How to stay sober – part one

Housekeeping: I promise myself and you all that this blog is not going to become exclusively about alcoholism. That said, this entry is the first in a seven installment series, roughly one page each, to be released once a day until complete. I have had a lot of feedback from other people who face similar challenges to those i described. Several people have asked me directly, “how do you stay sober?” Maybe there are people out there who can’t ask that yet. It is an important question, and i am so very proud of everyone else out there making better choices, or even trying to do that. The following is a collection of the best advice i can offer the newly sober taken from my own experiences – some direct, some tangential.

I am going to blend two approaches here – things I do to stay sober, and advice I would and do give to anyone else getting sober with remotely similar circumstances to what you describe. In both cases, the point is not to copy my actions or advice in exacting detail, but to understand the truths behind these things and apply that – the golden sparkly truth – to your situation the best you can.

Disclaimer – I am just going to keep it simple and write *you*. I am not assuming that i know your circumstance completely or have magic vision into your life. Some of my assumptions will be totally wrong. Please don’t let that stuff, my lack of writing from a perfectly neutral space, slow you down. Please do assume the best intent, the helpful intent. Please don’t do what i tend to do with recovery language and fix on a detail and say “that ain’t me” and throw out the rest. Disclaimer ends.

One of the many hard things for me to understand was people saying “getting clean is the easy part, it is life that will kick your ass.” One more cliché. One more staggeringly true cliché. I can’t know where you are at this moment in terms of your chemical relationship/dependency on alcohol, but 30+ days should have most people over the worst of the actual physiological aspects. That really just leaves the mental stuff. Whatever got you started, long-term/heavy/abusive drinking has changed how you respond to almost any scenario. Your body doesn’t really need the drink anymore. Your brain doesn’t either, but you have “Pavloved” yourself. Pain = drink. Difficult = drink. Hard = drink. Happy = drink. Celebrate = drink. Emotion (good or bad) = Drink.

This is the first part of the mental battle – (1) making new habits. The first time i got sober, i still lived in heroin house and i only had one human in my daily life who was clean. This is part of why i spent so much time in meetings. I was not in a position to move immediately, but i needed to create new behavior patterns. You have heard “fake it ’til you make it”. The psychology behind that is re-conditioning – breaking the existing responses we have conditioned ourselves with and building in new responses. You don’t have to believe it, but you do need to do it – it works despite being actively disbelieved.

I will come back to this later. For now, think on it. New habits.

Next up – Outcomes Assessment

That long one about alcoholism

Hi, my name is Nick and I’m an alcoholic. I had my last drink on October 14, 2013.

I have so many opening paragraphs started, a few different one page story bits drafted, and some very loosely related ideas written down. I don’t have a plan or an agenda, and just for today, i can be ok with that. I am going to keep writing for a while, then stop and put all of this out there at once. It isn’t great writing. It isn’t great storytelling. It is true. It is important. And maybe it will help someone else. Maybe it will help me. Thanks folks.

I have often referred to myself as an addict rather than using the term alcoholic. I have used and abused almost every fairly common drug out there aside from heroin, crack, and ecstasy. I have never tried any of those three. I am sure i missed a few other as well, but not from lack of trying. I intentionally avoided those three even in my darkest times. There is a difference between abuse and addiction and I have never been confused about the fact that alcohol was, is, and shall remain my true addiction. Part of the reason i ever even started referring to myself as an addict has to do with the culture of the 12 step programs in Richmond, VA (RVA) in the early-mid 1990s. The people i met in Alcoholics Anonymous were contentious, angry, and bitter people who argued about everything, and god forbid you mention a drug aside from alcohol in their rooms. The people who went to Narcotics Anonymous didn’t have time for all that crap. The people in NA were far to busy trying to figure out how to stay clean and stay alive. I went there to be with and learn from those people. They were very accepting and no one cared if you said “alcoholic” or “drug addict”. The few who stopped to even consider the issue had the sense to recognize that alcohol is a drug and these labels are really not the point.

I hated the language of recovery, from the first moment i learned anything about it and i still do. I remain unsure if that has more to do with the cosmic proportions of arrogance with which i am “blessed” or my passion for words. Either way, that language was a barrier for me, but i wanted to change so badly that i was able to shut up and listen long enough to hear the good stuff. There are so many clichés used in recovery that it can drive word-people crazy. One of the many things that makes it even harder to accept is how appropriate, true, and useful they are. “90 in 90” is one that most newcomers (term for people new to 12 step programs) hear often. It means that if you are brand new to recovery and just getting clean (or back from your latest relapse) you should attend 90 meetings in 90 days. The point of that is not mathematical, but to make it a priority to go to at least one meeting every single day for 90 days. We found plenty of time to do our preferred drugs for longer than 1.5 hours every single day. There is no reasonable excuse not to have the time to attend one meeting a day for 90 days.

90 in 90 is great for new people and i was no exception. I needed to break existing habits. Obviously what i was doing was not working out or i would not have been attending NA/AA meetings. I needed to build new habits. I needed to meet people who were actually making a point to try not to use drugs. I got to know almost every meeting offered in the city. I found two that i liked above all others, and made one of these my “home group”. (RVA peeps – every NA meeting at St James on Franklin was great. I preferred Thursday evenings. My home group was at St Andrews in Oregon Hill between Laurel and Cherry. Sunday night was the jam!) Your home group is the meeting that you are dedicated to attending at all costs, the one where you feel the most comfortable, and when you are really ready to start helping yourself by helping others, your home group is the place where that work can begin in earnest.

I shared more at my home group than at the other meetings. I got involved with set-up, tear down, and then running the meetings. I got involved in the larger NA community as a regional representative. My first exposure to working in a true parliamentary system was through NA.

I decided to let myself get sidetracked and then just stop this line of thought because i don’t remember a whole lot more about being a rep, and i don’t have much more to say about the program other than it really helped me out. I quit going eventually, not because i wanted to drink again, but because of my issues with the language. I am not going to explain that here. I never talk about that in public because i don’t want my reactions to end up turning someone else away from using these programs as the fantastic tools that they are. If you really want to know, tell me that in person or on the phone sometime. If you are not a person who has, does, or might suffer from addiction, then i will probably tell you all about it.

If you need or would like more information about NA or AA, for yourself or for someone you know and for whatever reason can’t or won’t do it, find it, and/or go to it, on your own, reach out anytime. I take this shit seriously. 202-297-1163. nick.renfroe@gmail.com

A whole lot of drunks and addicts have let me down. A whole lot of drunks and addicts have done nothing but support me. I have spent my time both supporting other drunks and being the drunk letting people down. I know the drill.

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I have quit drinking several times in my life. I started very young, recognized i had a problem, voluntarily sought treatment, and was just about two years clean and sober before i turned 21. If you read the opening line and know that i was born in 1974, you can probably piece it together that my first stab at sobriety did not really work out. This last time, October 14, 2013, is the first and only time i truly said to myself – “this is it. I am done for good and can never ever drink alcohol again.” I had never said that or made that commitment to myself before. Even when I quit drinking on January 27, 2013 – not long after my friend, fellow alcoholic, former boss, and sometimes mentor Steve H. committed suicide by hanging – even then, i didn’t say “forever”. Not making that firm commitment to myself is one part of what led to my two weeks of staggering drunkenness that October. I hated every drink during that relapse. I would be weeping, telling myself how terrible it was to be drinking and how much i hated everything about it and about myself as a drinker, while taking huge pulls straight from the bottle. I am not even going to try to express the sadness and guilt and self-loathing that goes along with having admitted that you are a drunk and continuing to drink. It is the hardest easy-to-solve problem i have ever faced or even heard about.

Without the magic love of a few magnificent dogs i would not be here writing this right now. I have a great family. We not only love, but actually like each other. I did not have a shocking childhood trauma. I wasn’t abused or neglected. I have, what seems rare in this day and age, an awesome and supportive family. Hell, my dad and i have even been business partners since 1996. There is just something about the particular kind of hard ass that i am, the love and support or the lack of same from other humans just doesn’t factor in to my alcoholism much. To the extent that it did have an effect, the more i felt and saw that love and support, the further away i would go.

One of the many, and frequently first, unbearably difficult things about getting sober, certainly for me, and this is common, is coming to terms with the fact that our experiences, our feelings, and even the concept we carry inside our heads of our own identity – none of that is even close to unique or individual. The closing sentence of the previous paragraph, that is absolutely textbook behavior. It can be crushing to have to recognize that in addition to everything else you have destroyed in your life by the time you seek help, that in very important ways, you are not even special. “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” – (Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club)

When i was really low, maybe especially when i was really low, i didn’t want to hear about how much someone loved me or supported me. I did not want someone to just quietly be there and sit there. It could just be in my head, but i could feel the pressure of their desire to help, their desire for me to “get better” and it drove me crazier. Drinking made me hate myself more. Hating myself made me drink more. Drinking more made me…you see the wheel??

The first dog in my life that i got all on my own, Guthrey, also loved me unconditionally. His level of unconditional love just always hit me on a whole other level. He knew i was hurting and while he did try to be supportive, he had his own doggy agenda. His biggest intrusion into my psyche was stuff like, “i don’t care how sad you are there drunk man, and i do like you, but if you keep me in this house and do not feed me, i will eat you.” Not every one of my magic dogs had exactly that same style, but they all had one or two very simple bottom lines. They loved me so much and so simply, i could only let them down so far. Of course i let them down. Of course i failed them. But there were lines i would not cross with my dogs. When there was no food in the house because i spent all the “extra” money on booze, i gave Guthrey oatmeal. He did not like oatmeal. But once he figured out that i was offering him food instead of eating anything myself, he ate it. I lived on bread and beer – sometimes for months. Most of the time, i still bought Guthrey his really expensive fancy dog food.

With very few exceptions, i still walked my dogs every day. Sometimes that meant that “crazy dog man” was just weeping uncontrollably, hating being outside, hating being seen weak and broken, hating being seen at all, hating being outside, walking down the street with his dogs. Luckily, for most of those times, i lived in a socio-economically mixed ghetto with working people and crackheads alike. I was not the only one who had to struggle to get it together long enough to run into the store to buy booze and then run back to my hole. When i lived in other places, i would just wait until dark and then walk. If i did not have dogs in my life throughout all of the hardest times, y’all would probably not be reading this, and most of you would never have met me. Maybe one of you would keep my Facebook page going in memoriam like someone does for Steve. But more likely, i would have been dead long before cell phones fit into jeans’ pockets.

It wasn’t all terrible. I wasn’t in the darkest pits constantly for the past three decades. In the hood, i had a great friend live with me for a while. We would throw down together. He could probably out drink me even then. One of my neighbors became a very welcome regular at my house and he would match me beer for beer. I don’t know for sure, but i don’t think that either of these guys started drinking again right away the next morning. Not that any “binge” level drinking is healthy, but i started to see that even in a crowd of pretty serious drinkers most of whom definitely abused alcohol, i still stood out. I needed it, and i didn’t even wait until noon. Most of the time i was the first to pass out at the end of the day. Most of the time that was because i had at least a 12 pack head start. Drinking in the morning, drinking before work, drinking at work, and a truly key factor – hiding that i was drinking this often, hiding how much i drank, and lying about drinking.

Folks whatever you are doing in life, if you are hiding and/or lying about it, you have a problem.

________________

I do not have the best or most reliable memory. I am often incorrect in recalling timelines – by as much as a full year or two. There are some things even i do not forget.

I started drinking alcohol, with the clear purpose of getting drunk by myself, when i was in sixth grade, in something like 1985 or 86. I don’t want to mislead anyone or create some kind of false myth of my legendary drunkenness. I did not begin drinking more than 10 or 15 times a month until i was a high school sophomore. I did not start trying very hard to get drunk every day until the summer between 11th and 12th grade when i was 16 years old. This is when i started drinking and driving. (That is just information. It is not “the gun” revealed in Act I. I never got in a wreck, hit anyone’s car, property, pet, family member or anything like that – as far as i know anyway. I did eventually get a DUI, but that didn’t happen until 2003, and there was no collision of any kind involved.) I did not start drinking in the morning, pretty much every day, until i got to college. Luckily, i crashed and burned (metaphorically) pretty quickly. I admitted that I had a real problem and started going to 12 step meetings a few weeks before I turned 19.

Between June of 1992 and November of 1993 I consumed an ever increasing amount of mind altering substances. For a few months, i would stay up for two or three days at time tripping on acid as well, just continuing to take hits every 6-8 hours to keep things going. In the last two to three months of that time period, my abuse was staggering. It was an odd and sad time in Richmond, VA. Heroin was really popular and one of my roommates was way deep into that culture. There started to be some heroin parties at our house. I actually had to say to several of my friends – “If you guys are gonna do this shit here and you OD, i am not calling an ambulance. We are throwing your ass out in the alley.” My other roommate sold a pretty hefty amount of grass. A few of my other close friends also sold grass and other things. I knew everybody I needed to know to get whatever I wanted and got most of it for free or at deep discounts.

On an average day, i drank at least a half a pint of liquor, at least two beers, took 4 or 5 bong hits (for the uninitiated, that’s one way of smoking marijuana), and snorted a few lines of some low grade speed before leaving the house at 8 am to go to class.

This may shock or surprise some of you who knew me during high school or the first two years of college. When i got clean and started telling people i was an addict, most people did not understand what i was taking about. I have always been a very high functioning alcoholic, and to a point, adding in any form of speed can really assist certain kinds of high functioning alcoholics. If you saw the Denzel movie Flight, while dramatized, that is one of the many things the movie got right. I went to class, did my homework, read an average of 600 pages a day, wrote my papers, made the dean’s list, and was a pretty good employee at my job – as a pizza delivery driver.

My girlfriend finally had enough, broke up with me and kicked me out. I did have my own place – the Heroin house – but pretty much lived with her when i could. She saw more of my Jekyll and Hyde than most. She did not see much of the drinking. Like most true alcoholics, i was a frackin’ ninja at hiding my drinking. But she could not help but notice when i broke her lockbox to get to the weed inside. I did buy it. But i also did give it to her, steal it back, and break her stuff doing that. That breakup made me take a hard look at things. The breakup was not the only reason, but I got clean and joined NA inside two weeks.

I thought about those days, my first time getting sober, quite a bit during the downfall of my last two relationships, but mostly during the last one in 2010. That one failed for a lot of reasons, but my drinking, and lying about it, certainly did not help. It had to be absolutely maddening for her. Not only would she wake up and realize i had either left bed or never come to bed and then find me passed out outside. Not only would she then yell or fuss or whatever. But the next morning, she would slowly come to realize that the tongue lashing from the night before had no impact on me at all because i did not even remember that it happened.

_________

There is more. There is always more. This is not too bad at giving some broad general strokes at what my life drinking was like. I know i did not hit the darkness and pain section very hard. But guess what – it really hurts to even remember that stuff. I don’t hide from it anymore and i am not trying to hide it from y’all either. There is just only so much of it i can take at any one time. This is enough for now.

I won’t ignore anyones’ comments and i appreciate that you folks even read anything here at all, much less something real like this. I don’t need much in the way of support these days. The best thing that you could do for me is maybe try and think differently about drunks and addicts. The next time you see dirty street folks begging – i am not saying you buy them a bottle – but maybe recognize that the distance between someone like that and someone you know is a really really short line.

Thanks.

n

PS – for anyone freaking out about my contact info right there online in the post!! I have had at least one of my cell numbers and one email address published online right underneath my name on a company site which also bears my name, from 2004 – the present. I don’t foresee a time when that won’t be true. I have got to be one of the easiest folks to find contact info for out there. Given that, i would not want to make anyone who needs help have to goolge and then lose courage and not call or text or email.

No sleep ’til PA

Howdy folks. I will get to doing some more stuff here again soon. For now i wanted to let folks know that i am safely back at home in PA. There is so much to do that it is rather daunting, but i got started digging out today and will have to simply keep at it.

"Stand By Me" Bridge
“Stand By Me” Bridge

I don’t have a schedule set for when more PCT info, stories, and pictures will begin to appear here, but they will.

Experimental Forest?!?
Experimental Forest?!?

Also, I will begin a new writing exercise “soon”, which will be my path towards becoming more familiar with brevity. You can re-read that last sentence a few times and note that brevity and i don’t often dance to the same songs…

Washington is pretty
Washington is pretty

I can already hear some “isn’t this more of a status update than a blog post” grumblings. Sure, but six months with no Facebook has been fantastic and i am not at all eager to plug back in there. So, you get a short-ish post here with a few pictures!

Casa de Luna Banner-Done
Casa de Luna Banner-Done
Casa Banner-closeup
Casa Banner-closeup

Be Well. More Soon. Right On!

n

 

Let’s Head South!

Howdy. I thought it was time for a little news. After an excellent 10 day stay in Northern Washington-Bellingham, I am headed back to Green Valley, California via Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area.

It was such a treat to be able to spend so much time with my friends and receive a mini-immersion course in Pacific Northwest living. I don’t know how much about that time I will share here. Certainly, sitting on the bus having said farewells yesterday and early this morning, this does not seem to be the right time. The memories and feelings are so new and fresh and precious to me. There is a warm, familiar, and comforting level of intimacy we found at our first meeting, almost four years ago now, that we still share easily.

But everybody likes pictures!

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FAQ:
1. How do you feel/are you OK? I feel good, but my feet still hurt. The damage from broken wet shoe blisters is almost healed. The soreness and inflammation at the toes, ball, heel-basically every part of my foot that can touch the ground-those parts still hurt and probably will until I force myself to get off my feet a lot.
2. Are you gaining any weight or ALL the weight? I think I am gaining some weight. I am battling hunger while trying to eat smaller meals/snacks, but this is a difficult game.
3. Are you still a crazy woods person? The transition from trail life is slow and incomplete. I am getting some of the social graces back, but I am still quirky. I carry a lot of food with me at all times. I bought a small fuel can, even though I may not use it once before I have to leave it with Joe because you can’t fly with them, because I couldn’t handle not having the ability to boil water and make meals at all times.
4. So, like, are you ever going home? Yes! I have not set a date yet, but I will fly back to PA in October. Perhaps something in a high teen or low 20…

Canada

There will be more later but I thought you might want to know…I am done people. I am clean, fed, sitting in a real bed waiting on my laundry to come out of the dryer. Threw away my last pair of hiking shoes a few hours ago. No miles to do tomorrow on the feet.

I will be heading to Bellingham ASAP. When I get in cell range, some phone calls will commence. For now-
ROCK ON!

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And it feels so good

I just saw my old pal Zander for the first time since 1993. We met in southern Washington, hiked a little bit, camped and talked. How nice to spend some quality time together after so long.

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After a few days of very low miles, I feel pretty good and rested again. I will take it very easy tonight once I finally leave Kracker Barrel and do a few 20-25 mile days and then see Josh and Sammy again.

I am not ready for the end. We will do that stuff another time. For now, all is well. I feel good. I saw an old friend. I am starting to see hikers I have not seen for over 1,000 miles. Goat Rocks Wilderness was amazing and I am eager to see more of beautiful Washington.

Be Well

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A little news

Howdy folks. Normally, I have no trouble writing. Stopping and brevity are issues I struggle with, but getting started has never been difficult.

On this journey, the task is a little overwhelming. Trying to stick to some more surface details about the “how” of the adventure proves difficult because there is so much to say about each and every process and piece of gear-and the gear and processes change and evolve. I will write about these things but it doesn’t feel like a good use of my time right now.

The inner journey continues to be rich and deep. Many old memories have surfaced to be seen in a new light. Each day brings new experiences and opportunities. I continue to strive to be a good person and to understand what that means. I try to stay open, try not to pre-judge, try to simply not judge, try to be nice. Sometimes I succeed.

Reading these words, these attempts to briefly and tangentially describe what I don’t have the time and mental or emotional distance to write about fully – it feels trifling – paltry. Anyway. Enough of all that. Just know that I will be writing about this trip but I am going to keep on living it for now.

Things are going very well. My body is in great shape. No residual pains. My feet and shoulders ache a bit when I am hiking, but feel fine when I stop.

I had an exciting adventure getting around the northern Cali southern Oregon fires. Oregon showed a little bit of the famous rain and lots and lots of green. The mountains in Oregon are lovely. The talk peaks are several thousand feet taller than any of the surrounding mountain ranges so you can see peaks 200+ miles away on clear days. Eagle creek and tunnel falls completely live up to all the hype. Truly beautiful. I shot more video than stills through there so it will be a while before you get to see that stuff.

Later today or tomorrow,I walk across the bridge of the gods and enter Washington State. I am so thrilled to be out here and don’t want the trip to end.

Be well. More soon.

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Goodbye Columbus

The walk is going well. I am feeling good and strong. My body is doing well. I have stopped shedding pounds since 40 or so fell off. I think I may have even gained a little bit back. My shoulders are a little achy and my feet are contemplating revolution, but other than that – I am tip top.

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That pic was taken after a long awaited reunion with the PCT. On august 1, I hit route 3 south of Etna. Firefighters were staged at the trail head at the road crossing. These folks talked with me a while and highly recommended that I not proceed on the trail but road walk to Etna and talk to the next firefighter team there. I met a local fella, Brian – and his dog Thor, in Etna and camped with them over the weekend waiting for the post office and to see what the fires would do.

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I looked at maps with Brian and some other relief workers and a long stretch of road walking ensued. The pros told me to stay off the trail until Ashland, OR. In order to stay off of Interstate 5, I walked on rural highways and dirt roads. I slept in the bleachers of a youth baseball field in Fort Jones. I got water from a church sprinkler at 10 pm in a small town called Hilt. I was occasionally thwarted by barbed wire and dangerous looking no trespassing signage featuring references to guns, dogs, video cameras, and prosecution.

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I met John Mullin at the church in Hilt and we looked at the maps together also. He helped me avoid an area i planned to walk through that was no longer open road but private property, driveways, and lawns. This last unexpected detour led through some rolling hills and just across the line in Oregon, I found a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple.

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The adventures of the past week will stay with me, but I must admit that I am very pleased to be back on trail. Road walking g should be faster, but I covered less miles off trail. Not knowing a precise route, not knowing the mileages, not knowing the elevation changes, not knowing where the water sources might be or where to camp or use the bathroom – it was stressful… and beautiful…

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How decisions get made

I got to castella ca and found two packages waiting for me at ammaritis market. A “new” mid sleeve hiking shirt, a replacement section for a damaged hiking pole, new socks, and a fully functional air mattress make a beautiful tableau. But, I arrive Monday, wait until noon to finish with my food resupply and mail my damaged air mattress back home, and the next post office in Etna closes Friday afternoon. I don’t feel like doing the big miles to maybe not quite make it there in time. What to do with two new free days?

Immediately I decide to break the 100+ miles into five 20 mile chunks instead of four 25 miles chunks. My feet have been making some noise and I think I am due for some new shoes. I will have a lazy morning at camp, let my stuff dry out, and spend a little time at ammaritis looking for a hitch to the gear store in Mt Shasta. If nothing turns up, I may go ahead and walk to Etna and try to hitch to Shasta from there on Sunday.

That is how it goes. I am still loving this adventure. Living outside is magical.

…a few hours later… Some guys pulled up next to me in camp where I was writing and asked if I needed anything. So, I got a pretty easy hitch to Shasta for new shoes and a few essentials. I hope your lives are going this smoothly 🙂

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