Now We Are Thirteen.

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Today marks 13 years since I had my last drink.

This morning I tried to think about what I was going to write, and I mostly kept thinking back to what I wrote last year. It was just about a week before my mother-in-law went into memory care, and I was just barely functioning. I was on auto-pilot, just trying to get through every day, trying to knock off the tasks in front of me and hoping things wouldn’t get too FUBAR, because I honestly didn’t think I had it in me to deal with anything other than just surviving.

In a lot of ways, that was like early sobriety. Only I wasn’t entirely stripped of coping mechanisms.

This year was better. Markedly so. It wasn’t without its stressors – emptying out her apartment so we could move in, and subsequently have our friends move into the downstairs apartment, was probably one of the most emotionally taxing things I’ve done. Sorting through the personal effects of another person, trying to assign value to these objects, and all the while doing so knowing that the person is still alive, yet unable to tell you to whom things should go…that is some brutally frustrating shit, you guys. I found myself fighting resentment left and right, because as a recovering alcoholic, I really don’t get to be resentful. At least not for very long.

The further I get away from that last drink (warm Chardonnay in a plastic cup, in case anyone was wondering), the more I feel like I have to really make a concerted effort to remind myself what a bloodhound for oblivion I was. How many hostages I took because I wanted an audience.

Three years ago, I wrote this:

I don’t want congratulations — I want understanding.

I want the people out there who are drinking themselves to death to understand that there is nothing romantic about being a drunk. It is not a cultural or artistic imperative to be a drunk. Drinking does not make you a better writer, a better artist, a better musician, or a better lover. It does not make you more in touch with the Universe, your muse, your emotions, or the person you’re trying to have sex with.

I want the people still out there, still trying to make it “work,” to understand that nothing is so terrible, no emotional terrain so unnavigable, that drinking will not make worse. I want them to understand that it’s not a balm; it’s poison. At the very LEAST, it is preventing them from processing their grief, pain, or frustration in a healthy way. It’s simple physics: you meet with a lot more resistance when you try to move through fluid.

I want people who don’t suffer from addiction, and the indignities it heaps upon those of us who DO, to understand that they need to stop making jokes at our expense. I want them to understand that we are not less deserving of grief or compassion when we die from our illness.

I stand by those words. We’re still living in a culture that celebrates drunkenness in the form of cutesy “wine humor,” yet looks upon the struggling addict as weak-willed and worthy only of derision. There is still so much willful ignorance when it comes to this.

And there are still so many people who won’t get what I have. I lost another friend this year to this disease. Brian was beyond kind and patient with me in my early sobriety, when I was just a blubbering mass of exposed nerves. We went out for bagels, we got ice cream, we went to the movies. He understood my need to fill those first days and weeks with all manner of stupid, banal shit. He was also the only person – EVER – to get away with calling me “Lee.” But he struggled, too. It happens with us. It honestly doesn’t take much to shove us off the straight and narrow and right into a ditch. As horrible as it sounds, I need to see what happens when we start up again. In a terrible way, that was Brian’s last gift to me. I am not immune, nor impervious.

It was another twelve months of loss and transition, but it was also a year in which I remembered how to take really deep breaths. It was a year in which my shoulders began the slow descent from just around my ears to where they more or less are supposed to be. I can actually start focusing more on my job, and my writing. I can write about something else other than being a caregiver. I can write about vampires. I can create ridiculous Photoshopped pictures of my 8th grade self.

I’m beginning to not feel guilty about how much I enjoy weekends. I’m trying to give myself a break from thinking about all the things I could have done better, the things I could have done to – I don’t know – slow down the process of my mother-in-law’s disease. I’m trying not to put the ugly things I’m thinking about myself into the thoughts and motivations of other people. And I’m starting to take off some of the 30+ pounds I gained while being a primary caregiver.

I am really trying to better myself through simply listening. I’m also trying to avoid comments sections.

And I’m not drinking. Miraculous. Unfathomable. Fucking amazing.

Desperation Anniversary

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One thing I didn’t really think to acknowledge as New Year’s Day came and went is that it’s an anniversary.  Of sorts.

It’s not my sobriety date.  There’s still a part of me that wishes I could have stuck with that, because January 1st seems like such a GREAT date to claim as your sobriety date, when of course the reality is that ANY date works just as well, is just as personal and suffused with meaning and liberation.  But we generally put a lot of emphasis on the first day of the new year.  Advertising has a lot to do with that.  The fitness and diet industries thrive on touting January 1 as potentially transformative, but that’s another post for another time.

So, no, I didn’t stop and stay stopped, effective January 1, 2002.  It would take another 6+ months of struggling and relapsing to arrive at June 19th.  But January 1st is when I faced the truth about my drinking.

I had been, like I had for several years, at my best friend’s house for her annual New Year’s Eve party.  And as usual I had too much to drink and passed out in the car on the way home.  But there had been no screaming arguments with my husband, no embarrassing antics.  And I hadn’t thrown up.  At this point, that constituted a “successful” night of drinking for me.  People, including myself, had been expressing concern about my drinking for months up until then.  If I’d still had any fight left in me, I would’ve been pleased to hold up December 31, 2001, as “proof” that I was okay.

But I woke up later in the morning on January 1 feeling more than just hungover.  I was well and truly pitted, and I knew in my heart that I was an alcoholic.  I made a call, and was directed to a church basement.

It didn’t stick, January 1st.  I wasn’t ready.  If I’d felt horrible that day it was nothing compared to the way I felt some 6 1/2 months later.  But I felt horrible enough.  I felt desperate enough.  And that’s why January 1 is my “desperation anniversary.”  I don’t get a card and a medallion on that day.  I don’t get taken out for brunch with some the friends I’ve made over the last 12+ years.  But damn it, it’s an anniversary, and I’m grateful.

To Megan.

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I was directed to this painful read yesterday.

It’s heartbreaking.

Heartbreaking, because even 12+ years away from my last drink (a plastic cup of warm Chardonnay, which I couldn’t even keep down, because my body was fighting valiantly to keep any more alcohol from braying through my bloodstream), I relate to EVERY GODDAMN THING she writes here. And I suppose I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that I can still easily plug into the memories of how painful, awful, and shitsuckingly BORING it is to be an active alcoholic.

Yes, boring. When you are that dependent on something, your every waking minute revolves around it. Obsessing. Planning. Scheduling. Having “rules” for yourself which keep you from being a real alcoholic. Not drinking before 5. Not drinking at work. Not drinking more than ____ drinks a night (you can easily get around that by drinking out of really big glasses, or continually topping off your drink because – hey – if the glass isn’t totally empty, it’s still only one drink). It’s a second full-time job, one that reaps absolutely no benefits.

It’s lonely, too. This sentence jumped out at me:

I’m upset that I’ve yet again stayed up, alone in my apartment, until the wee hours of the morning, watching music videos on YouTube I’ve seen a million times and sending embarrassing emails, which I type with one eye closed, the other bloodshot and squinting, because I can’t see straight.

I stopped drinking before YouTube was a thing. I can only imagine how much time I would’ve spent watching videos of the drippier New Wave ballads from my formative years and dry-sobbing in front of my laptop, lamenting my lost youth. Or something. As it stands, I spent my time listening to these songs on my stereo, drunkenly fumbling with the 45 sleeves and CD cases, listening to them over and over again until I passed out. Alone. On the crappy little futon sofa while my husband slept in the next room. He actually bought me headphones so he wouldn’t have to listen to this, and thus have some semblance of peace in the midst of my emotional hostage-taking.

Alcoholism gets you where it wants you: alone. Isolated. I drank alone even in a room full of people. That’s the paradox of it – so many of us start drinking because we can’t function around people otherwise. Koester puts it this way: having a few drinks makes it “easier to interact with the world through a filter.” I, like many alcoholics, am wired for isolation. Most people who know me would find that surprising. It takes a tremendous amount of effort for me to go to a party, or to a show, or to any gathering of more than 3 people. Drinking made things easier. Drinking made me funnier, sexier, more creative. Until it just made me drunk. Until it made me prefer the company of my bottle (I certainly wasn’t enjoying my own company). Because to drink the way I wanted to drink required isolation. I couldn’t possibly drink as much as I was drinking around other people. Because they would know I had a problem. So fuck them. Fuck everybody.

Active alcoholism is also an inherently dishonest way to live. We compartmentalize our lives, being one person to one group of people (Wacky! Zany!) and an entirely different person to another group of people (Responsible! Considerate!), while being just one thing to ourselves: drunk.  And we manage this way for a long time, until we (if we’re lucky) come to the realization that we’re broken and in pieces. And then there’s that whole hiding the extent of your drinking from everyone (here’s an Inconvenient Truth™ for you: you’re not fooling anyone). To stop drinking is to face the horrible fact of having to be honest for the first time in…well…for however long you’ve been drinking alcoholically.

Here is the thing that I have learned time and time again in my recovery: DOING something (in this case, being honest) is never as bad as NOT doing it. Because while you’re avoiding the thing you’re afraid of, you’re prolonging the agony, and stacking up more consequences. A sober friend of mine put it to me this way: “When it gets too painful to continue, you WILL change.”

I wish I could sit across some sticky diner table from Koester and tell her that same thing.  But I’ll say this here:

Sobriety is not a death sentence, Megan. Taking away the drink will not take away the central parts of your identity. You don’t even know what those are anymore, because you’ve been drowning them. I’ve read this essay over and over again since last night. I so understand the terror you’re feeling at the very thought of not having that chemical escape hatch anymore. There’s a very palpable grief that happens when you know you have to stop doing this thing that’s NOT EVEN FUCKING WORKING ANYMORE.

You may very well not be ready to stop yet. I hope that changes soon.

It will be work, getting sober. It will absolutely fucking suck at first. But how much more work are you putting into drinking? Think about this.

I’m not the only person out there who read this and 100% related to it. We’re all over the place, and we’re ready to help you when you’re ready to be helped.

Chain Drinking

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The other day, while slogging through the rain on Huntington Avenue bearing take-out sushi, Dan and I passed the UNO that has been on the corner of Huntington and Gainsborough for – I don’t know – AGES. Certainly as long as I’ve worked at the theatre, and that’ll be 22 years in January.

Dan: Ugh. I wish that place would GO AWAY.
Me: It’ll never go away. It’s a mainstay for the matinee crowd.
Dan: I guess.
Me: I used to drink there. When I still drank. I would go there and drink after work.
Dan: Oh my God. That’s sad. That is SO SAD. The only thing sadder? Drinking down the street at The Cheesecake Factory. On Christmas Eve.
Me: Bah ha HA! No, wait! Drinking at…at…okay, drinking the night before Thanksgiving in your hometown. AT APPLEBEE’S.
Dan: Yes. That is the saddest of all.

(Actually, the saddest place I drank was not a chain restaurant bar. While there is most definitely something quite sad about drinking in those kinds of places, there are sadder places. Like, oh, supply closets. Public restrooms. Your own couch, in front of your stereo, listening to the same Jayhawks album over and over again. Not that I would know anything about any of that.)

I think I drank in chain restaurant bars because there was something comfortably anonymous and cookie-cutter about them. Whether you’re in an UNO in Boston or a TGI Friday’s in Orlando, you’re staring blearily at the same faux stained glass panels, listening to the same Bryan Adams songs, and squinting to read the same nametag buried amongst all of the same “flair” advertising the same unlimited salad and breadsticks or the same new deep-fried something-or-other. Pudding in a shotglass. Radio Flyer wagons nailed to the walls. Yes, another. Please.

When I drank in these places, I typically stuck to beer. I could count on most of them having Sam Adams on tap, which was the least offensive draught beer in general. Because I wouldn’t go near Budweiser, I felt that I was discerning enough to not have a drinking problem.

Unless I could coerce a coworker into drinking with me, I drank alone, and socialized with no one. You don’t go to the bar at UNO to make friends, or I certainly didn’t. I would typically make a show of having something to read or do. I’d grab a file from my desk and sort its contents, then sort them again. Taking my work with me to the bar meant that I took my job VERY seriously. Or that’s what I thought the bartender thought. In reality, the bartender knows what your deal is, or doesn’t care what your deal is. This was all part of the elaborate system of appearances I spent most of my time obsessing over. How to drink without looking like I needed to drink.

Since getting sober, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been inside that UNO. I’ve gone there after taking family members to a matinee. Doesn’t bother me in the sense that I am not seized with an overwhelming desire to sit at the bar and drink Sam Adams while sorting paper. It’s not my first choice when it comes to dining out, but only because I feel like you may as well order a salt lick and a tub of Crisco than choose something off the menu. The effect is the same.

Pushups

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The death of Robin Williams has almost everyone I know shaken. People are talking about how “shocking” it is.

The sad thing is – it’s not shocking. It’s tragic, yes. But to me, and to countless others who struggle daily with the one-two punch of addiction and mental illness, it’s not shocking when someone succumbs to it.

Williams had always been open about his issues. He maintained sobriety for 20 years, then relapsed. It’s an altogether too common story, but the public at large only hears about it when a celebrity stumbles, falls, and can’t for the life of him pick himself back up.

And this is what so many people fail to understand. Mental illness and addiction are still looked upon as matters of “willpower.” And when we are active in our addiction, our brain chemistry is so profoundly fucked up that reason and willpower have nothing to do with correcting it.

“Cheer up.”
“Get over it and move on.”
“Things could be so much worse. Try to have a little perspective.”

This is the advice we invariably get from people who don’t understand the depths that we can find ourselves in.

When a celebrity dies from the complications arising from these illnesses, there is a period of online hand-wringing. How we wish he could’ve gotten help. Depression is bad. Addiction kills. We post updates begging people who are depressed to get help. And then we go back to taking the “How Crazy Are You” quiz on Facebook. 53%! LOL.

Because it’s still misunderstood. It’s an issue one minute, and a joke the next.

My friend Kay put it this way last night: “Addiction and depression walk hand in hand into the mouth of hell.” As an addict in recovery with a mood disorder that requires regular and carefully administered medication, I am well aware of how close I can get to the mouth of hell, how many times I’ve dipped a toe into it and felt the blast. I am not waxing overdramatic here. This has brought me to my knees and has destroyed friendships, relationships, and trust. I know what to do to take care of myself now. But I also know how easy it is to go on autopilot and believe that I no longer need to do those things.

You hear this a lot in recovery: “Your disease is doing pushups.” It’s always there and always ready to take control. And when it does, it is exponentially stronger and subsequently exponentially more difficult to get out of its grasp. This, I believe, is what happened to Robin Williams. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Vic Chesnutt. My friend Caroline. I have watched people I know and love circle the drain and all I can do is stand there, holding out my hand. Some grab hold. Some don’t. This is the reality of it.

There’s help. There’s hope. And it begins with understanding.

Now We Are Twelve.

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Today marks 12 years of sobriety.  12 years without a drink.  12 years without a hangover.

I am feeling….not ambivalent about it; I mean, I have been sober almost as long as I was drinking.  I realize this is a big deal.

Right now, though, as I write this, I am feeling like I shouldn’t be celebrating anything.  My mother-in-law is so unwell, so completely addled and helpless.  Alzheimer’s is casting a vast, dark swath over nearly everything.  This past year has been brutal.  Marcia cannot live with any semblance of “independence” anymore.  She can’t fix herself something to eat, she needs help getting dressed and undressed, half of what she says is gibberish.  Up until about a week ago, she had been obsessively clawing at her ankles and calves.  She has cellulitis and is in constant danger of getting staph infections.  I have only just now been able to get her skin infections mostly cleared up, by being vigilant with the application of prescription ointment and making her wear diabetic socks (because they’re non-binding and don’t irritate her).  And the incontinence issues are becoming more and more frequent.  To add insult to injury, she won’t have anything to do with the bathtub, or with a shower.  It’s now even a battle to get her to tolerate a sponge bath.  She was lucid enough to tell me last night: “If you touch me again with that thing (the wash mitt), I am going to SCREAM.”

Next week, she moves into a memory care unit in an assisted living community.  This is ahead of schedule.  It’s ahead of schedule because we have reached a crisis point, and we really cannot have her in the house anymore.  She is not safe.  The family is all in agreement regarding this.  We cannot be her caregivers anymore.  The dynamic has to shift.  I need to be her daughter-in-law again.  Kevin needs to be her son.  We need to care for her differently now.

I am exhausted and horrified and unspeakably sad.  I want to acknowledge the importance of today, but I can’t even remember how to tell that particular story, because my story right now is about Alzheimer’s, not alcoholism.  Marcia’s illness has completely eclipsed my own.

Here’s what I can tell you:  I have not had a drink.  I have not had even a desire to drink.  There’s that.  I understand, to the very core of my being, that a drink – or ten drinks – will make none of this better.  That’s something.  That’s something I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have the support and friendship of other alcoholics and addicts.  12 years of listening to them, hearing their stories and what they have been able to move THROUGH, not AROUND, while sober, is why I have this.  There is no circumventing in recovery.

The next several days are going to be very painful.  I’ve got to go through her things and decide what goes with her into assisted living, and what doesn’t.  Clothing, pictures, knick-knacks.  My job is to decide what is the most familiar and comfortable, which is riotously insane, given that what is “familiar and comfortable” to me is, because of the way I’m wired, total oblivion.  I’ve learned to understand that you can’t live that way.

Everyone is telling me that once my mother-in-law is in assisted living, I’m going to “get my life back.”

I’m not even sure what that means anymore.

But today, anyway, I’m 12 years sober.  Chronologically, 12 was the WORST.  You couldn’t pay me to go back and live that year.  Puberty, coupled with the extreme emotional duress of having been bullied on a near-daily basis.  Maybe Sober Twelve will be better.  All the discovery without all the angst.  I hope so.

The Box Of Terrifying Journals

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Yeah, so….it looks like I won’t be writing for The Flounce anymore.  I won’t get into the details other than to say that stuff went down over there, enough so I don’t feel it’s the right forum for my writing.  And so we’re back to writing about Alzheimer’s, and caregiving, here.

We’ve hired the Geriatric Care Manager (GCM), and boy – she got to work immediately.  She’s speaking to our lawyer, and to Kevin, to figure out where we’re at financially.  She gave my mother-in-law what’s called the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE).  How did she do?  Put it this way:  her neurologist gave her the MMSE last year and she scored TWO out of thirty.  This time around?  The GCM gave up after the first few questions.

She is significantly, if not severely, impaired.  She doesn’t know what day it is.  She doesn’t know my name.  And yet this morning she made her bed, as she does every morning, hospital corners and all.  This is just absolutely the most messed-up disease ever.

The GCM feels that it’s time to put her into Assisted Living.  We are not superheroes.  Her needs have far surpassed what we’re able to provide.  She needs to be somewhere with constant supervision, and the kind of stimulation that only professionals can provide.  We have done our best, for over 3 1/2 years.  We’re exhausted, and that’s even with help.

I was in the basement last night, searching for a paper I’d written in graduate school about Marilynne Robinson (specifically, Emily Dickinson’s influence on her writing, and on Housekeeping in particular).  I’d promised to look for it and send a copy to Megan Phelps-Roper, who’s been devouring Robinson’s work lately.  I didn’t find it.  I think it may have been lost in our last move.

I did, however, find The Box Of Terrifying Journals.

Now, most everyone knows that I don’t shy away from the sometimes-very-embarrassing moments in my past.  I’ve gotten onstage and read my high school diaries in front of total strangers countless times now.  But The Box Of Terrifying Journals does not cover that period of my life.  The Box Of Terrifying Journals spans the years between 1992 and 1996, which were my early-to-mid-twenties.  The period during which I was in graduate school, writing papers like the one I was now trying to find for my friend.

It’s very…interesting…to revisit that age, when one is in one’s forties and navigating a fairly brutal and emotionally devastating family crisis.  I flipped through the pages, scanning the scarily huge scrawling and strange little cartoons, and felt a combination of affection and exasperation with myself at that age.  It’s the way I feel whenever I read something on Thought Catalog.  Some of you know what I’m talking about.  “Bless your heart, but, oh, honey, no.”

During those years, I was constantly writing, constantly agonizing over musicians, and taking myself just a wee bit too seriously.

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Oy fucking vey.

I remember FEELING things so very, very deeply.  I remember feeling outraged and entitled and possessed of a preternatural wisdom.  I remember that my biggest problems involved boys (the aforementioned musicians), and that I would never get over The Great Heartbreak of losing one boy in particular.  I fueled myself on that grief, on the energy that comes about when someone’s disappearance renders them even more conspicuous and extraordinary.

Should I say it?  I am jealous of myself at that age.  Even though I was clearly exhibiting symptoms of the mental illness and addiction that would overtake me at the beginning of my thirties, I am envious of that girl’s energy.  I wish I had her “problems.”  My God, I’d kill to pour so much gusto into bad poetry about bad boyfriends.  I wish I still had that much faith in my powers.

Some of it was pretty clever, too.

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Waking Up On Couches

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For the last few days, I’ve been sick. Wiped-out, snot-blowing, Dickensian-orphan-hacking SICK.

This has made caregiving more than a little challenging, but with faith, perseverance, and DayQuil, I managed to get through the weekend.

I made it through this whole dank, dark winter without so much as a sniffle, so I should have known this was coming. Because when I get sick, it’s always an event that can stretch on for weeks. It’s just the way it happens with me. I didn’t just get swollen glands as a kid; I got some kind of freakish blockage that required several trips to Mass Eye & Ear and about a month home from school in the 4th grade. I’ve also had two staph infections, and a bout with walking pneumonia in my twenties that pretty well ravaged my immune system. So I try, very hard, not to get sick.

Because I don’t just “get a cold.” It settles deep into my lungs and renders me sleepless for nights on end. Most over-the-counter cough medicines are out of the question for me, given my history. So I just try and stay hydrated, and load up on the rancid, root-y nastiness that are Fisherman’s Friend lozenges.

And yes, friends – I have tried VapoRub on my feet, apple cider vinegar, tea with honey, and just about every other olde-tyme-y remedy out there on the internet. I suspect what I need are just plain NARCOTICS, but this would require asking Coombsie to dispense it for me (I mean, I’ve been sober 11+ years but I still don’t entirely trust myself around the “good stuff,” cough-suppressant-wise) and he’s already managing Mom’s medications.

The last couple of nights I’ve been hacking so loud and so often that I’ve retreated to the couch in the living room, so that at least Coombsie is getting some sleep.

At around 3:30 this morning, on the couch, I had an epiphany. I was thinking about actually going back to bed, because I really, REALLY didn’t want to greet the dawn on the couch. That just struck me as horribly depressing, and I realized how long it has been since I’ve needed to pass out on someone’s couch.

I’d say I had to do this very thing, oh, dozens of times throughout my twenties. I’d get too drunk to manage to get myself home, and so I’d wind up on all KINDS of couches throughout the Greater Boston/Cambridge area. Coworkers, friends, ex-boyfriends…somehow they took pity on me and let me crash on their couches. Some would make them up into some semblance of a bed. Some would just leave me to my own devices. And I’d wake up on these couches, bleary, pained, and vaguely ashamed. Often I’d just tiptoe out as soon as I’d figured out where I was and how to reach the nearest T station (TIP: look for a pile of phone or cable bills for an address, kids!), and figure out the thank you and/or apology strategies after the fact. I don’t look back on my twenties particularly fondly. I did a lot of cool stuff, managed to get two degrees, and I think I thought I was having a good time. But in the 800-watt glare of sobriety, reality, and my forties, I see a young woman running herself ragged, trying too hard, and making herself sick.

And I KNOW that I don’t live that life anymore, and I KNOW that it’s my own couch I’m sleeping on (or attempting to sleep on, anyway), and come most dawns, I don’t have anything to apologize for. I just don’t like to wake up on my couch. I don’t like to start the day from my couch. It’s not natural.

Valentine’s Day. And the National Anthem.

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“Happy Fake Holiday, everyone!”

Sigh.

The older I get, the more I’m kind of okay about the whole Valentine’s Day thing. I mean – I’m not about to leave a trail of rose petals from the front door to the bedroom, where I will be stretched out in my flannel cat-print pajamas with a half-eaten Whitman’s Sampler. But, you know, love is nice, and I like looking at creepy, vintage Valentines, and I just can’t with the grousing about it anymore.

WE KNOW IT’S A FAKE, MADE-UP DUMB HOLIDAY. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know it, and hearing the endless kvetching about it is sort of like…okay…here’s what I think it’s like. Story time:

One time I was at a 4th of July party with a boyfriend. It was in an apartment building which overlooked the Charles River, and therefore the fireworks display on the Esplanade. I think I was all of 22 years old at the time, fresh outta college, and therefore possessed of the belief that I knew EVERYTHING. I was also just starting to dip my toes into the cool, still waters of “drinking like an adult” (which is really to say, I was wading waist-deep into what would become the rip current of my full-blown alcoholism), and wanted desperately to appear like the sort of adult who goes to parties in nice apartments overlooking the Charles River, drinking out of nice glasses and saying, oh, just the most interesting things. But because I felt so out of place there, with my nice, smart MIT Ph.D candidate boyfriend and his nice, smart friends; because I was acutely aware that even in my nicest sundress I was never going to pass as one of them; because I was so uncomfortable that I wanted to jump off the tiny little balcony into the Charles River below – I drank too much. Somehow the conversation turned to the National Anthem. And I whipped around like a spastic, inebriated ostrich and bleated, “IT’S A DRINKING SONG!”

“I’m sorry?”

“The National An..anthem. It’s based on a English drinking song. No, FOR REAL. It’s about ANACREON. A Greek p-poet. It’s about DRINKING.”

“…”

“I mean…that’s FUNNY. You know? The words are different, but it just, like, got lifted from a song about being drunk. AND THAT’S OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM. Woooooo! AMERICA!”

Annnnd…scene.

So, basically, listening to people bitch about a bogus holiday that’s commercial claptrap aimed at supporting the greeting card industry or whatever is akin to listening to a 22-year-old, drunk-ass me lecturing everyone about the origins of the National Anthem. So stop it.

I’m reflecting on the love I’ve experienced, the reciprocated and the unreciprocated and the ones that got away (or, rather, the ones that RAN away), and of course there’s a soundtrack for it all.

Now, some of these songs now kind of make me want to hurl (you can probably guess what they are), but I’m not going to revise my life’s soundtrack to make it sound cooler and hipper than it is.

Let’s start with this one:

I was way into INXS through most of the 80s. Except when “Kick” came out, because then EVERYONE liked INXS and I felt robbed. I know – I’m starting to creep into “drunk 22-year-old Lisa and the National Anthem” territory there. ANYWAY. I was 15 when this album came out, and I would listen to this song over and over and over, and picture myself as the jilted heroine in my mental video, because surely Michael Hutchence would take one look at me with my frizzy hair and giant glasses and think, “Yes. This is the person I am thinking of when I sing ‘Girl, you know I need you more than any word spoken.’” So it’s kind of personal for me, because of my imaginary video love with Michael Hutchence. I had a really cute outfit for it, too.

Listen, this is a terrible song. I know this. But I had to sing it at this summer teen theatre review I was in during the summer of ’86 (no lie – Susan Tedeschi was in it, too; she sang “The Greatest Love Of All”). Somehow I was given this song to sing, probably because it was in my range. And I was in the throes of insane, hysterical puppy love. That heart-catching, burst-into-tears-at-any-moment, Twinkies-and-Jolt kind of love. The night of the show, I learned that my envisioned intended had a brand new girlfriend. I remember gazing out of the girls’ bathroom window (as much as I was able to, as it was frosted glass) and thinking, “Lo, my tiny teenage heart cannot possibly withstand this fatal blow rendered by this boy and his new girlfriend with the really cute asymmetrical haircut, but I must go up on that stage after Sue Tedeschi, and I MUST SING OF MY HEARTBREAK.” And so I did. And everyone applauded as I ran offstage and dissolved into a puddle of tears and colored mousse. And then I probably made my friend Katie, who had her license, drive past his house. Five times. Okay, only three.

So, fast forward several years. It’s now 1993, and I am no longer with the MIT Ph.D boyfriend, because I am berserk in love with this singer/songwriter guy who writes me songs, looks at me like I am a pretty, pretty princess, and doesn’t seem to mind that I am quite insane (understand that this is years before I got all of my brain chemistry more or less in working order). The problem? I am not a singer/songwriter. I am not even a moderately good guitar player. What I like to do is wrap myself in chains and spin around blindfolded in the basement of the Cantab Lounge while my friends play a cover of David J’s This Vicious Cabaret. And I think I’m pretty good at this. But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m completely insane and probably an alcoholic. So he moves far, far away – clear across the country – leaving me in my chains with a cassette copy of this Sting album that I bought because of this song, this song that he used to sing for me at open mics. I certainly wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. Because Sting.

This is the song I think of whenever I think of my husband. He and I got together when I was still completely insane, AND an alcoholic. And while I got better for myself, and myself alone (because you simply can’t do it for other people if you yourself are not important enough), I am eternally grateful that he stuck around to see me through it. He is my rock. He is my love. He is my stone cold elf. We are going through a really terrible, trying time right now, but this is what you do when you love someone: you tighten ranks. You walk through, not around. And maybe you fart under the covers sometimes, but you totally apologize, like, immediately.

And on Valentine’s Day, you do some dumb little thing to acknowledge all of that, even though it’s a bogus holiday and blah blah blah. Have you heard my story about the National Anthem?

This is me making this about myself.

2

I think I was in ninth grade when I first experienced the aftermath of a death of a classmate. She wasn’t anybody that I was particularly close to; in fact I don’t think she could even be called a passing acquaintance. But I remember the makeshift “counseling center” that was assembled in the school’s library, which was then closed off in terms of browsing, studying, or anything else not directly involved with grief. And I remember some of my classmates becoming absolutely hysterical, and other classmates’ whispered opinions over whether or not someone was in the library crying “for attention,” as opposed to genuine horror over the idea that death can sweep in and grab a 14-year-old who just yesterday asked you for a piece of gum.

That was my first exposure to this idea that there was a hierarchical “right” to mourn someone’s death, based on any number of factors, not the least of which was how well you knew the person that died. If you didn’t know the person in some substantive way, any display of grief or bewilderment simply meant you were doing it for show. That you were making it about you. That you were doing it “for attention.”

Fast-forward 29 years. Now we have the internet, for better or for worse. We question the appropriateness of mourning in such an “impersonal” way. And the death of a celebrity becomes the subject of countless blogs, status updates, and poems of questionable taste. These are invariably met with scorn. You don’t know that celebrity. Why grieve publicly about that celebrity’s death? And lord help you if that celebrity dies from a drug overdose, because then you’re paying more attention to some selfish, dirty junkie than to REAL problems and people who die much more noble deaths. I’ve written about this before.

I don’t doubt that there are people in this world who unreservedly have to “make everything about them,” who post things precisely because they know they’ll get a virtual shitstorm of attention. I’ve given major side-eye to these kinds of antics, but in the end, I’d argue that anyone with a blog has decided to draw attention to themselves somehow, myself included. Here it is, less than 24 hours after Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment, and I’m writing about what that MEANS to me, someone who didn’t know him, who passed him on the street once, who works almost daily with someone who did know him. These are the things I weigh as I write, and they’re all found wanting. I am telling on myself here: I am doing the thing I despise by staking my claim to someone else’s tragedy. I am a tragedy vulture. Pass the carrion.

When it comes down to it, I have no right to sit here and write about the fact that I burst into tears when I found out.

But I am going to write about it anyway: I burst into tears of pure terror.

Philip Seymour Hoffman had 23 years of sobriety. 23 years of continuous, daily reprieve from the compulsion to completely destroy himself. That compulsion is something I identify with. It is the most horrifying thing in the world to live with, when it’s actively raging in your brain to the point where the need is primal, cellular: every cell in your body screams for it. And it has fuck-all to do with pleasure. You know in your very soul that the “relief” you’re getting is artificial, and temporary. But it is your only option. You simply cannot see any other way out.

Except some of us do find a way out. And we can go for a long time without whatever it was that we needed so desperately. Philip Seymour Hoffman went 23 years. And then he started abusing prescription pills. I need to stress that: heroin is likely what killed him, but pills are what took him out. Pills. We all hiss in an almost superstitious way when we hear “heroin.” Heroin is for people on the very bottom rungs. Heroin doesn’t happen to people who have it all. We shake our fists and bewail heroin as the killer, nobody wanting to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that very often, there are “normal,” “acceptable” substances that pave the way to chasing the dragon. That alcohol kills more people than heroin.

There’s an artist I occasionally follow on Twitter. The day before Philip Seymour Hoffman died, she was tweeting about how having a drink ended her writer’s block. And several of her fans chimed in along the lines of: “Yes! Write drunk! Have a shot before embarking on anything creative! Yay!” And I thought, “This is the mindset that kept me so unwell for so many years.” This is just one of the things that could conceivably end my 11+ years of sobriety, if I don’t remain vigilant. I don’t know if people understand how very fragile sobriety is. I certainly didn’t give it as much thought I should have, until yesterday, hearing that someone with 23 years caved, gave in, and got himself killed.

That is terrifying. So terrifying that I sat on my couch and sobbed.

And so this is me making this about myself. I am frightened. I am angry. I want people to stop being so goddamned cavalier and irresponsible when it comes to addiction, to alcohol, to passing judgment. Myself included.