This morning, when chatting with a group I work with on embracing a substance-free life, I stated, “sometimes people in the news inspire me to be more like them, but sometimes, they inspire me to NOT be like them. I don’t ever want to be the kind of person that people look at and say, here is an example of how NOT to be.”
Life is full of teachable moments. People and situations often help me to work on my own personal development, and they also give me plenty of material in parenting and coaching. The other day I was out with a friend and her ex-husband called. She showed me the Caller ID. It said Teacher. She explained to me that a very wise person had once instructed her to name people in her phone who challenged her patience and overall equanimity as “Teacher.” This way, when she saw their name (“Teacher”) pop up, rather than anticipate a negative interaction, she immediately reset her intention to a more neutral state.
The news these days are full of teachable moments. And my children, bless their hearts, are a captive audience because I still feed them (usually). So while they chomp on veggies, they get to listen to the podcast episodes I have yet to air. Yes, they roll their eyes. We often disagree. The boy fidgets and kicks his sister. Sigh, it would be much easier to just talk about whatever other people talk about who have calm, peaceful, family dinners every night. Right, as if. I have a 9th grader and a 12th grader so my ability to control them is dwindling. I must pour all my wisdom into their precious heads as quickly as I can! Anyway, these are some points I see as valuable lessons to discuss with our kids. Feel free to use them at the dinner table (and as I tell my kids, feel free to throw me under the bus if it gets you out of an awkward situation: “I know this is annoying, but this weird lady Susanne wrote this - what do you guys think?”).
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
A few years ago, while out running with my dog, I was attacked by another dog. The physical injury was nothing major (thankfully, the attacker had had its rabies shots), but for a few days, I was weepy, reactive, on edge. I was unusually sensitive and every little thing set me off. I was not a fun or nice wife or mom. And I could not understand it. I figured it had to do something with the dog attack but it didn’t make sense to me, since it had not been a major attack. I still ran another half mile afterwards, figuring it would help me calm down. I called a friend of mine who is a professional dog trainer and he assured me that what I was feeling was completely normal - I had PTSD, which is normal from an animal attack - and there was nothing I could do about it. Just just give it time, he said, and eventually the adrenaline and cortisol flooding my body would even out. Unwilling to be weepy and reactive indefinitely, I figured running would help. But that did nothing. (I ran with pepper spray).
I then taught my regular yoga class. As usual, I did the class along with the students, breathing with them, moving with them, connecting with my body, my breath, and the community in the room with me. At the end of class, I was shocked at the realization that for the first time in days, I felt peaceful. I felt rebooted. I was back to myself.
This experience began my journey into yoga as something more than an effective way to strengthen and stretch my body while increasing proprioceptive awareness (i.e. important stuff for someone who at age 40 was training for her first Ironman in 10.5 weeks). I now understood why several people in my classes had told me that after each class, they felt a reprieve from their depression and/or anxiety. I became determined to learn as much as I could about yoga and mindfulness as a way to heal the mind and psyche from PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction. I devoured books on the subject and finally, this past weekend, I took an intensive training course to become a certified teacher of Trauma-Informed Yoga (DEEP gratitude to Maryam and Heather at Beloved Yoga).
For three very full days, we dove into neuroscience, learning about the brain and how it is affected by trauma. We learned about the different forms and levels of trauma.
“We enter this state - let us call it a survival mode - when we perceive that our lives are being threatened. If we are overwhelmed by the threat and are unable to successfully defend ourselves, we can become stuck in survival mode. This highly aroused state is designed solely to enable short term defensive actions; but left untreated over time it begins to form the symptoms of trauma.”
We may have witnessed or been victims of a violent attack, or have been raised in a chaotic household, or been molested over a period of time, or fought in a war. We may have experienced deep loss of love, of financial stability, of a sense of belonging. In fact, if our parents, and/or their parents, experienced trauma, this can affect us today.
“Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.”
Trauma affects the central nervous system. The human brain and central nervous system begin to develop at about three weeks’ gestation - leading experts to believe that any trauma experienced by the pregnant mother at this point is having an impact on the developing brain. The central nervous system basically takes in cues from the environment via the senses and these cues are interpreted by the brain. A traumatized brain is sort of like a toddler - impulsive, reactive, makes no sense to those of us with common sense. For someone who has endured trauma and has not engaged in healing and recovery, chances are, the rational part of the brain that makes wise decisions (we would hope), and the emotional part of the brain that among many other important things supports relationships through empathy, trust and attachment, get hijacked by the part of the brain whose sole purpose is to ensure survival, no matter what.
“An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.”
Do you know any kids who seem to be unusually oppositional, defiant, or completely shut down? Chances are, their brains and central nervous system are merely responding to situations that are activating what at some point worked for them during a traumatic situation or phase in their life (including in the womb). Yes, think of the implications of this - as we castigate and medicate such kids, rather than addressing their behavior in a trauma-informed way, in the school system, the medical system, the family. Do you know people who suffer from anger issues? Who struggle with depression? Anxiety? Sleep disorders? Chronic back/neck pain? Autoimmune disorders? Addiction? There is a very good chance that if you ask them to sit down and write out their life story, there will be trauma there. All too often we dismiss trauma because we had “a great childhood with very loving parents and everything we needed” or “sure, stuff happened, but life is tough, it’s just the way it is.” Simply the act of sitting down and writing out our story and sharing it with someone else, can be enough for us to realize that wow, that was not healthy, or normal, or that was actually very painful. Perhaps our parents were in the military and we moved every couple of years; perhaps our parents got divorced; perhaps our sibling had a chronic or fatal illness, which impacted our sense of safety, maybe even left us, the healthy one, feeling neglected. Perhaps our parents have the news on every day and we are bombarded by images and sound bites about school shootings, potential nuclear wars, rude celebrities making poor choices of word and action. These and plenty of other events and situations can absolutely affect the way our brain is wired to respond to current stressors.
The good news is that yoga is an amazing way to promote healing and essentially bring the brain back online. Phew!!! Yes, it turns out that yoga is not just for bendy-wendies and hippy-dippies in their Lululemons sipping chai and smelling like a vegan restaurant. It turns out that doing warrior poses, focusing on our breathing, and doing this with others can have an incredibly powerful effect on our brain. We used to, not too long ago, think that we are pretty much stuck with the brain we have, but we now know about neuroplasticity, which means the brain is able to heal and change (interesting tidbit: the Yoga Sutras, which have been around since about 300-500 BC, pretty much state this fact). We also know that “the body keeps score” (the title of Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s seminal book), so a practice that combines mindful movement that is linked with reconnecting the parts of the brain that have become disconnected or imbalanced is an effective way to heal from Post Traumatic Stress Injury (a more empowering way to think of what traditionally is referred to PTSD - so I will now refer to it as PTSI).
“The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind - of yourself. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed."
Explaining how yoga can help with brain and body imbalances would take too long for this already lengthy blogpost, but in a nutshell, working with a trauma-informed instructor can help you learn tools for those inevitable times in your day and life where you feel triggered, helping you become less reactive, more even-keeled, less irrational, more tranquil. Which is what happened to me when I felt restored after my post-dog-attack yoga class.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Our class was privileged to have Detective Jennifer “Missy” Elliott talk to us about her own experience with mindfulness in dealing with her job-related PTSI (remember - that is now what we are calling PTSD). Missy had been dealing with debilitating back pain and nobody was able to help her, but a really smart doctor prescribed therapeutic yoga. She reluctantly agreed to give it a try, which is how she met one of my instructors this weekend, Heather. One day she was on the job, at an extremely stressful situation (investigating a murder-suicide), which was a regular occurrence in her line of work , and she realized that she was unusually calm and non-reactive, to the point that a colleague pointed it out. It dawned on Missy that the practice she had learned to heal her back pain had had a powerful effect on her ability to deal with the daily stress she had endured during her decades of law enforcement work. Missy recognized the implications of this and began to spread awareness about the devastating effects the daily encounters with and witnessing of the horrible violence and suffering has on law enforcement personnel, as well as other first responders (EMS, firefighters, ER staff, etc). She has spoken of the lack of support police officers and other first responders receive in processing this stress. She enthusiastically shared her experience with mindfulness and encouraged police departments to embrace mindful practices as a way to support their employees. More police officers die from suicide than in the line of duty, and she knew why, and she also knew she had found a tool to prevent these avoidable tragedies.
1 in 4 Police officers has thoughts of suicide
2.3 times more police officers die by suicide than by homicide
Unfortunately, Missy’s efforts have not resulted in the changes she had envisioned, and as I sat there listening, I thought about the stories in the news about police officers acting in ways that showed they had dehumanized a suspect to the point of attacking them in rage, or fear. From a brain point of view, these police officers were most likely suffering from an amygdala hijack. They very likely could be loving fathers, decent husbands, serving their country in a way that upheld citizen’s safety. The media, and media consumers, may like to paint these “killer cops” as a monsters, but from a trauma-informed point of view, I do not find it surprising that when they are in these intense situations, performing with brains that have absorbed layers and layers of violence, pain, suffering, grief, gore, evil - and often (usually, apparently) having zero meaningful support from their supervisors and leaders (which is absolutely unacceptable and MUST change!), these officers react in a way that can result in tragedy. I thought about the angry public who demonize these police officers without pausing to investigate what it must be like to grow up wanting to be a police officer, usually to keep the good guys safe and put the bad guys in jail, not knowing that they would be signing up for a life of layered trauma and very little if any framework to process it and release it. (Imagine the stigma they must encounter if they show any vulnerability!). It is no wonder that the rate of suicide, addiction, divorce, domestic violence, and depression are so high among law enforcement officers.
Please watch the trailer for this documentary: Code 9
Obviously, yoga is not a magic cure for all of our individual, societal and global imbalances and dis-eases (or is it...?). But I do believe this world would be a vastly different place if each of us took ownership over our individual and collective attention to how our body feels, grounding it into the earth, connecting with our breath, gazing inward, and being mindful of what enters our brain and our gut (our "second brain”), and what we send out via our words and our energy. There is growing evidence that Post-Traumatic Growth is not only possible, but it is vital to our world. It is like a superpower.
“With wisdom, patience, openness and practice, all effects of trauma can be healed. We have the tools… And yet out of the dark seeds of trauma can emerge a healing fountain of wisdom, compassion, resilience, and strength. In the multidimensional healing of ourselves, we rise to the highest levels of our potentials as human beings and become a shining beacon of light for others and for the world.”
If you would like to learn more, I urge you to check out the following resources. YOU can make a difference.
Mindful Policing: The Future of Force
The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment (Babette Rothschild)
The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina
How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, MD
Lost Connections by Johann Hari
The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, PhD
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris, MD
Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace B. Pert, PhD
Videos and documentaries:
How childhood trauma affect health - TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris, MD: https://ed.ted.com/on/iOyQVfhd
Code 9 trailer and film: http://www.thecode9film.com/
Recently, I had the privilege of taking a friend to see an endocrinologist as she needed an adjustment in the medication she is taking for her autoimmune condition. I waited for her in the waiting room and as we rode down in the elevator after her appointment, I asked her if she liked the doctor. My friend hesitated and then quietly said, No. After some prodding, she finally admitted that when the doctor saw the evidence of her drug addiction, which is healing now but still a relatively fresh track record on her arm, the doctor’s demeanor instantly changed. The doctor’s words and tone felt condescending, judgmental, shaming.
When my friend shared this with me, I was horrified. I think she was still in shock, and I think that being so early in her recovery, she is like a timid little bird who is not quite sure of her footing, her view of the world, or most of all, her view of herself. I know enough about the disease of addiction to know that nobody gets to that level of self-destruction (and other-destruction) because they were blessed with good things and relationships and genes and all that stuff. Chances are, they are struggling with some level of trauma, and chances are pretty high they have inherited pain and suffering that their parents, grandparents, and other ancestors endured and never transformed - so they transferred it to the children they raised (or abandoned). In recovery, we build ourselves back up, and this is done with the help of people and a network who operate from a place of compassion. Ideally, this compassion eventually seeps into the blood and soul of the person in recovery, and one day they start to believe that they are worthy. But it is a long process, and my friend is in the early stages.
“Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance use is the addict’s attempt to escape distress… Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious. They are emotional anesthetics.” - Gabor Maté
As we rode in the car I was driving, I helped her process what had just happened. I explained to her that the contempt she had just felt from the doctor was unprofessional, and my friend deserved better treatment. I said, “if you had told her that you had diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease, I am pretty sure she would have treated you with more dignity. The fact that she didn’t is a reflection on HER, not YOU. In medical school, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, which states that they will first, do no harm. Unfortunately, doctors still are not taught about the disease model of addiction, nor are they taught, or given refresher courses, on how to treat someone who struggles with this awful disease.”
A friend of mine is a nurse in an ER that is on the frontlines of the disease epidemic in the U.S., and she is horrified by the way the doctors and nurses treat, and speak about, the patients who come in with every level of injury, disease, and overdose due to addiction. These medical professionals are exhausted, and understandably frustrated, especially when the “frequent flyers” show up - again. And again. I get it. It must be incredibly triggering of every medical professional’s fear that no matter what, they cannot fix this person. And they are on the front line of a medical establishment that is absolutely inadequate when it comes to addiction and other mental health dis-eases. So, their lack of compassion is in many ways understandable - it is a side effect of caregiver burnout.
And medical professionals are just one segment of the population that is ignorant and ill-equipped to effectively help people in active addiction, as well as in recovery. I have Fakebook friends (just a couple, phew) who share stories in the media that effectively shame people with addiction. Every time I see one of those posts (eg couple overdoses in car, kids in the back seat) I am deeply saddened. How can this be helpful? Again, I return to what I stated earlier - when a person becomes this sick, it is something that is beyond their control. And it is rare that someone is shamed into changing, and I am quite sure that shame does not lead to positive change in systems or in society, but rather, builds up and strengthens everything negative, from the individual to the global levels.
“We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” - Brené Brown
As we drove, I explained to my friend, that she is basically a Recovery Ambassador. I told her that next time she goes to a doctor, or interacts with anyone, really, she has the opportunity to educate them. Not in a shouty, emotional, indignant way, but from a place of compassion. I do believe that we are all doing our best, and it’s important to always see the other person’s point of view, and consider that their perspective is shaped by their experience up to that point. I told her, “You may be the only person in recovery that someone meets, and you have the chance to show them that you are human, and smart, and worthy, and dignified. And, you have the right to hold people accountable when they are not giving you the same respect and compassion that they might if you revealed you had a more “socially respectable” disease.” I have said this in different forums, that I believe that one of the reasons there is such a fear and misperception of people with addiction and other mental health dis-eases, is that the tradition of anonymity means that most people are not aware that millions of people can, and do, recover and lead incredibly productive, joyful lives. Imagine if the only way we heard about cancer is by obituaries and other stories of the horrors of cancer relapse. Instead, we have all kinds of events and media stories celebrating cancer survivors. I dream of the day when the millions of people in recovery, who are today contributing in meaningful and successful ways to the world, are also mentioning their recovery status along with “CEO/surgeon/coach/mother/lawyer/teacher/senator” etc.
I believe that change begins with you, and me, and trickles around and upward and downward. So, if you are reading this, and you are a medical professional, an educator, a parent, a sibling, a law enforcement officer, a first responder, a neighbor - whoever you are - you can be part of the change. Great change happens with tiny steps taken on a consistent basis. It happens when we become more self-aware. And when we do that - pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions - we may realize how much of what we think, feel and do is based on fear.
When that doctor saw my friend’s track marks, she probably thought, “Oh shit” for all sorts of reasons that boiled down to fear. Which is no different from what drives medical policy, insurance policy, public policy, DARE programs, zero tolerance programs at school, and Fakebook shares. So, once we admit that, we can talk about it, and that is where change starts to happen.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead
When my mom was facing a premature death due to a cancer that was ravaging her body, she told me on one of our drives to her radiation appointments that she had urged my dad to mourn her for a year after she was gone, and then to find another wife. She told me that she was sorry she was so sick, and that they had had a beautiful life together and that he deserved and needed a companion. So, on the one hand, she regretted the pain and suffering that she felt in a way she may have caused (through years of smoking). On the other hand, she so very graciously and generously was giving him permission to honor what they had had, and to start a new chapter.
A couple of years after my mom had passed, my dad met Janet, after a friend urged him to create an eHarmony account. I remember when he created his profile - I think it took about three hours! - and he asked me to read his answers. It was thorough! My dad was a catch - apparently widowers in their early 60s are a hot ticket item in a demographic that tends to be largely female. He communicated and dismissed his share of women who were not intellectually and culturally satisfying to him (apparently “shopping” is a common hobby), and eventually Janet appeared. After a few online messages and phone calls, they met in person (she lived in VA, he in SC). A few months later they were engaged, and a few months after that they married. That was over ten years ago.
I remember during this time, well-meaning friends saying things like, “Susanne, aren’t you upset? Don’t you think this is rather soon for him to be dating/getting married?” Quite honestly, I did not know what they were talking about. Soon after they started dating, Janet flew up on her own to CT just to meet me, my husband and my kids. From the beginning, I sensed and now know that she is kind, authentic, and truly cares about my dad. And she is intimidatingly smart! They have the same obsession for opera, classical music, classical literature and art museums. They both dislike shopping, love to travel, cook, walk on the beach. Janet has taught at various universities including Georgetown and Howard U, and I think this may have been a factor in my dad’s decision to get his Master’s at the age of 69, and embark on a new career in teaching (he is now the head of his school’s language department!).
I realize that my mom paved the way for me to find acceptance, and this was perhaps one of the greatest gifts she could have given me. And my dad. He and my mom had a wonderful, adventurous three decades or so together, raising two children across four countries. And, that part of the journey ended for them, for our family. When my dad met Janet, he started a new journey, that did not take away from his time with my mom. Janet takes good care of my dad and I do not have to worry about him, knowing he is in loving, attentive hands. Sure, there was a transition when his new love distracted him from doting on his daughters and grandchildren, but that was a temporary adjustment and it gave way to a new normal. And they certainly dote on their five grandchildren!
As I was running yesterday and thinking about motherhood, and the often mixed feelings around Mother’s Day depending on where we are as mothers, daughters, wives, and how we are managing our expectations, I was thinking about how this day may feel for stepmoms. I imagine being a stepmom, even when you are entering a family with adult children, the way Janet did, is a scary adventure, with lots of potential for conflict and drama. I am grateful that my dad lucked out/chose well, and that my mom paved the way for acceptance and gratitude. And my hope is that on this Mother’s Day, as I think of my mom with love, sadness, and longing, and I also feel so much gratitude and love for my stepmom, Janet - that if you are a stepmom, or are struggling to accept a stepmom, that you feel love and compassion. In this morning’s yoga class, the teacher pointed out that we most fear external forces, but the truth is that the greatest sources of pain are within us. So, may we all just soften into this messy, brutiful existence, stay present, and accept that we are doing the best we can, right now.
Happy Mother’s Day :)
For the last couple of months, I have been privileged to work at a treatment center for adults (18+) whose lives had become unmanageable due to alcohol or other drugs, and are now seeking to learn healthier, smarter ways to cope with this crazy world in which we live. I was drawn to this place because of its holistic approach to treating addiction and other mental health dis-eases, complementing the individual and group therapy sessions with yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage, healthy food, art therapy, gym time…
When a new client arrives, and when a client’s stay is coming to an end, a ritual is performed. An opening and a closing ceremony are held, where all of the clients and the therapists and program assistants welcome the newly arrived, or honor the departing client. Each ceremony is unique, and the closing ceremony is tailored to reflect the person’s personality, spirit, and the way he or she has grown, and has affected the others in the facility. It is a moving, beautiful way to honor him/her, while also allowing all of the participants to share how much the connection with this person has contributed to their own journey.
My family and I have been in the Northern Virginia area for eight months, and while we have by now figured out where the light switches are in the house, and discovered with amazement each new flower that has bloomed in our yard this spring, we still don’t quite feel rooted. I know that this takes time (I am working on Radical Acceptance with this fact), and won’t happen as quickly as the mint I transplanted to my garden have taken hold. My son is in 8th grade (I know, enough said). My daughter, in 11th grade, was just sharing with me over lunch how she has met a lot of nice kids at school, but how different this transition has been from her previous ones. Last year (10th grade) she went on her own to South Africa for her spring term, and after extreme homesickness for the first week, she quickly started to feel like she belonged. She was in a dorm with a group of other girls who were hours or continents away from home, and they quickly developed a bond, glued together by the intensity of their common situation. Our conversation about this tied into the themes that have been swirling round my head for months - belonging - connection - community - rituals. And how, when these human needs are not fulfilled, the result is often poor physical health, depression, anxiety, addiction.
I spoke with a counselor at one of my kids’ new schools last week and pointed out to him that while the school does a great job with producing high scores, in my opinion they were missing the boat in terms of social emotional learning. I explained how hard this transition has been on my son, and I cannot imagine how hard it must be for kids who are less self-confident, and I wondered how many kids were falling through the cracks? I assured the counselor that I understand the need to reach certain measurable goals (scores), but I am dismayed that there is not much effort that I can see, to build community. I (diplomatically, I think) suggested that they look at ways to build time into the calendar for activities where the students can do something fun, work toward a common non-academic goal, make connections. I also suggested that they start a program where existing families agree to adopt a new family for a year, so that the new kid has a guaranteed friendly face, and the parents aren’t floundering and wondering what they don’t know because they don’t know what they don’t know. When I was talking to a friend about it all, I pointed out that middle school is a rough time in general, and most educators shy away from that precarious stage, but like any challenge, it can be a great opportunity for positive change (and if we aren’t being intentional about positive change, negative change will easily step in).
When I think of the sense of belonging that my children - that we all - crave, I reflect upon the opening and closing rituals that bookend a client’s stay at the treatment center. Wouldn’t it be amazing to provide and prioritize an activity that provides our kids with peer acceptance and validation? We all, our children and our own inner child, long to be seen, heard, and accepted. Wouldn’t it be cool to build it into our school culture? I see the magic this type of framework works in adults through recovery groups and my place of work. Why wait till dis-ease and rock bottom force a person and family to take extreme measures? As an adult, I have experienced the type of authentic connection that is built through activities that in some ways are like, or incorporate rituals: Ragnar Relay races, participating in marathons and triathlons with a group of friends, attending She Recovers conferences and recovery/support groups and meetings, etc. These events and activities provide an opportunity for authentic communication, creative expression, physical exertion, intellectual growth. In short, they feed the soul.
As I point out in the podcast where I was just interviewed, I believe the best way to solve a problem is to prevent it in the first place, and I think that something as simple as creating rituals that cultivate belonging, will create positive ripples with long-lasting effects. Let’s start to think of ways that we and our schools can feed our children’s souls - because they are starving for a sense of belonging and meaning.
I knew that alcohol was keeping me from showing up for the people I value the most, including myself, and from feeling my best. And yet, one of the main reasons I delayed sobriety beyond the point where I knew it was a poison, was this: based on the evidence before me, people who don’t drink are about as fun as a traditional church sermon. And I may be allergic to alcohol, but I am DEFINITELY allergic to uptight, boring, conformity, rigidity, [apparently senseless] rules. As far as I knew, people who didn’t drink fit into one of three camps. They were either 1) uptight, boring, conformists, rigid, the opposite of curious, not interested in taking risks (ie the opposite of interesting and exciting); or 2) train wrecks since adolescence, making one terrible decision after the other, and basically coming to the realization (or imposed by a legal or medical or social intervention) that they needed to sober up; or 3) they were fun, adventurous, curious, wild, interesting, risk-taking, and similar to #2, came to the realization (freely or forced) that they needed to sober up – and were now living an uptight, boring, conforming, rigid life. I did not relate to #1 or #2, and I did not want to be a reformed fun girl (#3).
Now, 2.5 years after I started my “break” from alcohol, I realize how skewed my perspective had been. I think it’s understandable, because the stigma and tradition of anonymity in the recovery world meant that all I saw were examples of the three “types” I listed above. I had no evidence of someone living their recovery out loud in a way that showed how fun and exciting sobriety can be. In my journey since Dec. 6, 2015, diving into my own stuff as well as what has become a professional journey in the area of recovery, I have learned that living without the poison of alcohol (I heard recently that if alcohol were invented today, the FDA would never approve it) actually does NOT have to mean that we may as well become boring losers. Of course, there are many times that we may decide to skip certain events, occasions, trips and people because if we really think about it, we feel more connected and at peace in another environment – home in PJ’s with a cup of tea, or in a room with a bunch of other people who don’t drink, or sweating it out at the gym. But that is a choice we are now making freely, based on a desire to practice and prioritize self-care, not because it is what is expected of us, or because we are operating automatically and out of habit.
Recently, a sober friend of mine remarked that people in recovery are more fun to her than people who never really drank or used drugs. I found that an interesting thought, as it echoed an impression I had had when I first “took a break” and then started connecting with others in the sober world, online and in person. I found that people in this space were intriguing to me. They were more curious, awake, and authentic, than I had found in other milieu. And I have wondered, what is it about mind-altering substances and behaviors that attracts the type of person I best connect with – the high-achievers, the creatives, the super-curious, the boundless? Is it that our current lifestyle and culture, with its rigid rules that begin when we start school (or daycare) and end on our deathbed, pushes us to seek relief from boredom and restlessness?
Shortly after I initiated my “break,” I wrote a blog about the vacuum. When we give up a habit, we need to fill the vacuum with other activities, because Mother Nature hates vacuums (I don’t blame Mother Nature, nor does my dog-she hates it when I vacuum). You can read what I wrote here: http://www.therebootcoach.net/blog/get-rid-of-the-vacuum . Substance misuse disorder treatment professionals and self-help groups prioritize helping people create a structure in life that fills the vacuum with activities, a network, goals, etc. This seems like a pain in the ass, and there is always the “I don’t have time, I need to work/feed my kids/water my plants…” and especially for non-comformists who like to fly by the seat of their pants and go with the flow, structure and what seems like selfishness (but is really self-care) can be a tough pill to swallow (pardon the pun). I get it. Especially when a lot of this stuff seems soooooooo boring.
My kids are teens now, an age that many people fear and dread, but I actually could not wait for this phase of parenting. Babies are cute but boring, toddlers are cute but I can’t reason with them, and then kids (to me) become more interesting as I can talk with them and ride bikes and play Frisbee. When they are teens, I relate to them. I relate to their curiosity, their desire to explore, challenge, question, to rock the boat. That is my language!
I moved to the U.S. from Mexico when I was entering my 12th grade of high school, and was rather shocked and dismayed by what to me seemed like a very bored teenage population, whose main outlet was alcohol and promiscuity. It was clear to me that they were acting this way because these were their options for having fun: 1. Play sports 2. Play music 3. Be in the school play 4. Eat at Friendly’s (the more interesting restaurant, Bennigans, required you to be 21 to eat there after 8:00pm) 5. Go to the YMCA and workout. Oh, and 6. Find out whose parents were going to be away and go to that house and binge drink and hook up. I came from a vibrant, cosmopolitan city (Mexico City) that did not have many rules (many were ignored or you could bribe your way out of them), had plenty of things to do (social connection was such a cultural priority that many of us didn’t even have time for afterschool sports), and there was this expectation, culturally and from most of my peers, that you were to stay classy. I remember going to Acapulco with my family dozens of times, returning even after we moved to the U.S., and noting that the classy nightclubs were where the Mexicans hung out, while the Americans and Canadians went to the cheesy, trashy bars and clubs where there was no cover and girls drank for free (excess was the name of the game). Totally different vibe.
Now, as someone who is parenting teens, as well as working in the recovery space, I constantly think about all of this, especially because my main interest has always been in prevention. How do we prevent problems from happening, especially today, when the stakes just seem so much higher? How do we go about creating a home, school, lifestyle, society where kids, and adults who relate to kids (impulsive, risk-takers, intense, adventurous, curious, etc) feel accepted, challenged, engaged, connected? My kids are super cool (I know, I am their mom, but still). They are fun, curious, love to dance (as in, with a DJ, not in a class), have good grades, go on adventures. But we often scratch our heads, because it feels like our culture (U.S.) is not really set up for a child to be well-rounded and live a wholehearted life. It seems that that is not really encouraged or supported until they fuck up (and then suddenly, if the kid is lucky, adults realize the child needs to be connected physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually). I often think of the movie The Breakfast Club, with the stereotypes. The jock, the goody-two-shoes rich girl, the nerd, etc. My kids don’t fit any of those stereotypes. They want to go out and have fun, dance, connect, be creative, be challenged intellectually, do sports. They don’t want to specialize in the way that our culture requires, which basically is telling kids, shoot for varsity sports, AP madness, join band, and there is not much room for rest, for doing things just for fun, for dabbling (not to be confused with dabbing). Oh, and the cool kids don’t do church stuff, that’s the socially awkward kids, and if you want to socialize and you’re not on a team (where you have to be good enough to make the team), you have to go to parties where responsible adults are not present. Yikes. And then we wonder why all these kids are suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, vaping. My unscientific, anecdotally-based theory, is that this is a way for our teens to express their desire to be risk-taking, curious, non-conformists. To satisfy their desire to be part of something bigger – which they seem to be getting via the vaping craze and the Fortnight obsession. Of course, we as adults know how ill-founded the vaping thing is because of the health risks, and the fact that they are actually conforming (to wanting to be like their peers). Oh wait – aren’t we doing that too, by buying the Mommy Timeout wine and wearing the Rosé All Day t-shirt? Hmmmm…..
As I have often said, our children are the canaries in the coal mine. We need to pay attention to what they are telling us, and listen, rather than react with punishment. They are mirroring our own hang-ups, issues, sources of anxiety, choices. What does this say about our parenting, teaching, coaching? About how we are structuring our priorities, from the individual, family, and community point of view? And with this question and the gut feelings it evokes, how can I be the change I wish to see in the world?
So, how do I, as a teenager-at-heart proceed in this world, now that I have chosen not to alter my brain chemistry and pickle my liver? How do I continue to feed my need to be fun, adventurous, non-conformist, wild, curious, risk-taking? First of all, at some point I realized that everyone and their grandmother is drinking booze, so the most non-conformist, counter-cultural, badass thing I could do was to say, to hell with booze. Then, I realized that being sober actually feeds my innate need to connect deeply with others, because in my personal and professional connections in the recovery space, I am, on a daily basis, having real conversations and impact, which is far more fulfilling to me than any conversation that could happen in an ethanol-induced cloud. I have continued to do my athletic stuff (teaching Yoga4Sobriety, running/triathlon stuff), which deepens my connection with others in a way that involves my physical senses, and deepens my gratitude for my health and resiliency. It is also a way to satisfy the part of me that longs for intense sensual connection, involving physical movement and challenge, and discomfort. I believe that the recovery world today needs to provide more opportunities to connect this way, and that treatment programs and centers need to focus on this more (ie move away from accepting that recovery entails tons of cigarettes and instead, guide sober people into mindful sweat-and-adrenaline-boosting movement). The possibility of creating a Meet & Run or Meet & Ride group (a group run or bike ride immediately following a 12 step or other self-help group) is fun to me, certainly more interesting than the typical paradigm of a running group that then goes out for beer (canceling many of the running benefits including calorie-burning). Sweat-out trumps blackout.
I do not know how to make this a better place to nurture teenagers, but I figure that if I give myself what I need, and keep showing up in the way that feels right, and authentic, to me, then perhaps things can fall into place on a grander scale. I hope.
Sober really is the new badass.
Several years ago, I was volunteering in a program at a high school, where teen parents could come in with their infants and while a couple of paid staffers and volunteers like myself watched their babies, the teens continued to attend class. It was a controversial program, as its critics believed it was condoning teen pregnancy. Marie, the formidable woman who had never had children of her own and called herself a Catholic Feminist, ignored the naysayers and worked tirelessly to build support for the program, which essentially provided the only loving, stable nest these teens had ever had. She judged no one, and loved everyone. My own mom had died a couple of years before I met Marie, and while she adopted me into her program as one of her most involved volunteers, she became a surrogate mom to me. I would show up a few times a week with a toddler or two of my own, and model healthy parenting to the teens, teach them how to photograph their adorable babies, and chat with them about healthy dating, eating, exercise. I would listen to their problems, which quite honestly, often shocked me. It was incomprehensible how these teens could now be parenting, a role that was so challenging at times to someone like me, with money, a supportive husband, a somewhat confident outlook on the future. Their lives often if not almost always, included past (and possibly present) abuse, violence, cyclical poverty, and pretty much no real sense that things would ever be different. And this was what Marie and her program changed for so many of them. Her friends donated loads of generous gifts for Christmas, the girls were given opportunities to speak with younger students about the challenges of being teen parents, and they were given the honor at fundraising events to address donors and explain how this program had allowed them to stay in school, and think of a future that included college.
The reality is that this program was in many ways the turning point for me. I had lived in CT for a few years and felt adrift. We arrived in this small town in CT about 1.5 hours from NYC with a 2-month-old baby, having transferred because of my husband’s job. We had no family there and didn’t know anyone. I tried the playgroup route but realized that wasn’t my thing. Domestic duties have never been my bread and butter, so diving into window treatments and baking was not going to do it for me. Meanwhile, my husband was traveling constantly. I was lonely, but while I have always been outgoing and self-confident, I had no desire to meet someone at a PTO meeting and suggest coffee. The thought of small talk was unbearable to me and I couldn’t be bothered.
I was training for my first triathlon and while waiting for the pool to open at 5:30am (I did all my training while my family was asleep), I met Marie. She was the only other lunatic waiting in the cold dark. She told me about the program and knowing that I was done with childbearing, I offered to visit and bring all of the baby clothes, strollers, crib, etc that were in my basement. I brought the goods - and never left. Several months later, I was driving through the streets of this edgy CT town, where over 70% of the kids are on a free lunch program, and I realized I finally felt at home. This town was 20 minutes from my own little town that is often referred to as a “little bubble of goodness” and yet as I looked out at the rundown buildings, the row houses where these teen moms often lived, I felt more connected than I had in a very long time.
Marie’s program was created to help children who were in many ways being told that they were society’s rejects. She knew that these children had suffered at the hands of other adults who may have been doing the best that they could, but this best was marred by their own lives of trauma, mental illness, and whatever this harsh life had thrown their way. I think Marie in many ways felt like she never quite fit in herself, that she was an underdog, a reject of sorts. So she created a home for other underdogs. I felt right at home. This was a place where there was no superficial bullshit. When you are 15 years old and holding a 6-month-old baby, you cannot hide the fact that you have broken most of “polite society’s” rules. Other 15-year-olds are wondering who will invite them to Prom, while you are wondering how you are going to get to work, since your mom, who would naturally be the one to watch your baby, is at her third job of the day, and your dad can’t help because he’s in jail, and the baby daddy is out of the picture. I remember thinking, this is reality. And I felt alive and connected.
It’s not programs, but relationships, that change lives.
- Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools (CIS)
This week we had another horrific (as if there is otherwise) school shooting in the U.S. When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in 2012, we lived five miles from the school. We became friends with a few of the families whose children were killed, and became involved in a few of the foundations that were formed to honor the children who died, and to continue their legacy by making the world a better place. One of these organizations is Race4Chase Youth Triathlon. In 2010, I had brought the idea to the Waterbury YMCA to start a triathlon program, because I figured this would be a way to give kids some coping tools and sense of agency, so maybe they would not need Marie’s program. I am all about prevention. In 2014 our program was in its 4th year and became Race4Chase, part of the CMAK Foundation. Chase was a 6-year-old triathlete who died in the shooting, 4 months after winning his age group in his first triathlon. His parents Rebecca and Steven wanted to give other kids an opportunity to experience the joy Chase had in his excruciatingly brief triathlon career.
When Jim (the Executive Director of the YMCA) and I planned this new program, we both agreed that ALL kids are “at risk,” so the free program would be open to youth from both underserved, and privileged areas. We knew that children who come from families that don’t appear to be “needy” often suffered in ways that may go under the radar until they at some point reveal substance misuse issues or depression. I have often wondered if suburban kids in “good towns” aren’t in some ways underserved because the assumption is they are getting all that they need at home, so there is no need for a Boys & Girls Club or other programs that provide mentoring and leadership. Surely they don’t have time or a need for it, with their travel soccer schedule and violin lessons and PSAT prep courses.
Feeling disconnected, and stressed-out, happens to anyone in spite of household income or pedigree.
Race4Chase, which began with 1 camp in 2010, this year (2018) will be in 26 locations across three states. I haven’t done the math but I think over a couple thousand kids have become triathletes. But the thing is that while they have learned to swim, ride a bike, run, eat healthy, prioritize sleep, respect others, set goals, always use a helmet, show up, show up on time, show up prepared, solve differences, consider others’ points for view… The greatest thing they have learned, I think, is that they matter. They are loved. And they CAN and they WILL do great things. Crossing a triathlon finish line is just the beginning.
“Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I have always said that our children are the canaries in the coal mine. When the average onset age of anxiety is age 11, that is our children telling us that our world is off-kilter. When physical health indicators (allergies, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, etc) show up in our most vulnerable, our children - this is our children telling us that they are being conceived and raised in a toxic world. When more and more kids are dying to suicide and addiction, this is our children telling us we need to wake the fuck up. When children are bullying, in person and virtually, to the extent that they are today, this is our children telling us that they do not like themselves, because hurt people hate people. When children explode and kill other humans, this is the ultimate sign that the coal mine has hit its toxic limit.
“We don’t have a youth problem, we have an adult problem.”
- Bill Milliken
We are overwhelmed. We know there is a need to enforce existing laws and add a few more. We know there is a need to fix our mental health system. Schools are pouring resources into turning their buildings into Fort Knox. Our kids, who were already nervous because this is a stressful time to be coming of age, are now understandably terrified to go to school. We are unloading our anger, fear and bewilderment on social media, putting down anyone who dares to offer “thoughts and prayers,” posting opinionated statements calling politicians cowards and self-interested, making cavalier declarations of unfriending anyone who doesn’t agree with x-y-z.
I get it. It’s overwhelming and awful and I think we all feel some level of hopelessness and helplessness. There is no clear solution. No quick fix. No magic law, program, or pill. And boy do we Americans love quick fixes! But there are a few things I believe can work, can make a tiny little difference. For starters, we grown-ups need to take a few breaths. I have never heard anyone say, “I read someone’s opinions on Facebook and I saw the light and have totally changed the way I see the gun debate/abortion/gay marriage/football kneeling…” I think it’s a great idea to vent and process, but perhaps there are better ways to do this. Some of the posts and comments I have read have been rude, even cruel. And then we wonder why our kids are bullies? Yesterday my son showed me a post by an adult we know (on Twitter) and he was surprised by the meanness. Our kids are listening, watching. Following.
The other thing I believe can be helpful is to be honest with ourselves. How are we contributing to the disconnection in the world? If we aren’t being intentional in connecting, we are contributing to the disconnect. Are we spending our time with people just like us? We can post links on Facebook about the injustices toward immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ youth and adults, veterans - but is that all we are doing? Because just like your opinionated post did not change my mind if I didn’t already agree with you (I know you were actually just looking for social validation in the form of Likes anyway), it also did nothing to help our canaries, our children. But you can help. You can contribute time and/or money to amazing efforts that build relationships that change lives, that change the world. I mentioned Race4Chase Youth Triathlon. Another incredible one is Communities in Schools. CIS finds the children who are in crisis, or not quite there but certainly on that trajectory, and brings resources into the school, to help them. The teachers are then free to do their jobs and the children thrive. CIS is the top-rated program for dropout prevention, with a 98% graduation rate.
If we are not working toward a solution, we are only making the problem worse. It took a long time to get to where we are, be it the opioid epidemic or the 18 school shootings this year, so far. I have seen several memes that cleverly show the feeling of resignation I think many of us feel. Nothing changes if nothing changes. So, let’s change. Something that I think would be quite revolutionary would be for us to listen.
“Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
I would go further and suggest, speak if it is to ask a question. And then listen. Listen, to hear, and work hard not to work on coming up with a rebuttal or a reply.
“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”
- Simon Sinek
Just. Listen. The programs I mentioned above with which I have been or am involved, the greatest power, I think, was in how the children feel they are being heard. And seen. All of us want that. That is the true essence of connection, isn’t it? When our kids act up, anyone who has taken Psychology 101 knows they are begging for attention, they want to be heard. And acknowledged. Every day we can give this gift of listening, a gift of love. So how about we start there. Remember - our kids are listening. And we don’t need our country’s or states’ leaders to pass any laws for us to take this world-changing action. What are our kids telling us about their school? Friends? Sports? Schedule? Diet? Time to rest? Do they feel connected? Supported? Like what they are doing is meaningful?
How do we answer those same questions for ourselves?
It takes a village to raise a child. Let's build that village, starting at home, and spread outwards. Connect.
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
- James A. Baldwin
Recently, a friend of mine whose 12th-grade daughter is starting to hear from colleges to which she applied, said, (well, texted - talking is so last decade) - “I can’t wait until you go through this [with your daughter].” At this point, you are probably reading this as one of those conversations where we parents roll our eyes and sigh in resignation, because everybody knows, the college application process is the final, awful, conflict-ridden hurdle to overcome before we release our children to The World. So, surely, my friend was being snarky.
If that is what you assumed, you are wrong. My friend genuinely has been enjoying the college application process with her oldest daughter (and I can assure you, as she is several years sober, she was not TUI - texting under the influence). So, of course, as with all things counter-cultural, I was intrigued. It had never occurred to me that the college application process could be an enjoyable bonding experience between mother and daughter. I asked her some advice, since my own daughter is now a high school junior; I ordered my daughter a book on getting organized with it (because this must be a process she drives and works on); and I subscribed to a fascinating podcast I found on the subject. (Check it out: Getting In: A College Coach Conversation).
Before my run this morning, I listened to one of the episodes, which are always discussions by former college admissions officers. Something they emphasized in this episode was something I had never considered, and while I ran, I thought about it. The former admissions officer insisted that the people reviewing college applications WANT the applicant to be a good fit for their school. Suddenly, my image of these grumpy, middle-aged people with college admissions tenure, who smugly enjoyed the power they had over these children’s (and adults’) future, vanished. Because of what I interpret to be the insanity in many circles, metropolitan areas, and schools, where children pile on so many AP’s and extracurricular activities that I wonder if they have discovered a realm where there are 34-hour days and 10-day weeks, not to mention the fortunes spent on SAT prep courses and educational consultants - I had assumed that the college application process, just like any Keeping Up With The Joneses race, is inevitably awful and the people making decisions are akin to the Wizard of Oz (before he is found out).
As I ran, I felt cheerful as I contemplated this new idea. Whatever school my kids end up applying to, their wizards really want them to go there! The wizards will read over my kids’ transcripts and highlights, not with an intention to hit the Deny button, but with the desire to find everything they love and admire about my kid, so they can hit the Accept button! So, basically, for my kids to be rejected, they will need to convince the wizards that they really belong elsewhere. As I smiled over the neighborhood hills, I followed this line of thinking to other areas of life. Applying to schools is an intense experience, but it is a fraction of our experience on this planet. How about all of the other events, where we show up somewhere and feel that anticipation, perhaps anxiety, as there is a possibility of rejection? Every time I write something and hit Share, I say a prayer, that my intention for writing and sharing something may be from a place of service and authenticity, and that it may be received that way. It would be easy to focus on the people who may be out there reading my babble and thinking I have no clue what I am talking about (they may be right), but I choose to believe that when someone is led to my blog, it is because something I am saying is what they need to read today. As I ran, I thought, people WANT me to succeed, to show up in a helpful way, to make a difference. I thought, that is what people, the world, God, want for ALL of us!
Think about how this positive mindset affects the energy you put out there. Whether you are applying for a job, filling out an online dating profile, checking out a new exercise venue, attending a dreaded social event - shifting the way we think about it affects the way we present ourselves. Do we reek of desperation? Are we crafting this persona because we assume that surely, the wizards would never accept me as I truly am? Are we piling on the adult version of AP’s and extracurriculars (i.e. saying Yes to everything except for Self-Care and what stokes our spark, or helps us rest)? How about if we try on another assumption going forward. Even if it feels like a huge stretch, we can imagine the wizards, whoever they may be in your life today, feeling really good after their morning run and meditation and eager to meet YOU, the one who will make their group, company, class, institution, day, complete. Of course, we all experience rejection, especially the more we put ourselves out there. Rejection sucks. It’s inevitable. But I think if we go into life’s admissions processes with the assumption that the wizards want us to succeed, and giving them permission to decide we are a better fit for someone else, or another situation or institution, we can greatly diminish our suffering.
“There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough. The truth is that there’s more than enough good to go around. There are more than enough creative ideas. There is more than enough power. There is more than enough love. There’s more than enough joy. All of this begins to come through a mind that is aware of its own infinite nature. There is enough for everyone. If you believe it, you can see it, if you act from it, it will show up for you. That’s the truth.” - Michael Beckwith
“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” - Lao Tzu
“Everything you need you already have. You are complete right now, you are a whole, total person, not an apprentice person on the way to someplace else. Your completeness must be understood by you and experienced in your thoughts as your own personal reality.” - Wayne Dyer
Here is my prayer for you today. May you know that you are enough, that you are worthy, and blessed with a gift that allows you to be of much-needed service to this world. The wizards in your life want you to succeed, and want you to be in their "club." (And if you don’t believe this, act as if you do - with enough practice, your brain will catch up).
In my two years of an alcohol-free life, I have learned a lot about myself and the world around me. Things I thought were true were actually never true, or no longer true. Here I list what for now, feel like the top four myths that seem to hold people back from being their better (best?) selves.
Myth #1: As long as your life hasn’t fallen apart, you don’t need to make any drastic changes.
Consider this: Every day in the recovery world, I hear “I figured that since I wasn't drinking before 5pm, or every day, or showing up to work drunk, or getting DUI’s; since I was able to be a pretty good parent, do well at my job, was going to the gym and paying my bills - I didn’t really have a problem. I just needed to get my drinking under control, tweak a few things. I mean, alcoholics are pretty much trainwrecks and I am still doing OK.” In fact, I would say, that of all of the sober people I have met in recovery, a majority had clung to this belief until for whatever reason, they chose to try a new belief. What I have learned in the past two years is that it is not the quantity or frequency of consumption that determines whether or not you fall into the “problem” zone. Your life on paper and on Facebook can look highly functional. If you want to hear an example of someone who competed in races, had a happy home life, was considered an active community leader and healthy role model - while inside, she was growing in shame and self-disgust over her inability to keep to her self-imposed limits with alcohol - well, here I am, and that is why I am writing this. Because I now know about the grey area of drinking, about how it’s not the quantity of alcohol, as much as it is the feeling, deep-down, in your soul, that you are not living with integrity. When I announced on my blog, 3 weeks after my decision to “take a break” from drinking, that I was starting on a journey to heal myself from what had become a slippery slope of drinking, many friends reacted with shock, saying “but I never saw you drunk,” or “but you don’t drink more than anyone else.” I didn’t fit the picture they had of someone who would get to the point that they would feel compelled to do something as difficult and unpopular as quitting alcohol. Perhaps I reminded them too much of themselves.
Awhile back, I wrote a blog about what I think needs to happen when we talk about alcoholism or problem drinking. If we determine that it happens in stages, and we name those stages, like we do with cancer, I think it could save lives (literally and figuratively). See here: We Need New Words. A lot of people will need to fall further down the slope before they finally surrender, but I think a lot of people would actually be proactive before getting to a crisis point, if they knew that you have a problem or are headed toward one even if your life is humming along “fine.” My mom used to say, it is much easier to lose five pounds than 50. Please read my previous blog about the stages, and if your gut is telling you that something resonates, don’t ignore it. I am profoundly grateful that I got off that elevator down, when it was still up to me (I wasn’t forced by health or legal circumstances, eg - but if you are at that point, you still need to make the choice, FYI) to stop the descent.
Myth #2: It’s not the alcohol, it’s the other stuff, that I need to control or fix.
Consider this: Alcohol is a powerful drug, that changes your brain chemistry, which you already know, because you have at some point probably enjoyed how a cocktail has “taken the edge off” a rough day, or eased you into conversations in social settings, or added a celebratory element, or caused ridiculous fights with your loved one, that you don’t even remember. When you think about actions or habits you have, that maybe you wish you could stop doing, are they often preceded by alcohol? Shopping, being impatient with kids, fighting with your significant other, eating impulsively or compulsively, cheating on your significant other, lying, gambling, breaking the law, having clumsy accidents, forgetting stuff, being unable to focus, feeling anxious and/or depressed, feeling empty, feeling lonely, feeling resentful toward others or about situations…
Alcohol is a powerful gateway drug that often (usually? Always?) leads to actions and situations that we may not even realize, or want to acknowledge, would probably not be there in the first place if we removed alcohol from the equation. My friend Stella (not her real name), now over a year sober, shared with me how she didn’t drink “more than anyone else,” so for many years, it never occurred to her that she was behaving alcoholically. She was more concerned about the fact that she had been unfaithful to her husband, and each time, alcohol had been involved. As she became more self-aware, and started to learn more about addiction, she started to acknowledge that alcohol and infidelity, while not always linked for her, were often common factors in situations when she was feeling most vulnerable. If she was angry, bored, or in any way resentful, adding alcohol could lead to the perfect storm. Eventually, Stella decided to try removing alcohol for a while, and work on recovery by joining a support network, and read recovery memoirs (including those on love and sex addiction, which she hadn’t known about before). She has remained sober and faithful since.
I think that at the root of any addiction, including the “grey areas” of addiction, is loss of connection. Individually and collectively, we are largely disconnected from our bodies, our natural environment, real sources of whole food; we lack deep, authentic connections with other human beings; and most of all, our soul is not getting the spiritual connection it craves, and by which it is sustained. Recovery from addiction, to me, means healing and nurturing all of these lost connections. And once we start to work on that, the dysfunction in our life does start to fall away. If you feel like your life is chaotic, and alcohol is a factor, try taking a break from it and find a recovery program and start working it. See what happens.
If you find yourself feeling guilty, regretful, or ashamed, because of certain actions or behavior or habits that you have tried to control or eliminate, I urge you to ask yourself the following questions:
Myth #3: If I stop drinking, I may as well become a nun.
Before I started my alcohol-free life, the only examples I had of peers who didn't drink, fell into one of two groups, as far as I could tell. 1) They were in AA, which in my mind meant they had reached a super dramatic, holy shit rock bottom or 2) they were unadventurous, uptight prudes who probably didn’t swear or let their hair down on a dance floor and never ate anything more ethnic than TexMex. My self-image did not fit into either of these groups. I did not relate to the catastrophic depths of drinking chaos, nor did I aspire to be a boring church lady. The idea of removing alcohol from my lifestyle in the long term truly challenged my identity, and I figured that if I became a teetotaler I would surely become the most boring wife and friend EVER. I mean, we travel a lot, go out to dinner, and, well, even eating pizza at home with a movie surely would totally suck without a bottle of wine, right?
I am not gonna lie. My social life definitely slowed down even before we moved to a new town (we moved when I was 1.5 years sober). But it was a really good change. Because I stopped participating in events that would have been uncomfortable without alcohol. In my first alcohol-free year, my mantra was, Sobriety First, and with this filter, what emerged was simplicity. My schedule and mental space became simplified. I limited my engagements to only what was either absolutely necessary, or truly meaningful. Yes, many evenings I was home by 10:00, if I even went out. At conferences, I skipped the happy hours and woke up well-rested and ready for a beautiful sunrise run. Sure, there was some sadness over giving up the Party Girl persona, but mostly, there was and is gratitude. I don’t need to be doing that anymore. And, I actually enjoy myself a lot more now because I am clear-headed when I am interacting with others. I am focusing on what they are saying, not on whether the waitress is ever going to come over for a refill. Recently, I was at a professional sporting event that began at 1pm and virtually every adult around me was drinking. Every time they had to visit the restroom and/or go get a refill, my daughter and I had to stand up and miss some of the game. I was thankful to no longer be inconveniencing anyone this way, or to be missing out on stuff because of my habit.
The other thing is that I have met a lot of people, online and in real life, who have also chosen to pursue alcohol-free living, and these are some of the most interesting, inspiring, beautiful people I have ever met. In fact, I believe that when someone chooses to join this club of teetotalers, it shows a certain amount of depth and strength that most people have not bothered to tap into. The recovery world right now is exciting and dynamic, as more people are choosing to be public about their decision to be sober, and not waiting till disaster hits to do so. There are fascinating and fun events, conferences, retreats, socials, workshops, and meetings all over the place. I call these forums a “bullshit-free zone.” If this is what it means to be a nun, then sign me up.
It turns out that the greatest act of rebellion, at least today, is to be sober. Sober is the new badass!
Myth #4: If I stop drinking, my life will get much easier.
Hahahahaha this one makes me laugh. I have two teenagers and we just moved to an area where a lot of their peers are putting all kinds of shit in their bodies and brains (well, I guess that happens everywhere but apparently it’s more prevalent the more affluent the community). So it’s interesting to me that as my kids and I navigate making friends and how we fit into the new social scene, we are in the same boat, because (so far) my kids, and certainly I, do not drink, do other drugs, vape, etc. It is harder to have, and live up to, values that go against the popular culture. And the reality is that everybody assumes everybody (adults) drinks. Outside of the recovery world, every adult conversation includes suggestions to check out local wineries, wine tastings, events with open bars, etc. Even in the athletic world - most races today include a beer tent at the finish line as an extra perk, because apparently, training for and finishing a race is not enough of a source of satisfaction - we also need to be “rewarded” with craft beer at 10am. Many of my race bibs, which I pin to my tee shirt on race day, include a tear-off ticket under the number, for my free beer. Lululemon, the clothing brand that wants to be associated with everything healthy about yoga and running, has its own beer, which it serves at a race in Canada. (I called their headquarters and told them how ludicrous this seemed to me, a contradiction in branding, but if they insisted on serving beer, how about also offering flavored seltzer? They were very gracious and interested, but I have no idea if that conversation led to any changes). Every store with a gift section includes special glasses, signs, tee shirts, etc that tell us that women, moms, runners - we all deserve, or will be helped by, wine, especially rosé. Depending on the day, these messages can feel annoying at best, but often it’s a reminder that if we are sober, we are “other.” A lot of us have felt a tad different our whole lives, like we didn’t quite fit in, and now we have proof. It is hard. Which is why it’s key to find or form a tribe of other people who are working on their recovery. Other badasses who are brave and smart and awake enough to live in a way that is counter-cultural.
But here’s the good news: life really is way easier, in many ways, as a sober person. It may be hard to decline an invitation to something you know will be uncomfortable to your sober self, but boy does it feel great to go to bed at a healthy time (my mom always said the most important hours of sleep are those before midnight and I fully agree with her) and wake up clear-headed the next morning! It feels great to have conversations with my kids about navigating this crazy, toxic world, knowing that I am walking the walk and speaking with integrity. Seriously, that is priceless. The other thing, maybe the biggest blessing, is that if you follow a program, and do the work on yourself, to heal the root causes that resulted in your mindless behavior (this is a daily, lifelong process, by the way), life in many ways becomes not only easier, but much more beautiful. I believe that at the very root of addiction of any kind, and mindless living in general, is a lack of deep, authentic connection - with our body, mind and soul, with other people, with nature, and most of all, with God, or whatever your higher power is. Our super fast, super stressful, super consumer-based, super digitized living today unfortunately means that unless we are super intentional about nurturing stillness, self-awareness, authentic relationships with others, being of service to others, and a relationship with a power greater than ourselves, well, we will inevitably end up careening down that slope. Alcohol, or whatever tool we use to numb, escape, intensify, “connect” - can easily become the catalyst for disaster. But once we recognize this and start doing something about it, and really work on it (not just quit and then continue as usual) - sobriety can become a beautiful jump-off point to really start living.
This morning, as I ran, enjoying the beauty of the crisp, fall morning, and cheerily greeting the elderly neighbors out for their morning walks, I thought about the #MeToo movement that has replaced the show of solidarity with those taking a knee with NFL players (or not), and all of the #prayfor_____ in the wake of recent natural disasters and unnatural violence. I ran by a few landscaping crews and bid them buenos dias as I thought about this latest hashtag/meme, and what it means for me personally, and what I think it says about the current state of our culture. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, click here: #MeToo).
Even before we all learned that it turns out that a famous, powerful man in a superficial industry is a total douchebag, I have spent many runs mulling over, and engaged in deep conversations about, what I really think is a sickness of the soul, a spiritually devoid world. We are seeing the results of this disconnected, imbalanced state: climate change, mass shootings, preventable diseases linked to unhealthy lifestyles, skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression, addiction epidemic…
As a coach, I often get in conversations with people who ask for my advice, that lead me to at some point say something about how we are basically the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with. This works in terms of finance, marital/relationship happiness, professional “success,” fitness, etc. One of the reasons for this is that basically, when my peers think it’s OK to do something, I am more likely to tolerate it, become desensitized to it, even adopt it as my own value, goal, norm. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that it took so long for Harvey Weinstein to be called out - from everything I have heard, including stories from people I know who have insider knowledge, the casting couch is a given in Hollywood. It became the norm. In the same way that it is (I hear) the norm to binge drink if you are in sales or on Wall Steet, or you take performance enhancing drugs if you are a pro cyclist, or you are quick to prescribe pills to your patients who complain of deep physical or emotional pain.
The whole inequality and the associated violence, and how it came to be this way, is certainly complex, and it’s not really what I want to write about today. With these big, overwhelming topics, I like to in my mind, begin with the wide lens and then start to focus in, drilling down to the point of examining how this all affects me, and even more importantly, what can I do about it? My most cherished role in life, today, is my role as a mom. So, this becomes, for me, an examination of the question, what can I do so that my kids do not become part of the problem, or to the extent possible, victims of it? What sort of groundwork can I lay, so that my daughter is less likely to be one of the 10% of college students who are sexually assaulted, and my son doesn’t become an insensitive, abusive asshole? (Actually, either of these possibilities could apply to either of my children).
Because I recite the Serenity Prayer at least twice a day, I am often filtering my actions through the lens of what can I accept, and what can I change? So, with that in mind, I am trying to look at the state of the world, and my role as the mother of two children who are still in my realm of influence, and do my best (which sometimes is pretty lousy, but in that moment, it’s my best) to role model certain things, and engage in conversations with them about it. I believe that the fact that I have spent several years practicing some level of mindfulness, and now I have focused almost two years on intentional recovery, I have a pretty good sense of some of the imbalances inherent in our culture and in our daily living as individuals in this western culture. I have often said that our children are the canaries in the coal mine, giving us the first hints of a toxic environment before we are made aware. The fact that kids are increasingly diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, depression, anxiety, and all kinds of other dis-eases, to me has always been a sign that there is something deeply off in our culture and it’s not just what’s in the ground or what they are watching. It’s complicated. So right now, where I am drilling down on, is what is most relevant to my own children, who are now teenagers.
We are living in a hookup culture. For some areas or peer groups, it starts in middle school, for some not till high school, but most certainly, it is rampant in college (in the US at least).
“Hookup culture is an occupying force, coercive and omnipresent. For those who love it, it’s all sunshine, but it isn’t for everyone else. Deep in the fog, students often feel dreary, confused, helpless. Many behave in ways they don’t like, hurt other people unwillingly, and consent to sexual activity they don’t desire. Campuses of all kinds are in this fog. No matter the size of the college, how heavy a Greek or athletic presence it boasts, its exclusivity, its religious affiliation, or whether it’s public or private, hookup culture is there.” (Lisa Wade in her book, American Hookup).
I hope that this latest hashtag (#MeToo) doesn’t just become another flavor-of-the-week-movement where women temporarily feel connected to something that feels deep and important, but don’t do anything meaningful with it. Originally, the hashtag was intended to spread awareness about sexual assault and rape, and from what I can tell, many women have adopted it to point out how often they feel objectified and disrespected. I hope that women who have been victimized in ways that are prosecutable (FYI there is no statue of limitations on child molestation, so please go after those monsters!), feel empowered to do so now.
This latest public conversation has incited me to write this blog entry, to share some of the stuff I talk about with my kids.
1. What are your values? Do you want to be kind? Compassionate? Helpful? Take care of and respect your body? Respect others’ bodies? Be generous with your gifts, to do good? Help those less fortunate? Be a leader? Have a career you enjoy and that rewards you financially? You need to figure out your values, and think about them a lot. Because you WILL be in situations where your values will be challenged. You will be offered things. You will feel tempted by things. The people around you will either have different values, or not know what their values are. And it is much easier to engage in behavior that goes against your values, if you don’t have clarity around them. In the heat of the moment, it is much more fun and easy to do the fun and easy thing, than it is to do the right thing. Being solid on your values can help you do the right thing.
2. I believe that an unhealthy relationship with anything that gives us pleasure, allows us to escape and “numb out” - alcohol and other drugs, sex, social media, etc - is really just a symptom of a deeper problem. At the bottom of it, I think, is a deep yearning for connection on a spiritual level. Our soul is dying for something that fills the void, which can never be filled with anything that is man-made, found in a bottle or pill or Apple store. This is why I try so hard to teach you about the importance of connecting with nature, with faith, with people who support you and love you as you are. Dear daughter, and son, this is why I talk about the importance of looking beyond the happy, filtered masks people are wearing and posting, and why I talk about allowing feelings and emotions, and working through them.
3. And yes, I talk with you about the science - how alcohol and other drugs affect your developing brain, often in ways that are irreversible. I also talk with you about the fact that if you start to rely on a buzz to socialize and enjoy social gatherings, especially if you start it now while you’re young, then you will have a really hard time socializing when you are older, unless you’re holding a cocktail or three. You are less likely to develop your personality and grow emotionally, if you start drinking in your teens. Anyway, you know from health class all the health reasons that picking up something I wouldn’t offer you is probably a stupid idea. So let’s go back to #1 - how would making these unhealthy choices feel to you, knowing your values?
4. Today’s hook-up culture may be fun for some people, but a lot of young adults are actually feeling pretty lousy from it. A lot of girls who are behaving in a way that feels sexually permissive, or maybe precocious when it comes to alcohol and other drugs, are hurting deep-down. They may have been abused. Maybe things are really unstable at home. Maybe they are really stressed-out by all of the expectations they feel placed on them, or are placing upon themselves. And you know what? This applies to boys too. Most adults, so certainly most young people, don’t talk about this sort of stuff, so you really don’t know what is going on for them, what motivates their choices. So, my sweet son, I implore you to be careful with the girls you meet. I know how good it feels to be flattered, to have the attention. But please, remember that every girl, and when you are older, every woman, is a child of God, precious, like you. She may not feel her worth, she may be acting or dressing a certain way, but please, just because it feels like everyone else is playing this game, try to come back to your values. Be that trustworthy, caring, compassionate human you have been since you were born. It is in your power to treat someone even better than they treat themselves. It may not be easy, but it is certainly worth it.
5. To my sweet daughter (and, son, pay attention to this!)… sex, using alcohol and other drugs - are not, no matter what our culture wants you to believe, a way to express your power and equality. When I was in England in my early 20s, a bartender at a pub told me that “ladies drink half-pints, not pints” of beer. A statement like that sounds super sexist (it is), but that is not the point. What it really boils down to is self-respect. Guzzling beer and hooking up (the hookup culture relies on alcohol - more about that later) are not feminist acts. You have probably seen photos and videos on social media (I used to see it on MTV Spring Break broadcasts) of drunk party girls. It is not attractive, and it certainly does not scream freedom or emancipation. Consuming a drug (yes, including alcohol) that feels fun, lowers your inhibitions so it makes you feel brave, and eventually makes you feel like crap the next day because of how hard it is taxing your organs, and possibly, led to you placing yourself in situations you would never have done so sober, is not freedom, or power. Likewise, sharing intimacy with someone you don’t know enough to really trust, leads to all sorts of drama and stress. A lot of your peers are engaging and will engage in casual sex, because according to hookup culture, they perceive this as being necessary in order to have a social life and some social standing. It’s as important a social currency as the number of Likes and Follows they get. But if you ask them, and they are brave enough to be honest, they will probably admit to being anxious about it all. And this isn’t even taking into account all the diseases, social media shame, possible pregnancy…
6. This is a dicey one to talk about: personal responsibility. Nobody has a right to hurt you, period. But the reality is that it is up to you, to as much as is within your control, to not put yourself in certain situations. And, while you cannot control someone else’s perception or opinion, I feel that I need to be clear with you about the reality of appearance when it comes to this. The reality is, if a girl dresses a certain way, that doesn’t leave much to the imagination, it will invite attention. If you do not want that kind of attention, then wear something less provocative. If you decide to wear the outfit, or behave in a provocative way, then you need to understand that there will be consequences, and you need to be mature enough to handle them. Does wearing a certain outfit justify someone’s uninvited touching or worse? Certainly not! If you say no (and dear son, I hope you are paying attention to this too!), it is no. The easiest way to deal with this is to not put yourself in this situation in the first place. And again, alcohol plays a big part of this too. Alcohol is the number one date rape drug. When you are drinking, you are likely to make some judgment calls you wouldn’t normally, including putting yourself in a risky situation. (Note: many young and older adults who rely on alcohol are survivors of trauma - so if you notice any of your friends are drinking in a way that your gut tells you is “not right,” there’s a chance they are trauma (eg abuse) survivors - be kind to them).
7. Finally, let's talk about manners. I know, what does that even mean any more? It used to be, people listened to each other. We looked each other in the eye, and if you were a kid and an adult was speaking to you, you looked at them, and you stifled the urge to reply defiantly (unless you were a teen and they were your parent). You did not give up your dignity for the sake of attention/fame, or yell at people you didn't agree with. Between popular music, social media, politicians, the Kardashians and their cohorts - well, there's a heck of a lot of people practicing bad manners. You know how important good manners are to me. You know what good manners are. So, when in doubt, fall back on that. Know your values, and know your manners. Trust me, this will simplify your life big time.
I know things are really confusing right now. Adults are kind of sucking at a bunch of stuff right now. I know you and your peers don’t understand things like, is weed really bad, and if it is, then why are we legalizing it? If it’s not OK to disrespect women, and have casual hook-ups, then why are the most popular songs on the radio, by celebrities we all love to follow, glorifying all of this? Why are adults being so mean to each other on Facebook, when they tell kids to not be bullies, to be compassionate? Why are they telling you not to drink or do other drugs, while they are guzzling craft beers and boxed wines every chance they get, even at school functions? Kids, I am sorry. I am just as confused as you are. Actually, I am not confused. Dismayed is more like it. But here’s the thing. I believe you are our hope. You guys, your generation - you can turn the tide. I know we grown ups often complain about your generation, saying you are all constantly bowed down to the iGod, that you know more about the Kardashians than the Kurds, that you’re all dying from overdoses. I guess there’s some truth to that, but I think you guys can be a lot more awake than my peers are or have been. My friend Tim Walsh likes to point out how you have great wisdom available to you 24 hours in your iGods. That can be powerful! I am often floored by how much you young adults are able to understand, learn, question. You are far from lazy or on autopilot, when something interests you. And you are also, I think, in some ways more awake than my peers. I see signs that more of you are saying that sobriety is cool. More of you are choosing to wait until marriage or at least a committed, respectful, loving relationship, for sex. More of you are deciding to take a gap year rather than get plugged into the college conveyor belt. More of you are exploring “weird” things like yoga, meditation, plant-based eating.
It takes a lot of courage to be different, to behave in a way that feels counter-cultural. It can feel lonely (until you find your tribe of likeminded superheroes). And that’s why it’s so important to go back to #1, above. When we are clear about our values, and act accordingly, we know that we are living in integrity. And trust me, that is the best feeling, at the end of the day.
Finally, I will leave you with this excerpt from Brene Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness:
“In a hardwired way, the initial trauma and devastation of violence unites human beings for a relatively short period of time. If during that initial period of unity we’re allowed to talk openly about our collective grief and fear - if we turn to one another in a vulnerable and loving way, while at the same time seeking justice and accountability - it can be the start to a very long healing process. If, however, what unites us is a combination of shared hatred and stifled fear that’s eventually expressed as blame, we’re in trouble… It will take only a critical mass of people who believe in finding love and connection across difference to change everything. But if we’re not even willing to try, the value of what we’re fighting for will be profoundly diminished.”
For further information, I highly recommend:
American Hookup, The New Culture of Sex on Campus by Lisa Wade
The Mask You Live In (documentary) - I really believe this one should be watched by all parents, teachers, coaches, anyone who interacts with boys. And it should be discussed as a family. We really are doing our boys a disservice if we are not being mindful of the lessons in this film. And I believe that if we can learn from this film and allow it to inform the way we raise our boys, it will have a huge, lasting impact on the amount of violence and other sources of suffering in our world.
Miss Representation (documentary)
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.