Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dragging into the future

So today I finally decided to level up and step a little further out of my comfort zone and created my own site for my blog.

Going forward, I will be writing at

Thank you all for reading and I hope you'll continue to follow this journey.


Monday, January 15, 2018

A cold wind

" A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things."-- George R.R. Martin

Winter snapshots from my past:

I sat on a log on the shore, my numb fingers feeling oddly separate from me as I watched them lacing up my skates.  My breath rose like smoke in front of my eyes, as I peered over the top of my scratchy scarf. In the moonlight, the lake glistened and stretched ahead into the dark for miles. The frozen ripples of waves near the shore were bumpy under my skates as I headed out towards the smooth center, pulling my thick mittens back onto my cold fingers.  There was no sound except the scraping of my skate blades, the occasional rustle of trees in the circling darkness around the glow of the lake. Now and again I would hear the groaning echoes of the ice as it would shift and sing and moan beneath me, reminding me of ancient whales singing somewhere in another frozen place.  The moon shifting slowly overhead, my leg muscles burning as I skated, racing ever onward to the darkened shore of the other side. I spent countless weekend hours like this. I never thought to complain about the cold. My thoughts focused only on the smooth gleaming ice beneath me, the speed, the way the air moved in and out of my lungs, stinging wind on my face. I was temporarily invisible, in a lonely place of cold and dark but still buoyed up by the magic of the moon, the music of the ice.

And another...

My boots crunched in the frozen deep snow along a half-mile perimeter of barbed wire. I had my M-16 at the ready, my black Army-issued balaclava scratching my face where my breath froze into crystals. The temperature hovered right around 2 degrees. My Tyvek jacket and fleece socks were fighting a losing battle against the bone-chilling cold.   The icy darkness stretched out along the wire, yet strangely lit from beneath by the deep snow. My voice sounded small, speaking into my hand-held radio, "Tower 6 moving right".  I could hear a few other staticky voices checking in as re-assurance we were not all out there alone in the frozen bleak. I reached the outer limits of the wire,  then crunched the other direction for another half a mile.  I repeated this trek every two hours as part of Guard Duty on Comanche Base in the middle of Bosnia-Herzegovina long ago.  I thought of fellow soldiers sleeping warm and safely in their bunks as I trudged along for a 12-hour shift in the inky darkness of night. The long hours of walking, freezing then re-thawing in my tower, lost in thoughts and lulled into some kind of other-world with my isolation and the frozen dark and the hypnotizing white all around.  Until one night there was someone on the other side of the wire. He appeared suddenly, like a phantom out from between snow-laden pine boughs, his dog at his knee, his shotgun held over his arm.  I froze.  Breathless.  And so did he.  Our eyes met and held for a full count of ten. Then he raised his hand and saluted me, turned and walked back into the white pines, the branches swaying slightly in the cold wind. I rubbed my eyes wondering if I'd somehow been dreaming.

I can think of a thousand stories of winter, and I could wax poetic forever about my love of snow, the way it covers and muffles everything, the beauty of it, the incredible wonder of little footprints, yet for as long as I can remember I have always hated this time of year. The space after Christmas when hard winter settles in for real, when spring and the promise of bursting green buds and life and hope seem endlessly far away. It's the winter blahs, when it's bleak and mud or bleak and dirty snow and the magic seems to have drained out of me and it's all cabin fever and dry skin and sniffly noses and no number of candles I light or hot cups of tea I drink seem to be able to penetrate the cold gloom that arises from deep within me. I hate it. Seasonal affective disorder. Such a dumb name for something so hard to describe. Joy Vampire? Fleece and angst-itis?

This last half of my second sober year has been rough.  I told someone the other day that it's basically kicking my ass. Since right before the holidays, I've been dealing with a sudden identity crisis due to a major cut back of my hours at work, (as in zero hours).  A major source of my sense of self, and also the source of a lot of trauma has basically been ripped away.  I feel almost like I'm in a second adolescence where I get to decide who or what I want to be, minus the old labels. Of course, this crisis occurs at the time when my usual high energy almost always seasonally ebbs, leaving me bone tired, in a place where no amount of sleep seems to put a dent in my heavy weariness. It also comes at the worst possible time from a realistic, financial standpoint as I struggle not to panic and visions of ramen noodles and malnourished kids and burly car repo types dance in my head.

These days self-care is summed up by actually changing out of my flannel cat jammie pants and making the effort to shower, going to the closet to get a clean fluffy white towel instead of just grabbing my daughter's hooded duck towel that is hanging on the back of our bathroom door. I put on jeans and a plain sweatshirt, feeling like some kind of colorless bird. I swipe a brush through my hair and put on some tinted moisturizer to cover my dark eye circles, and I try to smile while all the while that voice is there. The constant underlying voice that maybe all people who struggle with depression or addiction fight against. It whispers underneath it all as I pour cereal into bowls, brew coffee, drive kids places and read them stories, struggle through math homework, matching socks, wiping fingerprints off mirrors. It's there at the end of the day when I crumble into bed, and pull the duvet over my head and feel the comforting weight of a cat curl up in the place behind my knees and pray for oblivion and sweet sleep.  Its there when I answer the thousandth question of the day, through the endless litany of Mom, Mama, Mom, Mommy, the clearing up of yet another mess, the cycle of emptying and loading the dishwasher, the trudging up and down the stairs with the endlessly reproducing loads of laundry. It stalks me down the crowded aisle of the supermarket as I pick up bananas and whole grain bread and feel my eyes stinging in the cold as I load the plastic carrier bags into the back of my sensible minivan. It is there as I scroll social media and try not to compare my rumply insides with the perfect shiny outsides of countless "friends." It fades a little when I head out the door with a warm hat on and music in my ears, trying to move my body in search of those endorphins I am so sorely lacking.  It's there as I take my meds, drink another glass of water and remind myself that this too shall pass.

It's a terrible voice, the voice of depression.  I used to drink to drown it out, if not temporarily, for it always returned with more fuel every time I couldn't drink "successfully". The endless loop of old tapes. what did you think would happen when you always settle?  you are nothing special. you never have been. foolish girl thinking you deserve anything at all. everyone would be better off without you.  you're a fraud. everyone would walk away if they knew how stupid you really are. you are just taking up space. what is the point of you? it's so easy to think maybe I'm an illness or your "addiction" but what if I'm the only one telling you the truth? people tell you that you have a gift but really, being a storyteller is just a fancy way of saying you are a good liar. keep moving, because the emptiness is so staggering that you will fall apart if you truly looked at it. there is something wrong with you. what have you ever done that is worth anything? nothing would change if you disappeared. who are you without all your stories and lies? you are weak. you don't deserve better. your children really deserve better than you.

It's sickening. I want to run from that voice, scared to believe it might be right. It feels like it may be right. But it isn't.

I heard the phrase "emotional sherpa" the other day and found it to be the perfect description for what I'm feeling lately about the past, my role as recorder and storyteller and the repository of all the memories for my family, for myself.   The roles and labels I have clung to that need to be re-thought in light of this new me, the sober me. The baggage that I drag, the memories and the old worn-out narratives about me, my life, my mistakes. It falls in on me when I slow down and things are dark and quiet.  It's time to drop the baggage.  I only want to move forward carrying what serves me.  But I'm a slow learner. For me, it tends to be relinquishing inch by inch.  I'm internalizing how to talk back to that voice, how to replace those old tapes with new ones. To remember that feelings are just that. They aren't facts. I will get through this winter. And the next and the next.  Because underneath all of my stories, there is a core of steel that has never bent.  It's the part of me that has survived things I never should have. In recovery, I'm making a new me, forged around that central core, that spark of truth.  But I'm not doing it alone.

Camus said it so well: "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.  And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger--something better, pushing right back."

So, if you are struggling with your own winter of discontent, with deep sadness or shifting of roles, or wanting to isolate, or even somehow deeply mourning that old carefree you with pint in hand, the you of BEFORE, I want to remind you that you aren't alone.  The community of friends in recovery who drag us out of ourselves, challenge our assumptions, call us on our dramatic, overwrought bullshit.. they are part of the invincible summer. One of the gifts of surrender. A roadmap for when we get lost in our own heads and thoughts. So I challenge you: even if you are in an enforced hibernation due to mother nature being off her meds... if like me, some days it all feels dull and muffled and endlessly blah. Reach out. Talk about it. Tell the truth about where you are. You may be overwhelmed by the number of "me toos".  Because you are NOT the only one. Addiction wants you to believe that you are terminally unique, the only one suffering as you are. But you aren't. We recover.  We move on. We learn new things, and even if we slip down the slope a little and even fall off entirely, that's not the end of the story.  Not by a longshot. 

Spring is coming. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

It would be so nice

Six years ago, exactly one month and one day before Christmas, my husband nearly died. He had a two-week stay in the ICU where it was touch and go, another two weeks in a step-down unit and then finally discharged home on Christmas Eve, I suppose to lessen the load on the staff for the holidays but he was in no shape to be going anywhere.  It took him twenty minutes to get into the house, up our flight of stairs and into bed.  I remember tucking him in, and watching him immediately fall asleep from exhaustion. I bundled up the kids, holding the baby as my two older kids ran gleefully out into the frozen yard to sprinkle reindeer food in preparation for Santa's arrival.  I checked on my husband, then made a bunch of trips up and down stairs carrying packages from their hiding place in my closet, placing them under the tree. When everything was set for the morning and I was sure the kids were all snug and asleep and meds had been given to my husband, I finally flopped on the couch, sitting next to the plate of Santa's cookies and drinking a very large glass of wine that I had filled to the brim.  I don't think I even tasted the cookie that I ate for "authenticity", I was so lost in the feeling of absolute certainty that the magic was over and that things would never be the same again.

I knew my husband had a long, long recovery ahead. We had three children under the age of five, had just purchased our house, were debt free for the first time in our lives apart from our mortgage, and were both having success at jobs we loved. We had taken the kids to see Santa the day before it all happened,  and we had gone to bed that last night, leaving the naked Christmas tree we had chosen that afternoon waiting in the stand for us to decorate the following night. Instead, my husband was rushed into emergency surgery, barely alive.  And the tree sat for another few weeks, forgotten in the chaos.  I have a snapshot of all of us from that day with a sweet, twinkly-eyed, real beard Santa, the kids smiling hugely in their matchy-matchy outfits, and even if baby was looking a little askance at the big guy, she didn't cry. My hair was done, I was showered and wearing festive colors and I remember having a fleeting thought that day that maybe I was finally getting the hang of this three kid thing.  And that was the last moment where anything was remotely ok for a long, long time.

That Christmas Eve I lay awake on the couch downstairs, staring into the fire with eyes that felt like sandpaper.  The month before had been an exhausting trek back and forth to the hospital, shuttling and passing my kids off on friends, dealing with a baby who was weaning and wouldn't take a bottle from anyone but her parents, fielding a house-decimating run through of the norovirus that left me up to my eyeballs in sick kids and laundry and disinfection while trying to find coverage for my shifts at work and sneaking in to the hospital after visiting hours to check on my husband when I had a neighbor over to listen for wakeful babies.  I was utterly terrified and overwhelmed and at a level of fatigue I had never experienced before, but still wanting to give my children the perfect magical Christmases I had always remembered as a child.  I knew all of it was more than I could handle.

I rolled over trying to get comfortable on our shabby sofa and smooshed a tiny penguin toy someone had given my youngest for Christmas. It was a cheapy drugstore toy with a lopsided hat, stripey scarf and sang "Holidaaay, celebrate, it would be so nice" in a squeaky little penguin voice when you pressed its tummy.  I think I had hidden it behind the pillows to get a break from it's cheerful chirpiness. So, lying there in the light of the dying fire and the glow of the Christmas tree I had decorated with the big kids "help", listening to that little voice echoing in the quiet house I remember thinking it would be so nice not to be in this moment at all. I wanted to forget that upstairs my three children slept, unaware of how close their dad came to dying, how close I was to utterly falling apart. How the man who was usually so strong and had already survived two brushes with death as a career soldier could barely even sit in a chair for more than ten minutes. I couldn't fathom how long it would be before he could return to his job at a construction site. How would I get back to my job as a weekend option nurse with no one to help watch my kids or provide care to my husband? What about the huge hospital bills? How would we pay the new mortgage with just my income and on and on... My brain was racing and I felt a lump of fear sitting in my chest that no amount of swallowing would make go away. So, I got up and refilled my wine glass.  And I refilled it again a little while later.  And that was the exact moment I opened the door and let the monster in.  The smooth-voiced monster that would lie to me and tell me I deserved it, as a break, to take the edge off, to help me sleep, to help me get through it all. Mommy's Little Helper.  And God knows I needed help. But it numbed the fear enough for me to get up and get through the exhausting days and not admit how much I needed help.

I had no idea how important the image of penguins would become at that time, or how many other Christmases full of pain and alcohol were waiting. It would be four years before I decided I was finally ready to put all the pieces of myself back together and cease living a sort of half-life.  I let my inner self just crumble as I handled all of it with a smile. Not one soul knew and I never let on.

The online support group that helped me finally get sober refers to its members as Penguins. Real penguins function in a hostile environment by huddling together.  The weaker or wounded members stay in the middle of the flock, and the stronger ones stand on the outside of the ring and withstand the blast of icy wind and rain, providing shelter to those inside the huddle.  Then when they are weary, others rotate to the outside to take their turn being strong and protecting those on the inside.  Its the perfect metaphor for how people in recovery serve and help each other through tough times. But more on that later.

I also didn't expect as I came into this, my second sober Christmas, that I would occasionally still have wistful thoughts about being able to enjoy eggnog or peppermint martinis like a "normal" person.  But taking a step back,  and acknowledging that "it would be so nice" also brought me to another Christmas revelation. My past and my present fold into each other as I journey further into sobriety.  Its no joke how tough it can be at holidays when expectations are so high and swirly memories and emotions lie just below the surface. I read somewhere that every sober day during the holidays should really count as two. That feels true.

My kids and I were watching A Christmas Carol, three days before Christmas. I prefer the old black and white version with Alastair Sim since he still has the best, most exuberant, throaty deep smoker's laugh when he realizes the moment that his entire life is ahead of him and he can't contain his joy and gratitude, running about in his nightdress and scaring the neighbors. This version was the kind of creepy CGI one that seems to be on all the time on the "25 days of Christmas" on tv but the story still sucked me in.  Who doesn't love the moody atmospheric gloom of Scrooges' lonely cold house and empty stingy life and the sudden shocking appearance of Marley's face on the door knocker?  The other side reaching out to this world... And that immense, trailing rattling iron chain he drags behind him..  My nine-year-old son Jack asked me what it was and why he had it wrapped around him and I told him "that's the chain that represents his deeds and attitudes; every time he was unkind or selfish or unforgiving another link was added. He's telling Scrooge that his is even longer since he's had more time to work on it."  The horror is visible in Scrooge's eyes as he imagines that.

"TIS A PONDEROUS CHAIN" Marley intones...

And I had an epiphany sitting there on my same shabby couch from six years ago. Shame was my ponderous chain.  Each time I drank and blacked out, each time I woke wondering what I said or did and each time I couldn't look myself in the mirror because I knew I was failing to be truly alive, failing to face my life, failing my children, I added a link. And each time I smiled and told people I was fine and accepted their praise of "I don't know how you do it" when I knew I was barely surviving I added a link. Each time I lied and presented the overcompensating perfect exterior, I added a link. Forget living with real joy or authenticity. I was a fraud, a liar, and every time I picked up a drink I added a link to my ponderous chain.

And when I got sober, and stayed that way, at some point that chain fell off.  Of course, I still have days where I disappoint myself, or lose my temper or have deeply embarrassing why the heck am I so dense moments.  But that terrible heavy chain of shame that was around my neck, dragging me down and choking me is GONE.  I never imagined it could ever go away.  I thought I would always feel its weight pressing me down, making it hard for me to breathe.  But so much hatred and self-loathing and fear and lies all fell off when I stepped out into the light and chose to stay there.  And suddenly I was much like Scrooge in his bed slippers flinging open his windows to see the white snow of London with new eyes and the whole entire world was full of wonder again.

So, as we careen into the end of the year and life feels spiky and pointy and possibly less than magical, I'm going to strive to maintain a sense of gratitude for my second chance and my own little visits to Christmas past that help point me where I want to go. In spite of dysfunctional families and mud instead of snow and a lot of nights where my eyes still feel like sandpaper and days where all of it feels like too much, this I know in my bones: Sober is better.  It's a miraculous gateway drug to a whole new life of possibility and transformation.  The penguins I've met along the way make it less lonely and help remind me of the truth when I get pummeled by the storms of life.  They remind me to tell the truth, to huddle in when I need to, to rest and take my turn in the quiet until I feel ready to rotate back out there. And that is gift enough. More than enough.

And so, as Tiny Tim observed: God Bless us, everyone.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Peaks and valleys

This fall has been a doozy so far. It's like I've been performing the Dance of Seasonal Affective Disorder Fairies, while wearing only one shoe.  This happens every year without fail: brought on by cold temperatures, sunset at 4:30 pm, sibling squabbles, darkness, evening activities where we are late and my sensory issued son freaks out constantly about having to wear actual winter clothes and everyone seems to be hungry all the time. Memories are surfacing as we approach the holidays, and my restlessness has been fueled by sometimes cringe-inducing "hey, remember this?" ON THIS DAY Facebook reminders, a sad farewell to my old ghetto minivan, a parade of viral illnesses that my kids bring home with such frequency that I wish we could just autoclave the entire house, or barring that, I've considered spelling out "Unclean" in Christmas lights on the roof of our house, for the duration of the season, oh and a giant WASP NEST that has caused an entire chunk of my living room ceiling to cave in, you know, the usual...

It's been a veritable parade of one thing after another. Super highs and super lows. And in the middle of it all, a gentle hum of internal brain buzzing that tries not to read too much into the patterns, the inevitable feeling of things falling away or going dormant that I always feel so heavily this time of year anyway.  November/December has always been a time of upheaval and change. My mood is as volatile as the stormy weather. Some days I'm all high energy badass, out crushing some sneaker therapy miles and other days I'm all low energy fragility/blah wanting to eat carbs and hibernate. I guess I'll take fragile badass over numb, though.

I can almost pinpoint the exact day that my drinking started going off the rails in November six years ago. And it was two years ago in November that I saw the end coming: I was riding the elevator down, down, down without brakes, blasting past limit and rule after rule and was trying so hard to get off. Thanksgiving that year was a blur of me dealing with dysfunctional trailer park type relatives and getting obliterated instead of setting limits and saying "no" to sitting at a table where my sister in law's mothers' boyfriend (I know, right?) who had just been paroled was waxing poetic about women' titties in front of my then seven year old son. Christmas Eve 2015 I got so drunk at a friend's open house that I was still drunk when the kids opened their gifts on Christmas morning.  I have no idea what they got from anyone, was squinting with one eye trying to not throw up during the whole gift opening and took a four hour nap in the afternoon.  I was awash in shame, blank spaces and disgust at myself for becoming what I was.  So, of course I drank that evening and then woke up shaking on December 26th for my first ever Day One. It didn't last, and I ended up hospitalized on Dec 30th with pancreatitis. I rang in the New Year alone in a hospital bed fighting withdrawal symptoms as the ball dropped. I'm not proud of it.  But it takes what it takes. And I'm thankful to say I've managed my second sober Thanksgiving and am ready for my second sober Christmas.  Hopefully the new memories will eventually stop the old squirmy shamey ones from kicking me in the gut.

In the midst of the sometimes ludicrous feeling that I'm just dealing with the apocalypse du jour, a few really major things have happened in the last few months.  I've struggled with writing about them, though.  I've opened my computer a dozen times and looked at the white glow of the waiting blank page and have been unable to find words. And while I know this is disjointed and all over the place, I'm writing it, at the least as a reminder to myself.

In July, I said goodbye to my beautiful Maddy, our almost 15 year old black lab.  She had been steadily declining all spring.  There were some days where she was confused, couldn't get up to walk to go outside. I would see her eyes on me as I helped clean her up after an accident, see the shame and pain in her face and still she would try to lick me as if to comfort ME.  Some days she would stumble and whimper and sleep almost all day.  Watching her declining was agonizing, and I didn't want to have to make the decision about when enough was enough.  It was painful seeing how excited my kids would get when she would have a good day, still wag her tail and perk up when she saw her beloved tennis ball: "see Mom, she's doing better today" and I would smile and blink away tears. I couldn't even talk about the end of life decisions without tearing up. She was a fixture in my life. She was always there in the background: from my army days when she would youthfully leap into the back of my Jeep, ready for adventures long before my first baby was born, then later faithfully watching over the two babies that followed, and even in the last days always wanting to be wherever we were. My kids would snuggle up to her soft fur and whisper all their best secrets to her.  In every photo, on every holiday, through every illness, every move and life change she was there wagging her tail, looking at me with her wise brown eyes.  It was unthinkable to me to consider a life or a home without her in it.  So, the day came when I just knew it was time to say goodbye.  Because I'm sober, I was able to hold her and cry and say thank you for all the years of being there, even when I didn't deserve her unconditional love. When I first stopped drinking, there were so many days when she would curl up next to me as I sat in the deepest pain, just breathing through wave after wave of finally feeling again. She sat with me as I cried and kept me company in the wee hours as I tapped away on my computer, trying to find words for what I was feeling.

Because I was finally in a healthy place,  I was able to let her go and give her the gift of mercy; letting her be free from pain. It's been three months and I still look for her in "her spot" by the fireplace, miss greeting her, miss her soft ears and the "what ya gonna do" look that she would give me as the volume level rose and the kids swirled around us. She was calm and zen and all that is right in the world and her leaving has left a hole.  But I'm so glad I wasn't drinking, that I could spend her last days fully present.

In mid July, we had about ten days notice that my husband was being re-assigned with his job and in that time he packed up and moved to Louisiana for at least a year and a half.  I've been single Momming for almost four months now which is simultaneously more simple and more complex and gives me incredible amounts of admiration for single mothers. It's allowed me time to have some distance from my relationship which has been a rough ride the last few years and time to just be myself without worrying about managing another person's moods and behaviors.  It's been tough having no safety net and having my "emergency contact" be 1200 miles away.  There is no down time or break and that's been challenging from the standpoint of self care, but like everything else, it's one day at a time.

In September, smack in the middle of life changes and upheaval, I completed my first ever Triathlon at the age of 44.  It was 48 degrees when I went into the water without a wetsuit (noob error), and I almost immediately started hyperventilating due to the cold.  I pushed down my rising panic and had to breast stroke and float on my back when I got to the first buoy and talked to myself, trying to slow my breathing down.  I was floating there, with the blazing morning sun almost blinding me, and I looked towards the shore and saw an enormous white heron sunning himself on a log.  The sky was impossibly blue, I was surrounded by the choppy waves made by hundreds of swimmers and I thought "well, if this isn't amazing I don't know what is."  I was awash with gratitude for my sobriety, knowing how close I came to losing everything.  If someone had told me I would be competing in a triathlon 18 months before when I was a burnt out shell I would have never believed it. But I did it.  I conquered my fears in months of training, hours on the bike, mile after mile of reclaiming my mind and body from the ravages of alcohol.  And I wasn't even dead last!  The distance I have come so far on this journey is staggering when I think about it.  And while I may be middle aged and struggle with asthma, I was out there getting it done and achieving a goal I'd had since I was seven years old. Only because I choose to be sober every day.

It's easy to lose sight of the trajectory of recovery when I get bogged down in the minutae of life.  I find myself trapped in that old useless game of comparing my insides to others' outsides. This time of year especially, I see the seemingly perfect moms who can drink normally and have their houses tastefully decked out for Christmas on Nov 24 while my house, in the midst of a giant de-cluttering project looks more like it was styled by an F-5 tornado after it hit a Goodwill and I feel LESS THAN. I forget to look back at where I've come from, what I've handled in 2017 without my old frenemy alcohol.  In those moments, having sober friends to remind me of the miracle that is my sobriety is invaluable.  Because it's too easy to lose sight and let my joy be stolen when I compare myself and get bogged down in all the "shoulds."

This week I am only working one day, so am committing to purging and cleaning out closets and my frightful basement: all the things that were stuffed or shoved somewhere else in those years when I was just surviving. Yesterday I found chicken in my chest freezer from 2014!  Yep. Addiction isn't pretty. There's a reason there isn't a Martha Stewart Collection for Moms who hide whiskey and wine and put literally everything somewhere to "deal with it later."

I guess Later is here.  As with other difficult aspects of my recovery, I'm just diving into it and embracing the suck.  It's not easy to face the truth. The irony of the changing of seasons, the shifting of light and shadow, the dying away, the cycle of living things going dormant, coupled with the symbolism of resurrecting old boxes, and throwing away vestiges of a life that went off course for a while isn't lost on me.  Some days are easier than others and then there are moments when I just have to close the door and go drink some tea or take a bath and tell myself to stop being so f-ing dramatic and symbolic.. sometimes clutter is just clutter and other times I suppose it's not.  The memories are painful, and as I exorcise old things and clear room for the new, I feel like I'm healing.

It's funny, how this healing happens in layers and circles, and I travel over and around the same places and memories: scorch marks on my timeline from old traumas that have gone dormant.  I'm clearing room, tip toeing around other things that I'm not ready to deal with yet, but getting stronger with each small victory.

There have been many days that I've wanted to drink. I think I imagined that I would stop feeling those cravings, that desire to escape from what feels like TOO MUCH some days. I'm still surprised by how easily those thoughts and feelings slip in, as I approach twenty one months sober but I am also grateful for the reminder to stay on guard.  I don't feel like "I got this" by any means.  I still have a fear that it could all just be swept away by one poor decision and so it reminds me to be diligent; to be thankful, in this season of thanksgiving.  I'm still not grateful for all of it yet. I'm still pissed about a lot of it and coming to terms with that being ok too.

My life and recovery is messy and non-linear, and full of peaks and valleys. It's not going to be a nice little story with a perfectly tied bow. My friends like to remind me that perfection is boring when I lament my hot mess state.  I've been chasing some form of perfection for too long. Enough now.

So that is perhaps the biggest relinquishment of all: to allow my story to just be what it is, and permit myself to watch in wonder as it unfolds.

*never going to thankful for the wasp nest though! That would just be crazy.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Early June. Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

A thick fog was hovering in almost perfect stillness over the water. I could see nothing through the grey, yet I could hear waves crashing onto the unseen rocks. The air was cold and I shivered in my sweatshirt clutching my "regular" Dunkin Donuts coffee in one hand while carrying a net and a bucket in the other. In between odd jobs painting houses and picking up shifts at the local ER as a medical assistant, I had scraped together enough tuition money to enroll in a Summer Marine Institute program at my college. I was working on a pre-med degree and had chosen a field course since I had always learned better outside of a traditional classroom.  It was taught by Dr. A, a tiny slip of a woman with wild curly grey hair and the balance of a mountain goat. I'm not exactly sure how old she was since she had the tan, weathered skin of someone who has spent their entire life outdoors and in my 19 year old foolishness, I of course thought that anyone over 30 was ancient.  I think she was in her late 70s, yet none of us could keep up with her as she leapt with ease up huge rocks and around slippery tide pools, never falling or slipping in masses of seaweed and unflagging in her enthusiasm for finding the perfect specimen.  She was an expert on all types of North Atlantic sea life, both animal and vegetable, and she was hell bent on sharing her passion with her students.  It was our second day out collecting specimens and breathing that particular loamy, salty fishy smell that is unique to the North Shore.  Later that morning I sat sketching periwinkles and fucus vesiculosis (aka bladderwrack) in my somewhat damp notebook, looking at rocks covered in layers of barnacles, admiring how the waves had cut smooth channels as it had flowed off in foamy rivers, wave after wave, year after year.  She noticed me looking at them and said quietly, almost to both of us, "water is the strongest force on earth and it's the universal solvent. All it needs is time."

When she said that,  I was thinking in terms of literality, thinking how that couldn't be true- that it could never dissolve oil simply because of the properties of covalent and non-covalent bonds. And it's only now, twenty five years later that I think I understand what she meant about time and solvents. I knew she had been widowed at a young age, and was always out on the water, or in the water.  In that phase of life in my own self-centered way I didn't really understand anything yet.  She would often wax poetic about the therapeutic properties of sea water and tears; words I remember now.  She was talking about coping with pain and the unexpected. She was living her passion and healing herself at the same time, but I was blind to that.

She spoke about how water moves through the air, the ground, even inside our own cells and bodies and takes along chemicals, minerals and nutrients. It is part of us, around us, in us, flows through us.  It's a wondrous and mysterious force. Like time.

The summer I spent lugging buckets of fish and urchins and learning the scientific names of snails, fish, plants and birds was one where I was deeply lost.  I was incredibly lonely, yet the desolate beaches of Cape Ann and Plum Island appealed to my desire to be invisible, to be lost in a landscape that was bigger than the girl I had become. The hefty athlete's appetite that had been no problem in high school was suddenly a bad fit for my new sedentary life as I started college and worked and focused on studying.   I ballooned.  By that summer, I felt like I took up too much space. I had an anorexic roommate who was shrinking and dying while I exercised and ate compulsively. I was alarmed at her decline, but unable to stop my own descent into an eating disorder.  The voices that told me I wasn't good enough, too soft, too weak, ugly, unworthy were too loud. I would tell myself I was a failure because I lacked the discipline to starve myself like she could.  I wasn't the tiny fragile ethereal blonds that were the style of the times. I was a chubby girl with a round face and unflattering hair cut hiding in baggy clothes, hating myself so much. I longed for attention from the boys around me, but none of them noticed me.  I thought it was crazy that I could be so big and unseen at the same time.

I would starve myself, then crack and binge eat and then throw up and exercise compulsively for hours and hours, always in the dark, where no one could see me restlessly circling my campus for mile after mile driven by a desire to transform and to return to my old athletic self but unable to curb the insatiable hunger that had grown unmanageable .  Food numbed me and the rush and the exhaustion of the binge and the purge left me outside of myself for just a few moments. It was an act of violence against myself and when it was over, when I felt empty and light and spent, I would swear  that it would be the last time. I would be normal. I would get it together and stop.  I was stuck in an endless cycle that seemed to have no exit. I was spinning and going nowhere. But sitting on those beaches, with my feet in ice cold tidal pools, looking for elusive specimens to catch or draw in my notebook, I felt almost ok. The ocean made me feel safe as I gazed out at its vast wild. There was a big change coming.

Never in my fantasies was I ever me. I was always another person. Someone totally different. My outsides never matched how I felt on the inside. So I reinvented.  I became chameleon-like to see if I could be acceptable. I took on whatever form I thought would make me feel less "other". I didn't change for myself. I had no idea who that was. I just knew I was weak and fat and too sensitive. I  knew that my dreams were never going to come true unless I changed into someone else completely.  And with that first burning sip of alcohol, I found the key.  I finally lost the weight because now I had a new self destructive cycle.  I got edgier, harder, stronger, leaner, faster.  And with each drink, I imagined that I was finally the self I wanted to be. I had the courage to behave the way I felt on the inside. Brave, brash, not caring what others thought. Fearless, sexy, like I could have all the things I had watched everyone else getting for years while I stood on the sidelines waiting like a good girl.  I still had some struggles with food and  body image but I had my new thing. The thing that made me feel ok. It was all ok once I had those first sips and felt it rush through my blood like a warmth that made me forget.  And it went that way for years. Until the absolute pain of not having the insides match the outside returned in a different way.  Until my life was consumed by shame and the cognitive dissonance that can only result when you live in a way that is actually daily flirting with death.

When I was first struggling to get sober or stay sober for more than a few patched-together hours or days in a row, I had one central idea:  if I could just get sober, it would solve everything. Just stop drinking. It would be like water... dissolve all the messiness and the problems I drank over like some kind of magic. The ultimate cleanse.

Only it wasn't. It was more like a magnifying lens on my life. Too bright, too loud, too messy, too much was the theme during those initial raw months.  I simply couldn't imagine being at peace in my own head, inside a body that felt like it's skin was on inside out. Nerve endings screaming, brain scattered to the winds. I could not sit still. It was nothing like I had imagined.

I read somewhere that growing up means putting aside consoling fantasies.  For me, that meant setting aside the notion that I could ever drink normally. And for a while, at the start of sobriety the unknown "solution" of getting sober was another sort fantasy. I thought if I could just get that one thing right then everything that was wrong, or broken or unrecognizable about myself after so many years of cumulative damage would be all better. The universal solvent. Like Dr A's water. A force that would sweep away and wear down and smooth out the rough edges. That has been both true and not true.

These last eighteen months of sobriety  I've been doing the work of sifting through all the history and the wreckage. I unearthed about twenty old journals from a musty box in my basement.  I sat down and read my own voice writing about the paths I chose. I read the pain and the aimless reach for meaning.  I read the words of the girl I was, see how my voice changed once alcohol became part of me. How that voice changed even more when I deviated from the path everyone expected and instead became a soldier and then an ER nurse.  It's all there in green ink in my tiny neat hand writing... like a road map to self-destruction. I can read how I pushed harder and went farther and faster, yet underneath there was still that same desperation of the chubby girl just wanting to fit in, except now I "knew" that weakness was unacceptable and hid all of my fear behind mirrored aviators with a BDU cap pulled low or under my calm exterior as I handled another horrific injury at work where only I knew that my hands were shaking.  I wrote about it all: how I learned to carefully separate my own ambitions from the attention of men as I used them the way I had felt used. Underneath my layers of armor I hid how I never felt good enough or like I deserved any kindness. I set out to be tougher than anyone, would work harder, go faster and faster trying to outrun those old voices. With each trauma, I told myself not to be weak and added to my layers of armor. The scars thickened and alcohol came along for the ride, clouding my judgement and telling me the lie that I wasn't terrified and small on the inside.   Its not a great story.  I see so many places where I could have gone a different way.  I could have leaned into kindness or taken a softer, easier path than I did. But I'm making peace with it.

I realize that once again I am reinventing myself, because there is no going back to who I was "before."  Because in looking at my story, I don't think I had any idea who that was to begin with. I'm just now finding out who I am.  Without labels or mood altering substances. Just myself.  Seems a little late to be getting to know her, particularly when I've been so unkind to her all these years. But that's what I'm doing, every day, slowly. It feels like a gift. And I'm no longer afraid.

I'm learning to replace self-destruction with self care. Accepting soft. Allowing vulnerability and being small.  I'm not just giving kindness to others until the well is dry in some desperate bid for worth, or doing senseless things just to feel "ok".   I don't have to prove anything.  I practice letting my emotions and thoughts ebb and flow and swirl like water, cleaning out things and bringing in new ones like tides.

I am deliberately writing a new life. And I bring all the cumulative lessons and scars and false starts and healing that is happening slowly in layers and circles. I don't know the ending yet.

But I know that I like this story.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Rip off the plastic

Have you ever gone to visit an elderly relative, been ushered into their somewhat musty-smelling living room full of old yellowed photographs in garish frames, knickknacks, military memorabilia and scratchy crocheted pillows?  They motion for you to sit down and as you do you have a sudden realization that the couch is shiny and CRUNCHES and instead of sinking in like a regular couch you just sort of perch atop the thick clear plastic cover. You try to make polite small talk as you realize that you are beginning to sweat and you are totally uncomfortable in a way you have never experienced before.

Later, when you've eaten cookies and had strangely strong unsweetened iced tea and it's time to leave, you try to get up and if you are wearing shorts, make an obscene sucking sound as you separate yourself from the plastic. Your legs are stinging and you are scared to look to see if you left any skin behind as you stoop to receive heavy on the aftershave kisses from your very tiny elderly uncle who seems to be held up by his massive belt buckle alone.  Anyone else had this delightful experience? Or maybe it was just me.

I'm not sure if it's a generational thing: folks who lived through the Depression and WW2 and saved things "for special occasions" decided that covering their couches in thick clear plastic covers meant that they would endure indefinitely.  I guess what they lived through meant they were willing to give up comfort and the very essence of "couches" for an illusion of everlasting newness?  I mean, everything about a couch that is couch: comfortable, shabby, womb-like on bad days, with the perfect lumpish pillows, where you can curl up with a book and your favorite blanket and maybe spill a little coffee or tea but it's a practical brown or greige color and so it's ok. It just gets more worn and more comfortable and to others it may be a little questionable, but to you it's just your couch.

I've been thinking about this lately when I consider what life was like when I was drinking and also as it applies to my relatively new sobriety. In those years when my drinking went off the rails and crossed over from being a coping mechanism that worked for the most part, to something that absolutely was going to kill me, alcohol was like that plastic couch cover. When I was drinking nothing touched me, nothing stained me, there was no wear and tear.  I was perfectly preserved and uncomfortable as hell in a prison of my own making.  I had armor. I felt nothing, or if I started to, I was quick to smother it in a sea of wine or whiskey.

And now that I'm sober, I feel like my sobriety is something I'm protecting in a similar fashion. It was so hard won that I think part of me thinks it needs to be preserved at all costs.  Forget comfort, I'm covering it in thick plastic because I'm scared it's going to be ruined.

RELAPSE: the boogie man, the scary clown, the monster in the closet of those of us who are in active recovery.  I fear it.  And so I wake up every day and decide, today is not the day.

I've been reading a lot and listening to podcasts on relapse: the signs, the ways you slip and slide and honestly, it scares the shit out of me to hear people tell their stories. People who had lowish bottoms like mine, who had years of sobriety and then relapsed in huge, painful, public ways. They went down HARD.  And the common denominator seems to be that they stopped making sobriety their number one priority.  It's tempting, even at almost 15 months which is just a drop in the bucket to think that I can take a day off, slack on the self care, maybe indulge in some old patterns of thinking. But where does that lead?

The other deadly error for many seems to be overextending, even in recovery advocacy work.  Once things got out of whack, the drinking came roaring back and as we have heard ad infinitum, the drinking picks up right where it left off.  Everyone who relapsed says that getting sober again is harder than staying sober.  I read all of this and so I stay in my little sober cocoon.  I keep my sobriety under wraps where it's safe.

But then I get to the big themes of Service. Breaking stigmas.  So much work that needs to be done.  Yet I look around at others I feel are better qualified to do it than me.  I sit and wait for them to do it, and wonder why nothing is changing in public opinion.  How are these stigmas and fears ever going to change unless WE, the sober, the alive and thriving ones show people what it looks like?  And what does that mean for me personally? At what point do I decide that I'm "legit" enough, that my sobriety it strong enough for me to put myself out there?

That's what I'm pondering these days.  I'm trying these thoughts on for size, and saying them out loud. Admitting my fears and cowardice makes it seem less powerful in a way.  Of course I'm scared.  Who wouldn't be after all I've been through the last few years and as my fried synapses are healing it almost shocks me at random times when I take an inventory to realize I feel freaking awesome.  Even when I'm tired, it's a good tired.  An honest tired from being engaged with my three kids all day, or working in the garden or a shift in the ER, or running a few miles at the end of the day. I never want to go back to that soul-dead crushing exhaustion that haunted my every day, my every waking moment that I wasn't drinking. I don't want to lose what I've found.

And yet I wonder if my fear is just a safe little excuse not to be brave...

One of my favorite books as a child was the Velveteen Rabbit; the story of how this little rabbit was played with and had adventures and to the critical eye, he got shabbier and shabbier as time passed, yet he became more beautiful and magical to the boy who loved him because of the experiences and time they spent together.  Like my shabby couch where I float off to far off Netflix lands and my lazy dogs curl up when they think no one is looking, and my kids watch tv and eat cereal in their jammies in the morning and it's all just comfortable and not something we save "for a special occasion."  I wonder if in keeping it so close, if in being so afraid to mess it up or get some dings and scratches on it if my sobriety doesn't have a chance to be fully Real?

Am I ready to rip off the plastic?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

We Recover

Contrary to what I've learned in the past about the stages of grief, in this life of loss and moving on, I'm finding that grief doesn't unfold in some easily identifiable, progressive pattern like I'm playing a board game. Like "Ok, I rolled a 2, now I jump ahead two squares from denial to bargaining.. Ooh I rolled a 10, onto anger for me.." No, it's not that neat. It's a crazy hopscotch of two steps to the left, a hard right into acceptance and then back to anger again with a little detour back to denial and a two week cruise on the river of bargaining.  I'm aware that I don't always just grieve the "right" things. Even letting go of things not meant for us leaves a hole that has to heal. I've found that even though by the end I was desperate to be free from my addiction to alcohol, a loss is a loss and the natural pattern of healing has to play itself out.

I've moved through all the phases multiple times this past year.

So now I'm into year two and kind of looking around like "what now?" That first raw year of newborn sobriety where I just laser focused on survival and maintaining my tender, non-drinking life has now morphed into an unexpected phase where this disease is fighting back with a toddler ferocity at being squelched.  I wasn't expecting to suddenly have days of self-pity and moments where I wonder if I'm all better now. I have irrational moments of sadness that this is the new normal which is crazy because sometimes normal is amazing and good and why would I ever want to go back to that life?  The half life of "before". Yet the thoughts cross my mind about moderating or trying to drink like regular people do.  Even when I know that ship sailed a long time ago.  Now that the first "make it to a year sober" milestone is met and I'm getting into the long haul I find myself contemplating grief and the idea of DNF.

I think its safe to say that a commonality among recovering alcoholics/addicts is a tendency toward perfection, workaholism, hiding weakness, not accepting help, not wanting to appear, well, like recovering alcoholics or addicts.  Which means that even sobriety we want to do perfectly. We want to ace it.  We want to knock it out of the park, get the medal, be a hero.  Yet the very nature of what we are trying to do: get real, show vulnerability, feel all the feelings means that this is a totally messy process.

I had the amazing opportunity to attend #SheRecovers in NYC this past weekend.  Basically, it was like the hall of fame for people in recovery: speakers like Glennon Doyle Melton, Elizabeth Vargas, Nikki Myers, Gabby Bernstein and Marianne Williamson.  They are sober women who are revered, and looked up to; women who have learned and lived and written books, all looking fabulous while doing it and kicking down doors for recovery advocacy while wearing super high heels.  There were famous sober bloggers and yoga gurus and poets and it was all incredibly inspiring in a way that kind of defies describing.

In attendance were 500 women all in various stages of recovery from a variety of things, from all over the US and several other countries, all converging on a beautiful hotel in Manhattan just steps from the Freedom Tower. Early Saturday morning a group of 25 or so of us ran along the Hudson. It was hazy and cool and there was talking and laughter as we ran through beautiful Battery park, looking out across the water to Lady Liberty and ahead towards the looming Brooklyn bridge, the city strangely hushed at that hour.  It was incredible to run in the company of other women who "get it". And all weekend long there was hugging and laughter and deep discussions and that "me too" recognition and groups soaking up each other's company.  It was remarkable hearing women with 10+ years of sobriety asking questions with raw emotions in their voices, still deeply engaged in the struggle.  And while I truly admired their eloquence and years of sobriety, part of me recoiled a little: like, wow I hope I'm not still that raw at 12 or 13 years.  And I realize how bad that sounds in a way.  And then of course all the woo woo it's your journey, lean into the pain, one day at a time pearls of wisdom that I've been trying to incorporate into my head and heart reminded me that everyone is different and no two recoveries are the same.  But there's still a part of me that hopes to be leaping buildings by year 12. Is that crazy?

I also was finally able to meet in person the Super Six: the group of women who have saved my life in this first year of sobriety.  What started as a text accountability group became something none of us could have imagined.  At the beginning of last summer, I knew I was going to struggle.  I knew with my three spirited kids home and all bumping into each other, my busy job and our reputation as the "pool party central house" that it was going to be a rough road. So I did something utterly unlike me. I asked for help.  I reached out on my support group board where I had been posting almost daily and suddenly we had a group.  And it's been nothing short of remarkable.  In the past year, we've talked each other through both incredibly hard and mundane things. And all of us have maintained our sobriety. Meeting them was beyond words.  Six sisters.  And we just picked up where our rambling, long text and video conversations left off; just in person.   It was a weekend full of laughter and deep talking and just solidified for me that connection is the opposite of addiction.  It was a balm at the end of a year that left me with not one single surviving "in real life" friendship.  I got sober and everyone scattered. So, to meet these sisters who have helped me as I move through that grief was a gift.

On Sunday morning the six of us decided to run across the Brooklyn Bridge.  Halfway over, with five lanes of traffic below me and the wind blasting in my face, I looked all around me at the incredibly surreal, breathtaking view and it struck me that just a little over a year ago, I couldn't even walk to my mailbox without getting winded.  Yet there I was, with five of the most amazing women I have ever met, on our second early morning run in as many days, running five miles like it was nothing.  Later that morning we stood together at the 9/11 memorial in the eerie quiet and it was overwhelming to consider that I was there in that sacred place.  But I didn't need to escape from the emotions it brought up in me.  I could look down into the endless falling cascading water and feel profound sadness and awe.  I wasn't numb.  I could stand there in that moment and realize just how remarkably far we have all come.  In one year, I have gone from soul-sick and near death, and being the kind of person who found memes like "If you see me running you better run because I'm being chased by something" utterly relatable and have become a woman who gets up early and moves and breathes and runs and  LIVES.  I'm not wasting my life anymore. And I don't have to stand there ashamed at the site where so many had their lives violently taken away.  I am profoundly lucky that I am still alive; that I can make connections and form relationships.  I can drive through the Holland tunnel and not have my heart rate go over 60 when I would have been a hyperventilating ball of anxiety with sweating palms and shaky hands 426 days ago.  That's remarkable.  It blows me away completely.  And it gives me a sense of purpose. And fear.

So now I'm home and the inevitable "what now" hits again.  It was a mountain top. Yet as we are reminded, we live in the valleys.  That's where the daily grind, the opportunities for pain are. And if this past year has taught me anything it's that the pain is what makes us grow.  Part of me wants to blast ahead, to the next mountain.  To become a recovery advocate who kicks down doors in her bad ass high heels or maybe in my old combat boots.  Yet, I'm reminded that this journey I'm on is just one day at a time.  One step at a time.  I get too far ahead of myself or spend too much time dwelling on what's past, then I risk becoming a DNF.  Did not finish.  I want to finish my race, without regrets, in whatever messy way that is entirely mine. And after this weekend, I know even more deeply that I do not journey alone.