Saturday, October 31, 2015

ten years

Ten years ago, I sat hungover in the bath, sulky and self-pitying, and thought, "I've had my last drink."

I'd thought that before. Experimentally, of course: just to see what that thought would feel like as it wandered through my brain. Always a What if in front of it and a question mark following. And it always induced total panic. Scrambling, terrified, can't-let-this-happen, panic. Even at the end, when I wasn't drinking in public and so I was already having to deal with social events sober. Even when I was restricting myself to one night a month when I could drink. I had to know that that one night would come, to deal with all the others.

But that evening, in the tub, the thought sat solid in my mind and didn't frighten me. I let it sit, and after a while it had, not a period as the punctuation mark (hello hubris!), but perhaps an ellipsis. And I got out of the bath, and went to bed, and I got up the next morning and didn't drink that day. 3,653 days later, I have not had another drink.

It wasn't all puppies and rainbows, of course. Still isn't. I had to re-negotiate all my relationships, had to accept that it wasn't the booze making me petty and judgmental and envious, had to figure out which social events I could handle and which are, to this day, wicked triggers. The first puppy didn't come along for three years. I thought sobriety would solve the problems between my fiancĂ© and me, and so went ahead with the marriage, to both our griefs. I did drop twenty pounds in six months and my skin cleared up, but everything else came very slowly. A lot of it remains in process, and always will.

One of the tricks to staying sober is being clear-eyed enough about the person you were and the things you did while drinking to know that you don't want to be there again - while at the same time believing yourself to be worthwhile enough to deserve sobriety and the improvements in life that come with it. This is really, really hard. I live in a house where I've never had a drink, drive a car that I've never taken to a liquor store, and am married to a man who's never seen me with a drop of alcohol in my body. But some days I still think of myself as that person, at whom I'm so angry and in whom I'm so disappointed, and I know I don't deserve a thing.

When I think about it, I keep circling back to 1 Kings 19:11-12. 

And he said, Go forth and stand on the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 

My beliefs are private, so I'm not going to go into them here (though I think that you don't have to believe in anything in particular to recognize this as one of the most beautiful passages in the English language). But as a description of addiction and recovery, I could not find better than this.

For the first eighteen years of my life I was in large Southwestern public schools and I was the smart one, and then I was dropped into a tiny Eastern liberal arts college where everyone was smarter than I was. I opened my mouth roughly four times in my first-year English class, and four times I said something which made eyes roll all over the room, and my understanding of the world and my role in it collapsed. I couldn't answer questions about books correctly or intelligently, and the rest of my classes were even worse. The phrase "identity crisis" doesn't even touch it: it was like I'd woken up in someone else's head. And suddenly all I heard from my inner voice was You idiot. How could you not know that? How could you be so stupid? No one will ever like you. Heaven knows I'd had vile things to say to myself for years about my appearance and social anxiety, but never about my mind.

(You can understand why I get a bit defensive about it. One is supposed to have a reason for addiction that's more along the lines of "someone died / I was abused / horrific car accident", and not "I went to a really elite college and it made me feel stupid". But this is how it was.)

Somewhere along the line I made a desperate decision about who I would be, and it wasn't an actor or a writer or even a goofball - when I lost confidence in my academic abilities I lost confidence in everything else associated with my brain, talents and humor included. All I could come up with was the intense, crazy, wild girl, who was still quiet and shy during the day but with a few drinks in her danced like a dervish and went after the boys she wanted and dared anything. I couldn't think of anything else to be. I didn't like her, but I liked myself even less. I didn't like being her, but she got attention, and the only other version of me I knew had, I believed, disappeared. And as time went on, it took more than a few drinks to find that loud brave-terrified version of me, and finding her felt more crucial, and the downhill tumble began.

We get addicted to substances because (among other reasons) they seem to give us silence instead of the hectoring, hating voice we hear inside ourselves. They provide what feels like blissful oblivion. The moment you realize that what masquerades as silence is actually noise, the moment when the use starts making you feel worse instead of better, is a turning point. Not necessarily towards sobriety: after all, noise that drowns out what you don't want to think about is still better than thinking about it, in an addict's mind. Sure, you might feel worse drunk or high, but at least you are keeping that worse, along with all your other feelings, at arm's length. The trade-off seems worth it, for a while.

I sought myself, redemption, peace, grace, whatever I had no name for, in wind and earthquake and fire. I made everything louder and brighter and more furious, while staying numb and detached, and tried to find salvation in the blur and the noise. It was not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire.

After the fire, a still small voice. Years after, and often I cannot hear it for weeks at a time, when I don't let myself stop or hope, when I get mired in the old habits of self-deprecation and inadequacy. But it is there, at the core.

It can, however, be shaken by something like making a stupid typo in my Facebook post marking ten years of sobriety, and having that typo SIT THERE, ON THE INTERNET, for FIVE HOURS, before Berowne gently pointed it out. THIRTY WHOLE PEOPLE, all of whom are kindly inclined towards me, saw that typo before I corrected it, and I let the embarrassment of that outweigh any pride in ten years sober. There might even have been some crying in the car after work. So yesterday was soured for me, and I'm hoping that today I can actually be proud of myself.

There will always be a voice ready to say, "A mistake? An imperfection? You deserve no happiness and no one will ever like you." Nothing eradicates that entirely. But there is the still small voice too. There is that, reminding me that I can be insecure and flawed and still strong to my bones. Living in recovery is literally being a warrior for the working day, and, by the mass, my heart is in the trim.

(Unless, of course, I find a typo in this after I post it.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

no naps, send help

This week, one of Perdita's daycare teachers said to me, "I was so happy when [her daughter] stopped taking naps, because it gave me so much more flexibility!"

So... that's bizarre, right? It's not just me? When Perdita goes down for naps on the weekends - if she goes down for naps, these days - I think, Okay, likely between one and two (if I'm very lucky) hours to clean, eat, exercise, and blog, and of course those things cannot all be done even if I'm not so unfortunate as to have her wake after thirty-five minutes. Which she did today. It's even worse during the week, when I have to get up at four and be up until ten if I'm to get all of those things plus showering and lunch-packing done. Guess why there hasn't been a blog in a while? 

Geez, whine whine whine. I'm just saying that any scenario in which having a toddler around gives you more flexibility (unless we're measuring in "substances likely to end up on your walls") is not one I comprehend. Anyway!

In exciting domestic news, we now have a dishwasher, but I am really ambivalent about it because a) I genuinely believe that labor-saving devices endanger my immortal soul and b) only when you do not have to essentially wash the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher will I be sold on this as a labor-saving device in the first place. I mean, it's just a second wash, right? Or a way to have a larger draining rack than your sink allows? If I'm going to risk hellfire, I want to be able to plop a food-encrusted bowl directly from the table into this machine, damn it. I am sure Cotton Mather would feel the same way.

We managed to get up to the Vermont farmhouse for the holiday weekend, and it was glorious - warmer than last year, so that we were able to spend more time outside and less in the stove-heated kitchen. Perdita did wake up in the middle of the night and was brought into our bed for cuddles, which is how I found out that you really do see stars when someone punches you in the eye. Especially if that person has perfectly eye-socket-sized fists.

But we had a lovely time and life at home is nice too. And I have been managing to read - if I'm honest, "read" should replace "clean" in the second paragraph, because while I think about cleaning during her naps, let's face it, I have my priorities.


Behind a Mask, by Louisa May Alcott. Alcott wrote sentimental stuff like Little Women for commercial profit; apparently what she really wanted to write were thrillers. I, um, can see why the sentimental stuff sold better. Wilkie Collins she was not.

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander. Sort-of-mystery, sort-of-society-novel about a rich beautiful young widow in the 1890s. Our heroine is appallingly perfect and desired, and while her friends are interesting as characters, I was Mary Sued out a third of the way through. Finished it through stubbornness, and then made the mistake of reading the afterword where Alexander pulls the "book that had to be written" deal and says that she had a toddler who had just stopped napping but she wrote the first draft of this book in two months, grabbing fifteen minutes here and there, because she knew her whole life that she would be a writer and that's what writers do. "Yeah, writers who don't have a toddler and a full-time job, SO SHUT UP YOU POOPHEAD," I responded maturely.

Sidebar: like I would get a word written if I were a stay-at-home mother. The one piece of slack I cut myself when I was pregnant was to not decide that I needed to write a novel during my maternity leave. I considered that expectation, because of course if I'm getting eleven weeks away from my job ("getting" in the sense of "using painstakingly-accrued-over-the-course-of-eight-years earned time"), then I should totally be able to write a novel. Pregnant, I believe I considered this idea for about twenty seconds, before realizing that if I managed to keep the newborn safe and myself relatively clean for eleven weeks, I would be a warrior fucking princess, and I stand by that statement. Being a stay-at-home parent does not result in copious free time. (Alexander, of course, wasn't saying that it does, but that she is so awesome that she found the time to write anyway.)

Second sidebar / discussion question: what would happen if I spent two months using any of my usual snatched reading time to write instead? I mean, other than my soul shriveling and dying, of course. Sigh. That's the problem - I want the time to do both. The thought of two months without books is horrifying.  

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs. Peace was an African-American whose father went to prison for murder and whose mother worked unbelievable hours and jobs to get him into private schools. His brilliance was such that an alumnus of his high school paid for him to go to Yale, where the author was his roommate. After graduation, Peace was directionless and eventually ended up going back to selling drugs, and was killed in a turf dispute. This book is very intense and well done, if a little too long. It's a fantastic indictment of race/class privilege in America as well: I was directionless after college, as some of my classmates were, but the chances that any of us - white and with parental safety nets - would end up in Peace's situation were roughly zero. The irony is that he was much more self-reliant and grown-up than we were, but the odds were stacked so high against him from the beginning that his death seems like the only way the story could have gone.

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, by Carla Kaplan. Very well-written and interesting book about six white women who bankrolled, supported, and otherwise involved themselves in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. I knew virtually nothing about any of them, and really enjoyed Kaplan's clear and informative voice.

Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, by Tom Kizzia. Yikes. In the early 2000s, a guy calling himself Papa Pilgrim and his sixteen-strong family arrived in remote Alaska (having fled remote New Mexico) and started basically squatting on National Park Service land. The resulting legal war divided the nearest town and eventually ended when the oldest daughter accused her father of decades of physical and sexual abuse. Kizzia is a good and clear writer, though he jumps around chronologically a bit and doesn't even pretend to be unbiased (that's not entirely a criticism - Papa Pilgrim [Bob Hale] was a monster, and the descriptions of child physical abuse and rape are incredibly detailed and sickening). It's a good book, but troubling as hell, and I would definitely stay away if the aforementioned descriptions might be too much.

The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny. Mmm, back-to-back Inspector Gamache books. Cozy for autumn!

Drinker of Blood, by Lynda S. Robinson. Mystery set in ancient Egypt. I couldn't get invested in the characters and am not going to continue with the series.

May you all have bright cold autumn nights and comfortable weekend-afternoon priorities.