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.