Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Speaking up for my abstinence

Sunday I met an old friend (from 35 years ago) for breakfast. She was in town to visit colleges with her son. They're were staying in one of the suburbs and she suggested a French bakery as we are both francophiles and she knows I love to eat. This bakery is supposed to be as authentic as they come.

Traditional French bakeries (boulangeries) are not pastry shops. They have bread, numerous kinds, but only bread. One buys pastries in a patisserie. Since it was touted as authentic, I felt safe going there.

We met outside in the little chic shopping area in the town. I could see from outside that the place was popular--it was crowded and bustling. We went on in and there in front of us was a pastry case about the size of Cincinnatti. They looked scrumptious and many of them looked familiar from my years of living in France. I knew right away this was a bad idea. And so I spoke up. I told my friend that the place was too crowded, too noisy, and that with only 6 weeks of abstinence under my belt, I needed a safer place to eat.

We went two doors down to a quieter restaurant and had a lovely conversation. I ordered eggs benedict minus the potatoes. It was a real treat and did not involve sugar.

As we left, I stopped by a table outside the French bakery and bought 3 bunches of tulips from some teenage girls. They were a second treat and much longer lasting than pastries would have been.

In the past, I would probably not have ordered pastries at the bakery if we'd eaten there. I'd have ordered a sensible meal, then waited until my friend left to buy a half-dozen pastries to take home and eat in solitude. I'd have gone so far as to walk her to her car, or walk to mine, wait till she drove away, and then sneak back. It was nice this time to spend the money on flowers and do it all out in the open.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Weight loss

I had dinner with a close friend last night. We had a great time over salad and pizza, and I told her some of my emotional adventures of the last six weeks. She was wonderfully sympathetic and careful in her listening. We talked then of other things and as we were winding down our meal, she asked if I had lost any weight.

I have lost some and I told her. She wanted to know how much and I knew we were headed down the wrong path. My friend has gained a lot of weight in the last several years: creeping age, less active, stressed, tired from the equivalent of two full-time jobs, and perhaps overeating. I had suggested to her at the beginning of the year that we make a mutual commitment to weight loss but she wasn't interested and so I went on my own path towards abstinence from sugar.

If you've been reading this blog, you know several things about my journey: that I have substantial weight that it would be nice to lose, and that weight loss is not part of my commitment. I am not actively seeking to lose weight; I am actively seeking to abstain from sugar and willing to do whatever that takes. Any weight loss is a side effect, a side benefit. I like it, for sure. I'm glad to be shedding a few pounds, but I'd still be abstinent even if I weren't losing weight.

As we parted company last night, she asked me to email her a list of four things I'm doing to lose weight. I agreed but then realized driving home that I have no idea how to respond. If she's interested in losing weight, she'll do what's convenient. If she's committed, she'll do whatever it takes and that could be completely different from what I'm doing. My process is not her process.
I don't how I'm losing the weight. Maybe it's not consuming embarrassing amounts of ice cream and candy and cupcakes. Maybe it's not eating much after dinner. Maybe it's the emotional upheavals that I've been through that have made me anxious and given me not much appetite. Maybe it's my willingness to do deep inner work that is never convenient and that feels so necessary.

If I knew how to lose 10 pounds in a month (her goal), I'd write a book and be rich. I never found that secret for myself unless this is it and it's not quick and it's not convenient and it's not easy. The truth is my friend is looking for a quick fix and I don't have one for her.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Interest vs. commitment

"If you're interested, you do what's convenient. If you're committed, you do whatever it takes."
--John Asaraf

I saw this quote on a blog post the other day and it really struck me. In the last decade, I've been interested several times in losing weight and somewhat interested in not eating so much sugar. But if I was really honest, I was interested in losing weight and continuing to eat as much sugar as I wanted. (It's similar to my desire to be a normal drinker so I can drink all I want without consequences.)

I was interested--at times very interested--and I did what was convenient. I'd find a diet and stick to it as long as I felt like it or got fast results. Weight loss was the real interest, not changing how I ate. I didn't want to change how I ate; I just didn't want to gain and keep weight from eating that way. When it got inconvenient to be off sugar (a retreat with scrumptious desserts, a birthday party with a wonderful cake, a pie fest at my sister's), I'd lie to myself and whoever was listening about how I could handle it now, just have one or two pieces and go back to being off the stuff. But of course, I couldn't. At the very next inconvenience, I'd have two more pieces and then I'd convince myself I could just take home a pint of ice cream or two candy bars and that would be the end of it. If you're an addict, you know what I'm talking about and where that leads.

This time, for some reasons I don't fully understand, I am committed to being off sugar and that commitment has made me willing to do what it takes, whether that be make a request of a friend or go through hard emotional times or watch people eat something I'd love to sink my teeth in because they can and I can't. I don't want to be a slave any more. That seems more precious to me than the old life. I may not always feel this way but right now, I'm riding with it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

16 soothers

My primary reason for eating so much sugar was to soothe and sedate my restlessness, anxiety, boredom--a kind of nervous energy that I didn't know what else to do with. I finally sat down this week and made a list of 16 things I could try as soothers. Here they are. I'd love to hear your suggestions.

1. Take a shower
2. Pet the cats.
3. Do some simple (5 minutes) work with color, focussing on process, not product. This might mean 5 minutes of choosing a collage image, or cutting out images, or putting a water color wash on the back of a collage. Just anything that engages my right brain and hands for 5 minutes.
4. Sip a glass of water with lemon or lime and focus on the sipping.
5. Walk around the block.
6. Play a game of solitaire.
7. Put lotion on my hands and feet.
8. Send a card of greeting to a friend.
9. Sit down and do nothing but look out the window.
10. Color in a coloring book (I like colored pencils for this.)
11. Chant with a Deva Premal CD for a song.
12. Do a few minutes of knitting or other needle work.
13. Sit and really listen to a piece of music.
14. Read a few pages of a great book.
15. Spend time in the hammock I plan to put up on my terrace.
16. Do some kind of sorting or straightening task ( a drawer, a shelf)--call me weird but I like doing that kind of thing.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Settling in to no sugar

Tomorrow marks 6 weeks since I stopped eating intentional sugar. It has been both easier and harder than I thought. It has been easier to say no, to not feel tempted, to keep it out of the house, to enroll others in my abstinence (no thanks, I don't eat X [muffins, scones, cake, pie, candy, ice cream--whatever they offer], and to deal with the occasional urge in some other way.

What I wasn't prepared for have been the huge emotional upheavals of these weeks, both new grief and old fear, and the physical repercussions. I spent the last three days with miserable intestinal problems, the kind we don't talk about much in this culture (IBS), my first serious bout with it. I'm tempted to see this as a reaction to the stress of Jake's death. As a One in the Enneagram system, I register most of life through my gut (gut reaction, gut feelings, trust my gut) and my gut has been miserably unhappy. Today is the first day I've felt half-way decent and I want to thank from my friend Kathie for the TLC last night.

I drove home today in the warm spring sunshine. I had only a few minutes to unload the car and greet my two kitties and head out to the airport to pick up an old friend from Pittsburgh who is coming to teach at Portland State for spring term. Getting her settled and having dinner so we could catch up has given me another excuse not to be here in the house, where Jake's absence is as noticeable as his presence was.

I'm hoping I'm on the mend, that my gut and my heart can rest now and settle down. But the roller coaster ride continues.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Creativity as inner work

Following on yesterday's blog, I want to further explore creativity (writing, painting, gardening, any form of creative self-expression) as inner work. We might even call it spiritual work. According to Anne Wilson Schaef, an innovator of process work, leading a spiritual life means being fully engaged in the processes of life in each moment. This is the Buddhist idea of "chop wood, carry water." Whatever task you are involved in, give it your full attentionhether it's doing the dishes or writing a short story.

For us creatives, that seems particularly important. When you're writing, attend to your writing. If you feel a need to take a walk and clear your head, bring your wandering mind back to your writing, back to whatever choices and decisions you need to make about characters or plot or description or the argument and support of nonfiction. When you're painting, give it your full attention to make shape, line, volune, color choices. Engage your whole self in the process.

Although I came up here to write this week on my novel, I've had a difficult time staying engaged. After my inner critic slapped me around for a while and I fought back, I did settle in and write 2+ new chapters. But many things have been distracting. Jake's death, some physical ailments, too many fun things to do (read a novel, play canasta, do some watercolors) and work things too. I'd promised a couple of clients that I'd be available to then as I knew they had tight deadlines and I value their business.

The truth is I'm in a low spot, with grief and pain and distractions. And that's the inner work that I need to do right now, the process I need to engage in.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lighter and lighter

"I can't get over how you look," said my friend Kathie, when she arrived this afternoon. At first, I thought she was talking about my hair. I've been wearing it shorter since I stopped eating sugar. It seemed another change I could make that would give me a boost.

But when I mentioned my hair, she shook her head. "That's not it. There's something about you that looks, I don't know, different."

When I look in the mirror, I don't seem different to me, not how I look anyway. But inside, I'm feeling different: shame-free for one thing. I hadn't realized how much the sugar abuse and my feelings about it had weighed on me. Knowing I was evading important aspects of my life, knowing I was doing unhealthy things to my body, knowing it was wrong. After a binge, I'd feel shame and remorse and fear for my health. I'd feel disgusted with myself because I knew it was wrong and I couldn't seem to stop.

Now I don't feel any of that. I still occasionally overeat, especially if I get too hungry, go too long between meals. Then I tend to eat too fast and my body doesn't have a good chance to register fullness. But I usually notice and slow down and then stop.

I've also had some dramatic experiences of letting go of old feelings since I saw Kathie and maybe that release of old angst is also registering on my face. Whatever it is, I do feel lighter and brighter somehow. And it was interesting to me that she noticed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Releasing anger into the earth

Three weeks ago, I saw Beverly Martin, an amazing intuitive who speaks to the spirit guides who support us. I wanted to know if I was on the right path, what else I needed to do for my own healing, for my creative work, for how I am with others.

One of the suggestions from the guides was to do a special kind of throat clearing--that my ability to speak up for myself was being hindered by a kind of psychic lint or fluff that was making it hard for me to be clear with myself and others. They suggested that I dig a slanted hole in the earth, speak into it all the remaining issues I have with my mother (that's what they identified as holding me back), then bury the words in the earth and let the earth heal it.

Yesterday afternoon in the warm spring sunshine, I had the place to myself for 3 hours and took on this suggestion. Out in the big yard a number of trees have been planted and one of them is mine, as much as a tree can belong to anyone. It is a golden birch and was a Christmas gift from my sister and brother-in-law. I love having a tree as a gift, a tree I can visit and have a relationship with in more personal way.

So I took the little trowel out and dug gently down about a foot into the earth at the base of the tree, then I lay down on my belly and talked to my mother and to the earth.

These kinds of ceremonies, of rituals, often strike me as corny, especially if I'm doing them by myself, but I just started talking. I didn't censor what I had to say, I spoke out loud, and said quite a bit, encouraging myself to pull up any last resentments, any last clung-to anger or sadness and then to ask for what I want. And then I surprised myself by sobbing for several minutes. Something deep again shook loose and I felt lighter for the releasing of it.

I want more of this to happen. I want the old fears that have kept me sedating with sugar for so long to move on through. I don't know what else is there to come up or how it will release but I'm ready.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More on meaning

I haven't forgotten Scot's question in his comment to my post of March 18 on whether by meaning, I was referring to the spiritual aspects of life. I've been giving that a lot of thought over the last few days.


My relationship with my sweet boy Jake was meaningful to me. We spent nearly 20 years together, nearly all of my two decades of sobriety. He kept me company, provided entertainment, was affectionate, and loving. He gave me an opportunity to take care of another being with love and affection in return. No matter what was going on, I needed to be responsible for his well-being as he couldn't do much of that for himself. So right now I'm thinking about the connections between responsibility (the ability to respond) and meaning and the spiritual.

Meaningful to me means a deep engagement in what I'm doing or how I'm being. I'm deeply engaged in my sobriety--it isn't a casual thing. And sobriety is clearly a gateway for me into the spiritual, into my connection with God, Spirit, the Great I Am, the All That Is, whatever lies deep within us and around us and connects us to our souls and helps our souls connect to the souls of others.

I am connected specifically to many souls: my parents, my siblings, my friends, those I have taught, those I coach, those I meet in an AA meeting. I am connected to the souls of the animals that have been in my care, to the trees in a forest, to the small, dying bat that we found huddled in a window corner last night.

Meaning, on the one hand, seems to me to be about how I be in relationship. But it can also be about how I do the things I do. I can do them with thought and attention and care and they become more meaningful by virtue of that deep connection. Or I can do them superficially or out of a "should" and the actions and even the end result can be meaningless.

When I gave up sugar before, my reasons were important to me (lose weight, look better) but those reasons didn't evoke a deeper meaning. Now that I see it differently, am doing it differently, am motivated differently, it seems to be more meaningful. So maybe meaning is as much in the "how" as in the "what." Something more to ponder.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Unsettled in my world: The need to be in control

I'm up housesitting for my brother-in-law. It's a wonderful house up in the cherry orchards above the Columbia River. It's private, spacious, quiet, and relaxing here. My good friend Diane is sharing these first few days of the week with me. We write well together, have lots to talk about, and enjoy each other's company. But for the first two days I was restless, uncomfortable, craving.

At first I thought it was grief. Jake's death has unsettled my world. There's a hole in the fabric of my universe where he lived and I'm feeling his loss keenly. So some of my restlessness is probably grief.

But even more depressing seemed to be that I was responding to the fact that my new laptop computer had somehow had its wifi card turned off and I could not access the web from it. Yes, my world felt even more off kilter because I couldn't get technology to work for me in a way I wanted. I watched myself get upset with this (all the while pretending I wasn't) even though I could use Diane's computer to check my email. And if worse came to worse and there was something seriously wrong with the computer, I could drive back to Portland (an hour) and get the old laptop and bring it up and use it. There were lots of options. But I wanted it to work now. I wanted to be able to check email any time I wanted without inconveniencing someone else. I wanted to be in control.

It took me a while to recognize the obsession. To see how not having email (a connection with a certain part of my world) made me irritable and anxious. It was all too familiar. I was stuck in addiction again.

Now, I'm not sure email is actually an addiction. I'm not sure what happens to my brain chemistry if I email a friend or get a work inquiry or can connect with my sister in her office. But I definitely felt out of control around it. I wanted this damn machine to do what I said when I said it. I couldn't control Jake's aging, or his illness, or, in the end, the fact that he would die sooner or later. So I focused my well-being on whether my machine would let me view my mail.

I was able to connect by phone with my computer guy this morning, and we sorted it out. It took a little bit to do it long distance but he was patient with me and I with him. What surprised me was the deep relief I felt, like things were okay again. That I was in control of my world.

It's an illusion, of course, the being in control. But somehow I really needed that small illusion as I deal with my grief.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Being a self-preservation One

In the Enneagram personality system, I am a One. I prefer order and structure. I play by the rules and expect others to do so as well. I’m good with details (better than with the Big Picture). I lead groups easily but am really only comfortable with that if there is an organized structure that others are willing to follow as well. Give me an assignment and I’ll get it done on time and with great care. I make an excellent administrator. And Ones make great editors, so I’m in the right field.

There’s also a subtype system in the Enneagram work. Each of us fits most comfortably in one of three groups: those who prefer one-on-one relationships above all else, those who prefer group interactions, and those who are most comfortable with solitude in (and this is important) a very comfortable environment. This last group, known as the self-preservationists, is my group. Being safe and comfortable is important to me: I’ve often said that I was born with the comfort gene, not the adventure gene. In fact, being comfortable in myself is more important to me than interactions with others. It’s not that I don’t enjoy interacting with others, both in groups and one on one, but I like what’s called “parallel play,” where I’m doing my thing by myself and you’re doing your thing by yourself, and we get together and talk about it some from time to time.

Knowing these things about myself has been really helpful. It’s helped me accept that I’m a certain way by nature, and although I can be other ways, this is what I like best, so I don’t have to strive to be a social 7 or a relationship-focused 2.

Knowing this about myself has also helped me be more accepting of my anxiety off sugar. Without the drug of sweets, I’m uncomfortable. The rules have changed, the patterns are shifting, and that makes me nervous. I’m needing to put new structures in place, new routines, that are more healthful for me than numbing out on sugar was. And that takes time. So I continue to be gentle with myself and kind as I look for new comforts. That’s the self-preservation that’s available to me right now.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dealing with sadness

It’s been an odd day. There was a deep emptiness in my house when I got up this morning, such a clear absence of old Jake’s spirit, his lumbering shuffle into the kitchen for breakfast, his way of pushing the other two cats away from the water dish, his incessant in/out game to get to his outside sleeping place, a cardboard box with two gray towels in it, then to come back in and check the food again, then go back out.

It’s impossible to know what the other cats think. I noticed that Reinie was sleeping in Jake’s box outside, something he rarely did. And Nellie seemed particularly restless, but then I was leaving today and she gets restless when the suitcase comes out.

I made it through the evening last night—I had dinner with a friend but didn’t want to stay after we ate. I was deeply sad. Nothing much appealed to me, not food, not the Internet, not work, not movies, nothing. I just needed to be with my feelings some more. I needed to sit with missing Jake.

For some people, this is familiar behavior. Something sad happens, you sit with your feelings. But it’s not all that familiar to me. I’ve spent a lot of years being very briefly with big feelings and then getting busy. Don’t just sit there, do something was a familiar refrain in my growing up years. My mother believed that idleness led to melancholy and the cure was work of some sort. She had no end of projects for us if we ever complained of boredom. The fact that these activities weren’t engaging or satisfying was of little consequence. The point was to be busy. I learned to feel guilty if I wasn’t active. It’s not surprising to me that I started to drink in order to be idle, in order to tolerate downtime, and when I stopped drinking, I went back to eating. Get enough sugar and fat in me and I didn’t feel so guilty, so at loose ends.

So I’m uncomfortable with this grief, this unmedicated sadness. And I’m learning that it’s bearable.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The challenges of loving deeply

My old sweet kitty Jake died today. He was nearly 20 and had been failing in stages for several months. After a big rally about a month ago, he took a nose dive this week and it was clear to me yesterday that I needed to release him from his body. The mobile vet came about 4 this afternoon and in a simple and brief goodbye, Jake was on his way to whatever waits for us on the other side.

I said my real goodbyes to Jake last night. We lay on the bed together and I petted him and told him how wonderful sharing 20 years together had been. I was under a year sober when I met Jake at a mall in the little town of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I wasn't in the market for a third cat, but he was on the reduced-for-quick-sale table and I felt so sorry for him that I took him home with me. He was a faithful companion all these years. Jake wasn't clever or particularly cute. He was steadfast and loving and affectionate.

After I talked to the vet this morning and made the arrangements, I felt sick with the responsibility of choosing his end for him. I knew it was the right thing to do--he'd given me plenty of signs, but I still had doubts, questions. What if he wasn't ready, what if he deserved more time? I distracted myself with work for a couple of hours and then I just settled into my feelings. I let myself go deep into how I felt about Jake, what I wanted for him (to feel good again), and how I could best serve him. This was what life was presenting to me in these moments--not only the decision for Jake but also being with my feelings, fully embracing the sadness and the indecision and then just being okay.

After he was gone, I cried for a long time. I let the feelings wash over me. I felt the pull of alcohol, of some kind of drugs, of ice cream. It would have been so easy to numb out. I felt the anger that I couldn't use any of those soothers that the non-addict can use in a crunch and then easily let go. I sat with those feelings too.

Truth is I'm grieving for my sweet old boy. And that's okay, that's natural, and it will ease when it eases.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Living in meaning vs. living in addiction

I've been reading Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. This book has sat unread on my shelf for at least a decade. Monday, my spiritual director suggested I read it, so I dug it out of one of the back shelves and got completely engrossed. Frankl was a young Viennese psychiatrist who spent four years in concentration camps during WWII. In this book, he writes of his experiences as related to how prisoners did or didn't find meaning in their suffering and the impact it had on their well-being and survival. The second part of the book concerns logotherapy, or meaning therapy, his contribution to psychological treatments.

I was most struck by a short passage subtitled "The Existential Vacuum," which he describes as the loss of a meaning worth living for. In a survey of American students in the early 1980s, Frankl says, nearly 60% described themselves as unclear of a purpose or meaning for their lives. The origins of the vacuum are interesting but not my point here. Frankl goes on to say, "The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom," and that state of meaningless or boredom is a key player in aggression (violence) and addiction. In our culture, he says, we focus on the how to live (acquisition/money), not the why to live.

This seems deeply critical to me. I know that state of boredom, that state of restlessness, that feeling of is-this-all-there-is? I drank to not feel it, I ate sugar to not feel it. Now I want to move through it. I want to get clear on what's meaningful for me and live into it. That seems one of the next stages of this sobriety journey.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I had a session this morning with my spiritual director. Since yesterday, some of the fear and anxiety has lessened and I'm feeling better able to be comfortable in my body and in my life. We went back to our usual routine of a few minutes of meditation and then a reading, which often helps spark our conversation. Today's reading seemed so appropriate that I wanted to share it with you.

You cannot control the outcome
of your experience—
You can only control yourself
and the way you engage in the process

The quality of your life
depends on how you respond
to whatever life presents you

You can greet life's uncertainties
with patience and trust,
or you can greet them
with resistance and fear

The choice is completely yours

Mountain's Stillness River's Wisdom by Philip M. Berk

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Practicing new choices

Last night I had dinner with a good friend at a local cafĂ©. They have great burgers, an occasional indulgence for me. We both ordered burgers and fresh fruit. I had secretly hoped that my friend would order French fries so I could have a few without being faced by a full plate of them. When I told her that, she suggested we order some on the side but then I said no. I’d remembered Dr. David Kessler’s admonition in his book The End of Overeating about becoming a person who just didn’t eat French fries (or whatever your trigger foods are). You don't make a big deal out of it; you just don't eat them.

You can break the craving and the habits, Kessler says, by laying down new pathways in the brain, making new choices. “Every time we act on our desire for sugar, salt, and fat [and French fries have all three] and earn a reward as a result,” he says, “it becomes harder for us to act differently the next time. [It takes new choices] to break the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle at the core of conditioned hypereating.”

I’m not abstaining from potatoes. Some people give up all “white” stuff (white sugar, white flour, white rice) as it can have a similar effect in the body. I’m just abstaining from intentional sugar—desserts. But I know that French fries are a bad idea. Most commercial French fries are dipped in a sugar/oil/salt solution before they’re frozen so they will not stick together. Add to that the oil of deep frying and the additional salt and they are a fast track to compulsive eating, which is why we go on eating them after we’re full and after they’ve gone cold and greasy, usually dipping them in ketchup, more sugar and salt.

So just like I practiced not eating birthday cake a couple of weekends ago, last night I practiced being someone who doesn’t eat French fries. In the end, the burgers were more than we needed (although we finished them anyway) and the fresh fruit was a nice ending to the meal. I didn’t need the French fries and I definitely needed the practice in making different choices.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Riding the big wave of feelings

I feel particularly blessed to have the spiritual director/counselor that I do. In fact, I probably would never have embarked on this abstinence adventure without her. As it is, we worked together for over a year before I even came close to the willingness to let go of this last sedative called sugar.

Anna is a psychiatric nurse practitioner with addictions training. She is also a deeply compassionate person. It's just what I'm needing in this very difficult time. To say that old childhood feelings are coming up is a bit of an understatement although I cling to the truism in AA that you never get more than you can handle at any one time. And the support I'm feeling from friends and Anna is helping me to have the confidence to believe I can ride through this and came out the other side, no matter how long it takes.

Something definitely cracked open on Thursday and after literally spilling my guts, I've been doing it emotionally for days. I'm not one who cries easily and boy I sure can today. I'm not one who shares the deepest of fears and concerns and yet today I can.

From the age of 9, when some traumatic experiences happened to me, until I began to drink steadily at edge 23, I lived in a state of perpetual anxiety. It was not generalized anxiety; it was fear. Fear of the atom bomb (I'd been through the duck-and-covers experience at school that many of my peers did), fear of the Soviet Union and its missiles, fear of pesticides (thanks to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring), fear that I was a geek (I was), fear that no one loved me, fear that God would punish me, you name it, I was afraid of it. When I ate sugar, some of that fear subsided. When I started to drink, all of it subsided.

I didn't drink to be a party girl. I drank to be numb from fear. When I got sober from alcohol, I got busy. I worked a lot, got active in AA, I travelled, and I ate sugar. Somehow the fears stayed inactive. Oh, they surfaced from time to time, especially under the guidance of a competent therapist but we never pushed them and I would go home from therapy sessions that were painful and eat a lot of ice cream. In fact, I knew just where to go from each therapist's office to get my current favorite sedative. I stayed really busy for 20 years.

Now that's not working. Or rather, I'm tired of living life that way, fearing the fear. Fearing what's been suppressed in my emotions, in my heart, in my body. So now I'm not sedating and I'm afraid. I'm afraid in waves of anxiety, and dread, and panic. And then I'm tired and okay again for a while. This is my process and I'm riding the big waves at the moment.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

28 days, 4 weeks, 1 month

I ate my last intentional sugar four weeks ago yesterday. Valentine's Day was the start of this adventure and so now it's been a month. Lots has happened as you'll know if you've been following the blog. Here's what seems true at this moment:

1. The physical withdrawal from sugar is really subsiding. I had some serious jitteriness internally for the first two weeks that was rather unpleasant, a more severe bodily symptom than I would have guessed. Brain chemistry rerighting itself, apparently. But that seems to have settled down. I didn't notice any particular changes in my sleep patterns or powers of concentration, just a nervousness that was old and familiar and a little voice that kept saying that a big chocolate bar would fix that right up. I did not succumb.

2. My habits of eating sugar are pretty clear to me by this point. I feel the most desire right after lunch, right after dinner, and while watching TV--these aren't surprising as those were the times I ate the most sugar. What was surprising was that I was craving and not the least bit hungry. When I do get hungry in the late afternoon, a time I would have guessed would be a big problem, I'm quite happy with fruit or some nuts and cheese--sugar doesn't seem to be an issue then.

3. I get restless and agitated when I'm not particularly engaged in what I do. Sugar comes through my mind then. It isn't exactly a craving but it certainly seems like a good idea. I'm reminded of six months that I spent as a receptionist in an ad agency in the middle 1990s when I was between careers. I was busy enough there but seldom very engaged. There were always sweets in the breakroom and I took advantage of them multiple times a day. One of the challenges ahead will be finding ways to get satisfied when I'm not, ways that don't involve sweets or even food.

4. Without the sedation of sugar, my long stuffed feelings are beginning to surface. Some of them are annoying, some of them are deeply painful or scary. I knew this was part of the deal when I signed on to give up sedation, to meet life on its terms, to step more fully into my life. But in a way, I said yes with my head. It made rational sense that this would happen. But I can't solve this with my head, with my rational sense. I have to solve this with my heart, my soul, and my body. A second bigger challenge will be finding ways to feel safe and soothed without using addictive substances. I don't yet have much clue what that will be but I think I may be headed into a crash course, if last week is anything like what's coming up.

Wish me luck and stay tuned!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Signs and coincidences

Yesterday, my spiritual director called me to see how I was after the experience of Thursday morning. I've been feeling pretty fragile, slowed down, even depressed, which is not common for me. Lots I think is shaking loose, coming up, moving through. And I'm okay with that. It's what I knew I was signing on for this time when I gave up sugar to be completely present and unsedated. She and I made an appointment for Monday at 1 PM to further facilitate my process.

Tonight I received the following email via Facebook and a local astrologer that I like very much. I'm not a great believer in astrology; I'm not someone who consults an astrologer for propitious days, although I'm often struck by coincidences (I have three close friends with the same birthday). But this seems wonderfully supportive to my current process. The fact that my spiritual director and I will meet at this time seems particularly striking.

From Yolanda:
March 15, 1:01 pm PST NEW MOON IN PISCES

What we are presented with on this New Moon is five out of the ten planets in the sky in the sign of PISCES. This is an exceptionally auspicious time for great healing! Now is one of the many favorable times to begin to make powerful choices for ourselves and this tired yet hopeful world.

The work we do before the New Moon on Monday at 1:01 pm. is RELEASE.

IDEAS OF WHAT TO RELEASE: Lack of trust, self-doubt, anxiety, victimization, loss or lack of confidence, indifference toward others, self-sabotage, self-destructive tendencies and actions, shame, misconceptions, misunderstandings, and co-dependence.

The work we do after the New Moon at 1:01 pm PST is CREATE.

IDEAS OF WHAT TO ENHANCE AND/OR GIVE LIFE TO: Compassion, spirituality deepening our connections to those we trust, imagination, responsibility for order in our live, creative solutions to world concerns, orderly lifestyles that include proper diet, regular exercise and scheduled time for work and play, and transforming negative beliefs into productive compassionate action.

Now is a time for the transformation of destructive energy patterns into creative or productive patterns. This is necessary for our collective and personal spiritual practice and mystical alchemy. M

CHOICE OF CEREMONY IS UP TO YOU: Prayer, ritual, create a piece of art, write a journal entry, play music, light candles, work by the ocean, in the forest, at your personal altar, walking meditation, write at your desk at work, sing in the healing waters of your shower, dance, join with a group of friends, some or all of the above.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Savoring the sweetness of friendship

Today was a day of retreat for me in the presence of a loving circle of women. I slept a good part of yesterday and again last night in recuperation. Today, many of my torso muscles are sore from the tension of yesterday's experience, so I've been taking it easy.


Most Fridays when I'm in town, I host what's called Writing Friday. Some of us writers gather at my home and work in silence morning and afternoon broken by lunchtime conversation and a closing circle in which we read. At the opening circle, after the others had shared where they were coming from this morning and their intention for the day, I spoke of my physical adventure of yesterday and my need for a gentle day of retreat. Usually I try to be highly productive on Writing Fridays, to take full advantage of the supportive energy that can propel me through a rough spot in my writing or even into some of the dreaded marketing I need to do. But today I needed to hang out in the company of loving others.

And so I did. I read a bit and did some emotional doodling in my creative journal. I petted my cats and just sat and looked out the window. I received three supportive phone calls from friends with encouraging words and a half-dozen emails expressing love and kindness. And I let myself soak up all that sweetness and support, things I would have looked for in sugar a month ago.

Three of the women at circle today were old friends in the writing game and one was new to us. I quickly got over my embarrassment and being my most fragile with a stranger, something I couldn't have imagined doing, even a year ago. Eileen was most gracious and kind. Vulnerability was not much valued or supported in my family of origin. My mother was uncomfortable with anything she couldn't fix and she couldn't fix my feelings so I learned to keep them to myself. Now, it seems, I've got little choice but to feel them and release them, difficult as it may be to do so. And I'm trusting that what lies on the other side of this current painfulness and sadness is worth encountering fully awake. Life on life's terms, as we say in AA.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Craving today

I've had an emotional day. It started out with me feeling a little off this morning, a little fuzzy and unable to concentrate. As a sensitive, such changes in my world tend to make me anxious and can even push me in the direction of worst-case scenario (here: the beginning of cognitive decline like my mother had). But I breathed my way through the anxiety, noted it in my journal, and went to breakfast with my good friend Isabelle.

We've been meeting for several years on Thursday mornings for pancakes at Sanborn's. I debated with myself about the pancakes--was this intentional sugar? Are pancakes the same white flour hit as a big biscuit (probably)? Honey or jam (definitely not syrup)? I decided to go for it and enjoyed it a lot.

After breakfast we sat talking about various things and then something she said about a student's difficult experience, completely unrelated to anything I'd been experiencing, sent me into a full-blown panic attack. Before I knew it, I had laid my head down on the table and fainted. Second time in my life. Curiously I went into a dream space with colors and people and conversations. I was surprised to come to in the restaurant.

Then I got really sick and really scared. I felt out of control, I felt so much old anxiety and fear and grief well up in me. Isabelle, who is a nurse practitioner, was great; she didn't freak out, just went into professional mode, and helped me. Eventually we were able to get me home and I took a shower (I'll spare you the details why) and went to bed and slept four hours. Now I'm tired and headachy. Been drinking water to rehydrate. Being really gentle with myself.

According to my good friend Barbara Joy, such reactions are common in people who are processing old grief and anger. The emotions are stuck in the body and looking for a bodily way out. That was reassuring and I stopped feeling so crazy.

After I woke up, I was very emotional, weepy, unhappy, and I really wanted something to take the edge off: like a valium or a stiff drink or a half-gallon of ice cream. I needed soothing big time and I was glad there was nothing here to use, and bit by bit, I rode it out and tonight I'm feeling more normal. I think a whole other level of sobriety is opening up. And today it sucked.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The loneliness of abstaining

The last few days I've been feeling very alone in my commitment to abstain from sugar. As I mentioned yesterday, I have been around people who say they are giving it up, but they are actually cutting down, not abstaining, at least per their behavior. Their commitment is different from mine, and I accept that with no problem.

But I haven't yet found anyone doing what I'm doing. When I got sober, I clung to my compatriots in AA who were as committed to abstinence and full sobriety as I was. There was a solidarity among us and I could hang on to the belief that if all these people were successful, I could be too. That they knew what I was going thru; they'd been there and come out the other side. That they were willing to give up their comfort, their solace in alcohol (and sometimes drugs as well) in order to be open to what life had to offer and to be fully present, for when we're using we aren't present.

This sugar experience feels quite different. In my couple of years of experimenting with OA, I never found anyone who was giving up only sugar and who had been successful at it. There were people who were abstinent from all white carbohydrates (sugar, flour, rice, potatoes); they followed a special eating plan, but they too seemed to play with it, to be constantly battling staying with their commitment. Maybe I will too, but I'm not ready to say that it isn't possible to just not eat intentional sugar.

And no one I know who is rearranging their relationship with sugar seems to be doing it for the reason I'm doing it--full sobriety. None of them are alcoholic and that may be part of the difference. This isn't just a food issue for me; it's about how I use this particular food as a sedative, as a drug. And that use has been standing between me and an authentic life, one that I'm finally willing to embrace.

I'm sure I'm not pioneering anything here. There are probably thousands of people, especially women, who seem to have a particular relationship with sugar, who have done this before. I just don't know them. And I wish I did.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Defining--and keeping--a commitment

It's been interesting to observe the attitudes and actions of other people who feel some solidarity with me around freedom from sugar. I've had at least a dozen people say they are also giving up sugar. Then I've watched them eat pie and cake and just a bite of that chocolate and only half of that muffin, and then they turn to me guiltily as if I'm the sugar police.

Two things occur to me around this. First, there's a real difference in energy between "should" give up sugar and "committed" to giving up sugar. I was in the "should" space for about 10 years (following 10 years of "hell, no, you can't make me give it up." The "should" space never lasted for more than a few months. I'd believe I had a firm commitment, but really all I wanted to do was lose weight and then go back to eating exactly as I had been before. I still needed sugar too much.

I suspect that these folks who want to join me are doing so because they feel they "should" give up sugar, not that they really want to. For me, there's something different this time. I can see what it keeps me from experiencing as well as the negative impact on my health and well-being and I want that well-being more than I want the sugar.

Second, as human beings, I think we tend to feel guilty when someone else's resolve is stronger than ours. I've felt guilty for years that I don't have the self-control around food that one of my sisters does. She's able to indulge from time to time and then abstain, seemingly at will. And I just could never do that. I'm wired differently, motivated differently. I definitely don't want to police other people's actions or have them feel guilty around me because I appear to be able to do something they can't when again it's really a difference in commitment. I want to tell them that it isn't virtue that's driving me; there's no me good, you bad. It's just a different commitment, that's all.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sugar, satisfaction, and soothing

My very good friend Meredith and I talked on the phone today. She lives in Charlottesville, VA, and I live here in Portland, nearly a continent away. We've known each other 30 years and our friendship only seems to deepen over time even though we see each other rarely. She's someone with whom I feel comfortable sharing anything that's going on in my life. She seems to understand and what's more, there's such unconditional love from her and belief in who I am that I am able to be however I need to be.

Since I'd just passed the three-week mark with no sugar, we talked about how it's going, how the physical discomfort of withdrawal seems to be fading and the habit of eating to soothe myself is showing up big time. I suddenly felt quite tearful, surprising myself with the feelings that were just under the surface.

I've remarked already in this blog about the cravings that come when I don't feel satisfied by what I'm doing. It's not a perfectionist thing--I'm not unhappy with the work (creative or commercial) that I'm producing. It's more that I'm not fully engaged and there's some loose part of myself wandering around, either mentally or physically. Only part of me is doing what I'm doing and the rest of me is waiting, watching, wanting, mostly wanting. I'm looking for something to anchor me, ground me, center me, and for decades I've been using sugar to do that.

Now that I'm not using sugar, I'm tempted to use other kinds of food even though they don't work. I don't get grounded by another half-sandwich or a handful of cashews or a couple of oranges, I just get full. And my brain and body are crying out for chocolate, or a big cookie, or bowl of pudding and whipped cream, something, anything sugar.

The real challenge ahead, I can see, is finding ways to soothe and satisfy me, as I mentioned to Meredith. I can come up with a dozen ideas, most of my friends could suggest a dozen more, but they all seem like such poor substitutes that I don't even want to try them. And that isn't helpful. So I'm going to create a list of 5-minute alternatives and see what happens. Wish me luck!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

cake dreams

I had my first sugar dream last night. Drinking dreams are a rather common occurrence among those in recovery. They vary in scenario--you find yourself drinking at a party or somone offers you a drink and you say yes or you dream you go into a liquor store or a bar and start drinking. My most frequently recurring drinking dream of the last few years has been one in which I not only realize I'm drinking (glass in hand) but that I've actually been drinking all these years of sobriety and lying to myself. The dream is so vivid and so real, my feelings of shock and disappointment in myself so real, that it often takes me a few minutes after I wake up to realize that it's just a dream.

In AA, we believe that only recovering alcoholics have drinking dreams. The normal drinker doesn't worry about drinking, the active alcoholic would see it as normal. But we are so concerned for our sobriety, which we know is fragile, that we project that worry into our dreams.

Last night, I dreamed that I was sitting at a table in the house of a friend. In front of me was a piece of chocolate cake, just like the ones my friends were eating this weekend. My piece was half-eaten and a big bite was on its way to my mouth. What am I doing, I thought. I'm not eating sugar anymore. How could I let this happen? Now I have to start over and go through withdrawal again. I was glad to wake up and have it not be true.

What is true is that my friends were really respectful and ate cake after I went to bed. They didn't leave it out, they didn't ask me to watch. And as I realized driving home today, the other five women left the cake alone all day. I would have watched for opportunities to sneak a piece or six and eat it in private in my room so no one would know. I'm so glad I didn't do that and that I just could let it be.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Food and sex

I was trying to explain to a friend this morning why other foods just aren't a good substitute for sugar. She was asking me if I found myself wanting to eat more pizza or chips or cheese when I had a sugar craving now. I explained that it wasn't so much wanting those things--what I wanted was sugar--although I tried some of those things out and they didn't work. Alcohol worked. Sugar worked. She wanted to know what I meant by "worked."

The only real analogy I could up with was sexual. If sex is good and if it ends in orgasm, there's a level of physical and emotional satisfaction that comes that's hard to beat. With sugar, I could get to a comparable place. Sometimes I could get to that level of satisfaction with some really great chocolate or cake in small quantities, but most of the time I had to keep eating and eating until I got there. Once I got there, I was done. I didn't crave anymore. I didn't need to eat anymore. Something in my brain, some yearning, had been satisfied and had gone quiet.

I don't know if this correlation with sex works with other addictions (I suspect it works with certain drugs) or if it will work with other sorts of satisfactions. Maybe the yearning will go away if I don't reactivate it with sugar, if I can learn to ride through the cravings. But I do know that it's a complicated mixture of physical, emotional, mental stimuli and chemicals that creates the whole experience. Guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When food is what it's all about

I'm having a harder time this weekend. I'm here at the beach again, this time with old friends. Two things are striking me. First, this is a group that has always had food at its center. We started meeting in 2000 every week for dinner before seminars in a transformational education program we were all in together. We continued to meet weekly for dinner for nearly 9 years. We've been coming to the beach for a long weekend for six years and we celebrate birthdays with fancy dinners and cake. Second, when there's a lot of talk and little activity, I want to eat.

This weekend isn't a writing retreat where we keep to ourselves mostly to work on our creative projects. This is a togetherness weekend and the center of the togetherness is a kitchen counter groaning with snacks. There's not much sugar although somebody goofed up in the organizing and we have two--TWO--German chocolate cakes for dessert. But there's too much food. There are six of us and we could feed dozens several times over. And there are chips and nuts and pretzels and other little nibbly things.

I also find that sitting around talking isn't very satisfying to me. I've never been one for small talk, for goofing around like that. I want more intense experiences, deeper connections, something to do. And so I've been eating all afternoon--and none of it has satisfied me. I'm still restless even though I'm full, I'm still wanting something more. And of course I know what would fix me: several pieces of that cake.

Much of our contemporary social life is about food. Getting together over coffee (and eat a scone if it's morning and a cookie if it's afternoon), get together over dinner or a work breakfast. Our culture sees it as a sign of hospitality to offer food and drink, and it probably comes from an earlier time when people traveled a long way to see each other and arrived thirsty and hungry or didn't get a chance to eat often and it was generous to share whatever you had. Now they look like overeating opportunities to me. All this is a good learning--what I need to feel okay and what I need to stay safe. Staying out of the kitchen, having more activity, and not having cake in the house!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

cocktails and cake

I got an invitation to go to a dessert party. A dessert party! After my taste buds did the happy dance, I sent a polite "no thanks, can't make it, thanks for thinking of me." Just what I want to do is watch other people eat cake.

I realized after I declined, that this is the start of a whole bunch of awkward possibilities. My family is pie-centered. My sister makes fabulous pie crust and fabulous pie. We used to eat pie for dessert after a potluck supper. Then we moved to salad only and pie, so there'd be more room for pie. Then we skipped the nod to health and just ate two big pieces of pie with ice cream each. I'd take a piece home with me and it was seldom still there the next day. I don't feel I can ask my thinner, non-addicted family members to forego pie, but I don't want to spend time watching them enjoy it while I eat celery or even a sandwich. So I'm either going to miss out on these events, or cope with them in some way.

When I got sober, the issue was wine tastings (I was a professor of French in a former life) or cocktail parties or bridge games with a full bar. I went to AA meetings instead of any of them. And while OA isn't exactly my cup of tea for a lot of reasons, I'm going to have to find some alternative that is socially satisfying.

I'm spending the weekend with some friends and there's a Jaciva cake on the menu for tomorrow night. I love Jaciva cake but I'm prepared. We'll have a good dinner, and I remember wise words from my very thin sister. "It takes most people less than 4 minutes to eat a dessert." All I have to do is hold on for four minutes. That I can do.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sugar and responsibility

Last night I wrote that I was tired of being good. I meant it. I grew up in a family, where unasked but somehow driven, I became a good girl, a responsible child, so responsible that I felt that the well-being of my family rested in my hands. I never spoke this to anyone, so no one had an opportunity to tell me that I didn't need to do that. Add to that a traumatic experience at age 9 and I learned to be hypervigilant.

What happens when you combine overresponsibility and hypervigilance? Stress, anxiety, fatigue and a chronic need to be soothed. When I was younger, alcohol was my way to let go of my constant need to control things and manage everybody. Of course, it didn't work. Losing control when drunk just makes the need for control greater.

Then after I got sober, I still needed a way to at least temporarily relinguish control and the need to be good, so I reverted to sugar. I knew it was unhealthy but it was a way to be irresponsible. I didn't want to have to be vigilant about what I ate. I wanted--and needed--to be bad.

Now, well now, I don't have either of those. I could still overeat or eat junk but that doesn't have the appeal. That's not what I want. I could litter, I guess. That would be bad. I could run red lights. But my ethics are so well ingrained that I don't think breaking a law or two or endangering others is going to work for me. The challenge will be becoming less responsible; it will be distinguishing what I'm truly responsible for and what I'm not.

And finding ways that soothe that aren't so self-destructive.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tired of being good

The last few days I've been on a little bit of a pink cloud, more early recovery euphoria. I've been feeling better, had more energy, sleeping better, getting more done, and generally feeling pretty up. I even enjoyed going to the gym this morning, which is a rare occurrence (not going, but enjoying it).

Then late this morning I had a very impactful session with a spiritual seer here in Portland. I go to her every few years to find out what my guides and helpers are wanting to tell me. There were no big surprises, a lot of confirmation of the path I'm on, a lot of support and encouragement, but I hadn't realized how intense the experience was until I came home and wanted two things: a nap and a chocolate bar.

I don't sleep much in the daytime any more. I'm not a power napper, able to lie down for 10 minutes and wake refreshed. I want an hour or more to read and snooze and even then I often wake up groggy, so I'm better off to take a walk or play some solitaire or get busy in the house as a break. So I came back and got to work on a Master's thesis that needed a lot of close attention. But even with tea, I stayed sleepy.

And, even though I'd had a good lunch (Indian buffet, one of my favorites), I felt unsatisfied, I felt restless, I felt--well, the truth is, I felt tired of being good. I wanted ice cream or vanilla cupcakes with cream cheese frosting or a big organic milk chocolate bar, maybe even a couple of them. I ate some crackers but that just made me more full so I stopped eating and working and went and took a nap. And when I woke up, I had come back to my senses. So glad there were no sweets in the house.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sugar addict as pogo stick

Mindfulness, restlessness, habit, choice. So many big philosophical issues are coming up. Today I'm back at work after a week of vacation. I enjoy my work a lot. I edit documents for all kinds of people on all kinds of subjects. I get to interview cool people and write up what they say. It's seldom boring, and it's often fascinating. So why am I up and down and up and down and up and down like a pogo stick when I'm in my office?

I don't have trouble concentrating. I'm actually thinking about the current editing project and solving some kind of issue as I walk to the refrigerator. It's only when I "come to" at the fridge and think about it (do I really need something to eat; e.g., a sandwich or a cup of soup? No!), that I see how habituated my behavior has come. Not only have I been indulging my cravings and desires for sweets, but I've made it so automatic that I can't sit still for very long.

I ate a good lunch but a little too late (too long between breakfast and lunch)--and that's not good for me. I need to eat every few hours to stay satisfied. So I ate a sandwich and a big apple and some cheetos and a few more cheetos and then I said enough. By then, it was 1:30. Since then (four hours), I've been to the kitchen maybe 8 times. I'm up and out of my seat without even knowing it. I'm standing with the snack drawer open (it contains, nuts, no sugar trail mix, high-fiber "cookies" and Altoids) without even registering restlessness or boredom or any other discomfort. I'm seeing that either I don't need discomfort to move towards food and eating has become almost a part of my autonomic nervous system (like my breathing and heart beat) or the cues are so subtle and so familiar that I just respond without any noticing at all.

Figuring out what this is all about is key to me. Maybe not in the scientific sense but in the personal sense. As my friend Scot said in his comment to yesterday's blog, this being mindful stuff is a tough job!