It would be so nice

Six years ago, exactly one month and one day before Christmas, my husband nearly died. He had a four 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. I 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 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 or string a sentence together. I couldn’t fathom how long it would be before he could return to his job. 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.


The Legend of the Lost Ironing Board

There is a strange contraption that lives in my basement.  It has only been unearthed from the storage room/laundry room/ the “don’t try to shift any boxes or you may be crushed in an avalanche” room/ the “oh please, let there not be any wolf spiders lurking in the dark space behind the washer” room a handful of times this year.

It’s called an ironing board. It’s a symbol of my former life.  A relic from a time when I used to actually iron clothes before appearing in public.  Back when I used to iron the scrubs I wear to work, rather than grabbing them out of the clean clothes pile and looking at the wrinkles and telling myself maybe no one will notice.

It creaks and squeaks and protests when I unfold it, probably because it rarely gets unfolded anymore. I dragged it out the other day to touch up the kid’s back to school outfits and they all ran screaming from the hideous screech it made. They came back to investigate, only to back away in wide-eyed horror at the clouds of steam rising from the snout of the iron as it sat there puffing like an ancient dragon.  “WHAT IS THAT THING??” they cried. 

I took a moment to pause since that sound triggered a whole big swirling whirlpool of memory and shame. I hadn’t ironed since I got sober.  That board and I have had a complicated history. When my drinking got really bad the last few years, I would wildly overcompensate to prove to myself how “high functioning” I was.  I would often set up the ironing board after the kids were in bed and drink while I tackled a huge amount of ironing. It was one of those misguided, wine-fueled attempts at proving that I was still a good mother. And it was something that I stopped doing at all when my drinking started taking me down to my rock bottom day.

During this summer of learning to say no to some things and a lot of new “yeses”/safeguarding my sobriety as my first priority, there was zero ironing. It was one of those things I decided really didn’t matter.  I’d rather give kids my time and thoughtful words instead perfectly coordinated outfits and fake “put-togetherness”.

There was something I used to notice whenever I saw pictures my husband has taken of them when I was working.. He sent snapshots of them eating a yummy dinner or at the park and yes, they may not have worn wearing perfectly matched outfits and that was some left-over ketchup on someone’s face, but I would look at those cheeks, the sparkling eyes. The big scrunchy-faced smiles. They were so darn happy to be with their Dad, at the park or wherever.  They were completely un-self conscious about how they looked.  The were in the moment.  And they were gorgeous to me.  But I couldn’t let go of overcompensating when I was with them, as though my kids’ appearances were somehow a reflection of me. I could never relax completely, always feeling waves of guilt about being a drinking Mom washing over me. I perfected a fake cheerfulness, an over the top gritting my teeth creating perfect memories all while my brain was screaming for that next drink.

I’m still flawed and get it wrong a lot, but I don’t have that desperation to prove anything anymore.  That voice telling me I’m not good enough, not a good mother, a selfish person, a weak person still tries to creep in from time to time. But my brain is no longer pickled and so it can identify when my thoughts head that way and put a stop to it.  Its an amazing thing when your voice of reason is no longer gurgling at the bottom of a bottle of wine.

The lost ironing board is perhaps a symbol of me finally coming in to my own .  Because most of the time I still have no idea what I’m doing.  I still wait for somebody to show up and say “ok, we know you are just faking this whole Responsible Mom of Three thing.  Please stand here against the wall with your hands behind your back until a real grown up shows up to take over.” I think that struggle; that feeling like a fraud was one of the things that really fueled my drinking. But as in so many other areas of life in new sobriety, I’m just trying to float in it gently, and stop reacting so much. Give myself the grace I would give a friend who is struggling with motherhood.

I will never do this perfectly.  Every day brings its’ challenges, triumphs and crushing moments.   Things that worked yesterday suddenly don’t work today. I mull, stew, think and plot.  Some days I feel like I’m on some long, long, long version of Survivor where all I need to do is just  OUTWIT, OUTLAST, OUTPLAY.  And the stakes are high, but I’m tired of being driven by fear, worries about appearances and expectations. So I’m letting go of them.

Because ultimately, no matter what is going on, whatever mind-numbing repetitious “wash your hands, stop hitting, use your words, where are your shoes, say sorry, forgotten lunch, playground drama, phantom stomach ache three calls from the school nurse” kind of day I am faced with, sobriety is forcing me to prioritize.  I must choose what will and won’t matter.  And I’m growing in confidence about those decisions as a sober, fully present mother. I honestly have no idea how I managed any of it all the years I was drinking.  And I’m so grateful to be done with it. Because life has plenty of challenges in and of itself.  The massive amounts of energy I used obsessing over drinking, recovering from drinking and feeling awful about drinking is mine again to use for living.  And life is less frantic when you aren’t constantly overcompensating and hiding a huge secret.

So going forward, there may days when we look like we climbed out of the laundry basket. And that’s fine by me. There may be other things that will fall by the wayside as we continue on this journey.. but maybe don’t hold your breath for the Legend of the Lost Steam Mop.

Because with two big dogs who sneak slobbery tennis balls into the house, a husband who sometimes forgets he’s wearing muddy boots and kids with questionable snack-wrangling skills, I really need that thing.

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