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. 

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.