My Brain After Drugs

“This is your brain on drugs” – that famous public service campaign brought to us by Partnership for a Drug Free America – always made me chuckle.

Of course MY brain wasn’t being fried by recreational drugs and booze! I was just doing what everyone else was doing. Maybe a bit more but still doing ok at school. I got really good at denial – to myself and others.

I first noticed I was having trouble holding things, and my hands and feet were numb, around 1994. I would trip a lot and break things. I had been drinking very regularly since about 1972, adding in other drugs since 1976, and by the early 90’s had begun hiding that I was having blackouts occasionally. I didn’t tell my doctors about my use of course – so a few MRIs that showed white matter hyperintensities later and I got an MS diagnosis.

Those “bright spots” increased over the years – because of course I was still drinking very heavily and not discussing it with my physicians. Since I wasn’t admitting how much I was consuming to them, it became easier to not acknowledge it to myself.

When I first got clean and sober I felt like I had dodged a bullet – or maybe a barrage of gunfire! My liver enzymes were back to normal within 60 days and my Doc from rehab referred to me as a “miracle”. I firmly believed I was going to be ok – that my brain would be OK. I had every reason to think that … it’s what everyone told me. You stop drinking and your brain heals … except that’s not really how it works. What normally happens is that a healing brain creates work arounds. Neurological rerouting basically. Unfortunately for me my brain had been doing this for years. Heavy drinking and drug use during adolescence already requires a lot of that neurological elasticity – I didn’t have a lot of spare brain tissue to reroute by the time I got sober!

The other factor for me is the endothelial lining of my veins and arteries … and in all those little microvascular vessels that feed the brain. Mine are lazy. Made less energetic by the years of poly drug use. I imagine that lining as saggy pantyhose. There – but doing a half assed job! I seem to have inherited a propensity for this problem, which booze exacerbated. So poor profusion at a microvascular level continues leading to cognitive impairment.

So what am I doing to slow down the progression? Nothing that exciting. There is no magic solution. No CBD Oil, coconut oil, MCT oil is going to lube my brain healthy again. We have found that eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise has helped my function a bit. Part of that is that feeling good physically and getting the right nutrients reduces the stress on my body generally which is a good thing. Managing emotional stress has also improved function. If I get overwhelmed or upset my memory, executive function and verbal abilities deteriorate for days.

The most important thing I’m focusing on is just living. Being diagnosed as cognitively impaired, and that I will continue to decline, really floored me. Although I knew I had a problem, having it be official took the wind out of my sails. I’m having to redefine who I am now and how I want to fill my days. Rather than focus on things I can’t do I’m working on enjoying the things I can. For instance reading fiction is very difficult – all those plot details! However non fiction – topics rooted in facts I learned long ago? Still a huge pleasure! I’m playing with painting, sewing and needlework. All revisiting skills from my youth. Then there is hiking. Currently I’m planning another attempt at the AT – and all the physical prep that goes along with that. Hopefully with my brain and body active, a healthy lifestyle and reducing stress I get to be cognizant as long as possible

I still chuckle at that “This is your brain on Drugs” PSA.

Amends?

It’s been 4637 days since my last drink. That’s 12 and 1/2 years if you add them all up. I didn’t want to get clean and sober. Well I didn’t want the pain, sickness and shame, but was terrified of living without drugs and alcohol. How did people do that? How to cope with all the emotions? The fear. The anger.

The work of recovery was something I feared deeply. Those damn emotions and all that accountability! There were meetings, therapy, physical care and mental health support. I began to realize that if I did what people who knew how to be sober suggested that maybe, just maybe, I would learn to be grateful and possibly happy.

An integral part of this process was about making amends. During active addiction I caused enormous destruction and pain. In recovery I could no longer place blame on others for my actions, had to own my mistakes, and do what I could to right those wrongs.

The idea behind making an amends is to clean up your side of the street. I wronged another person, and now had do my best to make it right, and we all move on. Whether they accepted my apology or not wasn’t something in my control. My role was to respect them and their wishes and carry on with my life. As hard as it was I did the work. Most people, over time, accepted my amends and relationships were repaired. Most. Not all. Friendships ended and I mourned. Mourned what I did. Mourned what I lost. That none of it could be undone.

Family relationships were the most important to me. These were the people I had impacted most, but also loved the deepest. Besides my husband and children it was my Mom and sister that carried the most importance. Those amends were terribly difficult. It’s hard to listen to what you’ve done so it can be made right. The blessing of being a blackout drinker is that you don’t have the burden of memory. The drawback is that not remembering comes off as denial to those looking for answers.

For a long time I thought my sister had accepted my amends. That we were working on our relationship. We had some great times in these past 12 years. Hard ones too – and during one of those tough times she came clean that she couldn’t forgive me. What I come to realize is that sometimes the damage is simply too great. That hurt informs everything going forward . Hurtful actions can’t be undone. No amount of me wanting things to be different is going to change that. Not even with a cute vision board!

So what do you do when your closest living relative can’t forgive you? I’m supposed move on. Respect her wishes and get on with my life. Clearly I can’t “make it right”. Can’t fix hurt and pain. Time can’t be turned back. I’m going to try my best to move on, grieve the loss and stop wishing for a resolution the other person doesn’t want. There is no denying that it sucks. I had held onto this idea that we could get beyond this and hike together when I attempt another AT thru next year. Just have to let it go.

I am committed to not going back to the life I once lived. To show with living amends that I am not that same person who caused all that damage. I am grateful. I am happy. Also sad. The good thing is … I won’t drink over it.

You Can Go Home

IMG_3344Once upon a time I was thrown into sobriety. It was either that or die and so far, after a bunch of 24 hours, I am still alive. I turned up – after a stint in residential treatment – in a room full full of people claiming to be clean and sober who all looked impossibly pleased with life. To me, who was feeling very disgruntled and annoyed with existence itself, this had to be a lie.

There must have been people just as pissed off as me but I don’t remember noticing them, just the smilers. The huggers. The ones who wanted me to call them and to stay after for coffee. Oh hell no! I sat away from “them” on a bench under the windows. I did listen. I heard my story and it came from unlikely places. There were commonalities in the experiences of white men born in the ’50’s. Young people who got sober quickly – reading the signs far sooner than some of us. I heard my story shared by single mothers and women in Prison – all walks of life.

Gradually listening each day there was no longer a “them”, it became “us”. The structure each day of reading literature began to give me a strong foundation to build skills I needed to learn to live a sober life – with the help of these confident, happy people who already had these skills. I stopped being disgruntled – and became balanced and pleased with my life.

Unfortunately change happens, and I don’t like it at all!  When I moved there was no replicating the group where I got sober. That strong foundation is something I got take with me and people I met in early recovery there in that room have remained an integral part of my network today.

Last week I traveled back to that group to visit and it was like coming home. Slotting into a familiar routine, seeing much loved faces, being welcomed back, getting embraced by my first sponsor and being able to sing her praises to someone new and just feeling comfortable is priceless. People say you can’t go home again but I disagree. I did and it was wonderful!

 

Life Shows Up

IMG_5745Life shows up. Sometimes it shows up with no warning, while you’re cruising along under the belief that everything is peachy. That happened this week with a vengeance.

Let me be clear – as I have in the past – that AA saved my life. Combined with other forms of evidenced based treatment, everyday contact with a  network of people who had traveled a road similar to mine was invaluable. I went to  7 meetings a week for 5 years. I worked the steps. I read the big book. I had several excellcent sponsors. (Long story). My sponsor had a sponsor. Her sponsor had a sponsor. Then I moved to Houston, struggled to find a home group and lost face to face connect with AA. My personal program of recovery has remained strong and with this move to Greenville I’ve had a desire to reach out to a community once again.

During those five years one of our kids came into sobriety. As someone who found AA so important in early recovery I wanted that for this kid too. Those steps felt like the key to learning how to live for me and who wouldn’t want that for thier child? So much of my present life wouldn’t be possible without the program and I wanted that for them.

In a college environment with a heavy schedule the infrequent meetings just weren’t on the cards, but when summer came and there was a move to the new town they decided to attend meetings. For the first time the reports back were really positive.

Even with about 21 months sober 4 weeks in AA is pretty new. Having grown up around the program there is lot of indirect knowledge but getting a sponsor and working the steps is a whole different enchilada. In just that short month a 49yr old man with 11 years of sobriety befriended our kid, who is essentially new to the rooms,  and 13th stepped them.

Being away for so long I had forgotten about the people who aren’t highly effective and supportive of recovery. Those people who are deeply imperfect and remain very ill – no matter the group’s good intentions.

It’s not surprising when people with shared goals, and experience, are together regularly there can be a certain amount of flirting. It’s human nature. However when that becomes a more experienced member – male or female – pursuing a romantic relationship with a new member it’s called 13th stepping.  In early sobriety, recovery and/or step work one should always be working to create the strongest foundation for lifelong recovery. Needless to say, the 13th Step rarely offers that foundation. Or erodes what has already been built. The behavior, in my opinion is also damaging to the reputation, goals and purpose of individual groups along with the fellowship of 12-Step groups as a whole.

When life showed up our kid was behaving out of character, making changes to life that seemed extreme and worrying the crap out of us. Using empty buzz words and lashing out when questioned. Ultimately  packing a bag and moving in with a stranger who is old enough to be her father.

For the first time Martin and I realized we need  to head to Alanon because our child is the qualifier. Not to support recovery but to detach with love.

Life showed up and slapped me in the face. I don’t want a drink. I want to cry. I will. I have. Because in recovery I learned how. I got taught in the rooms because noone interfered. My hand was held. I was given guidance. I will also be present in my life – laugh, run errands, eat and get on with the business of living.

Today I will let go and let God because what the hell else can I do.

 

Progress not Perfection

IMG_5683Although I know for sure I had to come off the trail to fix my spinal strength and balance issue, it’s still a bit heart wrenching. Watching Boone grab his back and head back out there made me proud but also a bit jealous. Until he texted later that his stomach was upset and he had run out of TP! Then I was OK back in civilization!

Martin didn’t love the idea of me trying to get home from PA injured so he came and got me. My Mom and Grandmother always said I married well – because he is so kind and supportive! Never fails! A ride much appreciated because even in very comfortable seats there was no good way to sit – I might have broken my ass.

Now for some healing, working on that balance, hiking the Foothills and prepping for spring. As much as I want to be perfect at everything I have to remember that today in my life it has to be progress not perfection. It’s so hard for me to remember I have it tattooed on the top of my foot.

Its exciting hearing from Boone/Trivia. He’s planning on 17.3 miles tomorrow! He’s a machine! I’m excited to be his cheerleader!

Pause

IMG_5664.JPGRushing through anything is never good for me. I miss details, stop having fun, lose my focus and make mistakes. When I first got sober people with a lot more experience than me kept telling me to pause. Pause before making decisions. Pause before speaking – in meetings,  to friends or just people in general! I was grumpy. Just pause in life and get it together.

This is one of those life skills I wanted to recapture out on the trail and boy did I get forced to learn it! Part of that lesson was trying to capture what I was seeing for later. Butterfly’s wouldn’t stop flitting away. Deer just pop out of the woods and I’m not camera ready. I am not able to pause time and have to simply soak in the moment,  and then be frustrated when words don’t really capture the scene either.

Another part of the pausing lesson hasn’t been as pleasant. The section of the AT from Harpers Ferry to Southern PA isn’t hugely taxing but it does test a good range of skills. There good elevation changes both up and down and a variety of trail surfaces to ease you into the notorious rocks of PA. This includes a few small rock hopping sections that require balance. On a couple of occasions I didn’t stop to do simple things like put my phone in my pocket, enjoy the view or check how far behind I had gotten from a faster group – and fell. Dumb mistakes. Pause. Take time. It’s not a race. It’s a walk in a beautiful place.

On the final occasion I was crossing rocks and missed my balance. It was a very bad fall. I did manage to protect myself somewhat but I hit my head – hard – and my lower back below my pack.

Boone and I had spent the night in seperate places. He was with friends at a Hiker Feed 3 miles ahead and I had camped in a shelter on my own (well a nice young hiker joined me later) and my need to dust myself off and hike to meet him was greater than my desire to sit and cry. While I made my way to the meet up point and thought through my options – continue hiking, risk greater injury, work on improved balance as we go, force Boone to slow his pace for me or the dreaded head home  – I came to a change in the forest. All around me were tall slender pines making a sort of open space and the floor was carpeted with ferns. On my head phones I could hear the beginning of The Crossing Chior’s Ivy and Holly. My late cousin Jeffery Dinsmore was a cofounder of this amazing group and I certainly did pause to take in this moment in this catheral like setting.

Jeff was very pragmatic. A no nonsense person he wouldn’t have had a whole lot of patience for messing about with stupid details. Have a problem with a solution? Fix it. Is your problem going to unconvience another person and spoil thier experience? No brainer. Do you have the luxury to regroup and attempt this again? Then what’s your problem? The song ended and I hiked on.

Taking a moment to stop a re-evaluate I what needed  correct to reach my goal is essential. When I broke my L3 my rehab was great but without continued supervision my body got off line and I’m using other muscles to compensate. Better to learn that before the Whites and serious injury. I will be pausing to correct that and restarting from Springer in late March or early April – with the trail name I earned out on the trail this year. (Haven’t decided if I will tell yet)

Boone is hiking on – as Trivia!