Conversation with Marilyn Spiller
Marilyn created the blog, Waking Up the Ghost, which is a daily journal about maintaining temperance in a tipsy world and finding humor and humanity in life’s most ghastly situations. She stopped drinking in July 2013.
Liv: Lets kick off talking about your story. I read that you were a gallery owner, married with children, and at that time described yourself as a functioning alcoholic; what does a functioning alcoholic look like?
“…an alcoholic is unable to have honest relationships of any kind. And when you start hiding booze in the desk drawer or drinking at lunchtime or driving carpool tipsy, it all begins to unravel…”
Marilyn: I have since decided that there is no such thing as a “functioning alcoholic”. The term means you are able to have a family life and a job – you’re out of jail, you haven’t killed anyone I suppose, while you are using or drinking alcoholically. But an alcoholic is unable to have honest relationships of any kind. And when you start hiding booze in the desk drawer or drinking at lunchtime or driving carpool tipsy, it all begins to unravel. It falls apart eventually.
Liv: After closing the business and the end of your marriage, you moved to the Bahamas where you lived for eight years. What influenced that decision to move?
Marilyn: A bad, bad boyfriend I liken to Captain Ron from the movie of the same name. He had a serious morphine jones, drank a case of beer and smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. He was jobless, penniless and according to my friends, charmless. I have no idea what I saw in him… We went on vacation to Staniel Cay (I paid for it of course) and I just fell in love with the place. I eventually broke up with Captain Ron, but I bought a house and stayed in the islands.
Liv: You said that this is where your drinking began to escalate to a three bottles of wine a day habit – something which was described locally as a “Bahamian breakfast” – would you say that it was the culture that influenced your increase in alcohol consumption, or did that mask the underlying problem?
Marilyn: The culture was certainly a factor in the fast escalation of my alcoholism. On a small, private island in The Bahamas there are virtually no rules (except don’t steal and don’t kill). The island mottos are “things happen” and “it’s all good,” which sums up the devil may care attitude of the locals.
Staniel Cay is so beautiful and so decadent, I have seen a number of people who vacation/live there fall by the wayside. The extreme wealth, the azure water, the temptation for endless drugs, alcohol and sex is, well, tempting…
Liv: In describing the meaning of the blog’s name, you described a situation in which you were sitting on a beach with a jaundiced Bahamian who refused a drink because he knew that to have one would lead to another, and would ‘wake up the ghost’. What did that description stir up within you?
Marilyn: At the time, I remember being shit-faced drunk and thinking that I had never seen a Bahamian refuse a free drink before. I registered that, yes, one drink always leads to many drinks, but it was not revelatory or cautionary. I was deep into my addiction at the time and frankly, having a blast (when I wasn’t falling down or crashing golf carts). It wasn’t until after I quit that the quote came back to me with such meaning.
Liv: Upon reflecting on sobriety, you said
‘The fact is, some of us can’t just place flowers on the grave and remember the good times. We find ourselves as the sun comes up, passed out in the graveyard: covered in dirt, a rusted shovel, a deep hole, and oh shit – an empty casket …’
Can you elaborate on this, specifically how, as alcoholics, how we differ from those who are able to have a drink and a good time?
Marilyn: Well, let me put it this way: I thought I was just part of the crazy island culture – I got drunk, but everyone got drunk. In fact, I later heard that everyone was worried about me. At the end of my time in The Bahamas, I hardly looked out the window at the topaz water or venturedoutside during the day. I hurt myself all the time – knocked out my teeth, hematomas on my shins and forehead…
One time I flew home on the Bahamian Ambassador’s plane, wearing Willy Wonka shades to cover the black eyes and damage to my face from a fall in a bar bathroom (stone countertops are unforgiving). I had to cover my mouth with a hand when I laughed because I was missing all my porcelain laminates.
That’s the way we alcoholics roll…
Liv: In early recovery, you wrote a daily journal. Part of this included, which I just love, recording reasons why you weren’t going to drink that day – can you describe what motivated you to do this? And what were the tangible benefits?
Marilyn: Laughter. I think one of the things that saved me through this whole, addiction mess was my ability to find the humor in the worst situations. And I like irony. And sarcasm. So it made sense that I would write about something that hurt or had caused a meltdown and then come up with a silly reason to not slam back a tumbler of white wine…
Almost three years sober and I still write in my blog almost every day. And I still end with, “Today I’m not drinking because…”
I work in an addiction treatment center (Sanford House), I research all aspects of addiction, I took the CCAR Recovery Coach Training, I use my blog posts in group therapy sessions as a catalyst for discussion, I read everything I can get my hands on about drug and alcohol addiction and I write every day about ways to combat this disease.
Liv: You then decided to bring these insights to the world at large, and have said you’re sharing your ‘dirty secrets’ – what affect does sharing these secrets in a public forum have on feelings of shame? And how has this impacted your recovery?
Marilyn: I am without shame. Wow. I said it, didn’t I? The truth is, I have no feelings of embarrassment, shame or guilt about my illness. And “bringing my insights to the world at large” is key. I always say, “I am not my addiction,” and I mean it, but I wouldn’t be here now or be the person I am now without my addiction and my subsequent sobriety. Sharing what happened to me, the ups and downs of my recovery and how much better my life is now, seems like a very admirable thing for me to do.
I work in an addiction treatment center (Sanford House), I research all aspects of addiction, I took the CCAR Recovery Coach Training, I use my blog posts in group therapy sessions as a catalyst for discussion, I read everything I can get my hands on about drug and alcohol addiction and I write every day about ways to combat this disease. I am an advocate. It is not a hobby for me. I can actually point to individuals I have helped to get and stay sober. Every day I get a note or an email from someone who says, “Thank you.” That is the power of the internet, the written word and the spoken word.
Don’t get me started. I believe that speaking out is not for everyone, but it was right for me and I am better for it. Maybe this is a long way of saying that in some ways I am my addiction.
I was a classic “dry drunk” for the first two years of my sobriety. I isolated, substituted party bags of candy for wine and put off the inevitable joining in the “jolly” dance of life.
Liv: You’ve talked of reflecting upon the morning after stories, when you were the
‘…crazy bitch who went into the bathroom just fine, and came out with her teeth knocked out and two black eyes…’
how important is finding humour in your experiences?
Marilyn: I can’t look back on all aspects of my active addiction and laugh. But I can laugh about a lot of the pratfalls, near misses and outrageousness. I’m not going to lie – I had a great time as a drinker. Until I didn’t anymore…
Liv: I love your post on recovery jitters, specifically the difficulty in being calm you have experienced in sobriety, and how that is at odds with your drinking state. Why do you think this is?
Marilyn: I was a classic “dry drunk” for the first two years of my sobriety. I isolated, substituted party bags of candy for wine and put off the inevitable joining in the “jolly” dance of life. I think my jitters have to do with being legitimately busy and with wanting to be in the moment and enjoy everything in new found clear-headedness. I am also new to busyness and participation. Maybe it will wear off when the positive aspects of my sobriety become old hat, but I am hard pressed to take it easy at the moment…
Liv: In your experience of early sobriety, you reflect on some irksome advice of a psychiatrist; namely, to ‘Replace alcohol with good addictions’ – Would you describe that as an oxymoron? Can you describe your reaction to their advice?
Marilyn: Oh God. That poor psychiatrist (and anyone else who attempted to tame the beasts that prowled my psyche in the old, drinking days). I went to him because I was not comfortable with some of my post-divorce behavior. But I lied to the shrink whenever he asked about a behavior I was uncomfortable with… You see the vicious cycle?
I am still annoyed by the concept of substituting a “bad” addiction for “good” for two reasons: first, at the time I was not able to stop drinking on a dime and second, the way I obsessed, I would have turned a good habit upside down in no time – lurking at my children’s schools or producing thousands of macramé plant holders…
Yes, “good addiction” is an oxymoron.
Liv: And what have been some of the challenges of transitioning from harmful behaviours to ones which are more helpful?
Marilyn: I have been honest about the fact my early recovery was not all roses and reggae. I was bored and resentful and bratty. I had issues with the resurgence of an old eating disorder and I gained weight. I found that addressing some of the root causes of my alcoholism were better left under a rug…
Interestingly, at the “advanced recovery” point of two years, things began to improve. I no longer felt like climbing out of my own skin while sitting with friends in restaurants or bars. I began to appreciate my memory and my smarts. I lost the “freshman 15” of sobriety. And suddenly making choices that were wise and healthy made sense. The transition was organic.
Liv: In trying new things, you shared your story of cycling – this really made me laugh-what have been some of the things you have tried?
Marilyn: Many of the “new things” I have tried are really old things revisited. I had a friend ask me if I liked the symphony the other day and I said, “I hate the symphony. Wait. Maybe I don’t…I have only been to the symphony drunk, spending more time in the lobby bar than my seat. Maybe I like the symphony…” I’m going to have to try it out and see.
I recently played pool for the first time sober. I hike and take long, long walks near any body of water. I do Pilates and go to the gym when I can. I have begun to read for pleasure again…
Liv: Has disordered eating featured in your experience?
Marilyn: Yup. I suffered from binge-purging all through my college years, but my eating issues were under control. One thing I did not know about getting sober is that often, former eating disorders crop up out of nowhere like the head of a hydra. That is what happened to me. I still grapple with a yen for candy that is way, way past a sweet tooth. And it’s best if I don’t have laxatives in the house.
Liv: What does recovery nutrition look like to you?
Marilyn: I eat. I sleep. I poop naturally. All things I didn’t do regularly for the many years of my active addiction. I eat berries or a green juice in the morning, salad or more fruit at lunch, popcorn for a snack and a regular dinner. I have to be careful of trail mix, frozen grapes and sweetened yogurt (can you say transfer addiction?). I have cut processed foods and sugar from my diet completely, because when I eat one piece of candy I end up sneaking a jumbo bag into a dark room and holing up to eat it. Then I go to the store and buy a case of Mallow Mars…
Is that a GOOD addiction, doc?
Liv: I could really ask questions of you all day! But I’ll move to the last question: What are your top five recovery tools?
Marilyn: This is easy:
1. Community – I do not allow myself to be alone too much (my natural “go to” when I’m in a
2. Advocacy – I try to help others by researching addiction and recovery and publishing what
seems to be working to keep myself and others sober
3. Exercise – I hike or jog or go to the gym or do Pilates or run up the stairs every day
4. I just say, “No!” Seriously – when I am about to derail I say it out loud
5. I give myself a break. I have been through a lot. I have a lot to be thankful for – a lot to be proud of…
Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk at Liv’s Recovery Kitchen table.
Thank you. Great questions – this was (sober) fun…