Graduation: A Story of Growth

There was no fanfare, no pomp and circumstance (though that will come in a few weeks), just me, walking out alone into a chilly damp evening.  And just like that, it was over.  After a little over two years, I had completed the schooling for my masters in Mental Health Counseling.

I walked out of my last class with a huge sense of nostalgia, I looked around, soaking in a view I would likely never see again; for there will never be a reason to return to this campus, at least not as a student.  I couldn’t help but get a little teary eyed.  I recalled walking in on my first day so eager and excited, understanding that I was doing something big, something important, something lifechanging.  Now, that was done, the transformation was complete! Yet, I didn’t feel a change.

What I felt was significantly humbler then when I had reached every other educational milestone in my life.

High School graduation, I was 17. This felt HUGE, and I’m not selling it short, it was!  I was finally an “adult.”  I had goals, dreams, and no sense of urgency to complete them.  As I drove myself home following that ceremony, I tossed the cap into the back seat, manually rolled down my window (because, you know, first car), cranked up Oasis’s Wonderwall (it was the 90’s…), and lit a cigarette.  I felt so mature and so experienced, like, voila, adulthood!  Like all teens, I was naïve.

College graduation, I was 21.  NOW, this adulthood thing was getting real!!  I still had plans and they were taking a more solid form.  My next moves in life were all laid out in front of me and the path was as clear and bright as the yellow brick road.  I lived in the big city, albeit with my parents because who can afford to live on their own after graduation, but I could come and go as I pleased or even stay out all night if I fancied. I was a grown woman after all.

Graduate School graduation, I was 24.  Almost my mid-twenties, so now I was a full-fledged adult with a masters and a career!  I had a job and an apartment.  I paid my own bills and made dinner every night that was eaten from actual plates. I lived with my boyfriend and only true grownups cohabitate with their boyfriend, right?!  This was real adulting.  I had finally reached the peak of the growth cycle.

Then came the next 15 years. 

I was hit with the reality of the real world like a wrecking ball to the face.  Many amazing things happened, and yet, so many more terrible things happened too.  Realizing that I wasn’t even half the adult that I thought I was, was an incredibly hard pill to swallow.  And for someone who never shied away from swallowing a pill that was offered, this realization was almost unbearable and insurmountable.  With each graduation milestone, I felt like it was finally time to become, time to meet those goals, and attain that adult status.  However, I never could.  I always felt one rung short of completion, like I was hovering just below the surface and couldn’t figure out how break through.  Despite getting married, having children, acquiring a mortgage, and doing all of the things “real adults” seemed to do, my growth as a person, as an individual, had stalled somewhere between listening to Wonderwall and eating dinner on actual plates.

This graduation, at 39, feels significant and important in a different way then all of the others.  It feels like I am finally blossoming into the person I knew I could always be, but never knew how to be.  I have finally lived enough to understand that we don’t simply grow up and, presto chango, the process is complete.  No, true growth is a constant process.  It ebbs and flows from moment to moment and most often occurs when we least expect it and aren’t even trying. 

It comes in the little moments of sheer joy when hearing your baby say her first words or watching him take his first step.

It comes in the tragic, heartbreaking moments of despair, when you believe life will never be ok again.

It comes from moments of anger, feeling brave enough to express it or safe enough to simply let it go and move on.

It’s there when you land your first job, but also when you get fired from that very same job.

It happens when you take a risk, but also when you just play it safe.

It happens over dinner with girlfriends, dates with your husband, and coffee with a colleague.

That time you dropped a quarter into a homeless man’s cup, that was growth.

Growth comes even when you’re sitting on your couch binge watching Netflix all day because you don’t feel up to doing anything else.  In that moment, you have recognized that that is all you’re capable of today, and that’s OK!!! 

Growth happens every day, all day, as long as you’re open to it.

Three years ago, I began a journey to remake myself.  I shed off my cocoon of alcoholism and became a sober butterfly.  In that process I decided to return to school and fulfill a life-long dream of becoming a therapist.  That portion of my journey is now complete.  However, unlike previous graduations, I don’t feel that my growth is over.  In fact, it’s the opposite, my growth is still happening every day, because I am finally ready for it.

Up next, graduation!

ADHD: I LOVE Him, But His Poor Impulse Control is Killing Me.

I’m sitting at my desk at work, knee deep in charting.  I hear the phone inside my desk drawer ring, and I ignore it, too busy to deal with whatever it is.  Moments later it rings again.  I hear the impatience in the tune it spits out and I can’t disregard it anymore.  I close my chart and open the drawer, glancing down at the screen I see it’s the babysitter.  I have three missed calls from her.

My heart pounds.  It’s an emergency!

I call her back, and she assures me immediately that the kids are fine… HOWEVER, it seems that Man has stuck some metal into a socket and blown a fuse, the kitchen has no power. 

This is the third time that he has done this in the last year, so I know exactly how to walk her through fixing it.

I push the fear from my mind and the aggravation sets in- will he ever learn that that is dangerous?  Will he hurt himself, or someone else the next time he does it?  For there is ALWAYS a next time.

We’ve all seen THAT kid and THAT mom.  You KNOW the dynamic duo, you’ve met them before. 

The kid who is standing in the shopping cart, arms out, pretending to fly, as his sibling runs him down supermarket aisles.  His mother running after them, yelling angrily, embarrassed, and worried about concussions and broken bones.

The kid who is hiding in the clothing racks at Target, playing hide and seek.  His mother, frantically searching for him, frustrated, impatient, worried about a possible kidnapping.

The kid who just picked up that huge rock on the playground and tossed it across the field, oblivious to the 10 kids it almost hit in the head as it arcs nicely and lands on the ground with a loud thud.  His mother, shamed, desperately apologizing to other parents, worried that the other children will not want to play with him anymore.

For this child, knows not what he does, and this mother understands that… and it worries the SHIT out of her. 

Impulse control. 

It’s something that develops over time as the brain grows and classic conditioning does its job.  When we stick metal in a socket it shocks us. Therefore, the next time the thought occurs to us try it again, we are quickly reminded of the searing pain that coursed through our hand and the screams it elicited from our mom the last time tried that.  We decide not to do it again.  Simple.

This does not happen for the child with ADHD.

These are not magical children who don’t get shocked.  They do- and that shock hurt them just as much a their neurotypical pal who tried it also. No, it’s that they don’t stop long enough to think of the consequences of the last time they performed such an action. 

In other words, conditioning does not work as well with this population.  They have an idea and immediately act upon it.  The mechanism of the brain that says, “Dude, the last time you did that you got hurt, blew a fuse, AND your mom got pissed!!!” is completely absent.

In our house, this is the most challenging aspect of the ADHD diagnosis.

It’s easy to see how a lack of impulse control affects one’s behaviors.  If your child never stops to think of the consequences of their actions, that can lead to some pretty out-of-control situations.

But subtler, and more challenging to understand, are the ways it permeates EVERY. ASPECT. Of functioning for this child and their family.

Without impulse control, independent functioning becomes almost impossible.  At three years of age, this is expected, but by seven, eight, thirteen years of age, it’s unconscionable and exhausting for parents.

It affects activities of daily living:

Yes, we have all had to remind our kids a few times to put on their shoes or brush their teeth in the morning.  However, eventually they get it.  Sure, they might need an extra, gentle, reminder or two (or several) on days when they are not completely on their game.  But, all in all, by a certain age, your child can dress and bathe themselves somewhat to completely independently.

This does not happen for a child who lacks impulse control.  The verbal reminder is given, but suddenly, a bird is flying by the window and it’s cool and it’s red!!!  The sweat shirt is dropped, the child gleefully runs to the window and enjoys his birdwatching for like 20 seconds.  But then, something else of interest catches his eye!!!  The sweatshirt remains crumpled on the floor- a complete afterthought- until mom notices that her kid is wandering around the house naked, hyper focused on peeling the wrapper off of a crayon he found under the couch yesterday.  She calls out, “Go get dressed!” However, he has dropped the crayon and become engrossed in tapping the spoon for his morning cereal on the counter- he’s jamming!  He is deaf to her words. 

This happens every morning.  EVERY. MORNING. Until mom just gives up and sits next to her child, a child who is waaaaay too old for this, and dresses him herself.

It affects school:

Oh, how it affects school.  Do I even need to elaborate on this one?

It affects learning in such a substantial and significant way that it’s almost too much for me to wrap my head around.  I think people often think that ADHD just means a kid “can’t sit still.”  Yea, you know why? Lack of impulse control.

Paying attention in class, completing assignments, participating appropriately, prioritizing and organizing work, homework (oh the homework!), simply walking down the hall to gym class- it’s ALL affected.

It affects relationships:

God, does it affect relationships with both family and friends. 

This post is borne from the shame I have felt lately because I have been extra short with Man. 

As his mom, I am tired.  Tired of having to help him with everything. 

I’m anxious.  Anxious that he will never improve.

I’m fearful.  Fearful that I don’t have it within me to be the understanding and calm parent he needs all the time.  Fearful that I am just losing my patience.  Fearful of how much more I’m yelling lately.

I’m reminded.  Reminded constantly that it is all out of his control, he never, EVER, does this on purpose.  (Sometimes I think it would be easier to handle if he were, at least then my anger would be justified.)

It affects friendships, relationships with siblings and other family members, teachers, random strangers on the street, even the checkout guy at the drugstore counter.  Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who constantly interrupts you with their own stream of consciousness?  Eventually you just…

It affects one’s ability to truly master something, even something they love:

Mastery comes from the ability to practice and dedicate yourself to a specific task.  However, without impulse control, your ability to commit the time needed to achieve mastery is impossible.  It means that no matter how gifted you are, or how interested you are in something, you might never truly achieve excellence.  It’s as though you are trying your best, but your best just got up and walked away to do something else.  

This saddens me deeply for Man, as he is so brilliant and curious, yet, so far, he can only produce middle-of-the road success with everything he tries.

The hardest part, the most challenging and maddening part, is watching the one you love suffer because of something that is completely out of their control.  They, more than anyone else, are the most impacted by the lack of control they have over their own brain.  It often masks the kind, wonderful, interesting, and incredible children they are. They simply cannot make it function in the desired way and this leads to daily exasperation and regular disappointments.  They often work three times as hard and get half the results of their aged matched peers.

It’s this reason that forces me to push my own irritation aside, gather my strength, wrap my arms around Man, and be his scaffolding until he doesn’t need it anymore.

Bring it on, Bullies: Fighting Back With Empathy

We sit in a large semi-circle as the professor walks the room and tosses out discussion-questions to the class: “What is one belief you hold true about human nature?”

The previous questions had made me ponder and consider for a length of time before I was able to answer constructively, as they are designed to do.  However, this one, for me, was simple.  My hand shot up, “I have always been a believer in the innate goodness of people.” I said.   And it’s true.  I have always thought that people are largely caring and compassionate.  They most often strive to be their best and do right by others.  I think that unless you are a sociopath- which is rare- we all have a sense of decency and consideration for our fellow humans. Unforeseen challenges arise in everyone’s life that have the ability to derail us from this path and bring out the very worst in us.  However, if given the opportunity to heal and move forward, we strive to jump back on that better path again. 

While yes, I believe we are all essentially good and endeavor to be kind, we don’t often understand how.  I don’t mean that you don’t know how to click on the “donate” button to an important charity or let the mom with the screaming kid cut in front of you in line so she can just get that kid out of there.  I mean, we don’t know how to be emotionally kind.

“Emotional kindness” is the ability to use empathy and perspective-taking to understand another’s feelings and behaviors in a certain situation.

What is misunderstood by many is the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

I have a thought- “My husband just left allllll the dishes in the sink for ME to wash!!! What am I, his maid?!?!?”

I have an emotion associated with that thought- My anger is at a 10!!!

I then, consequently, have a behavior associated with that emotion- I make snide, passive-aggressive remarks to make sure he understands how truly pissed off I am.

Now, I’ve created a situation where we are both upset.  I’ve gotten myself super pissed off and ready to fight and my less than stellar behavior has pissed him off too.  

What if I had tried to take his perspective and attempted to empathize with him in that moment?  What if I had used emotional kindness?

If I had really stopped and reflected on the situation, I would have noticed that he did seem extra tired when he came home that day.  I would have reminded myself that he almost ALWAYS washes the dishes, so something was probably on his mind or else he would have done them.  I would have understood that leaving the dishes in the sink had nothing to do with me personally and that I knew in my heart of hearts that he did not think of me as his maid.

When I rearranged my thoughts, my emotions calmed down, and instead of being passive-aggressive, I gave him a hug, walked to the sink and did the dishes without another word.

Bullying hasn’t been a huge issue in our home yet, but we haven’t escaped its grip entirely either.  It is one of my biggest parenting fears for both of my children, especially Man.  When you are raising a child with differences, whether subtle and somewhat undetectable or glaring and overt- Man probably falls somewhere in the middle- it puts him or her at greater risk.  However, if we are being totally honest, unfortunately, every child is at risk nowadays.  Whether the parent of a child with special needs or the parent of your average Joe, I am definitely not the only parent who worries about their child being bullied.

 But what if we tackled bullying with emotional kindness? This is what I have been trying to instill in both of my children lately.

When one of them comes home saddened and deflated by a challenging altercation with another student, my initial instinct is to go nuclear on that kid.  My mama bear instinct in full effect, I want to speak harsh words to this young child and tell them to leave my kid alone!!

Buuuuut, then I calm down and try and use it as a learning opportunity.  I let them be hurt by it, because, of course, being teased, or “burned” as the kids like to call it, isn’t fun and it’s very upsetting.  However, I then try to teach them to think of what the “bully” might have been feeling at that time.  As a believer in innate goodness, most likely, that kid is having a rough time of his own and bullying is the only way he knows to make himself feel better.  I show them what empathy feels like and together we work on finding peace with the situation through increasing our emotional kindness.

Bullying at this young age is often a result of not having the skills to express your true feelings and emotions.  Often, children cannot even identify their emotions, let alone talk about them rationally.  Starting to teach our children at a young age to understand that there is always an emotion behind a behavior is a vital skill with lifelong benefit.  It certainly doesn’t eliminate the hurt of being bullied, but it allows them to minimize its overall lasting effect.  It allows them to depersonalize the negative behaviors of others, a skill which will forever be of benefit to them.

Please note, this post relates to general bullying as defined by, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”  It does not pertain to harassment, which is a prosecutable offence.  0000000

ADHD, Sobriety, and The Myth of Perfection

A year ago, today, I was so laden with anxiety, so overloaded with moving out of our home of ten years, that I was ready to call the entire thing off.  But it wasn’t just the move itself that was causing the stress, it was the overwhelming pressure I put on myself to move out of my messy, piecemeal, house- the one with mismatched furniture, rugs stained by years of toddler traffic, couch cushions ripped by gnawing animals, and a faint smell of dog pee in the basement- and into a new, clean, well-appointed home.  This home was going have clean, perfectly decorated rooms, it would be a real, adult home.  Most importantly, it would be the opposite of the home we were leaving behind.

The other day I was talking to my sponsor who also happens to be an LCSW.  She was wearing both hats while helping talk through a particularly challenging situation I was having at my internship.  I have had thrown for a loop by both a client and a colleague and it had my spiritual fitness in a funk. 

“Give yourself a break, Laura, you’re new at this, and you’re doing great.  You’re not expected to be perfect.”

This morning, I ordered a product called Skinny Fit (I’ll let you know if it works ladies).  We are headed to Florida- bathing suit country- in a few weeks and no matter what I do, I cannot get rid of this holiday spare tire.  If I’m being real, it’s more like the “giving birth spare tire” that I acquired almost seven years ago after having two c-sections in 18 months.  It’s never really gone away no matter how hard I worked out or how well I ate, and I’m tired of it.  I could hear the disapproval in my husband’s voice when I shared this new idea with him.

“No one is perfect, honey, do it if you have to, but I don’t think it’s necessary, you look great to me no matter what.”

Currently, I am sitting at the kitchen island in my house.  When I look up from the screen, my gaze falls upon a half empty room and a large bare wall.  You see, one year later, my house is not perfectly decorated, most walls remain empty, and we still need quite a bit of furniture.  But we are here, we are happy.  Having empty rooms has not stopped us from loving our new home and making new memories within its walls.

My need for a perfect house was gingerly tossed out of the back-door months ago.  Rooms will be filled over time and walls will be covered when we get around to it.  I let go of my expectation of perfection and a peace and tranquility settled over me.  I can enjoy my house, empty rooms and all, because it’s not about the furniture in the room, it’s about the family that fills it. 

I went back to my internship after talking to my sponsor armed with the knowledge that clients were supposed to challenge me.  I’m supposed to make mistakes and learn from them, and I’m certainly not supposed to have all the answers.  That’s what being a student and an intern in all about.  Furthermore, being a clinician is a life-long learning experience, I will forever be gaining knowledge from new clients and other clinicians.   I lowered my expectations for my interactions with my client and it helped tremendously.  She didn’t expect me to have all the answers and since I was visibly less frustrated with myself (and her), she was able to open up in a new and exciting way.  Giving up my need to be the perfect clinician actually allowed me to be the best clinician I could be in that moment.

As for the Skinny Fit, the jury is still out.  However, I did take a break from writing to take a huge scoop of peanut butter and lather it on an Oreo cookie, so I have my doubts as to its full effectiveness.  I’ve had two children and I love food, especially sweets, my body will never again be that of my 16-year-old self.  Some parts will still jiggle, many will still sag, and I can actively feel the folds in my belly touching right now, but I would rather have the perfect forbidden snack and be happy, than the perfect body and feel deprived. 

If it’s not obvious already, the theme of this post is perfection.  As a person who grew up with ADHD and as a parent watching my child grow up with ADHD, I can tell you that one characteristic is feeling like we can never reach our full potential- it’s like our best self is in a lock box buried deep inside and we cannot find the key.  I often watch Man, his brilliance stifled by his impulsivity.  Just last night at chess club, he imprudently made his next move and, voila, he was in check within 30 seconds.  When we were talking later that night, he was frustrated with himself, “I knew what to do, mom, but I made the wrong move anyway.”  This is a theme that permeates his life, and mine.  Feeling, no KNOWING, we can do better, but being unable to figure out how. 

It took me well into sobriety to realize that this was one of the reasons I drank.  It’s maddening to feel like you are capable of so much more, but not knowing how to get there.  However, while sobriety did give me the ability to get closer to achieving my best self, it also gave me permission to be imperfect.  I spent so much time trying to be better, to do better, battling an uphill battle, that it wore me down.   I see now that it’s not about winning the battle, it’s about deciding whether or not to fight the war in the first place. 

Perfection his highly glorified.  It is something that very few, if anyone, EVER attains.  There is only one gold medalist, one valedictorian, and one winner, and their perfections were equally hard work, luck, and confluence of other circumstances that affected their competitors.  It’s an image we all try and portray, I mean, when was the last time you posted a picture on social media that wasn’t perfect?

My friends, I give you permission to be perfectly, IMperfect!  Allow yourselves to make mistakes, but make sure you learn and grow from them.  Understand your own limitations, and accept them, embrace them, flaunt them!  Be who you are, defects and all, and love that person unconditionally.  Always remember, it’s progress, not perfection.

Choosing Happiness in 2019: Six Tips to Improved Happiness From a Reformed UNhappy Person

I don’t have any major New Year’s resolutions for 2019.  Sure, I want to drop some pounds, exercise more, go to bed earlier, graduate with my master’s and find a job, save money, stay sober, and be a kinder person.  I want to fulfill all of the usual promises I make myself the last week of December but give up trying to accomplish by the first week in January.  Over time, I’ve learned that if I set the bar too high, it cuts me off right at the knees; however, when that bar is placed lower, it makes it so much easier to hop right over it and move on to the next one.  The one goal that I really want to focus on- the goal that will aid in the achievement of all the other little (and big) things I want to achieve in the upcoming year- is to maintain my happiness.

Happiness is a tricky thing, and to many seems elusive.  But ultimately, we ALL seek it daily.  During a group therapy session I was recently running, a patient said that he didn’t think he even knew what happiness was.  Not because he had never experienced the emotion itself, but because people equate the idea of being “happy” with being ecstatic every minute of every day.  The term “happiness” conjures images of joyful people full of merriment, Cheshire cat like grins on relaxed looking faces- google it, you’ll see!

happy-people-friends
Actual Google image of “happy people”

Happiness, by definition, is “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.”  Synonyms vary in degree from “pleased”, to “cheerful”, to “blissful”, and finally “ecstatic”.  While they might all mean “happy” they don’t all represent the same idea.  Being a happy person does NOT mean you are euphoric every minute of every day.  Understanding that you can have many moments of, stress, anger, fear, sadness, and UNhappiness, and still be an overall happy and contented person, is key.

Before I got sober happiness seemed like this unattainable emotion meant for everyone BUT me.  I thought that to be happy, I SHOULD have tons of friends and kids who weren’t so difficult.  I SHOULD love being a stay-at-home mom, I SHOULD enjoy being a Speech Therapist (my original career).  I SHOULD be managing a great job, while caring for my kids, getting dinner on the table and having a perfect marriage.  I SHOULD have… everything I didn’t.  But when I put down the booze and truly evaluated the world around me, I realized NO ONE had it all.  I finally began to understand that happiness didn’t come from outside sources, it was something I needed to create for myself.  Happiness was an inside job, a choice I had to make every single day.

I learned recently in a Positive Psychology class that 40% of happiness is genetic.  Yes, there are some people that are just born happier than others and we can’t do anything about that.  However, the flip side of that, is that it leaves the other 60% completely in our own hands.  How incredible is that??  Even if, like me, you were born with less than average happiness, you still have the ability to create your own happiness. SO that’s exactly what I set out to do every morning when I wake up.

This is not to say that I am happy every minute of every day.  That’s just unrealistic.  Hell, some days I’m not happy at all.  But I can say that I am a happy person.  How did I do that, you ask?

1) Community.  I both increased and decreased the kinds of people I surrounded myself with.  I love myself, but if you don’t love me for who I am, then you’re out.  Instead of spending time worrying why someone didn’t seem to like me, call me back, or make time for me like I made for them, I began to invest my time and effort into the people who did.  I cultivated my people, my tribe.  I stopped focusing on how many people were in that tribe and began concentrating on how those people made me feel.  I can count these tribe members on less than two hands, but the quality of camaraderie and love they provide far exceeds what I had when I thought I needed my hands and toes to count my friends.

2) Acceptance.  I practice acceptance in so many different ways.  I accept my own limitations.  I know that at every moment of every day I’m doing the best I can with what I have.  Some days, I’m on fire, I can do it all and do it well.  However, there are equally as many days when I do some things mediocrely or not well at all.  I’m ok with that.  I’m human and every day I wake up with simple human powers.  As long as I am doing my best, my best is good enough.

I accept the limitations of others.  Everyone brings their baggage to the table.  Some people are lucky enough to merely carry a tiny little evening purse- the kind that only holds a lip gloss and credit card- around with them.  While others, carry a gigantic trunk stuffed with enough garbage to keep them in clean clothes for a month.  We all play the same card game but with a different deck of cards.  If someone is not meeting my expectations, instead of being disappointed, it makes it easier to understand that they might just be unable to.

3) I gave up trying to control everything.  The only thing I have control over is myself, and even that control is marginal at times.  All I can do, is what I can do, and the rest is going to happen the way it’s meant to happen.  This has come in particularly handy when parenting Man.  He is his own person, I can provide him with the tools to aid his ADHD, anxiety and SPD, but ultimately, it’s up to him to use them.  I can lead him to the water, but I certainly cannot make him drink it.

4) I set healthy boundaries.  I used to put my own needs aside to make sure everyone else’s needs were met.  If they were happy, I was happy, right?  Wrong!  My new favorite motto is, “No is a complete sentence.”  I allow myself to say no and if that means I have disappointed someone then so be it.  This one isn’t always so simple, by nature I want to be liked and saying “yes” all the time helps with that… until it doesn’t.

5) Gratitude.  So much of my old thought pattern was only seeing what I didn’t have, that I was completely blind to what I did have.  It takes A LOT of effort at times, but finding a reason to be grateful, even a small one, can change my entire mood.  Interestingly, in this same Positive Psychology class, I learned that as long as one’s basic needs are met, there is a minimal difference between the happiness of someone who makes $50,000 a year and $500,000.

6) I utilize positive self-talk.  When all else fails, I have a chat with myself.  I know my pitfalls, I know I have the ability to see the negative in a situation and it can get me down, very down.  If I’m just not feeling the happiness that day, if it’s just not my day, I use self-talk to readjust my negative thoughts into positive ones.  If I get a call from Man’s teacher telling me he had a bad day, I can either launch into fear and worry, tell myself that this ANOTHER bad day, he’s NEVER going to be ok, and NOTHING we are trying is working!!  OR, I can be positive and reassure myself that it’s just one bad day, surrounded by dozens of great ones.  When I choose the positive, it makes me feel better every. Single. Time.

happy
A smile of true happiness

I won’t claim to be the happiest person in the world, I still have bad days and negative thoughts and some days it’s really hard to feel happy.  However, overall, when utilizing these tools, I am infinitely a happier person than I once was.  In fact, I am a happy person for the first time in my entire life.  Here’s to having continued happiness in 2019!

Addiction is NOT a Choice

“Choose to get clean.”

“I have no sympathy, just another rich bitch on drugs.”

“This is not a disease, it’s a choice.”

These are just three of the MILLIONS of comments that echo this sentiment about Demi Lavato.  No, Demi did not begin the conversation, hers is just the latest celebrity overdose to reignite the debate that addiction is not a disease, but a choice.   This argument has been fought bitterly on both sides from the outset of the creation of the diagnosis.  For the record, whether you agree or not, the American Psychological Association categorizes substance abuse as a disease, it can be found in the DSM, the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual- the bible of mental health disorders- right along with Depression and Social Anxiety Disorder.

I can appreciate the debate, the misconception that it is, indeed, a choice.  However, unless you, yourself are an addict and/or alcoholic, you absolutely cannot understand the feeling of enslavement that comes along with having this disease.  How can you? Every day, you do have choice.  You choose whether to have that glass of wine with dinner, or not to.  You choose to share that joint at a concert with friends, or not to.  Alcoholics and addicts simply do not have that choice.  We are powerless to the substance.  I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, no one, NO ONE, wakes up one day and thinks, “Hey, I would just love to be a slave to alcohol or illicit drugs.”  Honestly, logic would dictate that if we had the choice, we wouldn’t continue along such a significantly destructive path. A path of obliteration, filled with lies and horror, shame and disgust, and an eternally present, indescribable fear.  Why would anyone want to feel like shit about themselves day in and day out?  If we could simply put the drink or drug down, why would we choose not to?

No, it’s not a choice, it’s simply a fact.  This is how we were born, before we even took our first steps, tried that first taste of mashed bananas, or uttered our first words; we were addicts.  We have no more choice over this part of our genetic makeup than we do our hair or eye color.

Now this is when the naysayer comes in and says something like, “It was your choice to try alcohol and/or drugs to begin with.”  Well, yes, you got me there*…  However, what you don’t understand is that this is a sneaky and progressive disease.  Apart from heroin, which is a beast of a different nature, no one is instantaneously addicted to the substance itself.  No, it’s subtler than that, it’s so much more sly and underhanded.  First, we become addicted to the feeling of emotional relief and comfort that it gives us.  With that very first sip, snort, or inhale a switch in our brain is flipped and suddenly we feel “normal” for the very first time.  Just like that, life is suddenly manageable.  All the challenges that we don’t have successful coping skills for melt away, and we finally feel like we belong in our own skin.  Our bodies relax and the feeling of emotional freedom that we have unknowingly craved pins us up against a wall.  This is who we are supposed to be, how we were meant to feel!  Finally!

Then we want that feeling again, and again, and then again, until eventually we can’t live without it.  At this point, it’s too late; we are in over our heads with alcohol and/or substances and we don’t know how to stop.  Then, one day, what used to work no longer does, because now you have tolerance, and your search for that relief intensifies.

Finally, your brain stops producing its own happy makers.  The dopamine and serotonin that once pumped, plentiful and bounteous, has slowed to a trickle, and without your substance, you can no long achieve any state of emotional regulation.  You have no choice; you either use, or you fall so hard you are not sure you will ever be able to get up again.

This descent may take months, years, or even decades.  However, once you’re there, the shame and fear take over.  You yourself wonder how you let it get this far.  You fear that there is no way to live without this substance and you are now stuck in this vicious world called addiction.  Even when you “hit bottom” and you decide to get help, you’re unprepared for how much worse it gets before it gets better.  The only way your body knows how to live is with that substance, and now, you must learn to live without it.  The disease begins to talk to you, like the devil on your shoulder.  It reminds you of all the good times, while it completely buries away all the horrid times.

I know that this is a break from my normal blogging subject matter.  However, as someone in recovery, but who also works as a mental health counselor with people seeking treatment, I think it’s worth the departure.  Two-thirds of families in the U.S. have been touched by addiction.  Many who need help do not seek it because they are told that it is their choice to be this way.  It is not.

*Unless you were prescribed pain killers by your doctor and you had no idea that you would soon become addicted to opioids- then the choice was made by someone else.

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Shedding The Shame of my Alcoholism

I have had no trouble writing about the challenging times in my life.  I have willingly and gladly left myself open and vulnerable to the masses week after week by openly sharing about my parenting struggles.  I have operated under the belief that no shame can come from speaking my truth, a truth that I have no control over.  Parenting my son, and simply being a mother in general, is difficult.  I regale you with personal anecdotes to help spread awareness for those like him and advocate for families like ours.  Sharing these stories is necessary for our survival, it is empowering and inspiring in a way that keeping them secret is not.

However, I am simultaneously buried deeply under my own shame and stigma.  I have only shared part of my truth with you, my friends.

The truth is his, my name is Laura, and I’m an alcoholic.

I think when people consider the term “alcoholic” or “addict,” they don’t picture their next-door neighbor.  It most certainly does not conjure an image of the mom two doors down, the parent of two well-kept children, the one who usually has a smile on her face and the one you share a laugh with as you both walk back to your houses after the school bus has collected your kids.  I don’t think they can fathom that it can be the seemingly pleasant, although somewhat disheveled, woman they have grown to know and love.  The one who gets her kid to therapy appointments on time, who never misses an event at their school, has a delicious meal on the table each evening, and who seems to have it mostly together- at least as together as any parent of young children can.  Alcoholic to them is some abstract term, a definition for the drunk living on the street who is intoxicated by 8AM.  The one who can’t hold down a job, who smells like they haven’t showered in a week, and looks like it too.  In this modern day, I would like to think that that isn’t the truth.  That, by now, people would understand that alcoholism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and colors and hues.  That it does not discriminate between man or woman, rich or poor, or brilliant or uneducated.

It hurts my heart to say it, but many people, many peers even, still think of an alcoholic or an addict as some random loser, no one that could possibly live in their neighborhood, and certainly no one that they could know or care to rub elbows with.  People still seem to think that having this disease is a choice, something someone can control.  That if we really wanted to stop drinking, we would just put our mind to it and do it!  Let me be the first to tell you, no one, NO ONE, wakes up one morning and says, “Hey, today, I would love to become a slave to alcohol and/or drugs!”  No, it’s something we are born with, that was imprinted on our DNA while we were still in the womb, we have no more control over it, than we do our eye or hair color.

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The freedom of sobriety

What no one shares about getting sober, is that it gets significantly harder before it gets easier.  You put down the drink and everything you have wanted to numb, everything you have fought so hard not to deal with, is now uncovered, naked and raw, and you are no longer allowed to reach for your anesthetic.  Learning to live that way, happily, is harder than I can describe in words.

Over the last two years I have only begun to fight my way out of the deep cavern of alcoholism.  I have clung to every bit of hope and strength I could grab onto and let it guide me out of the darkness and into the light of a world I have never known.  A life I never thought possible.  One that I never thought I deserved.  Can you imagine living in a world of shadows- being there in body but not being truly present, ever?  Knowing, deep down, that there was so much more to life, however, not knowing how to get there or if it was even possible to do so?

The shame and stigma of this diagnosis has held me prisoner for too long.  It has kept me locked up in it’s dark, cold jail, behind the bars of secrecy.   Many years ago, it stopped me from getting the help I needed sooner.  Today, it stops me from using the power of my writing and my voice to advocate for women just like me.  The forgotten women who want to get better but are too frightened and ashamed to say, “I need help.”

For me, the last step towards truly achieving a peaceful sobriety is wearing this title proudly and openly.  Getting sober and since maintaining sobriety is the hardest and the best thing I have ever done.  I am so fucking proud of myself, so why shouldn’t I share that?  I want to climb to the top of mount Everest and shout it to the world, “I AM SOBER- SEE ME LIVE MY BEST LIFE!!”  I want to hang my sobriety majestically from a bedazzled sign around my neck.  I want to march down the street, rally style, carrying my message of hope and change.  I need the world to know that I am not ashamed of who I am.  That I too am a survivor and that my fight is no less than anyone else’s.

I share this to give a voice to all the women who live in shame and secrecy.  I share this to let women who might be struggling know that they are not alone, take the first step, get the help, the rest will eventually all fall into place.  I promise.