Cassie the Wonder Dog stood at the doorway of my home wagging her tail furiously; open-mouthed smiling as only a dog can. She knew we were about to embark on an adventure. All it took was me reaching towards the coat rack, or setting a luggage bag down in the entryway, and she was all ears at attention and doggy excitement.
My Jeep was packed and set to drive East over the mountains to my cousin’s house -she’s one of my favorite people on earth. Visiting her family means laughter, connection, and a trip to Nudo Ramen. (Seriously, I dream about their tonkotsu broth).
My “Cousin-friend” as I lovingly call her, has been my recovery advocate from the beginning, as well as my role model as a nurse and mother. When she shared her story years before about re-framing her relationship to alcohol, it sparked the thought in my soul that I may need to question my own habits … a gentle whisper came from deep inside….”Maybe YOU have a little problem, Tiffany. Maybe YOU should think about slowing down.”
But that particular weekend, I wasn’t as stoked as Cassie to climb in the vehicle and go. A wave of trepidation had flooded through my body, bringing with it a storm of anxious thoughts.
One of those thoughts came through loud and clear.
“I’m going to drink tomorrow.”
It wasn’t a question, but a concrete statement. It also wasn’t a solicited thought. I didn’t plan it, ask for it, or have any idea it was being concocted inside my brain. Having played around with sobriety for a couple years, I hadn’t yet achieved what you would call “long term recovery.” I’d make it to 30 days here and there; I’d get a few months under my belt, but then relapse. Sometimes it was less of a relapse, and more like a few days’ break between drinking runs.
Relapsing wasn’t something I talked about openly; it’s a painfully shameful process that can even lead to suicidal thoughts and action. Returning to drinking or picking up a drug after a time of abstinence causes people to give up on sobriety and drop out of recovery programs. It’s seems less painful to surrender to the substance than to reach out for help, because admitting to relapse means admitting to devastating failure. Our egos just can’t handle that kind of humiliation. At least, we’re conditioned to think they can’t.
My cousin knew I’d been “in recovery” for awhile. What she didn’t know was that I still faltered; that I would occasionally succumb to my alcohol cravings – which ultimately are a craving to escape, avoid, or numb uncomfortable feelings.
This was setting up to be one of those occasions. Cassie used her paw to nudge my thigh. “Let’s get going! I’ve got squirrels to chase!” I imagine she said. But my mind spoke up again, in exactly my own voice – my tempo, my inflection, my mood.
“I’m going to drink tomorrow”.
“No one will know. I love drinking on road trips. I always drink on the way there- why wouldn’t I this time? I’m going to be around alcohol all weekend; it’s going to be super tempting to be around it. F* it. I might as well….it’s so much easier than trying to fight it. Just one more weekend of this. I can start again on Monday.”
The thought wasn’t exciting. It didn’t feel like the sneaky, sexy secret that cravings sometimes conceal themselves as. This wasn’t delicious planning of a future tryst with a bottle of wine; or a sultry fantasy of the way I feel sitting, supported by a barstool, my arms resting on a smooth, sticky bartop.
This felt like fear and sadness. Like I had been given terrible news, and there was no way to fix it. Like I’d rear ended someone – but couldn’t rewind to 3 minutes before and lift my eyes from my phone to the road. Regret. Anxiety. Despair. Inevitability.
F*ing inevitable. It was a done deal.
Sinking to the floor next to Cassie, I looked in her eyes. How could I ever apologize for being a crappy dog mom, for not being good enough, for going through this cycle AGAIN.
It was as though I had a crystal ball in my brain, telling the weekend’s future and it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Through the smoky crystal I could see the drinks I’d have, the shame I’d feel, the weight of having to start over at day one AGAIN…. I wondered how the hell it was possible for anyone to get lasting sobriety? Not one cell in my body wanted to endure this another time- I needed to break the cycle, yet felt absolutely powerless to my mind telling me I was going to drink.
What’s the trick here Tiffany? I thought. What do people do here? How do they look at the choices in front of them and pick the path labeled sober instead of the one labeled “dead end”? What’s the tool you’re supposed to use right now, to create space between what your thoughts are TELLING you to do, and what you actually WANT to do? Are you really going to listen to your thoughts?
And at that point I almost started laughing at myself.
Holy Sh!#. That was it! That was freaking IT!!!!
Three years prior I had taken Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention – an 8 week course designed just for that. Obviously, despite the classes, my relapses weren’t totally prevented but the frequency decreased. And I’d begun a practice of mindfulness and meditation that slowly helped me cultivate life skills – compassion, loving kindness, responsiveness instead of reactivity, awareness. I’d begun integrating these into my life and was already experiencing benefits.
One particular skill – possibly the crux of the whole concept – is the awareness of thoughts without attaching to them. In other words – we don’t have to believe our thoughts. They are separate from us. Imagine that we are the sky; Our thoughts are the clouds and we are the observers.
Shaking my head I put my arm around my dog. “I don’t have to believe myself Cassie!” It felt like the truest statement I’d ever told myself. Cassie was impressed. She chased her tail in 3 perfect circles, as if to say “You’ve got it!!” Or maybe she was just excited to finally go for a drive.
My anxiety dissipated as I took a purposeful deep breath and recalled what I know about mindfulness. The mind is made up of chemicals, electricity and something uniquely human. It is habitual, conditioned, and reactive. But my mind is not “me”.
I began an intentional dialogue with myself using tools I’d learned in MBRP. Not an argument, with me as the victim and my thoughts in control. This was a mindful dialogue with My Self, as an aware, thoughtful, nonjudgmental and compassionate being.
“Tiffany, you can BE HERE NOW. Come back to this moment, this floor you are sitting on. Come back to yourself.”
I scanned myself from head to toe, checking for sensations, cravings, anxiety, emotions. Sort of exploring myself for where I was feeling these particular fears. I breathed slowly in through my nose and out through my mouth. I confirmed that in no way did I actually want to drink right in that moment. I had fear of craving, but I had no actual present-time urges.
“Tiffany – there’s a great possibility that you will NOT drink tomorrow. Today is not tomorrow. Today, you know you won’t drink. You’re making that choice. Tomorrow, you may be completely free from craving. If this thought arises tomorrow, you know now that you can remember this moment, and return to this truth – you do not have to believe your thoughts. Drinking is not inevitable for you. You have control over this situation. Stay in the now. Deal with tomorrow, tomorrow. ”
And I let it go. More accurately, I just LET IT BE. Cassie and I finished packing up the Jeep and we literally drove off into the sunset, sober. And I have been ever since. Writing this today still elicits my tears. This simple concept has possibly saved my life; it most definitely saved my sobriety.
The thought “I’m going to drink” didn’t come back that weekend. Not while my Cousin Friend and I laughed while eating dinner IN A BAR and she had a glass of wine. Not when we played in the lake while boating. Not when I ate a giant bowl of ramen at Nudo, when I would usually have a cold beer to accompany it. And not in the dark of night while I lay alone, in the moments before sleep when that thought can sometimes sneak it’s way in.
In fact, it’s never come back in quite that way since. I’ve had cravings and I’ve experienced plenty of triggers. But I have never again felt the inevitable terror that I had no control over my own actions when a thought arrived that I didn’t like.
I’m not glossing over what a struggle this is, or saying I can simply blink and POOF! I won’t believe my thoughts.This situation happened on the heels of some pretty serious consequences from a prior relapse. I was ready, I was DONE, and I didn’t WANT to believe my thoughts anymore.
I was tired of being in pain and ready to end any unnecessary suffering. The situation didn’t convince me that I’ll never drink again – but it did convince me that I have options. That there’s hope. I’m 100% convinced that my thoughts are not always true, and that I can question them if I don’t like the direction they’re heading. Research shows that because of the brain’s neuroplasticity – the ability to change the way it responds to input and stimuli, especially after consistent, frequent and intentional meditation practice – mindfulness is a solid foundation for relapse prevention. I strongly believe that this is the reason I am able to choose to be sober today, this moment, one moment at a time. And I strongly believe that all are capable and deserving, if this is what they so desire in their lives as well.