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.

Never judge a run by the first mile

My 10 and 11 month marks have come and gone. The days came and went and I didn’t even realize it was a “soberversary” until friends texted me with congratulations.  And it hit me that I am getting comfortable. And then of course I immediately became uncomfortable. Because I don’t want to take it for granted.

Next week I will be sober a year.

It’s been a ride. The last few months have seen the election, my first sober holidays, the collective grief and hysteria of the nation, some health scares and the disintegration and attempted resurrection of my marriage, job struggles and through all of it I’ve been 100% present. Life is gradually less and less about just not drinking and more about building a life I don’t need to escape from.  And handling things that would have dropped me to my knees and made me chug huge quantities of alcohol now roll off me like raindrops. That’s the miracle of it all.

So the trickiest thing about being a blogger chronicling the early days of sobriety is that you actually need a functioning computer. Something I didn’t have for 5 months. Which means that I have little scraps of paper that accumulate. When I open my purse, or grab my journal, little papers fall out and fall to the ground like flurries. Snippets of thoughts, quotes, ideas, mostly in my favorite green felt tip pen in my little scratchy handwriting. I lose them.  None of it was coherently gathered as I had imagined in the beginning when I set out to write about getting sober.  Nothing has gone to plan. And that has also been a blessing.

In hindsight, not trying to “unpack” or analyze those moments and instead just live them was the best thing for me as I learned to be present.  Even writing creates distance from what you are writing about. You become an observer, a reporter of your own experience. In striving to find the perfect phrase, choosing the right words to bring an idea to life in a way that someone else can possibly understand or experience it, the writer becomes a creator. In putting it into words, the idea or story becomes something separate from you. So in holding tight to my experiences and just soaking in them instead of trying to record them, I have for the first time become my own storykeeper.  I have had to trust my own heart and mind to remember.  Which is frightening for someone like me who has huge gaps in memory and the memories that do jump out from the past few years are often painful and full of shame.

But, in not trying to capture or label them, these months that have passed are truly mine. Authentically, not blurred around the edges, not fading into gray. Sometimes they still feel too sharp, too clear. There is part of me that still wants to change my state; to escape or hide. And yet, my life is no longer about “taking the edge off”, but finding my edge, coming back to myself.  To do that I have to be in it. All in. Otherwise I am all fuzzy middles and I spent too many years doing that.

So, I’m back. Thanks to the generosity of a beautiful sober friend, my computer has been resurrected and I’m able to write again.  I’m mulling over how to possibly share all the things I’ve learned over almost a year of continuous days of sobriety strung together, like a necklace with beads and trinkets. Some days are a shiny pearl and other days are a battered old button but they are all there, in a row. And the changes that have been wrought in those continuous days are astonishing.

Many times in the past year as I have been healing, and coming back into my “right mind”, I’ve equated this journey to running.  And the classic phrase that all runners know is to never judge a run by the first mile.  And I think about that as it applies to sobriety, as I see people struggling to get and stay sober.  The back-sweaty fear we have when we are on day one, week one, month one.  Wondering if this is all there is.. just this constant state of having your nerve endings screaming, of feeling so uncomfortable and having your brain be a loud, messy tangle of jangled nerves and cravings. When you go to bed at 7pm and feel like a freak and wonder if you will ever be comfortable in your skin again and what about all the feelings and where the heck do those go and on and on… And to that I say… KEEP GOING.  With running, the good stuff; those moments where you hit your stride and your breathing is almost imperceptible and you feel the air flowing over you and in and out of your lungs and you feel like you can run forever.. only happen after you have gone through the first mile or even the second when you feel herky-jerky and your muscles aren’t warm yet and each step feels like a slog and all you want to do is stop and sit down.  But if you stop, you miss the miracle. And believe me, the miracle of sobriety isn’t one you want to miss. But its going to hurt. Often.  But I promise it will be worth it.  Because the alternative is constantly being stuck on mile one. And that hurts beyond words.

There is no way around, no shortcuts, no “magic pill” you can take.  There is only through.  Each day, one foot in front of the other. Until you look back and you see how far you have come and you only want to dig deeper and find the strength to go higher up and on and on…