Ray of Light Interview No. 23 :: Sandy Ford

I'm calling this body of artwork The Ray of Light Interview Series: Women in Recovery and every Friday during 2017 I will introduce and feature a kickass, brave, beautiful woman in recovery. The light was dimmed for these women when they were struggling with alcohol (either a little or a lot).  I wish to honor them for their brave choice to ditch alcohol, rediscover themselves through sobriety + shine bright in the process.  You can access links to the entire series by clicking here or the tab at the top of this blog.

mixed media: acrylic paint on b/w photo affixed to 4" x 4" hardwood panel

mixed media: acrylic paint on b/w photo affixed to 4" x 4" hardwood panel

Sandy Ford
Instagram:: @sjdford
Blog: sobermormon.wordpress.com
Twitter: @sjdford

Do you remember how we first met or came to know one another?
We met in the Facebook group for women in recovery of which we are both members. I started noticing your posts gradually and remember admiring your artwork first. Eventually, I read your blog posts about your work with the twelve steps and was blown away by the depth of your honesty and introspection. It made me want to work the steps myself. Through your blog, I also discovered that we have a bit of shared history with Mormonism, which made me feel connected to you.

What is your sobriety date? January 30, 2016.

Do you count days, months or years connected to your sobriety?
Early on, I definitely counted days, and then months. I stopped paying attention to those milestones when I hit the year mark. I love when I remember to check the day or month count, though. I tried to quit drinking for a long time before it stuck so all those days stacked up fill me with a real sense of pride. They also help me stay the course in periods of ungroundedness. 

Do you use an app or some other method to do this counting?
I use an app called Clean Time Counter. I don't feel strongly about it. It was one of the first free ones that popped up in the app store. Mostly I use the calendar. 

What recovery modality do you use in your recovery from alcohol?
AA is the backbone of my recovery program. It was the path that led me to freedom and happy sobriety after white knuckling my way through extended stretches of time where I just didn't drink. AA is the path that put me in touch with sober folks that I can connect with in the flesh. As valuable as online communities have been and continue to be to me, I need people who will meet me for coffee, hold my hands, touch my shoulders, and compel me to look them in the eyes. Just as important, I need to do those things for others.  Besides AA, I also do a bunch of other things to support my recovery: exercise, sleep, meditation when I can stomach it, phone calls with far flung family and friends, and creative hobbies like reading, writing, and playing music.

Do you identify yourself as an alcoholic?
Yes, and no one is more surprised than me by that fact. Even after knowing for years that I had some kind of problem with drinking, I didn't think I could be an alcoholic because I wasn't a daily drinker. I put off going to an AA meeting for months because I couldn't identify with the label. When I finally did go, I learned that, in the program, the term alcoholism is used to describe the combination of having a physical reaction to alcohol that makes you crave more plus a mental obsession that drives you to drink even when you don't want to. Both of those characteristics are definitely present in me. I've never had a functional off-switch when it came to drinking and my obsessive desire to obliterate my senses had driven me back to drinking more times than I could count. My strange behavior around alcohol puzzled me for so long that it was a huge relief to find a label, a book, and a group of people that described my experience to a tee. Better yet, they said they could help me feel better. Now, I love the label and wear it proudly. When I hear it, I don't picture sick people, spiraling into ever messier lives, hurting themselves and their loved ones. I picture the people I've grown to know and love in the program, people who are in turn kind, hilarious, insightful, helpful, badass, and grateful. If there is power in labels, I am better off having taken on the alcoholic one, because these are the people I want to be.

What are your top three tools in your sobriety toolbox?

  1. Prayer of all kinds. I start my morning with the third and seventh step prayers, and the St. Francis morning prayer. I use the serenity prayer when I am feeling out of control or at a loss as to how to proceed. And I try to talk to God before I go to bed at night. I used to see prayer as optional, a good thing to do, but not really necessary if I was mostly doing things "right." Now I see it as more akin to stretching before and after I run--a pain in the ass to fit into my schedule, and usually not immediately gratifying--but if I don't do it, everything eventually breaks down.
  2. Working with my sponsor. I used to think that a sponsor was somebody whose job was to have your back and keep you accountable. I didn't feel comfortable asking somebody to do that for me, and I didn't think I needed those things anyway. I figured I could do this sobriety thing myself and, for awhile, I did. After a few months in the program, I stalled out. My own ideas could only take me so far before they took me back to drinking. So I asked a woman to be my sponsor and the quality of my sobriety improved immensely. Talking honestly to about the insanity of my old life and the challenges that crop up in sobriety to somebody who has been there and really understands has been so validating and therapeutic. My sponsor says that something magical happens when one alcoholic talks to another, and I feel that magic. This more than anything else has helped me make sense of what I've been through and shown me that there is a path for moving forward.  
  3. Being of service, in whatever way I can - to other folks walking this path, my family, co-coworkers, friends, strangers on the street, whoever. This does not come naturally to me. I could live ten thousand lifetimes wrapped up in my own head, but life is always better when I can get myself to think about others.

Why or how did you know or decide that you had to quit drinking?
I knew for years that I needed to quit drinking, and tried many times for the simple reason that when I drank, bad things happened. Worse, when I drank, I made choices that were incongruous with my values. I thought I was a good person, but when I drank, I became a liar, a cheat, and a thief without a second thought. I was also troubled by the fact that I could never seem to find that happy middle ground between the one or two drinks that just left me unsatisfied, thirsty for more, and way too many drinks that landed me in the bathroom, head in the toilet, spinning and sick. The longer I knew these things, the harder it became to keep drinking in my life. Repeatedly making a choice that violated my conscience broke me down--it destroyed my self-esteem and made me feel like I was losing my mind. Finally the night came that I drank (yet again) too much, made (yet again) some poor but fortunately not life-altering bad decisions, and woke up (yet again) with a hangover that felt like living in Satan's mouth. I was too sick to take care of my toddler, to look my husband in the eye, to do anything but agonize over what exactly it was I was doing to myself. That was the day I came to understand that there was nothing good for me left in drinking. I knew I could keep drinking, if I wanted to, and it might be a long time before I ended up in the hospital or in jail, but that the only way this thing was going was down and that it would be sooner rather than later that I started losing things I cared about--starting with the trust and respect of my family. So I decided to stop digging.

Do you feel you are more or less creative since you have stopped drinking?
I don't necessarily feel more creative. When I was drinking (or getting high), I was convinced I was a uniquely inspired creative genius. I spent a lot of time pondering ephemeral ideas and waxing philosophical with other drunk people. Unfortunately, the ability to translate all that creative energy into something more than half-finished scribbles in a notebook seemed always just out of reach. These days, I am usually more focused on the more practical aspects of living life on life's terms (feeding the kid, paying the bills) than on my creative pursuits, and I am keenly aware of the fact that the world is filled with people who are, simply and infuriatingly, more talented than me. That said, I also have a deep well of ideas and the energy and focus to execute them. My current project is a collection of personal essays about my adventures in Mormonism. I've wanted to write something like this for years and sobriety has afforded me the clarity of mind and discipline to actually put pen to paper. I also picked up my guitar again after years of letting it collect dust. I'm not very good but that doesn't stop me from strumming like my life depends on it and belting out the lyrics to Take Me Home, Country Roads, which is about the best form of meditation I know.

Do you feel you are more productive since you have stopped drinking?
No doubt. I got a lot done before I got sober but always felt like I was just barely keeping it together. If something unexpected dropped into the top of my to-do list (and it always did, because that's life), I inevitably lost my cool and nursed a healthy resentment toward whoever was responsible (usually my husband or a boss). I couldn't fathom having time to relax and not feeling guilty about it. Now, I do everything I did before (parenting, work, chores) in addition to being active in AA, exercising 3-4 days per week, getting together regularly with friends, and I still manage to carve out time time to read, write, chill with my family, whatever. I don't know what alchemy made this possible, but I do know it has something to do with removing booze.

What has delighted you most since you quit drinking alcohol?
I am most amazed and delighted by how differently I feel about a life that looks very much the same as it did before. So much changes in recovery that it is not uncommon for people to experience massive shifts, from ending marriages to quitting jobs and everything in between. That's not my story. I am married to the same man, parent to the same one child, employee at the same job, and living in the same house as I did when I got sober. Even many of my friends are the same. Before, I hated this life. It felt suffocating. I envied people who won the lottery or married into money. I fantasized about quitting my job, uprooting my family to move across the country, and then cursed myself when I remembered I'd probably hate life there too, because I hated myself. More than once I thought about the healthy insurance policy on my life, and considered whether my family might not be better off without me. All I wanted was a way out. Now, I have more or less the same life, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world. My family, my job, and my home are gifts instead of millstones. Even the worst days come with pockets of joy sewn in. The way my daughter fixes her gaze on my face when I tell her a meandering story over breakfast. The breeze blowing off the river, the train rumbling overhead on my walk to the office. Solving a complicated problem in one of my legal cases. Laughing about something stupid with my husband. The outside is the same but my insides are rearranged so that, somehow, I feel good again. And even when I feel bad, I know everything is going to be okay. Mormons say that people exist so that we might know joy. My sponsor says that her Higher Power didn't save her from the ocean of alcoholism to kick her ass on the sand. I think they are both right.

Do you have any advice for those in still suffering or those in early recovery?
Stay open. Everywhere, all of you. Eyes, ears, hands, heart, mind. Our paths, all of ours, I mean, are weirdly and wildly different and you will almost certainly end up places you never wanted to go, talking to people you never thought you'd know, doing things that make you go, "What?!" but you'll have to feel your way there. Also, know that you won't have to do this alone. Put yourself in rooms with other people. Talk to them. Listen to them. Keep doing this even when it is hard or annoying until you meet somebody who is like you. Keep doing it until you meet somebody who has what you want. And then keep doing it so you can be that to other people.

Can you recommend a few books, essays or concepts that helped you on your path to sobriety? 

  • Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. I started reading this book the same day I realized I needed help. I started reading it in a monumental effort to distract myself from the bottle of hydrocodone I'd found on a shelf in my friend's house--I was there to babysit but I didn't want to be the kind of person who steals drugs while watching someone else's kid, so I picked up the book lying next to it instead. I knew nothing about Lamott except that she was a writer who wrote about writing and I expected to find her either boring or treacly.  Instead I found Annie!, a funny, radical, religious weirdo, and a kindred spirit. She wrote about life and occasionally mentioned getting sober in a way that at once made it clear that getting sober had been a big deal but also that it was only one aspect of what seemed to me to be a very big life. This made me curious, and marked the point that I started thinking about sobriety as something different than quitting drinking. Annie was the first in a long line of sober people to make the think that maybe, just maybe, getting sober wasn't the end of an interesting life, but the beginning.
  • The Third Door by Laura McKowan. Almost as soon as I realized that my problem with substances was something I actually needed to deal with, I wanted to un-know it. I tried everything to un-know it. I spent hours and hours in my head, spinning on the question, "Is this really that bad? Bad enough to quit?" I took all the online quizzes. I googled variations of "Am I an alcoholic more times than I can count?" I was stuck between a rock and a desert: I could either keep running off the edge of the same cliff trying to make booze fit into a life it wasn't meant for or I could spend the rest of my days dry, crawling through the sand, thirsty for something I couldn't drink. I'm a lawyer and an alcoholic, which means I'm doubly-qualified at looking for loopholes, and believe me, I tried. I know I can't drink, but maybe I can do drugs, oh wait, drugs are bad, maybe I can just drink moderately, oh wait, no I can't, and on and on. It was exhausting. It wasn't until I stumbled on Laura's concept of the Third Door that I realized what I was doing--i.e., trying to escape the inevitable. There is no third door. Eventually I was going to have to choose between continuing to feed my addiction and taking steps to start getting better. I didn't want what was behind either door, but I knew without a doubt that what was behind door number one sucked, so I figured I might as well resign myself to opening door number two. 
  • Drinking as a Subversive Act by Holly Whitaker of Hip Sobriety. Holly introduced me to the idea that being a non-drinker in a culture where the vast majority of adults drink alcohol is a subversive act. She's written and talked about this quite a bit, but I think the first time I encountered it was in this post (not all of which resonates, but this part does). One of the hardest parts of quitting was letting go of the parts of my identity that were tied up in drinking and drugs. It's embarrassing to admit as an adult but I drop to my knees at the altar that of cool and substances were one of my shiniest idols (along with music and clothes grungy to the point of being gross and the fact that I used to be a registered member and of the Socialist Party-oh, college). Holly opening my eyes to the fact that drinking and even problem drinking are mainstream was the perfect thing to help this iconoclast on her way to wanting nothing to do with either.

Are you part of a tribe or a recovery community that supports your sobriety? If so, how did you figure out how to find that tribe/community. What was your path to discovering it?
I am an independent creature, and also fairly private (pages on pages of emotional vomit regarding my sobriety notwithstanding!). This is not a point of pride, it's just what comes easiest to me. The upside of this is that I'm strong; I quit a daily drug habit all by myself, twice! I even managed to quit drinking for extended periods of time without any help at all. The downside is that I was lonely. The other downside is that I was not able to actually stay stopped. Willpower only got me so far. When I decided to quit for good, I knew I needed to do something for different, and for me that included getting support from other people on the sober path. I went to AA because a counselor suggested it as a way to meet people. At first, meetings were useful because the sober people there had lots of good ideas about how to live this new kind of life. Later, meetings became a place where I actually connected with people. The first time a sober woman called me on the phone just to chat, I talked her ear off for thirty minutes about all things sobriety-related. It felt so good to talk to somebody who got me that I almost cried. She knew the places I'd been AND the places I was going. I'd never experienced that kind of connection before. Now, after attending meetings regularly for about nine months, I have real friends, people I care about and look forward to seeing every week. Most of these are people I never would have connected to if it weren't for the fact that I hit a wall with drinking and my new relationships are enough to make me grateful that I did.

I am also a member of the Facebook group for women in recovery of which we are both members. I find this to be a great place to support others, especially women who are newer to sobriety, which, of course, almost always has the effect of strengthening my own sobriety.  The Facebook group is also a perfect place to share stories (from humorous to horrifying and everything in between) that only people in the bizarro world that is choosing again and again to be sober in an increasingly intoxicated culture will understand.  

What are you most proud of now that you live an alcohol-free life?
I am most proud of the fact that the person I feel like on the inside matches the person I present to the world. I used to take pride in my adaptability, in being a shapeshifter, but constantly adjusting my behavior to match what I thought people expected of me was exhausting and demoralizing and prevented me from truly connecting with anyone. I divided and subdivided myself to fit into all these compartments and ended up with so many pieces I couldn't figure out how to reassemble them into a happy, satisfied life. 

Now, wherever I go (home, work, church, recovery meetings, the world), whoever I'm with (family, parents, in-laws, friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers), I'm more or less the same person, and that person is someone I'm proud to be. I am less flaky. If I say I am going to do something, I usually do it, and if I don't, there is usually a good reason or an honest mistake. I make sound decisions instead of just reacting. I think about others more often than I used to and am capable of helping them instead of just feeding my own bottomless appetites.

I chased sobriety for the same reason I chased after any other thing in my life--I hoped it would make me feel better. And it did make me feel better. But discovering that this way of life also makes me a better parent, partner, child, sibling, friend, neighbor, employee--in short, a better person in the world--felt like striking gold. 

Sitting at the Santa Rosa Airport last Sunday, I started having an anxiety attack during the impending six-hour layover where information was being slow-released from the ticket agents at the Allegiant counter. I knew I needed to reach for some of my anxiety tools and so out came journals, the pens, the Rescue Recovery spray, the essential oils and then, finally, the computer.

I've been working on procrastination as part of my AA step-work. I've come to the conclusion that procrastination feels exactly like moderation to me. When I tried to moderate my drinking, it took up a lot of mental space in my brain - you know, planning the night, trying to remember to drink water in between glasses of wine or booze, reminding my husband to cut-me off after three which, let's be honest, NEVER went down well. Procrastination does pretty much the same thing. I end up having to remember to do something, write it down, remind myself to chip away at it, and then beat myself up as a deadline looms. The mental real estate is the same, my brain is in a constant state of worry. I hate it, but I keep doing it.

As I sat in the airport I started editing and formatting this interview a whole five days ahead of schedule. I also formatted and partially edited next week's interview. I was on fire. It kept my brain occupied. I was getting shit done. I did not, however, have time to do the artwork while I was in Las Vegas, but I came home, locked myself in my studio and immediately knew what color pathway I was going to use on Sandy's portrait. I got it done, but I also thought about more than I needed to.

I'm a work-in-progress all of the time. The difference is that now I'm aware of it and sober, I'm trying to be gentle on myself when I miss the mark and reading Sandy's interview half a dozen times helped to show me that we are all works-in-progress. How lucky are we, really? Being aware and present in my life now and working on creative projects that fuel my recovery is an absolute gift. I'll gladly let procrastination be my teacher because I'm learning a lot about myself in the process.

Thank you so much for your willingness to dive in deep to my questions, Sandy. I love that we share a mormon background AND that we are both living a sober life and recovering proudly out loud. I feel like it's the only way I can stay on this path. I'm honored to walk it with women like you.