A cold wind

” A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”– George R.R. Martin

Winter snapshots from my past:

I sat on a log on the shore, my numb fingers feeling oddly separate from me as I watched them lacing up my skates.  My breath rose like smoke in front of my eyes, as I peered over the top of my scratchy scarf. In the moonlight, the lake glistened and stretched ahead into the dark for miles. The frozen ripples of waves near the shore were bumpy under my skates as I headed out towards the smooth center, pulling my thick mittens back onto my cold fingers.  There was no sound except the scraping of my skate blades, the occasional rustle of trees in the circling darkness around the glow of the lake. Now and again I would hear the groaning echoes of the ice as it would shift and sing and moan beneath me, reminding me of ancient whales singing somewhere in another frozen place.  The moon shifting slowly overhead, my leg muscles burning as I skated, racing ever onward to the darkened shore of the other side. I spent countless weekend hours like this. I never thought to complain about the cold. My thoughts focused only on the smooth gleaming ice beneath me, the speed, the way the air moved in and out of my lungs, stinging wind on my face. I was temporarily invisible, in a lonely place of cold and dark but still buoyed up by the magic of the moon, the music of the ice.

And another…

My boots crunched in the frozen deep snow along a half-mile perimeter of barbed wire. I had my M-16 at the ready, my black Army-issued balaclava scratching my face where my breath froze into crystals. The temperature hovered right around 2 degrees. My Tyvek jacket and fleece socks were fighting a losing battle against the bone-chilling cold.   The icy darkness stretched out along the wire, yet strangely lit from beneath by the deep snow. My voice sounded small, speaking into my hand-held radio, “Tower 6 moving right”.  I could hear a few other staticky voices checking in as re-assurance we were not all out there alone in the frozen bleak. I reached the outer limits of the wire,  then crunched the other direction for another half a mile.  I repeated this trek every two hours as part of Guard Duty on Comanche Base in the middle of Bosnia-Herzegovina long ago.  I thought of fellow soldiers sleeping warm and safely in their bunks as I trudged along for a 12-hour shift in the inky darkness of night. The long hours of walking, freezing then re-thawing in my tower, lost in thoughts and lulled into some kind of other-world with my isolation and the frozen dark and the hypnotizing white all around.  Until one night there was someone on the other side of the wire. He appeared suddenly, like a phantom out from between snow-laden pine boughs, his dog at his knee, his shotgun held over his arm.  I froze.  Breathless.  And so did he.  Our eyes met and held for a full count of ten. Then he raised his hand and saluted me, turned and walked back into the white pines, the branches swaying slightly in the cold wind. I rubbed my eyes wondering if I’d somehow been dreaming.

I can think of a thousand stories of winter, and I could wax poetic forever about my love of snow, the way it covers and muffles everything, the beauty of it, the incredible wonder of little footprints, yet for as long as I can remember I have always hated this time of year. The space after Christmas when hard winter settles in for real, when spring and the promise of bursting green buds and life and hope seem endlessly far away. It’s the winter blahs, when it’s bleak and mud or bleak and dirty snow and the magic seems to have drained out of me and it’s all cabin fever and dry skin and sniffly noses and no number of candles I light or hot cups of tea I drink seem to be able to penetrate the cold gloom that arises from deep within me. I hate it. Seasonal affective disorder. Such a dumb name for something so hard to describe. Joy Vampire? Fleece and angst-itis?

This last half of my second sober year has been rough.  I told someone the other day that it’s basically kicking my ass. Since right before the holidays, I’ve been dealing with a sudden identity crisis due to a major cut back of my hours at work, (as in zero hours).  A major source of my sense of self, and also the source of a lot of trauma has basically been ripped away.  I feel almost like I’m in a second adolescence where I get to decide who or what I want to be, minus the old labels. Of course, this crisis occurs at the time when my usual high energy almost always seasonally ebbs, leaving me bone tired, in a place where no amount of sleep seems to put a dent in my heavy weariness. It also comes at the worst possible time from a realistic, financial standpoint as I struggle not to panic and visions of ramen noodles and malnourished kids and burly car repo types dance in my head.

These days self-care is summed up by actually changing out of my flannel cat jammie pants and making the effort to shower, going to the closet to get a clean fluffy white towel instead of just grabbing my daughter’s hooded duck towel that is hanging on the back of our bathroom door. I put on jeans and a plain sweatshirt, feeling like some kind of colorless bird. I swipe a brush through my hair and put on some tinted moisturizer to cover my dark eye circles, and I try to smile while all the while that voice is there. The constant underlying voice that maybe all people who struggle with depression or addiction fight against. It whispers underneath it all as I pour cereal into bowls, brew coffee, drive kids places and read them stories, struggle through math homework, matching socks, wiping fingerprints off mirrors. It’s there at the end of the day when I crumble into bed, and pull the duvet over my head and feel the comforting weight of a cat curl up in the place behind my knees and pray for oblivion and sweet sleep.  Its there when I answer the thousandth question of the day, through the endless litany of Mom, Mama, Mom, Mommy, the clearing up of yet another mess, the cycle of emptying and loading the dishwasher, the trudging up and down the stairs with the endlessly reproducing loads of laundry. It stalks me down the crowded aisle of the supermarket as I pick up bananas and whole grain bread and feel my eyes stinging in the cold as I load the plastic carrier bags into the back of my sensible minivan. It is there as I scroll social media and try not to compare my rumply insides with the perfect shiny outsides of countless “friends.” It fades a little when I head out the door with a warm hat on and music in my ears, trying to move my body in search of those endorphins I am so sorely lacking.  It’s there as I take my meds, drink another glass of water and remind myself that this too shall pass.

It’s a terrible voice, the voice of depression.  I used to drink to drown it out, if not temporarily, for it always returned with more fuel every time I couldn’t drink “successfully”. The endless loop of old tapes. what did you think would happen when you always settle?  you are nothing special. you never have been. foolish girl thinking you deserve anything at all. everyone would be better off without you.  you’re a fraud. everyone would walk away if they knew how stupid you really are. you are just taking up space. what is the point of you? it’s so easy to think maybe I’m an illness or your “addiction” but what if I’m the only one telling you the truth? people tell you that you have a gift but really, being a storyteller is just a fancy way of saying you are a good liar. keep moving, because the emptiness is so staggering that you will fall apart if you truly looked at it. there is something wrong with you. what have you ever done that is worth anything? nothing would change if you disappeared. who are you without all your stories and lies? you are weak. you don’t deserve better. your children really deserve better than you.

It’s sickening. I want to run from that voice, scared to believe it might be right. It feels like it may be right. But it isn’t.

I heard the phrase “emotional sherpa” the other day and found it to be the perfect description for what I’m feeling lately about the past, my role as recorder and storyteller and the repository of all the memories for my family, for myself.   The roles and labels I have clung to that need to be re-thought in light of this new me, the sober me. The baggage that I drag, the memories and the old worn-out narratives about me, my life, my mistakes. It falls in on me when I slow down and things are dark and quiet.  It’s time to drop the baggage.  I only want to move forward carrying what serves me.  But I’m a slow learner. For me, it tends to be relinquishing inch by inch.  I’m internalizing how to talk back to that voice, how to replace those old tapes with new ones. To remember that feelings are just that. They aren’t facts. I will get through this winter. And the next and the next.  Because underneath all of my stories, there is a core of steel that has never bent.  It’s the part of me that has survived things I never should have. In recovery, I’m making a new me, forged around that central core, that spark of truth.  But I’m not doing it alone.

Camus said it so well: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.  And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger–something better, pushing right back.”

So, if you are struggling with your own winter of discontent, with deep sadness or shifting of roles, or wanting to isolate, or even somehow deeply mourning that old carefree you with pint in hand, the you of BEFORE, I want to remind you that you aren’t alone.  The community of friends in recovery who drag us out of ourselves, challenge our assumptions, call us on our dramatic, overwrought bullshit.. they are part of the invincible summer. One of the gifts of surrender. A roadmap for when we get lost in our own heads and thoughts. So I challenge you: even if you are in an enforced hibernation due to mother nature being off her meds… if like me, some days it all feels dull and muffled and endlessly blah. Reach out. Talk about it. Tell the truth about where you are. You may be overwhelmed by the number of “me toos”.  Because you are NOT the only one. Addiction wants you to believe that you are terminally unique, the only one suffering as you are. But you aren’t. We recover.  We move on. We learn new things, and even if we slip down the slope a little and even fall off entirely, that’s not the end of the story.  Not by a longshot. 

Spring is coming. 

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.