Today was a bad day. I sure could use a drink.
Today was a great day. I think IÕll celebrate!
But the day isnÕt bad, or great.
To paraphrase an old Norse saying,
ÒIt is an awful day; it is cold and raining.Ó
ÒNo, it is raining. You are cold and miserable, so you have decided that it is awful.Ó
Someone recently related a frustrating experience with a dishwasher. I could sympathize, because just a couple of days ago I couldnÕt light the heater pilot, and it has finally gotten cold here. Already my washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher werenÕt working, with the repairman scheduled to come. Now this!
I started adding those things up in my mind—ÔawfulizingÕ about them—and found myself angry. It was time to take a step back from the situation.
So my son and I sat and watched the stupidest sitcom we could find, and laughed absurdly and loudly at the inane patter. Then we made a chart of the inanimate objects in our house that we felt frustrated about, assigned them negative karma points, and put it up on the wall. The heater moved up on the karma chart yesterday when the pilot got fixed. The karma of the others dropped badly today when the repairman arrived without the parts he needed. The dryer may actually be ready for reincarnation.
The point of this meandering example is that much of our frustration can come from a feeling of overload, of being overwhelmed, and of adding up all the little things into one big, bad day. That separation of the different stress factors can be one of the keys to serenity. Some call it compartmentalization. ItÕs more a matter of accepting the things we canÕt change right now, and consciously recognizing the things that bring us happiness at the moment.
One thing I work on is accepting that I can be sad about one thing in my life, frustrated by another, pleased or proud about something else—all at the same time, without one emotion dominating all the rest. ItÕs important to step back from stressful thoughts to find happiness in a particular moment or activity, regardless of how the rest of the day seems to be going.
I really learned this from my son when I was early in sobriety. We were at the cinemaplex, killing time while we waited for a movie to begin. It was spring, a hectic time in my business; I was frazzled, and my life had hit some pretty big bumps at the time. But the evening was balmy, it was a beautiful sunset, and I was watching him play one of those arcade games. He was totally engrossed, oblivious to everything around him, completely lost in the moment of what he was doing.
I realized that in my drinking days I would have been irritable, probably wouldnÕt have noticed the things I just described. Instead, I would have just kept dwelling on the little worries niggling at my brain, or falling back onto the bigger worries after IÕd done picking at those. The dark mood and unhealthy emotions would have controlled me, rather than the other way around. How can you notice the sunset when you arenÕt even looking at it? In my mind I took a picture of what was happening, and I can visualize that now Ôin my mindÕs eyeÕ.
We can use that kind of visualization to recall a mood or emotion, and to deflect or defuse stress. Take a mental picture of a situation when you are comfortable or happy, and save it for later. Even better, take a real picture and frame it. This kind of visualization exercise is commonly recommended for stress management: focusing on the details of the moment can crowd out the anxious thoughts that are clogging your brain.
I have a picture I took that I use to focus and de-stress. My son and I were taking the Coast Starlight up the California coast last winter (I highly recommend the experience), and we were along the central coast at sunset. It happens to be a nice shot, but it also has the memory of that place and time, and I even like the fact that it is a little blurred because it was taken through the trainÕs window.
(click the photo for a larger view)
So I printed it on some nice photo paper and framed it. Any picture that you find tranquil will do; itÕs even better when thereÕs a specific memory or something familiar about it. A very simple act proclaiming your decision for abstinence can be to put a special picture, one that is symbolic somehow of your new lifestyle, into your daily environment—on your desk or on the wall where youÕll see it every day as a reminder. It can be a picture someone sent you, or of a place youÕve been sober for the first time.
If you take special note of the parts of your day that you find restful or pleasurable—whether itÕs stopping at the coffee shop on your way to work, or some part of your daily travel, or a bookstore you like to check out—you can choose to do those things as part of your personal stress management. When we talk about making lifestyle changes to enhance sobriety, it often is a simple as where you go, what you do, and taking the time to do the things that give you pleasure on a daily basis.
(Russian Gulch, CA; click the photo for a larger view)