The atmosphere at the club is chaotic; there’s a Halloween potluck and dance assembling. Friends flit in and out and talk, smoking or vaping outside and loudly laughing; the energy is high. Flirtations – eyes casting about at one another. Parcels of hot food unwrapped and placed on the tables. It’s cold and crisp outside and warm and convivial indoors. I love seeing people in costume – some of them rag-tag or incomprehensible, others quite developed. You discover a little more about your friends when you see them in their glad rags.
I type this from on my couch, in a quiet home as dusk falls on a beautiful warm spring evening. My feet are up and my fourteen year old son’s head rests in my lap as he sleeps.
Today I celebrate seven years’ sobriety. I woke up to texts from friends, and an invitation (or rather a prompting), to attend a meeting. Of course I would go. I go to meetings several times a week and I can’t think of missing one on my birthday like that. On my kitchen counter rests two vases of lovely flowers; one from my husband, one from a friend. In my pocket a well-worn coin passed on to me by friends: VII.
Tonight my friend G. looked right at me and congratulated me on my sobriety and thanked me for my help in keeping his. I am not an inarticulate person but I find it impossible to communicate the depth of feeling I have for my brothers and sisters in recovery. They are the strongest people in my life, and the most unfailing.
Here’s the playlist from this last year. Enjoy.
Last night at a gathering I turned to one of my sons and I told him that for as long as I lived I hoped we had as close a relationship as we do today. And I add “If you ever want something less, if you don’t want to see me, I intend to respect that.”
People love to hear stories of addiction, as long as they are in the proper format and carry the correct message. The addict must describe the wretched circumstances of active use, at length. We should leave no unsavory detail undisclosed. We must emphasize the severity of our condition, our terrible mishaps and regrettable decisions, so the listener can assure herself that we were really bad, that they themselves do not have a problem. We become in their imaginings a caricature they can pity. Next: we must then perform an attitude of the chastened miscreant. Yes, but also of plucky hero, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. “I can do it! I love myself enough! Go me!” Our role is that of social scapegoat, a tidy morality tale. A fable of debasement and then squeaky-clean self-sufficiency. We satisfy the listener’s need for sentimentality and for Othering; the next thieving addict they see on the street will receive their righteous wrath.
And so it goes.
Wouldn’t it be a lovely fiction, then, if I were to say that it was my children who brought me to sobriety, if I could tell that inspirational story. It might go something like this: that after some horrible mishap or sloppy misadventure, one of my little tots said something especially piquant and I broke down on my kitchen floor, say, and had a cry. Et cetera. I realized I wasn’t doing my best and I decided to kick this thing, to stop drinking. I owe it to them. They need their mother at her best. That sort of thing.
Of course, that wasn’t the story at all. Back then my drinking seemed a minor footnote in a life that was a damned struggle. I remember nothing of note on the morning of my first day sober, especially not some pithy remonstrance from my partner or child. That day was business as usual until it wasn’t, and I got a good (figurative) slap and it took me a few days to even comprehend what had happened.
Because shit doesn’t go down like those Lifetime films, not usually anyway. Life comes at you fast, as they are wont to say. Live long enough and something will kick my ass pretty good and if I’m smart I won’t try to find a way to explain it away or sweep it under the rug.
Lasting sobriety brought me a toughness; more importantly, a clarity. What my children know, today, is that I carry it as my responsibility to sort my mess out. My job not to make excuses. My job to process my feelings with the appropriate parties (who are often not my children). For Christ’s sake, what do we have counselors, and sponsors, and peers, and partners for?
One of my enduring legacies as a mother is that my children can criticize me and they know that I will listen, and I will correct my behavior. This is a disciplined, grounding practice that is precisely easy once one gives into it, once I know I love my practice of mothering more than I love my egoic attachment to Self. This practice delivers me a great deal of self-respect as a parent. I have discovered I cannot “make” my children love or esteem or honor me and that it is inappropriate to try. Maybe most importantly, I do not explain away the hurts I have caused them. I don’t want to ever tell them it was okay that I hurt them. Not then, not today. I don’t want to hurt them and I don’t want to justify it if I do.
Being a mother has been, for me, a tremendous amount of work. I dislike the word “sacrifice” in this context, but I will say that on a daily basis and as the weeks and months and years have passed I have stood in a place and weighed one choice against the other, and if I found it at all possible I made the best choice for my child and I have done this when I didn’t know how I could possibly carry it off. I have done this hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of times. Maybe what has helped the most is to have that moment of footing to commit to something that frightened me, even if it hurled me into grief or was built upon the shakiest premise or if I received considerable adversity from others. Choosing my child over and over and soon it became choosing myself because it was my best self doing the choosing.
I did not know I had it within me to be a wonderful mother, but it has been a significant source of joy to find no small measure of competency in this vocation.
I’ve got a volunteer gig chairing recovery meetings and most the attendees of the meetings are men. I wouldn’t say they scare me so much as, I am wary. Two weeks ago one of them waited until I was distracted, came up behind me and grabbed a book I was using, flinging my phone to the floor. “Thanks, darlin’,” he stage-whispers, clutching my shoulder. I think to myself if I was to say, “Don’t touch me,” the reprisal I might get from him, or others. The thing is, men will touch or grab you when you are distracted. Like my dog who only tries to sneak outside when company comes over.
I do have boundaries and I do speak up. Last night another attendee kept pestering me, asking the same question over and over. I looked right at them and said, “I will tell you in a moment, M__”. Because I’m relatively direct I get treated in a more circumspect manner than I might otherwise be. I still hate those moments, though. I don’t like hurting someone’s feelings. No matter how often I remind myself they put themselves in that position.
Last night’s particular gentleman was missing a part of his body that makes speech possible; he could however whisper and he talked at me incessantly as I attempted to get the admin done for the meeting. I eventually looked at him directly and asked for him to let me be for a minute. That pause and looking right at someone – they get the message. Generally.
I have never wished I was a man in my life. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like if people respected my personal space, and if people – especially men – didn’t launch into conversation and attempt to monopolize my attention. Enough of this happens in one day and I start to shrink and disappear and feel like nothing but a receptacle. Every day I pray for strength but also gentleness, because as is evident from just these handful of anecdota, one could easily see how I could harden into anger and my words could shift from directness to cruelty.
I’ve had the middling misfortune of two very troublesome projects in my studio, and these set me back. I am very particular in my work and I rarely have a total loss but in one case I attempted a dress and only realized late into the project that it was unsalvagable. I took the thing apart (to re-use the fabric) but I am crushed at having sliced up yardage. I don’t know why I think everything I make should turn out perfectly: unreasonable. The project after this was a struggle too, but at least the end result is gorgeous.
So today Ralph and I tidied my workspace – it needs constant maintenance – and I cut some simple knitwear projects, including a shirt for my youngest son and a pair of loungewear pants for my own use. I too often go to bed in huge flannel pajamas and perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad but they are also quite shabby at the hems. I put the rest of the family’s clothing purchases ahead of my own most times but it makes sense, really. Ralph requires a professional wardrobe, and the kid are growing – so fast. Nels in particular is shooting up, his shoulders are broadening; stretch marks dance across his lower back and his knees. They children are so hungry all the time they scarcely say no to anything we offer to cook; I heard Nels acquiesce in delight to an offer of oatmeal, a dish which used to inspire the most tepid enthusiasm.
Every day after coffee with my husband, I take a shower, tie my hair up and put on my little zip-up hoodie and get to work. I would work all day if I didn’t have other responsibilities; children, mostly, and volunteer work. And feeding myself so I don’t collapse. Lately I’ve been out of balance: too much work, too much time on other people. I need more rest; I want to take more care of my home. I scooted past a young man today at a recovery meeting, a young man with a broken face who had just a couple days clean. Mistaking my passing for affection, he gave me this little sideways hug. My heart breaks in these little ways when these moments happen; there is no point trying to express what I’m feeling so I don’t try. But I look at him and ask if he’s staying for the meeting, and I remember his name and I know it means something to me.
Back home and my children come by and pull me in for a hug (if I’m standing); they prostrate themselves across my body (if I’m laying down). The college quarter is over and my oldest child has, as a birthday present, a new computer. Both kids shout and laugh from their little basement gaming room; supremely happy. They need this time, and time with friends and food and sleep and affection and those are most of their needs. The house is only tidied when I can yell at the kids to do some work, and when my husband puts his incredibly efficient housework into effect. His body is strong and so is his mind and both rarely slip.
I am sewing on a buttery-soft jersey ITY; I am hanging up dresses on the dress form. I am hemming a little black dress and shortening sexy spaghetti straps. I am work, work, working to keep food in the refrigerator and try to stay on top of these bills. I am busy with the seam ripper with a little heater at my feet and the sunshine of Martina Topely Bird falling on my ears. And I suddenly realize in all our time together, Ralph never put his job before the family. He did his job but he stood his ground. And I think to myself what that shows our children about their value. I see so many straight couples where mother works her ass off and father has (or thinks he has) the big important job and is away from home or too tired when he gets home because he has Bills to Pay and I think it’s so often unfair, so often shit.
I stand up; stretch. My daily yoga practice is sluggish because I am tired in some way that defies explanation; still, my efforts keep those little kinks out of my neck, my shoulders, my hips. But yes I am exhausted, beyond tired. I have a call into a physician because I can tell something is wrong. Some nights by the time I’m in bed, I’m in a fog. I came out about this fatigue recently and as expected people shout explanations, solutions at me. These things can take time. I only hope I have the persistence to see it through, and that I am assisted by a pair of skilled hands and a good mind.
For St. Patrick’s Day I spent two days in preparation: a soda bread with caraway seed, corned beef, roasted cabbage and butter carrots – all vegan. I have a very pragmatic attitude toward cooking: I do my best, but I also know it doesn’t always work out. In this case, my efforts paid off. It’s funny I make traditional Irish fare as I don’t even care for it. I guess I love these small rituals, these observances. I also enjoy cooking – now that I don’t have to do it every day, three times a day.
I drive the two boys to the pizza parlour and hand my son my debit card. Despite the fact my children are old enough to walk here and there I have a fear of them being struck by a car – either while they are in a car themselves, or while they are walking. I tell them, “be careful”, and maybe I shouldn’t but I can’t help myself. When they were very small, I worried about drowning. I’d walk over a bridge carrying one baby and holding the hand of the older and I’d have horrible visions.
My son and his best friend are so happy together. They spend about twenty hours immersed in their own word – mostly gaming and eating and laughing – before the lad’s mother texts and asks us to send him home. My son comes and finds me shortly after and wants solace. He is a young man now but he still seeks me out. Both children do so I am surprised to think, perhaps it will always be like this.
Both Ralph and I have a weekend full of volunteer work: cooking for others and hosting events, answering phone calls and texts and email: he as an eSports advisor, me in the Recovery community. I am vaguely sensing I need some down time, a break; I am also uncertain when I will take one. I love my work (paid and volunteer) so much that in the morning I almost spring awake – but I also know I am out of balance, overworked, stretched thin.
On that account my child has finished their last paper of their community college career; they study for two more finals and are finished in a couple days. The entire family is getting used to the idea of them being finished; I know that we will then be onto driving school, and trying to fund a car, and trying to set up a (quasi-)business for this child.
Years ago when I got sober people in Recovery used to tell me about a life “beyond one’s wildest dreams”. I am experiencing that now and it is very funny. It seems to take as much focus and mindfulness as anything else, and it seems to be entirely out of my control. I do pray daily and lately I have felt so much gratitude for our health and safety. These things will be threatened in time, but every day we have them is very precious indeed.
I am not a “single mom” when Ralph leaves for a weekend or a week, on a conference or business trip. A single mom has to do all this shit without support on the daily. Me, I have a few days of focus and a bit of adrenaline and anyway, I could put a thing or two on the back burner if I need to.
That said, I do have to focus as it’s all on me. Up in the morning and the kitties need to be fed; Herbert Pocket does this adorable thing where when we take the lid of the cat food bin, she pops her little paws on the ledge and inspects the level of cat food inside. I get to take the dog outside on his walks, and make sure he’s fed and has enough water. I scritch him a little extra besides; as hard as I worked on washing him yesterday his fur is so thick and he could use another combing and bath! Maybe in a day or two.
Phoenix tells me tonight, after I paint their nails (black, for Halloween!) – “Thank you for getting me pizza this morning. That was the sweetest thing to wake up to.” While it is certainly true that teens can fend or even cook for themselves, I still feel it’s my responsibility as a parent to try to do a little of that work for them.
Today also I took a bit of cake down to the recovery Club I frequent, right before I pick up the pizza. I slice the slab into two-bite size morsels and arranged them on a large platter. When I cook at the Club, or prep food, men swarm around. Attention; they need attention. “I’ll have a hot dog,” a young man toting a toddler instructs me – mistaking me for the kitchen worker that’s there during limited hours. I explain the situation to him: I’m not a member of the Club and the kitchen isn’t open at th emoment. Other fellows mill around, wanting to tell me about their job (or lack thereof) or just say Hi or whatever. But this is one place that’s good to leave food, because people are always coming through hungry, some off the street. When I first got sober I cooked on the regular because I felt desperate, and grateful, and wanted to give something to the group. And one day a fellow called me, “That chick that always brings food,” and I thought, Well that’s enough of that for now. That particular fellow is very very ill now and every time I see him I am not sure if I’ll see him again.
Tonight, incredibly, for dinner I decide to give a brown rice recipe a try: a (vegan) cheesy broccoli brown rice bake. I had enough brown rice growing up in the bus, I took a solid thirty-year hiatus, but I’m ready to try again. This evening I just know it will turn out wonderfully, and it does – accompanying the bean burritos and the cole slaw Ralph provides. I love peeling off the foil from a hot casserole and letting it sit just five minutes before spooning it out. I love watching how happy people are for hot food – my family yes, and a guest over for dinner.
Ralph is home and after my shower he comes to bed and I put my head on his chest and can feel my hair, down and brushed out, spill across his shoulder. He is warm and strong and feels exactly like home to me. And I know he’s too tired to pay me much mind by now, but my own mind is still a ways from being sleepy. I have had three days’ of hard work and I have some things to worry about besides. So after we say goodnight the pets gather round; two kitties flank me in the bed and I am still up just a little longer, a little deeper into the night before I sink back to sleep.
With a child prone to depression, a good day is such a good day. Everything seems brighter, when your kid is doing well. If we get a couple good days in a row I start to relax enough to remember how different life once was. It reminds me there were many years where every day, both my kids were in this space.
It’s tempting to let the moods of my kids, or the mood of my husband, reframe my day. It’s difficult to just have my day.
My son sleeps until the mid-afternoon; if I have a client over to try on a garment, I’ve got to rustle him out of the downstairs bedroom first into his own room. Most of my clients are women with their guard down and don’t mind disrobing and don’t mind who else is in my home, by way of children, when they do it. The other day while helping a woman with a dress she kept hauling it up to look back and forth, exposing her plain cotton panties unselfconsciously; I guess we’re kind of friends now.
But back to my kids. In the afternoon Nels’ hair in a tangle on the pillow, like the Leonard Cohen song. My son is tall, only a couple inches shorter than I. His long, beautiful brown foot out from under the comforter. Later: “I am just so hungry!” he tells me cheerily, as he brings forth an elaborate plate of food to the coffee table. His life consists of sleeping, doing a bit of housework (happily!), playing outside and ringleading, and then gaming – making videos and uploading them. About now, around midnight, I start trying to wrangle him to shower and then sleep or at least towards it. Phee is usually upstairs on a Discord server with friends; they watch movies at night while Phee draws.
My work schedule has been intense; I’m also trying to get my tailoring business all above board and tidied up with itself. Learning about scheduling software, invoicing, filing. I had plans for a few projects this year but time, and the mundane business of earning money, is slipping quickly by.
No matter what though I I do my thing, my volunteer avocation: hanging out with other addicts. Trying to help. Tonight I dropped a c-bomb in a meeting and thought, Whoops. Too harsh. At least for some people. I’m thinking though that I need to carve out a tiny bit more space, have a place I can be a little more open, a little more abrasive.
Tonight Phee is in bed early; good. They’ll get a lot more sleep before school tomorrow.
Tonight I am really glad to be alive because not everyone gets this opportunity, and certainly none of us do for very long.
I’ve been to thousands of recovery meetings by now, which means I’ve listened to tens of thousands of testimonies: the lives of addicts. Our experiences, our struggles. One to two times a week I chair a meeting – a small bit of service, easy enough to do even if you may be prone to a case of the nerves during public speaking.
This bit of work is a wonderful opportunity to put aside my own little plans and schemes; a few moments to ground myself, breathe, and properly orient my mind to being helpful. Being helpful is a great ambition of mine. And a great joy, I may add.
So anyway, all people are equal in these rooms of recovery. People new to these meetings don’t believe this is the case because how could it be – it isn’t anywhere else! But if they stick around they will discover this tenet is astonishingly observed. No one will be denied their turn to speak; and no one can reasonably expect to dominate the group, either. I have never been part of a more profoundly egalitarian fellowship in my life.
In that spirit I pass out readings ensconced in tattered plastic coversheets. The group is often mostly men and today is no exception. I hand one of these readings to a very large man in the back; he tries to shake me off. “Thank you!” I tell him, as I press the sheet into his hands and head into the kitchenette to check on the coffee. I figure he’s another one of those reluctant fellows. Either shy (in which case a gentle nudge may help him) or stubborn (in which case, get over yourself a little!). I also know that when someone really doesn’t want to read, they can pass the sheet to someone else without incident.
After coffee is settled I commence our business and our recitations. I discover this young man was not stubborn; he has a low degree of literacy. As it turns out I’d handed him the longest reading, and he forges through. Everyone listens, quietly. We’ve heard these words thousands of times, and we wait. The sunlight spills in through the window and the room settles to comfortable observance; we listen to our recitation. We listen to our brother.
The fellow reads the whole thing; it’s an effort. He chucks the handout on the table at the end; I can’t tell if he’s disgusted with the affair or not. I look at him across the room and say, “Thank you.” He has beautiful blue eyes and as so often happens I see one of these intimidating men as a young child, and think about a mother who loves him and who treasured him above all things. In that moment we are two human beings in the room, utterly unknown to one another but entirely familiar, too.
Sometimes I look around these busted-ass chairs at the lot of us who live this sober life. So many of us are Garbage People; we come from places that society considers disgusting. No one escapes life unscathed but there is something different about this group. We no longer pretend these ugly things didn’t happen; we are busted up a bit like the lumpy cushions of a favorite chair. Not so pretty, maybe. Something happened where I got broken up inside and reassembled and everything’s a bit crooked but all the more beautiful for it.
I tell the guys since next week is a special day for me, I’ll bake them some fresh bread and bring it to share. Life’s easy like that, these days.
New Year 2017 was a quiet affair at our place. I have a steady Saturday volunteer gig that I don’t miss for anything. Now yeah, there’s a lot of Saturday nights I don’t want to go. I want to stay home with my lovely husband and children. But I go, unless I’m in the hospital or called out of town.
So tonight I got dressed up a little, a hooded dress of my own making, a little eyeliner, a deep red lippie. The closer my hair is wrapped up and the larger my hoop earrings, the more secure I feel!
I had to pick a friend up. I’m off through the streets of Aberdeen, which are innately familiar. I’m a night person but New Year’s Eve others are obliged to join me. Lights in restaurants and taverns; a few souls out on the street but it’s cold, snow mixed in with the rain. I know people are gearing up to carouse, or maybe they’ve already started. A friend of mine is nearly run off the road by a drunk driver.
I’m to a little corner building, flipping on lights while another friend brews the coffee. A vigil, here for those who observe life’s triumphs and travails without the use of drugs or alcohol.
As much as I love the holidays, I’ve come to know that they are a hard time for many people. I figure since I’ve been okay for holidays, I love them in fact, I can be there for others. Maybe one day my time will come, and it won’t be so easy.
The coffee: hot, dark. Delicious. I have half a cup. Alongside my quart jar of water. I still get the moonshine jokes. I’ve never had a drop of moonshine in my life!
I welcome a man who is new to the area. He’s just moved, and he’s exhausted. I get to talk with a woman I see now and then. I’m thinking of a man I knew. I can see him crystal clear. He was older. He was on oxygen. He wasn’t healthy. I can’t remember his name but I remember his face. He would come in from the beach to sit with us. I grew to a swift affection. Where is he now? His name will come to me. Is he still with us? Is he sick? Is he well?
So many come and go. I can’t keep up with them all; not just the sea of faces, smiles, and handshakes here in this room – but the friends who wish me well, the little letters and emails and text messages, those who write me and ask for advice or who thank me or who call on me for some reason or another. I used to be able to grasp them all but there are too many. So I get to settle for telling people Thank you, and trying to comfort and be kind, and to show my appreciation.
Home now, and I have a hot slice of deep dish pizza. We sit down. After my shower, I am still not feeling well. My husband holds my feet in his hand, paints my toenails; holds my hands and paints each fingernail too. I am still feeling ill. I lean up against him. He smells wonderful; like cedar and warmth. He has always smelled wonderful to me.
At midnight, the fireworks, more than I figured. I bump up the music: INXS’ “Need You Tonight”. I’m on the couch in my blanket and I watch Ralph and Nels don coats and go outside to watch the pyrotechnics; I lean back and feel that mixture of sadness and joy. I remember where I was the day we heard Michael Hutchence had died by suicide. I was at a house party and someone played a ballad and for a moment we were quiet, drinks in hand doing nothing to keep us from reflecting on yet another loss.
And tonight, another year sober and another year deepening my practice. This year brought me more Buddhist practices; I am still astonished as I sink deeper into them. Tonight, my oldest child is sketching at the table, on a tablet. My youngest is in his underwear, gaming on the couch. He is only a few inches shorter than I, now.
This year life kept crashing along, despite everything.