’

I’ve long realised that I’m as messed up as a lot of my patients. I’m not one of those psychiatrists who has an ‘us and them’ mentality – more one that recognises fellow humans’ struggles as things I struggle with too at times; and I’m often in awe at how resilient people can be in the face of so much adversity. I see my job as trying to help them feel better about themselves; to recognise their strengths as well as trying to lessen their suffering. When I feel better about myself, I’m generally a lot nicer to be around and much more able to sort stuff out. I figure that’s true for most of us. What it has taken me a long time to recognise is that I have a substance misuse problem. Strange that I couldn’t see it; doing the job I do? I come from a family full of alcoholics; I was getting books out the library about alcoholism when I was 13 and I originally wanted to specialise in addiction. I saw the switch to Child Psychiatry as moving on from rescuing my mother to rescuing myself, but maybe it was more about avoiding my own demons? I like to think I’m quite an open reflective person, but where drugs and alcohol are concerned, I’ve had one hell of a blind spot!

I think it’s particularly difficult for those of us in the caring professions to acknowledge our own struggles; and we’re more likely than others to have addictions. There’s not a lot of research out there but compared to about 10% of the general population, 10 – 12% of doctors have addiction problems, and 20% of nurses. I think the nurses are probably being more honest than the doctors. Much has been made of increased access as a factor, but alcohol is the most frequently misused drug, the one that’s most available for everyone. It’s also on the increase, with underfunding, impossible expectations and a name and blame culture identified as causes by a support service for doctors (www.independent.co.uk 24.06.17).

Whilst those things are undoubtedly making everything worse for professionals on the frontline, I think we’ve probably always been more vulnerable. Caring for others, dealing with pain and suffering day in day out will deplete anybody. We likely chose these jobs because we’re good at meeting others’ needs; not so good at meeting our own. Our identity and self-esteem become tied up with our job; one which society respects and rewards; but couples that with high expectations. Having problems of our own is shameful, we’re supposed to be sorting out everyone else’s. Shame corrodes our self-esteem, the ‘what if they knew the real me?’ thinking; pushing us further into addiction. Our substance of choice suppresses our emotions, including our shame. The traumas of the day are literally washed away, and our minds are anaesthetised to the pain of not being the superhuman perfect being that society and ourselves expect us to be. We can’t say anything because if we do, we will be referred to our regulatory body, and could lose everything. Most of us will be functioning addicts and really good at hiding it from everyone else. Once you admit it to yourself, the ongoing secrecy and isolation compounds the shame. ‘You should know better, you should be able to handle it, you’re a doctor for God’s sake – sort yourself out!’ – the kind of things my mind would tell me when I woke up dry mouthed with a headache in the small hours. There are multiple things that have led me down the path of addiction. My chosen profession is one of them.

The first time I stopped drinking was December 14th, 2017. It was my eldest daughter’s birthday and I got upset in the restaurant as my food wasn’t good. I didn’t completely ruin the evening, but my younger daughter later commented ‘I don’t think it helps being pissed out your head most of the time mum either’. It was the reality check I needed. I’d been secretly obsessing about my drinking, occasionally openly saying ‘I must cut down’ with a tiny part of me hoping that someone would say ‘Yes you should – you really do drink too much’. As an outwardly functional person, a professional whom others ask for advice about all kinds of things; a fun happy drunk on the outside this was unlikely to happen. It was very easy to ignore my worries by literally drowning them in Sauvignon Blanc most nights. My daughter named the elephant in the room and I will be eternally grateful to her for that.

I stopped for 100 days, and then decided I could go back to moderate drinking. I went to a few AA meetings, but they weren’t for me. I’d done Xmas, New Year and my birthday sober. It hadn’t been much fun if I’m honest. I felt I’d failed at drinking and I felt deprived without it but after a 3 month break surely I could keep it to the odd one socially?

Fast forward another year and I was breaking every rule I set for myself around moderation and I was consumed with thinking about alcohol except for when I was drinking it! I’d learnt some things during my break so rather than let things get worse – (wondering what my own personal rock bottom might look like) – I stopped. The difference this time is I didn’t go it alone. I signed up for Kate Bee’s online Sober School and I’m now almost 11 weeks AF. The course really helped me change my thinking and I wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone considering embarking on this journey. It’s a lonely path on your own. Now the course is over I’ve moved from the pink cloud feeling I’ve read about to the wall of depression though. I don’t want to drink but I don’t want to do much else either. I think I’m grieving my old self whilst not knowing who the new me will be. I’ve drank a lot for over 30 years so it’s bound to be a bit strange. I’m not used to reaching out to others for support – it’s usually the other way around. Writing this blog is to help me keep on keeping on through this difficult bit on the way to what I hope will be a content sober life. I’ll be exploring how I got here; the ups and downs of recovery and anything else that comes up. If it reaches other health professionals battling their demons secretly and helps them feel less alone that will also help me.

Welcome to My New Sobriety Blog

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

Oscar Wilde

I’m quite new to my relative sobriety, finding my way in a world where I’m used to being the helper not the helped. I’m thinking there might be other people out there like me, scared to come out because of their professions so if I reach you and you feel less alone then I’ve helped us both.

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