A few years ago, in Ubud, Bali, the epicenter of pseudo-spirituality (or wait – isn’t that Boulder?), I had the Chinese symbol for “tranquility” tattooed on the back of my neck.
But at the time I had NO tranquility in my life. ZERO. I had just moved to Bali – why? To escape from my life in the US? To run away from my failed marriage? To “find myself”? Who really knows? The fact is, I was a disaster, mentally AND physically.
Looking with different eyes upon who I was then, my divorce took a much heavier toll on my psyche than I would admit at the time – either to others or myself. I neglected and avoided MANY important things that would have aided my own and my former spouse’s “closure,” but that we were both too afraid to do. I pushed close friends and family away. I moved away – as far as I could get from my “former” life – and embarked upon a “new” one. But, as everyone knows, these kinds of moves are merely geographic.
I fell into a comfortable yet turbulent (if that’s even possible) relationship that there is no need to explore here. He and I are great friends today, and that’s what matters.
I also fell into some “comfortable” friendships with a group of expats from Australia, New Zealand, and the US. I am only still close with a handful of these women; one of them completely shut me out. I’m thankful to not be involved with them as a group any more. I have maintained some individual relationships with people from that group who are indeed friends for life. In retrospect, I think distancing myself from that group was the first big step I took towards caring for and about myself. That was almost two years ago now.
Caring for myself had never been something I was very good at. I was great at putting up a front, hiding my feelings, burying them if necessary, and avoiding hard truths and facts. I was great at caring for others. But I suffered a deep depression for as long as I can remember, and few people knew about it.
That’s what hiding feelings does: it leads to depression, which leads to a feeling that you can’t control your feelings or life, which leads to anxiety… Drug and alcohol use and abuse can help temporarily curb these feelings, but self-destructive behaviors like using drugs and alcohol prolong and deepen anxiety and depression. This was a cycle I repeated for many years, in many different locales.
So those demons traveled with me to Bali – it was as if depression sat on my left shoulder and anxiety sat on my right. Forget the angel who should have been on one of my shoulders – there was no room for her.
When I first got to Bali I was fairly physically fit. I had just come out of a season of snowboard instruction and traveling around Asia. I walked a ton and was afraid to ride on the back of a motorbike, much less ride one myself (essential to easy transport in Bali!)
However, I was a fortunate to have enough savings to “be a tourist” for almost two years. What exactly does that mean? Well, from about December, 2011, through early 2014, I did little other than travel, eat, drink beer, hang out with friends, and occasionally attempt to surf. I had a tiny little bit of work that kept me BARELY tethered to that “other” world – that world that still [falsely] represented stress, anxiety, and depression to me.
Meanwhile, I adopted two sister cats, Halia and Ayu.
They were the loves of my life, and, in many ways, they and their antics helped me start to climb out of the hole I was living in. When Ayu was killed by infection from a dog attack in March of 2015, I felt like my whole world collapsed. Halia had adopted a neighbor, so I was cat-less for a while. I felt empty and shattered. This was probably the deepest moment of my depression, a time when I started drinking a lot more heavily and more often than I had before. I also sought pharmaceutical treatment for my depression, because I knew that SSRIs COULD help me. But I think the drug was pretty well negated by my drinking.
I adopted Bo and Luke Duke at a time when I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a cat, much less two, and even less, boys. But as most of my readers know, it was love at first sight and has been ever since.
Shortly after Ayu died we found Halia also mauled to death by a pack of neighborhood dogs. While it’s not really fair to say that her death was any “easier” for me, I had just been through it with her sister. Her nomadic nature had told me (ugh) it was only a matter of time before she would suffer the same fate as her sister (also a source of anxiety for my neighbor and me). I saw my neighbor who had adopted her in the same pit of depression I had experienced with the death of Ayu. We put the two sisters’ ashes out to sea together and tried to comfort each other as much as two profoundly private, depressed, withdrawn neighbors could. What could we say to each other? We were both broken. I don’t know about her, but I was also very scared of everything, and retreating further and further into myself.
Daisy Duke came into my life much like Bo and Luke had – a fortunate turn of events brought her to me in a neighbor’s hands. She was tiny, dirty, hungry, cold, and looking for her momma cat.
Momma cat was me, and her brothers loved her pretty quickly and deeply. I woke up in a three-cat sandwich more often than not.
But still, my drinking was not good. I was not working out. I was not taking good care of myself. I had started a business in Bali that was going fine, paying the bills. But I was empty, lost, and full of anxiety most of the time. Every morning I woke up with a pit of worry in my belly – I think I was a professional worrier by this time. It didn’t matter if the worry was true, imagined, future-based, or based on something I had done in the long forgotten past. It was there, gnawing away at my insides. Always, but worst in the morning, after the few seconds of bliss before TRULY waking… It was all I could do to get out of bed and “put on my game face” for the world. Other than a little bit of work, caring for my cats and the dog (darling Evie)
I also adopted, I did little besides a bit of socializing, but mostly drinking, watching Netflix, and sleeping. Lather, rinse, repeat.
My business sailed along with few troubles. I moved to a less touristy (but more isolated) part of Bali, and my life went on as before.
I’m leaving out a shit-ton of details because I don’t want to turn this into some boring memoir that chronicles what was basically a life of isolation, dotted with a bit of work, furry friends, some great non-furry friends (thank God for some new ones who work and have ambition to get out of the house and even pull me with them!). Even I’m bored by the details.
Maybe here you’re asking, “How could you POSSIBLY be bored in Bali???”
There is a relatively new theory out there that says that two big contributors to alcoholism are boredom and isolation. I don’t know if this is true or not, or whether I was (am?) an alcoholic. But I can certainly say that isolation and boredom made it REALLY easy to crack open that mid-day, mid-week beer. Or to fall into a case over a weekend watching Netflix with the pets.
Then, almost eight months ago, I experienced a small miracle. A dear friend who has dragged my ass to the gym now TWICE got me to go with her to group fitness classes. The first class hurt like Hell. The second one hurt even more. But I found myself sweating out so much frustration, rage, anger, anxiety – and in group classes I could hardly be bored. Each class was a new challenge to me as I pushed my body to do things I hadn’t done in years. All my old snowboarding injuries came out to play, but muscle memory told me what I could and couldn’t do, and how much I could and could not push myself. I gained fitness quickly and started shedding pounds. And I started to feel better – both physically and mentally (imagine that!)
But here is the real kicker: even though I was starting to feel so much better, I was still drinking. Maybe a little less than I had before, but still enough to know it was too much. I bargained with myself to limit my drinking to x amount of beers per day/ night; to only drink on weekends; to change from beer to clear spirits (less calories! I’ll lose more weight!); etc. etc. etc.
Then, at a GORGEOUS all-you-can-eat-and-drink Sunday buffet, I ate and ate and drank and drank and drank and drank…
I woke up Monday morning looking forward to my 10:00 Body Pump class – my favorite class, and the one that helped me “start my week right.” But in that blissful pre-awake daze I realized that I was still in my dress from the day before. I HATED myself. My stomach churned with anxiety (and probably alcohol) more than it had in MONTHS. My head pounded. I was SO angry that my binge might make going to my “Monday morning blues eliminating class” uncomfortable, if not impossible.
I will never forget this day: June 20, 2016. The day I woke up so angry at myself that I vowed to change the ONE LAST THING that I needed to change to make my life lastingly and profoundly different: my drinking. I finally had to be brutally honest with myself about what was keeping me unhappy and unfit.
As I always wake up early, I had plenty of time to straighten up before the cleaner came (you know how we all do that???) But this time I not only made my bed, washed a few dishes, and readied myself for class: I also put my last empty beer bottles into their crate and sent them away.
Class was difficult but not impossible. I felt better afterwards. But I felt most “right” about the decision I’d made to stop drinking COMPLETELY, at least for the week.
The week went by uneventfully. I missed the beer a little bit, but not nearly as much as I thought I would. With a clearer head and a healthier body, I enjoyed my exercise classes more than I imagined I could. Work was easier. Everything, somehow, was easier…
That next Friday night I experimented with “weekend-only” drinking and drank too much beer and WINE (OMG a friend brought back WINE from Australia – how could I NOT drink it?!?!) Saturday morning I was miraculously not hung over, but I didn’t need a repeat. I was done. For now.
A few weeks into my sobriety I asked a trainer at my gym who I trust about personal training. I told her I had recently stopped drinking and she said: “Just wait. You will see. Once you detox your body you will start to look and feel better. Give it at least three weeks. You just need to not drink.” Affirmed, I kept “not drinking.”
Weeks went by, then months. I lost more weight. I started to physically feel better. My fitness classes were more fun and enjoyable. But the best part was that I started to MENTALLY feel better. Better than I had in my recent memory… Better than I had, well, EVER!
I can’t say that I haven’t had ANYTHING to drink: in three and a half months I’ve had maybe five drinks total. But I’ve had little urge to drink more, to binge, or to drink regularly.
My drinking “triggers” (oh well, you know, anything stressful, happy, unusual, an event, a non-event, etc. etc. etc.) have pretty much all been tested. My friends and family have been supportive and understanding. Interestingly, some friends have also quit drinking at about this same time.
Many, many people have commented about how different I look. Yes, I do look 100 times better – possibly because I am looking at myself through non-depressed eyes. My thoughts are now processed by a brain that doesn’t immediately click into a “fight or flight” response to every potential stressor. As I have told many people, I feel like I have completely re-programmed my body and my brain. More than any compliment about my changed appearance, that is what matters.
Although I’ve had a ton of support and encouragement along the way, I’ve done this largely on my own, for myself. And THAT, I think, is the difference this time – the WHY this change is working. At a point of self-loathing and anger, I made a commitment to myself to CHANGE.
I’m not saying I’ll never drink again. Am I an alcoholic? Maybe. Are things in my life improving as a result of not drinking? Most definitely. Like everyone, I still face stressors (this morning a client abruptly canceled my service for a wedding TOMORROW after wasting a ton of my time). But it’s easier to cope. Like I said: everything is just easier.
Back to the tranquility tattoo. Tranquility is what I have sought for years. Not happiness, though I used to equate the two. Not fame and/ or fortune (though either would be nice!) Just peace. Tranquility. The ability to turn off my brain for a nanosecond and not feel so anxious and pressed about EVERYTHING. And FINALLY, at 47 and ¾ years of age, I feel like I have found it. Or at least a piece of it. And it feels SO GOOD!
Thank you, dear reader, for persevering through this long blog post ☺ I am grateful to have so many amazing, supportive, positive, healthy, concerned, encouraging, CARING people in my life. I’m pretty much grateful for everything right now. And that feels good, too!!!