Power of Humans blogger Tom Messplay shares the fourth in his multi-part series chronicling his battle with alcoholism. In this candid unedited post, Tom shares more details about his recovery. We thank him for bringing to light a disease that affects millions. For the first posts in his series click HERE.
The Power Blog: One Day At A Time-Recovery Part 2 by Tom Messplay
I have previously covered my first six months of my recovery. I will cover the last six months of my recovery in this post. I learned more about myself and my alcohol use and dependency than I could have ever imagined. What I learned through all the hours of group therapy, self-reflection, talking with my family and a lot of prayer has put me on the right path to continue my recovery.
The “one day at a time” way of thinking was difficult for me at the beginning. I had never thought in those terms in my life. I was always thinking ahead. Instead of thinking one day at a time I had thoughts like, “I will never have another drink again for the rest of my life, and I am an alcoholic and always will be and will never get over the desire to drink, and I will never be a normal person.” So after torturing myself with these and similar thoughts I had to change my way of thinking. I had to embrace the idea that all I had to do was get through that particular day. This didn’t come easy for me. It took time to retrain myself to think it that term. Eventually I became rather good at it. This was the first real coping mechanism I used. There were more in my future.
I needed to have a whatever it takes attitude to continue my recovery. In group therapy one day we talked about how we needed to eliminate past relationships, events, places, things that would draw us back to our previous behavior. On my way home from group that night I realized how much drinking related music I had on my play lists. It was difficult to listen to that music as it proved to be a trigger. When I got home I deleted all alcohol related music. The result was about a third of my songs were gone. Shortly thereafter I created a sobriety playlist, I titled it “One Day at a Time” which is also the name of the first song, which I continue to listen two a couple of times each week. After I went through all my music I then went through my clothes and again realized that a significant percentage of my shirts were alcohol related so I discarded them. It felt like a significant accomplishment and a big step forward. I started feeling proud of myself and gained confidence that I could take the steps necessary to move forward.
After 5 weeks off I returned to work. During my absence I heard from many people expressing concern for my wellbeing. I was very appreciative of the concern they showed. However, I was apprehensive about going back. I was concerned how I would handle inquiries about my absence. I work with a large number of people with who I have a personal relationship. I sent an email to inform them that I was returning. I told them that I took the time off for a personal reason and that was all I was going to say. If they insisted asking anyway I would tell them to refer to my email. Everyone honored my privacy and it did help with the transition back to work.
After a couple of weeks I was feeling uneasy about not coming out with my problem at work. I felt like I wasn’t being honest with people and keeping something from those who expressed concern for me during my absence. I decided that I would start telling those with whom I had the closet connection. I began talking to a select group of people. I was terrified at first but got easier as I went on. I had known everyone for 14 years and they never had a clue. As I made my rounds to talk to those I trusted most I began to experience a feeling of relief having gotten things out in the open. I discussed this with my therapy group. Most thought it was a mistake, but I disagreed and so did the therapist. It went so well I decided I would go public by posting my experience on my Facebook page. My announcement was met with nothing but shock and support. People that I had known for decades were in disbelief. I just responded by telling people that any self-respecting alcoholic knew how to keep a secret. I again shared what I had done with the group and my therapist stated that I was demonstrating a determined and can-do attitude. She stopped me after group to tell me that she felt I was out pacing my fellow group members with embracing my recovery and sobriety. I found the result of going public was the outpouring of support which gave me a boost. It also put more pressure on me to not relapse since I would be letting so many people down. The therapy group and therapist disagreed with me and the added pressure could prove to be very negative for me. I told them I had to do what was right for me. My confidence rose again.
Triggers that brought on cravings are everywhere for anyone on recovery. I had to be careful not to get overly confident and to let my guard down. I still needed to be vigilant since a trigger could be right around any corner that could bring on a flood of cravings and anxiety which could lead to a relapse. Triggers normally are people, events, places, and holidays, anything that can be associated with drinking in the past. Even being tired, hungry, and stressed are triggers. I avoided anything that could have been a problem as best as I could. If something proved to be a trigger I had to learn to deal with it as it came. Redeveloping coping skills is critical. In the past the most commonly used coping skill was drinking. It really is a matter of mind control. I had to learn to concentrate on or do something else that would distract me from whatever the trigger was until the cravings passed, which got to be easier as time went by. As I write this I had an experience that proved to be a trigger and brought on strong cravings. We were out to eat with friends. We sat at a table where I faced the bar. It didn’t seem to be a problem so I was okay. A group of guys came into the restaurant and had a bottle brought to their table and began doing shots. They became loud and I couldn’t help but watch them. It started to get to me, and my wife recognized that something was wrong. I told her what I was feeling and why. She immediately said we should go back to the house to talk so we left. It bothered me for a couple of hours but I got over it.
Relapse is a real threat to anyone in recovery. In early recovery it seemed that relapsing is almost an expectation. I even heard a therapist say a few times “when you relapse” instead of “if you relapse.” I fought that idea openly in group. Someone does not need to relapse. I understand that relapses happen and if someone does we all need to be there to support that person and let them know that the relapse is not what defines them, it’s what they do next. I totally get that. Those that relapsed where utterly devastated when they informed the group. It was heart wrenching for them and to watch them. Some members of the group who were back in recovery for a second or even third time all wound up there from a onetime relapse that continued to reoccur. A relapse can be a onetime drink. Sometimes it’s a multiple day binge before they get a grip on themselves again. Then there are others who started down the short road to dependency again. I did bring this up in group every time someone experienced a relapse. I stated that I recognize that people relapse and that I feel awful for them. However, relapse is not an acceptable thing for me. I cannot and will not allow myself to relapse. The therapists told me that I am setting myself up for a feeling of immense defeat if I do relapse by not accepting that it could happen to me. The way I see it a relapse may not be a onetime thing. I am afraid that if I relapse it would put me on a long downward spiral. I know that I am putting a great deal of pressure on myself, but that’s okay. Relapse is not an option for me. I do not want go through recovery a second time, so I need to make sure that I never need too.
There was another part of recovery that I found very helpful. There is a 12 week family meeting session that educates the family on substance dependency so they have a better understanding of what their family member has, is, and will experience and what they can do to help. I had family members attend each session and some attended every one. During the meeting we would break into small groups and discuss the topic at hand and give them a chance to ask me questions. It was an amazing session. Not only did my family get a lot out of it, so did I. One of the topics and handouts was a paper about the signs of relapse. I sent each of my kids a copy so in the event I displayed any of the warning signs they could intervene since I would probably not recognize what was happening. It was well worth the time. This session is free and open to the public so anyone can go.
I you are an alcoholic or addicted to any substance or love someone who is I highly encourage the family meeting. Although it is geared more to someone in treatment it can also be a great place to start and learn what a sober person is and will be dealing with. It very well could encourage you or anyone else to seek further treatment. In Wisconsin, you can call and ask about the schedule for the family meeting. Other states likely have similar programs.
Aurora Behavioral Health Center 1220 Dewey Ave, Wauwatosa, WI 53213 Phone: 414-773-4312
Periodically I drive to the treatment center. Sometimes I just drive thru and other times I have walked around the campus. It helps to take me back to when I was there and think of where I am now. The last time I was there I saw three people who were with me when I began my recovery. It made me sad to see they were either still there or back again. I can’t help but wonder how many others have been back or never left. One was a resident of a safe house on the campus. He has been a resident for over a year. His life was in shambles when I was there. It brings great sadness that there are some who never fully recover.
I must mention the tremendous availability of groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous and SMART Recovery that alcoholics can take advantage of and what are highly encouraged by all the staff of the treatment center I attended. They had multiple meetings on the campus every week. Actually AA meetings were every day. I tried both of these groups at the urging of the therapists. First I tried AA. I went to a few meetings but did not find them helpful. It reminded me very much of my experience in the group therapy sessions that I had later in my formal recovery program. There were people there who had been there for decades. As I experienced in therapy I found it to be depressing. I didn’t want to be there for decades. I didn’t need the relationships and I did not need the steps or sponsors, and I already had a strong belief in a higher power. I had the same experience with attending SMART Recovery meetings – depressing. I decided to no longer attend. I knew if I ever needed them I could easily find a meeting. Don’t get me wrong, these are both amazing programs and have helped millions of alcoholics get and stay sober. Any alcoholic should give either or both a try. Their programs are obviously highly successful. They just weren’t for me.
Health and nutrition also plays a big role in recovery. I did work out while I drank. Although many times it was more for working off a hangover than for the health benefits. The drinking did make me want to eat but when I sat down with my Jameson I did not care much for eating leafy greens, fresh vegetables, and fruit. Instead I ate a great deal of cheese, chips, pizza, summer sausage, or pretty much anything that was unhealthy. After beginning my recovery I had a very strong craving for anything with sugar. This is very normal since the body is craving the sugar it used to get from the alcohol. I started eating a large amount of candy as well as a pint or two of frozen custard every day. While drinking I had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and acid reflux. Eating all the sweets did not do anything to make these conditions better. I wasn’t working out so I just added more weight to my already over weight body. After seeing my doctor all of my conditions still existed. The worst was that my blood sugar had made me diabetic. I was just above the line so my doctor gave me 6 months to get it under control or I would be looking at insulin for the rest of my life. He told me to go on the Mediterranean diet. The diet consists of mostly chicken and fish and red meat once a month and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and many other healthy options. I also started to work out five days a week. After four months I wanted to see what progress I had made. I could see my weight was less than before but needed the blood work. My results came back great. I lost 53 pounds, my cholesterol was down 88 points, and my blood pressure was great and no more acid reflux. My blood sugar had dropped below the diabetic line but was still high, but moving in the right direction. I felt great! I continue my healthy eating and aggressive workout schedule.
Probably the change I appreciate most was my mental health. I was getting a great night sleep. I woke up with energy, and an alert mind, instead of the fog I woke with while I was drinking. It’s nice to have my brain functioning at a high capacity as soon as I open my eyes. My body feels great, my mind is clear, and I wake up with an optimistic attitude. I wake up earlier than I was used to. Which gives me time to just lay there and think I also love hearing the birds at my 8 bird feeders, and when there is a nice breeze the symphony played by my 12 wind chimes. In the past it mostly seemed like noise and with a hangover I didn’t get much enjoyment from those.
My belief in God has been a tremendous help in my recovery. I prayed daily. My faith is deeply personal and I will not go into great detail. I am a practicing Catholic and it is only by the grace of God that I have gotten to where I am today. In AA and during therapy we said the Serenity Prayer. It is a powerful prayer to help in recovery and in everyday life.
The Serenity Prayer was posted all around the treatment center. It is also said at the end of AA meetings. It is a great prayer to live your life by, but even more so for a person in recovery:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.