The Gift of Five Alcohol-Free Years

Today I am celebrating five years of sobriety. Six years ago, if you had told me I would one day use the words “sobriety” and “celebrating” in the same sentence, I’d have laughed out loud.

But a quiet part deep inside me would have been elated to learn that change was possible. Part of me had been hoping I would eventually find the courage, strength, and determination to give alcohol the boot.

Drinking was a big part of my life from the age of sixteen. I couldn’t imagine going out to dinner, starting the weekend, or marking an important occasion without an adult beverage. Feeling happy? Have a drink (or two). Feeling sad? Have a drink (or two). Stressed out? Have a drink (or two). Kinda bored? Have a drink (or two). And once I had a couple glasses of wine in me, it was likely that many more would follow. I didn’t do this every night. But I did do it often enough. Consistently. For decades.

When I finally decided to quit, it wasn’t a life or death matter. But it was a quality of life issue. For what seemed like ages, I had been running the cost-benefit analysis of drinking in my head, and the trend was not headed in a good direction.

I wanted to write. I wanted to be more active. I wanted to try new and interesting things. But I was most certainly not doing any of this.

So, on May 12, 2017, I decided I had had enough. It was time to give sobriety a try.

At first, I concentrated on resisting the cravings, and I gritted my teeth when everyone else was getting buzzed and I was consumed with FOMO. I paid attention to my triggers and slowly dismantled them one by one. (A completely unexpected trigger still pops up from time to time!)

As the years went on, the journey became less and less about drinking. Removing alcohol from my life was like discovering a door to a whole new wing of my psyche. I uncovered other coping mechanisms that I was using to soften the edges or distract me in the short term—fixations such as TV, social media, and shopping that did not produce positive results in the long term.

Sobriety ended up being about so much more than declining to put a substance in my body. It was and is about emotional growth, building skills that last, and developing hard-earned confidence. At last, I was able to focus more productively on my anxiety, fear of death, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. All the stuff I thought alcohol was offering me—I had to learn how to give those things to myself.

And I kept the promise I made to myself: I committed to my writing. I ended up writing and self-publishing a book about my experience, in which I explored the patterns and stories that had kept me idling in place for so long. I tried all kinds of new things, including meditation, Pilates, aerial yoga, spin class, zip-lining, flotation therapy, paddle boarding, pole dancing, indoor rock climbing, and much more. I still do several of these activities regularly.

Not everything I tried to do was a success. The drum lessons I took at the beginning of my sobriety came to a quick end. My husband and I pursued two small business ideas—I even attended a six-month course related to one of these ideas—neither of which panned out. I started to build an online course in habit-shifting that I thought had real potential, but it was too much to take on at the same time as writing and editing my book. I did end up sharing it on this blog—and who knows, maybe one day I will get back to it.

The gift (there’s another word I didn’t think I would ever use in this context!), the gift of sobriety has been the ongoing process of unearthing who I am. “Coming into your own” is a phrase I never fully appreciated. But now I can tell you that it feels like bursting forth from a long dormancy, like opening up and reaching toward the sky.

Is Life a Lopsided Tennis Match?

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

In my last blog post, I proposed that life is like a card game. I used this analogy to separate the things in life that we can’t control from the things that we can.

Briefly: We cannot control when or where or to whom we are born—those are the cards we’re dealt. Society’s laws and conventions are outside of our control as well—these are the rules of the game. With time and collaborative effort any set of rules can be changed, but we are subject to the existing regulations until and unless we can rewrite them. In the meantime, we can make a multitude of changes every day in our own lives—that is the skill and mindset we bring to playing the game.

So, please humor me because I’m about to add another metaphor to the mix…

What if life is also like a lopsided tennis match? (Or pickleball for you picklers.) Each of us is on one side of the net, and the entire world is on the other side, hitting a barrage of balls straight at us from all angles.

These tennis balls represent all the many events and influences we have to contend with starting at a young age:

  • A mother struggling with mental health issues
  • An absent or detached father
  • A learning disability that emerges in childhood
  • A hurricane damaging our home
  • A bully at school
  • A lengthy illness
  • A parent losing a job
  • A traumatic car accident
  • An unexpected death in the family
  • A violent stranger
  • An inhumane law or practice

A family member, friend, or neighbor might step in to help with hitting these balls, but most of the time we feel as if we’re on our own.

As a kid, I experienced some of the things listed above. I tried hitting back these balls as best I could. But I was flailing about because I lacked the proper technique. And even if I had developed the appropriate skills early on, a flurry of balls was coming at me fast and furious.

So, as I hit the balls back, the strokes I used were avoidance, distraction, anger, numbing, and procrastination. The mindset I brought to the game often included defensiveness, jealousy, self-pity, and fear.

I believe that our society poorly prepares children for dealing with life’s ups and particularly its downs. We shove our kids out onto the court with a racket and tell them to have at it. Oh, and try not to be a whiner—you’re not the only one playing this exhausting game, you know.

In place of more productive skills, we utilize alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, screens, gambling, lies, stealing, manipulative behavior, and so on. These tactics are like swinging wildly at the torrent of tennis balls. We do make contact with some of them, thereby protecting ourselves from getting hit by every single ball. But swinging wildly is not a long-term solution.

In middle age, I realized that I am responsible for building the skills that can help me play the game of life more effectively. I have since tried meditation, exercise, time spent in nature, journaling, learning, human connection, self-coaching, habit shifting, and more. These types of methods take some getting used to, and they don’t always deliver the immediate bang of buying an expensive pair of shoes. But they are almost always more powerful in the long run.

As I noted before, we players can band together to change the rules to the chaotic and often unjust game known as “the rat race.” (We call it that for a reason.) While reform is in progress, it is up to individuals to acquire the tools and hone the techniques that can sustain us.

As we do this, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has equal access or ability to improve their game. Some people might not be able to afford the same equipment or training as others. And the rules that are in place often favor some players over others.

Remember, we are all that scared, unprepared kid, swinging as best we can at a deluge of tennis balls.

The Card Game of Life

I love a good analogy, and here is a near perfect one: Life is like a card game. Yeah, it sounds trite, but hear me out.

At the beginning, each player is dealt a random hand of cards that impart advantages or disadvantages in the game. The established rules specify how the game proceeds and what the players can and can’t do. In addition to their hand, each player brings their own skill and mindset to the game.

Let’s examine how the interplay of these three components—hand, rules, mindset—relates to real life.

The Hand We Are Dealt

Every human being starts the game of life in a body, geographic location, period in time, and economic class that was not of their choosing. For example, I was born white, female, and able-bodied in the 1960s. My family was lower middle class, but we lived in one of the richest countries in the world. My father was not in the picture, my mother suffered from health issues and depression, and my extended family was, for the most part, supportive. I was a physical late bloomer with a sharp mind that was prone to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Each one of these facts was beyond my control, particularly in childhood.

In my tween years, the shortcomings of my hand became more apparent, and I often wallowed in self-pity that my family didn’t have much money, my father had opted out of our lives, and my small size and big hair were a target of endless teasing. As I grew up, I came to understand that many people had been dealt far more challenges than I had. Slowly, I realized that it made little sense to continue wishing I had lucked into a better first hand. I could not alter my origin story.

Layered on top of this truth was the reality that the cards in my hand were better or worse depending on how they related to the rules.

The Rules of the Game

In a card game, the rules typically dictate how many cards each person is dealt, which cards are most or least valuable, and how a winner is crowned. In real life, the rules of our society tell us how much we pay in taxes, how fast we can drive without getting a ticket, which actions are considered crimes, what is required to buy a car or a house, which substances we are allowed to ingest, and so on. Outside of the law, an endless list of customs, tacit agreements, and prejudices also guide our behavior and our perceptions of people.

We tend to think of these rules as institutional, and sometimes they feel like they’re set in stone. But they are not untouchable. The rules that govern our existence are created and enforced by groups of people—elected officials, judges, business leaders, and other powerful individuals working together. Which means that they can be changed by people working together.

Rules rarely transform overnight and not without a struggle. Modifying or overhauling the system usually takes time, hard work, and a keen strategy. Commitment, collaboration, and vision are all vital. And let’s not forget the importance of access to capital.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed a number of revisions to the rules and social conventions that have historically held back women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. These advancements have been impressive but are far from complete.

While people strive to secure rule changes that will allow entire groups of people to participate more fully in the game of life, individuals may want to explore how they can control their own actions in the present.

Personal Gameplay

If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve probably seen inspirational quotes declaring that the only person you can command is you. These maxims don’t commonly mention that different people have differing abilities, resources, and opportunities available to them depending on the hand of cards they were dealt. Not a single one of us has 100 percent control over what we can do, and some have much less.

But each of us has choices. Even little ones. Read a book or scroll on social media? Take a walk or watch TV? Drink a glass of water or a soda? Let that remark go or argue back? Take a deep breath and move forward or stay in our comfort zone? Okay, that last one might be a tad formidable.

The energy and preparation that we bring to the table counts. The card player learns about the game by reading up and practicing. As adult players in life, we are responsible for our ongoing growth and development. We “win” the game when we figure out what we have power over and then exercise our power as often as possible.

For a large chunk of my adult life, I worked at a nonprofit organization focused on reshaping the rules in our nation in favor of equality for all. The work we did was critical to others and meaningful to me.

I am now at a phase in my life when I am more focused on what I can do as an individual to push past my demons and chase my dreams. And to inspire others to do the same.

We need people leading the way down both paths—rule changing and personal responsibility. Some of us are more suited to one path over the other. One day I would like to find a way to combine the two endeavors, but perhaps I’ve found my best path.

Either way, thanks to the card game metaphor, I can see both paths more clearly.

What Sobriety Means to a Former Gray Area Drinker

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in October 2018. I am reposting it here in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir, which will address this issue at length.

When I decided to stop drinking in May of 2017, I knew I would eventually write publicly about my journey. Even before I made the choice, I started jotting down my thoughts about alcohol—the hold it had on my life, the challenges of drinking moderately, and the reasons why quitting was starting to look like the obvious solution.

Three months into my recovery, I revealed to Facebook friends and my blog’s tiny audience that I had managed to stay sober for the longest period yet in my adult life. I posted again at the five-month mark, at which point a few people suggested that it was time for me to congratulate myself and move on.

I don’t think so.

I’m rarely shy when it comes to sharing stories about my life. Nearly two decades of working in communications for a political organization helped me develop a pretty thick skin. I learned that no matter what a person says or how they say it, someone is going to find something in their words to criticize. But that shouldn’t keep us from speaking our truth.

My concern about writing on this topic stems not from a fear of being judged but from a suspicion that I don’t belong in the recovery community. You see, I’m what’s called a “gray area” or “high bottom” drinker. While I believe that I had an alcohol dependency, my habit never escalated to the level typically associated with people who quit drinking.

I was doing well at work, and my personal relationships were intact, but my dreams were stalled. Drinking had made my life repetitive and stagnant. My writing career and love of trying new things had been put on hold. This went on for decades.

Like many gray area drinkers, I tried all the tricks designed to keep alcohol at arm’s length but still within grasp. I counted drinks, tracked how many nights in a row I stayed dry, diluted my wine with seltzer, only drank when I was home or only drank when I was out, and so on. Nothing worked. My mind was more preoccupied than ever with thoughts of alcohol.

When I finally quit, I did so with the knowledge that I didn’t have to hit a disastrous rock bottom to recognize the negative impact alcohol was having on me. As a writer, I am eager to share this news with the world. As a longtime activist, I want to help others make the same realization as soon as possible.

But I worry that by talking about my sobriety, I am claiming ground that belongs to those who have struggled more. The insecure, anxious woman who turned to alcohol for confidence and comfort is panicked at the thought of stepping on anyone’s toes.

Feeling like an outsider was a monster that haunted me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and into my adult years. The beast is clutching at my ankles again, even when I’m feeling my sharpest and bravest.

The only way I know to get past this fear is to march directly through it. So, I am sharing with you what recovery means to a gray area drinker like me.

Liberation

My drinking habit was like carrying a backpack full of bricks at all times. I could function, but something was always weighing me down. I often felt tired, cranky and frustrated with myself. Hangovers stole hours from me on weekend days when I should have been having fun or getting errands done. And when it had been a couple days since my last drink, I was consumed with thinking about my next one.

Taking off that backpack allowed me to wake up every morning with zero worries about what I’d said or done the night before. By the end of my drinking “career,” I wasn’t going out and doing crazy stuff anymore, but I was still capable of picking fights with my husband, drunk dialing friends and posting nonsense on social media.

Being clearheaded and liberated from the effects of alcohol is truly a gift.

Perspective

When I was deciding whether to quit entirely or continue trying to moderate my drinking, I worked hard to put aside my emotional attachment to alcohol and appeal to my logical side.

Despite overwhelming evidence that I felt better when I wasn’t drinking, I kept at it. What if I did the same thing at work, employing an ineffective strategy over and over? My boss would have taken me aside long ago and demanded that I try a new tactic.

So, as my own boss, I gave myself a “needs improvement” performance review and chose sobriety as the answer. The results were so successful that I am applying this lens to other aspects of my life. This means examining other deep-rooted practices and asking if they are serving me.

In the quest to live my best life, perspective is everything. Sobriety changed my vantage point.

Self-Respect

How many hours, how many nights did I spend drinking? Some of those events included laughing and bonding with dear friends, but many of them were more about getting drunk than anything else. What if I had spent even half of that time writing and taking on new challenges?

Alcohol allowed me to do things that would have been boring or foolish if sober. Some were minor infractions, like waiting at the bar for a table, getting buzzed and skipping dinner to get trashed. Some were more consequential, like barely making it to an early morning doctor’s appointment and then sleeping off a hangover in the back seat of my car.

Now that I’ve removed alcohol from the equation of my life, I find that I value my time far more. And what do we have if we don’t have time? In recovery, I’ve concluded that valuing your time is the highest form of self-respect.

Peace

Since girlhood, my brain has been full of obsessive thoughts—fear of death, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of being seen as unworthy of attention or respect. My first therapist put me on Zoloft to help me focus in our sessions. But alcohol was my favorite form of self-medication.

Drinking to slow down my mind was effective but not without serious side effects. Even worse, it was getting me nowhere. I was not learning how to deal with my stress or my penchant for latching onto a sense of dread and letting it flood my body and spirit.

Sobriety didn’t automatically bring peace to my mind. I had to take up meditation and yoga. I had to remember to pay attention to my breath in moments of distress. Taking away alcohol made space for these more productive solutions.

The transformation I am experiencing is slower and less noticeable than guzzling two or three glasses of wine. But one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced that panicky feeling in weeks. I still get lost in worry and self-doubt on occasion, but I have the tools now to acknowledge those thoughts and then carry on.

Sharing these breakthroughs is why I am proud to take my place in the sobriety community.

Dealing with a Broken Streak

Tracking my meditation in the Ten Percent Happier app.

Last week, I picked up my phone one morning and saw a notification from the Ten Percent Happier app reminding me to meditate.

Aaargh! Somehow, I had forgotten to meditate the day before, thus breaking a long streak I had put together. Over the previous few weeks, I had meditated every afternoon or before bed. Each day that I used a guided meditation on the app, a circle was filled in under my profile. What a satisfying feeling, watching those rows of solid red dots multiply. I was approaching a personal-best streak, longer than any run since I first started meditating regularly several years ago.

And then…there was an empty circle glaring at me. At first, my brain wanted to seize on this small blip as an excuse to throw in the towel. What’s the freakin’ point, anyway, right? After berating myself for a few seconds, I stopped to ask a different question: What does a streak even mean?

As someone moderately obsessed with numbers, I find it fun to count how many days or times I complete an action. And as I try to build new habits, daily tracking helps encourage me to stay the course. The knowledge that I was working on a streak led me to meditate on nights when I was tired or cranky and just wanted to go to sleep (or watch late-night TV). If I’m honest, though, numbers can get tied up in my self-worth. A long streak produces evidence of my value as a person.

But the thing with tracking streaks is that they almost always get broken. And then, you can’t let that disappointment in yourself get you derailed.

The streak itself, the number of days, is meaningless. It’s just a number. Okay, maybe a particularly long streak demonstrates that you are dedicated and disciplined. But does a missed day or two say the opposite? Are you suddenly lazy and weak?

As a member of several online recovery groups, I’ve witnessed how hard it can be when weeks or months or years of sobriety are interrupted. Some folks chose to keep counting, tallying up the number of days they didn’t drink that year or in general, without returning to zero. All those sober days did have an impact, after all, and there is no rule that says you have to erase them.

That morning, looking at my phone, I decided that I would not let my broken meditation streak make me feel as if I had failed. The progress I had made in building a stronger meditation habit had not vanished. Meditating more frequently had already made its mark on my ability to handle stress and to live in the moment, which was my goal. Not a row of red circles.

I will still keep an eye on my streaks for motivation purposes. But I promise that I’ll keep my tracking in perspective and remind myself what’s really at stake: my health and well-being.   

My 2021 Year in Review, Part II

Just a few of the books I read in 2021: inward and clarity & connection by yung pueblo, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

When I launched this blog in 2016, I did so to “document my attempt to stretch myself and experience all the interesting bends and branches in life that are calling to me.” Five years later, I’ve pretty much kept to that original mission.

At the close of 2021, I am starting a new practice of giving myself a pat on the back for the stretching I’ve done over the past 12 months. This is the second part of my year in review. If you missed the first part, feel free to check it out first.

Reading

From childhood through my 20s, I was a voracious reader. But somewhere along the way my reading trickled down to a handful of books a year. I’m a slow reader because I like to reread lines several times and turn the ideas over in my head. For the last decade, I focused on reading political/social commentary, which can be exhausting, so I was taking long breaks between books. In 2020, I read a mere six and a half books.

So, I set a goal to read more books in 2021—no precise number, just to keep reading. I alternated fiction with non-fiction, which proved to be super helpful. Now, I’m ending the year having read 28 books!

I read books from genres outside of my comfort zone, works set in other countries and cultures, and books that addressed race, sexuality, and the natural world. Several books were challenging, but I persisted. And I did give myself permission to set aside two books to finish another time (maybe).

One of the books I’m counting toward my tally was the journal/workbook What’s Your Story? by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond. This book challenged me to write rather than read, though it also included some beautiful writing at the opening of each section. Instead of marking up the book, I typed up my responses in a Word doc, and when I looked back, I discovered that I wrote more than 40,000 words!

I created a fun graphic summarizing my reading for the year, and I’m going to post it on my Instagram profile. My profile is @lisamaybennett if you want to check it out.

I’m tempted to try to read even more books in 2022, but I’m not going to pressure myself—I’m just going to keep reading, book after book.

Connection

Looking back at the people with whom I’ve been in contact over 2021, I am immensely grateful to have so many wonderful folks in my life.

This was the year that I reached out to a wide range of friends and acquaintances to ask if they would test read my manuscript. I was delighted by the number of people who said yes, and we went on to have many interesting exchanges. I became good friends with a woman down the street through this process, and I connected online with an independent author who lives in the same town where I grew up.

My husband and I have gotten to know our next-door neighbors better this year, as well as other families who live on the block. I should probably credit our dog, Toby, with helping us make new friends—he is a great ambassador!

I am still in contact with two of the women I met through a Zoom grief group that I joined more than a year ago. My friend who passed away nearly two years ago had a pretty big family, and I have been in touch with two of her nieces and her sister-in-law, which has been a great comfort to me. And I continue to text and talk regularly with my closest friends.

Once we were all vaccinated, we had quite a few visitors out to the house this summer. I guess I’m what you might call an extroverted introvert (or an introverted extrovert?). I love spending time with people and talking with them, but I also value my quiet, alone time. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right balance, so I may have overdone it in 2021. But I can’t say that I would change a thing.

Media and Tech Use

This is the one category where I tried to do less in 2021 rather than more. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved watching television, reading magazines, and following celebrity culture. I was the perfect target audience for the internet and social media.

Over the past five years, I’ve been working on spending less time watching TV and scrolling on my phone. This year, my TV consumption finally settled in at a level with which I’m comfortable. I no longer watch TV during the morning, day, or early evening, and I only sit down to watch it when I know what show or movie I’m going to watch. My cable news viewing has declined dramatically, and I feel less tense as a result.

I still struggled with social media use in 2021. I no longer argue with folks in the comments, and on the rare occasion when I do, I am quickly reminded why I steer clear of doing so. But social media always seems to find a new way to grab me. I have never watched a single episode of any Kardashian show, and yet I find myself watching videos of Kylie and Kendall Jenner on Instagram as well as the dancing and fashion videos that are served up to me through ads and the search function.

In the first part of this review, I promised myself I would focus on how far I’ve come, not on how far I still have to go. So, I’m not going to go over the steps I want to take in 2022—I’ll write more about this next year. Instead, I will state for the record that I shifted substantial blocks of my time this year from media consumption to creative endeavors and other habits that I wanted to develop.  

Rest

For decades I have suffered from various forms of insomnia. Over the past five years, my sleep has vastly improved, but it still feels like the final frontier for me, health-wise. I ended 2021 strong by reducing the time that I typically spend watching TV in bed and replacing it with reading. This seems to be helping me sleep through the night better.

Even when I get a good night’s rest, I am still a big fan of napping. This was the year that I finally decided to accept that I love afternoon naps. I take one as often as I can, and I’ve released the shame that I used to feel about doing so.

There’s lots more I did this year, including helping care for my mom and managing home improvement projects (like an unexpected roof replacement). I even experimented with my usual holiday traditions and wrote a piece about it for Medium.

I highly recommend sitting down and giving yourself props for all that you’ve done in 2021. This includes the things you stopped doing and the boundaries you created and enforced. You are more awesome than you realize. I know because I talked to a lot of people this year, and I was consistently impressed with your strength, resourcefulness, and insight.

In case you missed it: Part I of my Year in Review

My 2021 Year in Review, Part I

Since launching this blog five years ago, I’ve made some big changes in my life and tried lots of new things. But some days I feel like I’m not doing enough.

I’ve been unemployed for more than a year now. Acting as my mother’s health advocate/personal assistant keeps me pretty busy. Plus, I’m trying to fulfill my longtime dream of becoming a writer. At the same time, I’m trying to accept moving at a slower, gentler pace, which seems to suit me. Still, it’s hard not to feel like I’m behind in a race, and I’m never going to catch up.

While scrolling through Instagram this morning, I encountered a post by author Glennon Doyle that suggested: “Instead of thinking about how far there is to go…consider how far you’ve come.”

So, I decided to review what I’ve been up to in 2021 and give myself credit for all the things I’ve done. Surprisingly, I ended up with so much stuff, I’m doing this in two parts!

If you’re not into me bragging on myself, then I’ll see you in the new year. Otherwise, let’s get started…

Writing

In case you don’t already know, I’ve written a memoir. I started 2021 with about 33,500 words already in my manuscript, and my book now stands at 64,500 words. With all the chapters I added and subtracted, there’s no telling how many words I actually wrote this year.

At the end of spring, I recruited a bunch of people to read my manuscript and provide me with feedback. A total of 10 people have read the whole book so far, including an editor who delivered a very thorough critique. I edited my book a total of five times, and right now it’s with a proofreader.

I joined the Maryland Writers Association and several online self-publishing support groups. I’ve reached out to other writers who have published independently and learned a lot from them. I even got started working on a cover with someone I met through one of my groups. Originally, I thought I would publish my book by the end of this year, but that didn’t happen. And that’s ok. Hopefully I’ll get it out in early 2022.

Since the inception of this blog in 2016, my posting has been sporadic at best. So, I set the ambitious goal of posting 40 pieces here in 2021. It looks like I’m going to hit 35, which is pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.   

Included in these posts was Snowed In, a six-part suspense story—the first time I’ve written fiction in ages! I’m hoping to do another serialized story next year, and it might even feature some of the same characters from Snowed In.

I’ve been working on developing a daily writing practice that’s just for me. Journaling has never been my thing, and I still have to remind myself to do it, but I’m getting better. I find that journals with prompts are really helpful. This year I completed What’s Your Story by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond, and next year I plan to do Get Untamed by the aforementioned Glennon Doyle.

All in all, I feel more like a “real” writer every day, and that is what’s most important (though a royalty check would still be nice).

Sobriety

This year I celebrated four years of living alcohol free. Removing drinking from my life has been a game changer.

First of all, I don’t think anything I just shared about my writing would have been possible without me embracing sobriety. Alcohol was a big hijacker of my time, energy, and brain space. Quitting was an investment I made in myself, and the returns continue to build.

I wrote a lot about this in my memoir; it was extremely helpful to get my experiences out of my head and try to make sense of them. Hopefully my words can help someone else in 2022.

Habit Shifting

For years now, I’ve been tinkering around with a framework to help balance my life. Habit shifting is a big part of this, and in 2021, I developed a process called An Intentional Life. I contemplated turning this framework into an online course. Alas, I did not have the energy to do both that and finish my book. Instead, I wrote up the process and posted it on this blog in four installments.

Every week this year I updated my “Colorful Week” board, which helps me track the habits I’m developing. About two-thirds of the way through the year, I could see which habits had begun to stick and which ones were still sitting on the sidelines.

Two habits that started to become ingrained in my routine were yoga and meditating. I no longer had to push myself to do them—they were becoming almost as automatic as listening to my favorite podcasts.

But I needed to get more cardiovascular exercise, something I’ve long struggled to incorporate into my life. So, in September I joined a local fitness studio where I can take both yoga classes and cycle (spin) classes. Since then, I’ve been averaging four classes a week. I’m enjoying the indoor cycling classes way more than I thought I would, and I’m feeling great!

The last habit on my goal list that wasn’t getting any love was crafting. I’ve never been a particularly crafty person, but I wanted to start doing something that would hone my hand-eye coordination. And I was longing for a creative outlet that would be different from writing.

I tried knitting early in the year, but it was not for me, so I gave up on crafts for a while. Then, I ended the year strong by finally completing a gift for my mom that turned old jewelry into an art piece. Who knows if I will continue in this vein in 2022, but at least I gave myself the chance to see how much I enjoy working with my hands to make something beautiful.

Part II: Reading, tech use, and connection

What Scary Things Can Teach Us

For the past 14 months I’ve been writing and editing a book about my life. This memoir tells the story of how self-doubt, drinking, and anxiety kept me from chasing my dreams. I am 56 years old, and this is my first full-length manuscript.

The young woman who chose creative writing as her major in college, and who relished the praise she received from her professors, would be dejected to learn that it took her more than three decades to finally write book number one.

Don’t get me wrong—I am proud of many of the things I’ve done over the years. During my most recent read-through of the manuscript, I noticed a number of times when I didn’t let fear get the best of me, when I took on challenges that were outside my comfort zone.

But those scattered moments of pluck were not enough to build a solid foundation of confidence that could sustain a writing career. It took years of self-exploration, sobriety, the death of a dear friend, and a worldwide pandemic to finally get me to draft this book.

After the writing came the endless editing. Just when I thought the revisions were done, they were not (and possibly still aren’t). Once my work was in good enough shape, I recruited people to read my manuscript to make sure I wasn’t deluded in my belief that it is worth publishing.

And, because I’ve written a book that recalls real scenes with real people whom I love and respect, I decided to reach out to some of the more prominent people to give them a chance to read the passages that involve them.

Sending your book out into the world before it’s perfect (is it ever?) is terrifying. At least it has been for me. I still have several more steps in the creative part of this process, and one of them is the most difficult step yet: talking with my mom about the chapters devoted to our complex relationship. I’ve been putting this off, and I cannot procrastinate much longer.

I know from the earlier steps I’ve already taken that I can do things that scare me. When I do scary things, I usually learn something about myself. One of the things I learn (almost every single time) is that I am brave and strong—braver and stronger than I could have imagined.

And when you keep doing things that intimidate you, you get to discover over and over how brave and strong you are. And who wouldn’t want to confirm that fact over and over? I think maybe this is a lesson we are meant to learn.

Over the past several years, I’ve taught myself that it’s ok to be frightened of doing certain things. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not scared in order to do these things—I can acknowledge my fear or discomfort and then do them anyway. An open and willing mind can lead me to take desired actions, and taking those actions produces an increasingly positive mindset.

In other words, the more I do this, the easier it gets. I only have to look back to yesterday or last week for proof that my heart can pound and my stomach can twist itself in knots and I might lose some sleep, but I will not fall apart.

Paper Jams and Perspectives

Have you ever tried to fix a paper jam in one of those huge copy machines that’s the size of a refrigerator sitting on its side? It can also happen on a small home printer, like it did to me the other day. I’m usually pretty good at clearing those jams, mainly because I’m patient.

You have to try everything. When you find that first crumpled piece of paper and pull it out, you may feel satisfied that you’ve resolved the problem. But there is a 95 percent chance that at least one more piece of paper is stuck even further inside.

You go for it anyway: You close the door or tray and take a look at the little display screen. The machine informs you that it is still jammed. So, you try again. And again. Eventually you will find a small, brightly colored handle that you didn’t know existed, and it will open a compartment you’ve never see before. And there you will find a piece of paper so mangled that you have to pry it out in shreds.

When you finally close up the printer for like the tenth time and it starts to hum and you hit start and copies come out, you feel like Jack in Titanic shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”

This machine might not end up on the bottom of the ocean, but much like Rose, you will outlive it. One day you will arrive at work and encounter a gleaming new printer that, according to the office manager, will change your life. Wrong. It just has even more places where paper can lodge.

This past year I wrote a memoir about how I got stuck for a long time. As I wrote this book, I reminded myself not to be content with the easy discoveries. Even in the editing phase, I tried to peek into every possible hiding space where the answers might be tucked away. I had to take on new vantage points—to peer at my life from every angle I could embrace.

But sometimes one person is not enough. The possibilities are too vast, and an individual’s frame of reference only goes so far. A team of people working on a project is almost always enhanced when each person on the team offers a distinct set of skills and insight. Welcoming in new viewpoints makes the team stronger.

So, once I completed the third draft of my memoir, I recruited test readers. I reached out to a whole bunch of people because I knew it was important to obtain a variety of perspectives. These folks might spot a weakness that I was too close to observe. Some of them did, and their comments made my manuscript better.

A couple weeks ago I attended a writer’s association meeting, and I shared with the group the progress I’ve made on my book. I was informed that my collection of beta readers was still too narrow because they were all friends, acquaintances, or former co-workers. A member of the writer’s group who I had only just met offered to read my book if I would read theirs.

A part of me feels like I’ve been working on this book forever, and I should just skip this step. That’s the part of me that wants to stop fixing the friggin’ paper jam already. Luckily, that part almost always concedes to the part of me that wants to keep looking. After all, who knows what this new reader will find? What if they locate that final crinkled piece of paper that eluded everyone else?

Each person we collaborate with brings with them a whole host of contexts and experiences that exist well beyond our own. We should think of our self as our first collaborator, and our duty is to push past those early automatic thoughts to get to the deeper stuff. And then, when we are stretched to our outer limits, we can invite in others to help us extend the boundaries of what’s possible.

How else do you think those giant printers came to be?!

Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.