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.

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.