Last night I got hit by a huge wave of grief and pain and sadness over my mum – being estranged from her, who she is and the life she has had and is living now, memories of happy times together when I was growing up that punctuate the years of chaos and abuse. It’s almost like my brain thought ‘hey, you’re not in crisis anymore, have this instead!’. It didn’t rip me open like it has before, but it is a deep sadness that she is not in my life, as well as an uneasiness that maybe I made a mistake in terms of cutting her out because it can’t have been that bad (that old friend again…). And of course at the moment the spectre of so much death is looming and it is natural to feel drawn towards our primary caregivers and to feel a need to be in a place of peace with those in our lives who may be taken away. It is sad and unnatural not to have those people in our lives and I am trying to just let that pain be there without thinking it needs to be acted upon or that it means I made a mistake by cutting contact with mum. I managed to distract last night and have felt okay today, though aware of young and teen parts crying, and then managed to have a painful, but holding and adult, conversation with K about it and let out some of the sadness that has been building throughout the day.
The past few days things have been quite a bit easier generally. I feel much more settled internally and this makes it easier to stay present and focus on my own life, and to deal with the uncertainty that is manifesting in the external world without getting destabilised and drawn into issues that are sad and scary but that are not directly affecting my well-being at this time. It may not last, but for now I feel okay and am managing self-care and spiritual practices and enjoying the slower pace of life that living under lockdown brings. It is nice to be in a place of stability and to feel at peace with what is happening even though so much is not okay, whilst also accepting that there will be more times on this journey when I feel lost and isolated and like K has abandoned me, and perhaps when people in my life who I care about are directly affected (physically, emotionally, financially) by what is unfolding. I feel quite withdrawn and introspective at the moment too and I am aware how little social interaction I actually need to feel okay, provided it is good quality and nurturing as the phone and video calls, and time with Nina at home, I’ve had over the weekend has been. (I also know I could easily get used to this self-regulating state and need to watch myself that I don’t settle and withdraw from the world too much).
I’m in the middle of another period of extended trauma dreams, where the nights are an endless tangle of past relationships and a parade of people who were once important in my life trek through my mind, their memory haunting me for days afterwards and leaving me struggling to metabolise their emotional presence in my life again. In our session this afternoon K said it is no surprise these past attachments are coming in just as I am also struggling with missing my mum and with the familiar questions over whether things with her were really so bad as to justify this. She says it makes sense for me to be piecing together in my dreams past attachments that, whilst not so important in terms of what we’ve covered in therapy, were really important in my life at different times. I said I find it hard knowing those people will never know why I behaved how I did because at the time I didn’t know why I was how I was. I will always be the crazy, intense, psycho ex-girlfriend who got drunk and angry and cried and self-harmed and tried to throw myself onto train tracks or stormed out in the night telling them never to contact me again (and then, of course, calling them 10 minutes later to make sure they knew just how hurt and angry I was, desperate for them to beg me to return but also desperate to get away and not be hurt again). Speaking to K I realised it’s almost as if my mind is looking for proof of what mum did to me in those past relationships, proof that it was that bad growing up with her as a mum, because it led me to behave in such out of control ways, particularly in intimate relationships.
I linked this also to a book I read over the weekend about a former alcoholic which was, quite by accident, or perhaps synchronicity, really such a good book for me to read at the moment. Life has felt kind of dull and flat, inside and out, this past week and I have felt myself drawn to alcohol and substances to provide some excitement and stimulation. I’ve been sober for 3 and a half years now (see here where I wrote about some of my journey with – and without – alcohol and other drugs) and in many ways it is really only beginning to become apparent just how needed and necessary that sobriety was. With hindsight it has become far, far clearer what a destructive force drinking was in my life and just how out of control it left me. The intense shame that has crippled me all my life was quadrupled by alcohol and it led me to behave in ways that made everything I was going through a hundred million times worse. I can see that turning to alcohol at this time would be dangerous and self-destructive and yet it is calling to me and it is interesting to see how strongly it is there despite how many years have gone by.
Something in me knew it was time to stop drinking back in 2015 and 2016 and I managed a couple of sober periods in those years, usually three months at a time, but they always ended with me getting absolutely horrifyingly drunk and crying on people I barely knew then blacking out, waking up in my own vomit with no idea how I’d got home or where my belongings were. Not ideal. Over the past few years I’ve often thought of my decision to stop drinking completely as something that could have gone either way – I could have chosen to drink more moderately or to not drink alone, to not drink with my partner when I am next in a relationship to avoid angry attachment-fuelled outbursts and crazy, dramatic crying scenes, or to not drink when I am feeling sad or destructive or reckless or already out of control, or not to drink when with people I might get triggered by or might be driven to share too much with, or might end up saying something I regret to. Waking up covered in shame happens all too easily for me when I’ve had a drink, even just one, and so as the years have gone by I’ve become more and more committed to this being a life choice that will stay with me forever. I used to phrase it to inquiring people (colleagues mostly, who are always gobsmacked that I don’t drink, perhaps because they’ve not seen the trail of destruction that follows me whenever I have a drink in my hand) that I had ‘drunk a lot over the past 20 years and was taking some time away to re-evaluate my relationship with it’. That usually quietened them, and it is actually what I’ve ended up doing – re-evaluated my relationship with it and realised I cannot have it in my life in a way that is not toxic and harmful.
The truth is I am not really able to drink. Having it in my life as an option, something I try to be in relationship with and work out how to be around a bit, means there is always the potential for things to go very wrong. The author of the book I read definitely drank more than me, definitely was an alcoholic whereas I would say I was ‘just’ dependent on alcohol (and, later in my life, other drugs), definitely made more of a mess of her life due to alcohol than I ever did. And yet, so much of her story resonated with me. My mum used to worry about the amount I drank. She would warn me to be careful, remind me that alcoholism runs in my family (her dad and her half brother were both alcoholics and both died quite young (my mum lost both her parents by the age of 17) either directly or indirectly as a result of alcohol abuse) and I would laugh and shrug it off because I was in my 20s and early 30s and that’s what people do at that age to have fun. Being able to look back on my drinking from a place of sobriety enables me to see that I was never drinking just because it was fun, there was so much more going on than that, always, and it is this that means that drinking is not a choice I can make if I am serious about healing myself from the past.
Perhaps I was in need of this reframing right now, when I’m sure in many ways a few drinks would bring me comfort and relief, just as it is for hundreds of thousands of others across the globe. I was saying to K how I could see how nice it must be at the moment to be at home with a few drinks and connecting virtually with groups of friends who were also drinking. I miss that. I wish I was part of it, even though I’m sure it is super lonely at the same time. I was also saying how my sister had said we’d have to do some kind of ‘virtual party’ for my birthday in a few weeks and I was thinking how much nicer that would be for me with some drinks (her and her partner were drinking red wine on Saturday evening when we FaceTimed them and it left me desperately longing for the same). I sometimes think the choice I made not to drink is too harsh on myself, ‘too extreme’ (my mum’s favourite phrase to describe most things about me), and that there could be a comfortable middle ground between total abstinence and binge drinking and/or self-medicating with alcohol, if only I let myself embrace it. This book served as a very helpful reminder that for me that middle ground does not exist. Part of AA is the ‘one day at a time’ mantra but also the emphasis on choice – alcoholics cannot ‘choose’ to just have one or two drinks and therefore they cannot drink at all. Whilst I am not, strictly speaking, an alcoholic, I am slowly coming to see that this choice does not exist for me either. The possibility of getting blackout drunk and doing something utterly degrading and humiliating, or self-destructive and shame-provoking, is always there because I find it so, so hard to stop drinking once I’ve started.
I tend to think of ‘stopping drinking’ as something that has not really been a big part of my healing journey, my recovery. It’s something I talk about as incidental and shrug off, perhaps because I am not ready to face just how awful I was at times when drinking was such a huge part of who I was. I often forget what a huge part of my life it was for 20 years and just how much of a storm of destruction it tore through my life. I don’t see how huge it is that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that left me reeling and in a huge attachment crisis and yet I haven’t reached for a bottle of something to help me through. It is huge though. I play it down because it still feels dull and anti-social not to drink, and embarrassing to admit that alcohol had such a grip one me that I now cannot touch it at all, but it is huge that I have gone so long without getting drunk and that I rarely even think of it now. I also know the longing to drink will never leave me completely and so it is important to revisit the reasons I don’t drink and remember just how many fucking horrendous rows and crying, screaming meltdowns I’ve had because of it, how many times I’ve called and texted people I shouldn’t have and said things that never should have been spoken out loud. Occasionally I probably could manage to just have one or two drinks, but the problem is that when that is there as an option for me there is no telling which of those occasions will lead to a time when I drink too much or do something I really regret. I’m really lucky to be alive and not in jail after some of the reckless nights out I’ve had on drink and illegal drugs – K told me earlier about someone she heard of who accidentally killed their boyfriend whilst they were both taking substances, and reminded me that there, but for the grace of God, go I…
So, just for today, I am re-committing to my journey of sobriety and estrangement. The two go hand-in-hand in many ways because both have involved freeing myself from the mental distortions that enabled me to keep going back to people and places that were so destructive and damaging for me. K said the dreams about past relationships and friendships make sense in terms of what I am figuring out and still trying to make sense of about mum and her life and what it did to me. Revisiting those relationships, of which my relationship with alcohol formed such a huge part and was such a huge indicator of how totally fucked up and incapable of true intimacy I was, is part of my subconscious trying to work out what mum did to me and how it caused me to feel and behave in relationships. It’s like I can only see how bad it was to have her as a mum when I see how out of control and borderline psychotic at times I was throughout my life. My behaviour and emotional dysregulation and sensitivity to perceived abandonment, and my attempts to regulate and cope with my feelings and dissociation using substances, are all evidence of how damaging my mum was, something that is still too painful to really hold in awareness for most of the time.
It was nice to do what felt like ‘proper therapy work’ with K, instead of fighting the coronavirus-fuelled attachment panic that descended for so long. It’s strange working by phone, there seems to be less of a narrative, less of a sense of pulling things together and finding our way through and out the other side of things in partnership. It’s like I need a constant reminder that she knows all these things, that she knows my life and what has happened, that she still understands why I don’t see mum, what my childhood was like, what it has left me with. It was horrible sitting on my bed crying over all this, over mum and the past and all that not having her did to me, and being alone in my room instead of safe with K opposite me in her cosy therapy space. It is not good enough. At one point I dissociated and disappeared which is such a strange thing to experience happening when she is so far away. I said how much we hate not being there and she said she hates us not being there too, that she finds it really sad, but that she is still here for us. I think for now knowing she misses us being there and is committed to keeping us close and connected during this time has to be enough, but I hope a day will soon come when we can be with her and that she is right – we will have memories of this time to add to all the other memories we have of being together.