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.

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.