the clack of keys on a table

I’m holding a little tin chip in my hand. “6 months”. A little green coin, a trinket. I have it sequestered for a new friend, who’s asked I sponsor her in her sobriety. When the time comes for announcements in the group I introduce myself, say her name, stand up to bestow this little chip on her. Her face pulls down and she is crying, gratitude. We meet halfway and I hold her close and give her a hug because she is precious. I am honored she shares with me. I am delighted to see her.

Somehow this love was installed in my body and it flows without end every single day. My heart lights up when I see people. I am less angry. I find myself searching the hardened faces at the grocery store. I find my heart cracked into a million little fragments, and light flows through.

Yet there have always been impediments to the experience of love and lately those seem to be financial. My dog is ill and needs a $950 operation. My own medical bills have piled up with, what looks like some degree of mishandling from my urologist. Our home needs some proactive work (re-sealing the deck, repainting, and moss cleanup on the roof), and I’d hoped to fix an attic space into a livable one to better outfit my daughter with a study space for her colelge year. In trying to work a bit more, I’ve had the work of teaching the children how to run the household. Despite their willingness and general competence, this is taking a little time. I’ve had an influx of jobs lately, and I’m behind. I’m not angry about this, just surprised how much I’m struggling with the changes.

And when I set those worries aside I can take a few steps and enjoy the goodness I have. I can hold my daughter’s hand in mine. I can laugh at the kitty clawing at my window screen and gently remove her, instead of feeling angry. I can move on from conversations full of hate and misunderstanding. I am starting to speak up a little more. A little more directness.

Tonight my friend, my “6 months” friend, is in my heart. She has shown more vulnerability and sweetness – and smarts – than so many I’ve et. And I’m thinking of how the world is full of scorn and derision for those addicted. But those who are addicted have a bravery that few people can grasp.

something other than fear

Tonight a young man tried to crash our gathering, for alcoholics, our women’s meeting. He asked me if he could attend; he said he’d be “nice” (meaning well-behaved, I suppose – not prone to interruptions).

Truthfully, he is not ready nor able to stop drinking, but he has few places to go. He is homeless (again), and maintenance-drinking so as to not suffer delirium tremens, a severe affliction that I knew nothing about only a few short years ago. Tonight he is suffering a mouth injury that is getting infected; a very ugly wound indeed. In the moments before the meeting I ask him how he sustained such a painful abrasion; he says, “Someone hit me.” I tell him he needs antibiotics. The injury looks very painful, and not at all healthy.

What he really needs is a little kindness, and a little more time to live. Such individuals can get sober, I’ve seen it happen.

In the next hour – well, for the most part the young man behaves himself. Halfway through our gathering however, an authority strides in, interrupting the proceedings, and speaks very sternly. He tells the young man he’s banned from the location. I know this building and know it takes a little bit of bad behavior to get 86’d. The same authority later takes me aside and, his chin shaking, tells me the young man has busted up a few walls, and followed a few women around, and is no longer welcome on the premises.

drinking every drop

Five years ago today I got sober. It wasn’t quite like that, of course. I’ve written about it here, more than once. One of the biggest days in my life. The very biggest, so far? I don’t know.

It is quite something to sit today in a meeting. And to have a guy, I remember him from when I first got sober. He had two years on me and at the time that seemed immense. He’s shy as hell and always has been but he looks right at me and says to me across the room, “I’m proud of you, girl.” There are like three men ever who get to call me “girl” but he has earned it. I thank him and look at my hands because I don’t want to cry because I think I might lose it big time.

And then my friend M. She gives me a card. We talk a bit. When I get home, I sit down. The card reads inside: “After all we’ve been through together I believe I can call you my sister.” No one’s ever adopted me as a sister before. I am deeply moved. She calls me later in the evening. We both laugh about how we basically had to bolt so we wouldn’t cry today. We couldn’t hug, not then anyway. We hug all the time, usually. Not today. It would have been too much.

And my sponsor. She texts me. She, too, has given me a card. I open it and find a memento from her five years.

We’ve walked through the flames of hell together.

Survivors.

May 27th, 2016

saints need sinners

Today’s a really special day for me. And as is my custom, I made y’all a little mixtape.

Click on the image to get m3u download and CD cover, zipped:

May 27th, 2016

Streaming: [ gmusic link ]

playlist:

1. Shadows Of The Night / Pat Benatar
2. Shadow People / Dr. Dog
3. Guitar Town / Steve Earle
4. Going To California / Led Zeppelin
5. Operate / Peaches
6. The Passenger / Iggy Pop
7. Missionary Man / Eurythmics
8. Airbag / Radiohead
9. Disparate Youth / Santigold
10. Turn to Stone / Electric Light Orchestra
11. The Only Living Boy in New York / Simon & Garfunkel
12. Hopeless Wanderer / Mumford & Sons
13. Electric Love / BØRNS
14. My Shit’s Fucked Up / Warren Zevon
15. Moonage Daydream / David Bowie

faithfulness the best relationship

Tonight a woman looked right at me and said, “I remember when – “. She’d tried to get sober, came in a couple weeks before I did. I remember her so well, as I’d jumped right on her real quick-like and bummed rides (and offered rides, when my car worked) and invested myself in this woman. Even with only a couple more weeks on me, back then I believed with all my heart she was tougher, and smarter. She had the secret. Because she had a few more days. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve given into an addiction, really felt it in your bones and got honest about it. The most slender bit of hope, if it seems real enough, looms huge.

She tells me how she used to try to race me through recovery. I remember this a little. And I remember soon after we met she drank again, then tried to get sober, then drank and I didn’t see her for all this time, except once in her car on a summer night. “And now you have five years,” she says. Her eyes are swimming with hot tears but they are gorgeous, huge and liquid brown, her most stunning feature really.

You can imagine how glad I am to see her back. It’s like we were in a shipwreck and separated off the lifeboats and here we are years later, and she’s still alive and our friendship is as real and keen as it was back when our lives were in that kind of peril.

I’m thinking about medicine, too. See three years ago yesterday was my last cigarette – I wrote it down, May 17th, because I somehow knew it might be the day. With that sort of thing I’m never sure, it’s like a growing excitement. I don’t remember that particular last cigarette and after the first year or so, the cravings passed and I rarely thought about smoking. Smoking’s not that big a deal maybe but nevertheless I am glad. I remember what it felt like to want a cigarette. It’s like fun for a while (years!) then one day you don’t want to want it because it’s starting to be a need, and at that point things have changed.

Of course human beings love to lie to themselves about dependency. The truth is, we have many. All of us. Some dependencies are healthy, some less so. I remember my first mentor telling me: “If you came up behind me and put your hand around my nose and mouth I could act hip, slick and cool for a bit.” She leans back in her chair, folding her arms and feigning nonchalance. “Maybe a whole couple minutes. Then if you keep cutting off my air supply I’m going to start to get uncomfortable. And then pretty soon I’m in a panic and I’ll do anything it takes to get that gasp of air!”

I never forgot this. I never forgot that I’m not so independent, not so very powerful after all. I’m lying to myself if I say I am.

The smoking is gone. The drinking, the drugs. All of these things have fallen away, all of these “bad habits”, these distractions, these little obsessions. The need to be esteemed in work or avocation. The need to gorge, the need to starve, the need to be liked by any particular person. The need for certain things not to go wrong for my kids. (That’s the biggest one of all, I think!) So it’s all falling away and sometimes I get this prescient sense it’s about to happen and that is like a tingling feeling. Who knows? One dares not to hope or to grasp. But maybe I’m changing from within!

I had a big change recently so right now, I’m just stepping along. I’m the little girl with her feet along the narrow curb, looking down to walk in that line. Taking a bit of focus but not taking it too seriously right now.

Because the sun’s out and it’s a beautiful day and I’ve got somewhere I’m stepping to.

Supply List

the thaw-out

My mother delivers my son home, including a rather handsome cork bulletin board. Nels’ penmanship has shifted – without any teaching or coercion on our part, without schooling of course – and his hand is taking a stately, yet arcane bent. He has taken to concocting recipes for sweet beverages. He posts a grocery list.

Supply List

“Help Wanted

“I need soda-water for my
next recipe.
“Name: Nels
“Reward: a free orange Navy

“Not urgent”

I am dying, here. Not urgent. Thank you. I didn’t want to have to pick up at midnight and head out for soda-water! My son’s father would, though. He is that tender-hearted for the family.

I am having lunch yesterday with my mother. She is dieting. She is trying not to drink. We talk about these things a bit. I tell her a week and a half ago on my drive home from work I was hit with a craving for fried chicken, which I haven’t tasted in about a year and a half. She tells me she sometimes craves hard alcohol, when she sees someone drink in a film. I say, “Now that? That hasn’t happened to me.” She then says, “Well, I think you were never addicted to alcohol.”

I tell her it is completely not okay to ever tell anyone what they were, or weren’t, addicted to!

She says, “You didn’t drink that much.” As if she knows!

We alcoholics are treated abysmally. If we drink and people know we drink, they hate or pity us. Not a day goes by I don’t hear people speaking in belittling, pitying terms about an addict or alcoholic – I heard it today, at work. We all know the words they use.

But if we stop drinking, if we get clean and sober, we are patently ignored (by most). We are told we never had a problem in the first place.

It’s hard to imagine someone telling a cancer survivor that she never had cancer in the first place. Insulting.

I’m going to pause for the few people reading here, who remember the personal hell I went through when I got sober.

I know people don’t mean to be condescending, but what they mean, what they intend, is half the story. The other half is: those of us who’ve experienced the agonies of addiction. How do we feel about it? What do we think? Stop belittling our experience! It is real. I lived through it. I help others who are battling the disease, every day. Every day!

Today, though, something else is on my mind. I’m passing a kidney stone and I’m feeling sick, feeling low. Suddenly set back and I can’t work the way I used to. The weekend I worked, a few things here or there. Today, I am tired. I feel it in my face, stepping into work and feeling as if I’ve had a few slaps to the noggin. I come home from a six hour shift and I take a hot shower and have dinner and I park on the couch for a bit and watch a terrible British exploitation film. I try to do a little handsewing.

What I struggle with isn’t the pain. But the nausea, the fatigue. And worst of all: what do my kids think? Who wants a sick mother? I tell myself that the way I am ill, and how I handle it, and being loving and matter-of-fact and grateful, is good for the kids. It helps them. Maybe a little today, maybe a lot tomorrow.

I drink my last quart of water for the day. I take my potassium citrate. Ralph will start a fire. I’ll curl up next to someone. Maybe a cat on my lap! The evening will transpire, as it often does, in peace and quietude.

Frenemies

defroster / defogger

“Hello _____,” I say quietly to the woman at the table next to me.

“Do I know you?” she asks. Her voice is jittery and nervous but doesn’t sound angry. At least. I am glad I said Hi to her even though her appearance frightens me. She is clearly using drugs again. She has lost about eighty pounds since I saw her last, and the effect is shocking.

She peers at me and says, “Oh, uh… I know you,” and gives a short barking laugh. It is very sad because of course, we have had many conversations together over the years. I have spent time with her and her child. I wonder where the child is. I wonder who is caring for him now.

I watch her for a while. Even if I weren’t an addict myself – celebrating my fifth consecutive clean and sober Christmas, praise baby Jeebus! – I know I could never again see those so afflicted the way the rest of the world does. Every person I see, I see them as a child. I see that they were once loved and treasured in a way past understanding. Where are their parents, their grandparents, their grammar school teachers now? Do they think of their loved ones, and wonder?

Today was hard at work. It can be like that sometimes. I remind myself as I get in the car: I’m not supposed to know how to do all this stuff perfectly. I’ve done a tremendous job balancing halftime work and supporting my family. I’m only supposed to do as best I can.

Home and the kids play video games; the cats are napping. Ralph is making up a dinner. Too tired – from being ill, from a hard day – even to inspect my latest fabric package.

Instead: time for bed. In hopes the morning brings a fairer perspective.

changes

Tonight, to ground myself, I head to a Recovery meeting. A break from packing: dismantling my home, my workspace – my refuge. Cleaning out cabinets. Finding new homes for posessions that need to move on. Potting.

The meeting has only a handful of people: about seven in all. Incredibly, I am the “old timer” in the group – with almost five years’ clean and sober, I have seen everyone here come. Some have gone back out, then returned.

And then there are those that left, that I will never see again. There are these little patches of paint, little wall tributes in the hall I’m sitting in. As I rest, my eyes wander over names… five names. Four of them, friends who died in this last year. This sinks in – again. Just sitting there for a bit and not being needed – phone off, family on errands, as the words of the meeting chair wash over me – my heart hurts. It’s incredible I can lose so many dear friends and still be okay. I miss them so. I’m not the same without them.

The sun is washing the newly-painted walls in a beatific light. The woman chairing the meeting seems down, disgruntled. I feel at peace. Moving isn’t easy, and even with my practice of patience, my Buddhism, I am weary of this latest journey. I want a substantial meal. I want a hot bath. I want a day to myself.

It’s enough, today, to know I need these things. They will come. A little longer, meanwhile feeling a great deal of gratitude for the change we’re able to make.

The monsters of the deep are made;

Dead Sea

A decade ago I voluntarily sought out counseling for emotional and mental difficulties, after an upheaval unlike any other I’d experienced; an upheaval seemingly impossible to overcome. I remember my counselor, a very gentle woman with grey, careworn curls and a soft voice, giving me a questionnaire on my life experiences. I answered as honestly as I could. She reviewed my answers on paper and informed me I qualified for “mild to moderate depression”, before lightly setting the paper aside to interview me further.

Upon her pronouncement – well, honestly, I felt as if I’d passed a test. On one hand I was mildly discouraged to discover something unwholesome had taken me over despite my best efforts. On the other, it felt a bit validating to know I had a reason to seek out this kind of help. I wasn’t just making it up, for fun. (for fun!)

This latest episode of depression has differed quite a bit from my experiences in the past. Unlike ten years ago, I am more consciously aware of my innermost difficulties. Perhaps a good analogy is that of receiving dental work with, or without, anesthesia. The same procedure, the same pain, the same violation of the body occurs in both cases. But with an analgesic the mind is in a sense less aware of what it is going through. Many consider painkillers to be a mercy – even a necessity for all of life’s discomforts. There is some doubt about the wisdom of such an approach, as medical and spiritual traditions continue to inform us.

As I cope with this latest bout of depression – without the use of intoxicants or medications, or my previous habits of smoking, over-spending, over-activity, and over-eating – I am acutely aware of my discomfort. Without the anesthesizing effects of Valium or alcohol, without looking to my partner to “make me feel better”, I confess I go through some very scary spells indeed. Today I felt a paralyzing coldness creeping over me, dragging me to the depths, a more powerful experience than I’d ever had. It felt like drowning, but in a muffled darkness, not a liquid element. My husband, asking after my pneumonia, says, “Does your chest hurt? Is it your head?” Depression like this is a bodily experience, a bloom like influenza, down to my bones.

I am sad my partner and children do not live with a woman who is entirely well. I think I could somewhat cheerfully step through my own pain, but my sense of responsibility to them is a tripping-stone on the path, an obstacle I struggle with. A hangnail I worry at, not allowing patience, and healing. I know I am not seeing clearly, because to require I do not suffer illness for their sake is to spit their unconditional love back in their faces.

I know I owe them not perfection or Wellness precisely – but honesty, gratitude, self-love and self-care, humor, gentleness, and my presence. And for me – because I practice while things are good – I know it is entirely possible to be present while in so much pain. It really is one breath at a time, an exercise in mindfulness, breathing, awareness, lovingkindness, and acceptance. It is no different than when things are easier, and perhaps that is the biggest mystery of all, one I find a great deal of joy in discovering, over and over again.

Tonight while my children attend a community hockey practice I wash my son’s coverlet; I light candles, file papers, and dress for yoga. A headstand will help! Time with friends, sweating on a mat, enjoying my body – will help. My gratitude practice – through wellness and illness – will help.

I am glad for you who read here, and who can accompany me in some way on my path. The rocks are sharp underfoot; a foreboding stoniness of the cliffs loom around me, and a bitter wind slaps through my jacket. But the thought of you keeps me alight, the little flame in my chest, that shan’t be extinguished as long as I draw breath. I make my way to your campfire with a gladness in my heart that may not be happiness, but it is joy.

the real trouble is when

MCCALL MAGAZINE COVER, GIRL IN RAIN

 

Today I braved the rain out early and sat through a lunchtime meeting of recovered (and trying-to-recover, and forced-to-be-there-by-legal-authorities) alcoholics. As always I was reminded of how hard it is to get a respite from these compulsions, these addictions. Many of us never even try, in a serious way, to sober up. And of those who do, most drink again – to their astonishment. Then try to sober up, then drink again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Maybe die young. Or maybe just live a long son-of-a-bitching life of misery.

At going-on-four-years I’m a medical miracle and anomaly. It’s easy to forget it until I hang out with those who are trying to do something about the problem.

At the family party last week I was offered alcohol and drugs several times. One aunt had, at her hand, either a margarita blender or a bottle of champagne, offering liquid hospitality to all. A 90-year-old friend of the family drank bourbon in a glass, drink after drink, and shook his ice cubes when empty – prompting the women in my family to rush over to fill it.

I hope when I’m an Elder I’m not an ass. I really, really do hope.

But today I’m thinking not of my family so much but of another Elder, my friend D. He got sober (finally!) in the treatment center I volunteered at. He remembered me about half a year later- this was a few years ago – when we next crossed paths. He told me I’d helped him, and as is usual in these cases I wondered what it was I said, or how I’d acted, that invoked some hope.

D.’s story was unique in that shortly after he sobered up, he found himself ill with, incredibly, double lymphoma. He handled this setback, as far as I could tell, with courage and humor. I remember listening to him talk about his struggles and thinking that, well, sometimes we sober to some incredibly unpleasant realities. That’s Life, no? We drink, or drug, or chase something – money, reputation, material things, usually – all to blot out the pain of our own awareness. Cancer’s an extreme example but is one of those obvious, slap-in-the-face kinds of illness we are ready to recognize and discuss publicly.

And this cancer is what I presume that is what took his life six days ago. He’s in my heart, today. He was a courageous, beautiful man. The last time I saw him we greeted one another with a great deal of warmth. It’s funny, maybe spooky, how often I get that memory of the last goodbye. A blessing, really.

***

Tonight Nels hands me a picture he’s painstakingly constructed on a piece of paper – his “dream house”:

stained diamond glass
oak dock
mahogany wood interior
birtch door
thatch

(maybe someone’s interested in different kinds of wood all of a sudden?)

My daughter seeks my help, in the evening: social troubles between a group of close friends. Misunderstandings via text. Hurt feelings and harsh words.

My heart feels that pang because of course I re-live all my past painful episodes in this vein: all of mistakes, all the ways I was hurt or hurt others. It would be easy to let those experiences overwhelm me, and inform my response to my daughter in an unhelpful way. But those things happened then, and they aren’t all happening to her right this minute. I have a chance for my past to help make a better Right Now, a better future. I talk to my daughter. One of the girls in question privately texts me, in duress. I am grateful these young women are involving a grownup they trust. I am glad to be there and be a soft place, a kind place.

Home from California a few days, and we’re in for rains again – record-level rains if the predictions are correct. It is cold, and desolate, and foggy. Winter has not passed us by just yet.

It’s cold, and wet. But inside maybe it’s a little safe. Maybe things can be okay after all.