Some Thoughts On Drinking

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I was born “alcoholic.” I was born hard-wired to develop a physical dependence on alcohol. There are people who question that. The “disease model” of alcoholism is constantly debated. Me, I just know. The natural solipsism of infancy (feed me, hold me, change me) is something we’re supposed to shed, as we grow more cognizant and are taught compassion and empathy. I’m not saying that I wasn’t taught these things; I just suspect that, unlike my siblings (who are not alcoholics), I was born with a significant disadvantage: being unable to adequately build up the cerebral matter around the amygdala, or the “lizard brain,” which really only wants to be fed, and to feel safe. It’s a theory that I’ve sort of pulled out of my ass, really, because I’m not even what you’d call an armchair neurologist. It’s just the only thing that makes sense to me, given my predilection to pursue “satiety” in all its forms.

———–

I once went through one of my diaries from the early 80s, when I was working on a project that involved reading from these diaries, and came across this sentence: “I’m so scared that I’m going to become an alcoholic.”

I was absolutely against drinking when I started college. The night I decided it wasn’t so bad after all, I wound up nearly poisoning myself, vomiting all over my room until the others on my floor dragged me out and left me in the hallway while they cleaned my bedding, my desk, my books…I remember nothing about any of this. The only thing I remember is opening my door, about an hour or so prior, and seeing my friend Dan.

“DAAAAAAN! What’re you DOIN’ HERE?”
“Um. You invited me to play Pictionary.”
“OHMYGOD. I DID?!”

I had a matinee performance of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” the next day. I was in the molar-rattling throes of Baby’s First Hangover when my friend, who was playing Lucy, looked at me and, alarmed, said, “Jesus, Lees…you look like SHIT. What’s the matter with you?”

“I think I have a hangover.”

Her look of concern immediately disappeared as she turned back to her makeup mirror and adjusted the collar of her little blue dress. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Big deal. So do I.”

———

I was a binge drinker all through college. A weekend here and there. I didn’t think much of it. We all did it. We’d work hard in rehearsals and in performances and we studied and wrote and generally Got Shit Done. I was chosen several times to compete at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. I wrote plays. I had a column in the college newspaper. Alcoholism didn’t even cross my mind. After all, I didn’t drink every day.

——–

Here’s what I tell people in regards to my alcoholism: “Genetics loaded the gun; environment pulled the trigger.” This is not to say that I blame any one person, place, or set of circumstances for the loss of control and the slow, insidious descent into full-blown, active alcoholism. But a line was crossed, and I can pinpoint the period in which I flipped the “fuck it switch” and began the process of decline. The perfect storm.

Shall I tell it? I was 24 years old. I was at the height of my powers, creatively speaking. I was writing volumes of stuff, some of it pretty good, good enough to land me a spot in a graduate writing program known to be quite competitive. I grasped that I was talented enough to be there, but I was overwhelmed by what I considered to be far greater talent around me. I felt like a 3-year-old, just mastering the art of getting my chubby fist around a crayon, while everyone else was writing at lightning speed, words spilling from their pens and word processors that were nothing short of brilliant. I’d sit in workshops and feel my face heat up with embarrassment. What was I doing there?

I was also starting to realize that something was not quite right with me, mentally. I was experiencing terrifying bouts of anger. Shrieking, yowling, completely irrational rage. When I wasn’t angry, I was terrified. And sometimes I’d go off and do really, really stupid things. I was racking up credit card debt, and dashing off haughty, indignant notes to any creditor who dared send me notice that I was delinquent in paying off that debt. I began to – how can I say this? – enjoy these swings, believing them to be proof of my artistic temperament.

Further still – I’d experienced my first real, crushing heartbreak. The one I loved was leaving me, embarking on a new life 3,000 miles away, yet I chose to stay around until he left. And he let me. The kinder thing would have been to completely cut me off, but I clung determinedly to him, to us, until the very second he climbed into his rented U-Haul and drove away. And so I’d go to his apartment after having some story or poem of mine picked apart by my classmates, watch as his stuff disappeared into boxes, listen to him excitedly talk about how everything was “coming together,” and drink. In classes I’d try furiously to pay attention, try to control the hammering of my heart that was trying to keep up with both grief and responsibility, and I’d pour out the door in a pain puddle onto Tremont Street and roll into the nearest bar.

I’m a talentless hack. I’m losing my mind. People move clear across the country to get away from me. Fuck it. Drink.

————-

In hindsight, that relationship absolutely would’ve fallen apart anyway. My drinking would have ruined it. I know this.

If it hadn’t been the stress and sadness of 1994 that drove me to pursue artificial relief, it would have been something else. Another year. Another series of losses. My growing mental health issues. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have had to stop drinking, or die, eventually. But as it stands – this was the year that my alcoholism tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to dance. And I stayed on the dance floor with it for the next 8 years.

———–

Most of my friends have stopped congratulating me on my “willpower” whenever I reach another anniversary. They’re still happy for me, but I think I’ve managed to get them to sort of understand that sobriety, for me, has nothing to do with willpower. I think it’s pretty well-established that willpower is not something that I possess in spades. Turning down a drink, ignoring the wine list, walking past – and not into – a liquor store…I do these things automatically, because I’ve been trained to. People I trusted told me I could do these things, and I let their voices be my own.

It’s also the one situation in which I allow fear to drive the bus. I am terrified of what will happen to me if I pick up again. I am scared of not being able to stop. I am quite afraid of going through those first completely hellish months of sobriety again.

————-

And this reminds me of times when I’ve tried to describe the obsession to someone who can pay the check, put on his or her coat, and walk out the door when there’s still a quarter of a glass of beer on the table. You know – a “normal” drinker (I do not fucking understand those people). What is like to need something so badly that you are willing to completely desert common sense and decent behavior to have it? Imagine having a mosquito bite. It itches – a steady, pinching itch that doesn’t go away. You know that if you scratch it, you’ll have maybe a second or two of relief, but it’ll start this whole cycle of trying to ignore it, giving in, scratching, making it worse. But the second or two of relief trumps everything else. That’s the closest I can come to describing what happens to me when I drink.

And I’m fortunate that most of the people in my life actually DO want to try to understand. I’m grateful for that. Too many people don’t. I suppose because judgment is easier than comprehension.

————-

A question comes up sometimes in my recovery work: if science came up with a “cure” for alcoholism, a pill that would make me “drink normally,” would I take it? Honestly? Probably not, because I have absolutely no desire to “drink normally.”

One thing that I’ve always been grateful for is the fact that I can walk down Newbury Street on a summer evening, past all these little outdoor places where people are drinking Fauvist-hued beverages, and have absolutely no yearning for that kind of shit. When I think about drinking, when I imagine myself giving in and rejoining my alcoholism on that dance floor, I think about drinking as much as I can get my hands on. I think about having one hand on the next bottle before I’ve finished the first. I think about drinking until I do not feel anything: no sadness, no joy, no attraction. Oblivion is always the goal. “If anything,” I once said to another sober friend of mine, “I’d rather that science create a way for me to drink the way I want to without any consequences.”

But then that’s not really living. We quit drinking because the consequences heap one on top of the other until we’re trapped, until it becomes too painful, and we get what’s called “the gift of desperation.” Quitting drinking is signing up to get your life back, warts and all. If I were able to drink without consequences, I wouldn’t have much of anything else, either. My job. My home. My husband. My family. My band. My friends. You get the idea. I have learned to prefer reality to oblivion.

Stickers

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When I was around 12, I began to betray myself.

A bit about me (if you’re new around these parts and haven’t heard this before):  I was bullied.  By girls.  Girls who really went to impressive, creative lengths to let me know just how much I would never, ever fit in with them.

For a while, I was able to let it roll off.  They were not, by and large, girls that I related to, and so I didn’t particularly care that they didn’t like me.

But you can only be pelted with acidic disapproval for so long before your sense of self, your comfort within yourself, erodes and you are left completely unprotected.  I kept my head down, and hoped that it would stop, but it didn’t, and so in the middle of 7th grade, I switched schools.

I went from a private school where I’d been with the same couple of dozen kids from kindergarten on, to a public junior high school with complete strangers.  Here, at last, was a chance at reinvention.

So I started collecting stickers.

Understand that prior to this, I collected stamps.  I was all about the VALUE of a thing as it aged.  I was deeply interested in anything old, and in anything recent that had the potential of becoming old, and thus, valuable.  Stickers did not compute.  And yet I observed the girls in my neighborhood furiously stockpiling scratch-n-sniff, Mouthless Kitty™, and the deeply-coveted “puffy” stickers, as though their very lives depended on it.  And I remembered an afternoon where I actually lectured one or two of them about the OBVIOUS superiority of postage stamps, which weren’t at all “cute” and didn’t have googly-eyes.

It occurred to me, then, that in order to have, and keep, any friends that I could make in this new environment, I would have to fake things about myself.  And so I obtained a spiral-bound photo album, and began dutifully filling it with stickers.

I found that sticking, if you will, to this relatively simple process of obtaining things, and then trading them for “cuter” things, enabled me to interact with other girls without revealing my “real” personality.  I was starved for companionship, and willing to settle for the superficial as I navigated this new environment.  Understand, at this point, that I had more or less been mentally and emotionally beaten down into believing that my true self was not anything to be proud of or sought after.  And so I sold out my stamp collecting soul in favor of stickers that smelled like watermelon. 

And that’s exhausting – the act of suppressing your own needs in favor of being thought of, as evidenced by the signatures on my 8th grade yearbook, “a really good kid.”  Don’t make waves.  Don’t wear the wrong sweater.  Carry the little Jordache purse with the right lipgloss and pretendpretendpretend.  This went on for a good couple of years, until 10th grade, when I gave myself over to Thespis, joined the Drama Club, and finally felt safe again.

This is all just a roundabout way of explaining that women are terrifying to me, even now.  I never cease to be amazed at how ruthlessly efficient we can be at tearing one another down.  This week’s Internet Kerfuffle™ — Sinead writing to Miley, Miley snarking at Sinead, Amanda writing to Sinead about writing to Miley, and the accompanying maelstrom of slut-shaming and mental-illness-bashing that pierces a place in my heart where I am trying to keep that 12-year-old me safe. 

The internet is, quite often, just no place for me to be.  So I carve out my little corner and stay here with my stamp collection and hope that the girls here will be kind.

The Smarts

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I am not what one could ever mistake for an intellectual giant.

I mean, I’d LIKE to be; I have always tried to surround myself with the trappings of intellectualism. I have built-in bookshelves, for God’s sake. But I have a number of strikes against me…strikes that really and truly separate me from the bona fide intellectual.

For one: I’m lazy. I mean – I am really, really lazy. I am a procrastinator par excellence. I spent my entire academic career (1975 – 1996) waiting until the last goddamn possible minute to read that book/write that paper/turn in that thesis. I was the one who’d announce, at dinner, that I had a series of posterboards due on Marie Curie for the Science Fair. The next day. I was THAT KID. It’s a wonder my mother didn’t drive me to a remote wooded area and leave me to be raised by coyotes. Even then, I’d have been all, “Oh, you needed me to eat that housecat NOW?”

I’m also easily distracted. An ex of mine once summed up my modus operandi thus: “Ooooh, shiny!” Honestly – for me to get anything done I have to be sealed in a concrete bunker with nothing but a folding chair and table and the task at hand. And I’d still wind up fascinated by the underside of the table.

Then, of course, there’s the slight problem of my being a Pop Culture Whore. So much of the real estate in my brain is taken up with “Brady Bunch” plotlines, vintage commercial jingles, and 80’s ephemera that facts and figures enjoyed by the truly intellectual simply don’t stand a chance of finding purchase. You want someone to rattle off the lyrics to “The Most Important Person,” I’m your girl. Discussing Proust? No chance in hell, folks.

And yet I’ve always wanted to be an intellectual. I wanted to be a Smart Kid, a kid who always made Honor Roll and got to collect a bunch of little scholarships at graduation, who was on that whole Smart Kid track that I could clearly see, but never quite jump on. I was excellent at memorizing lines and absorbing huge amounts of information about shit that nobody else cared about. (Go ahead, ask me about the entire history of the “Our Gang” shorts, and which of those kid actors went on to do voiceover work for Chicken of the Sea, or got shot in the groin over a $50 debt. NO ONE CARES. No one. And still I know. I know ALL about it.) I had the skills to be a Smart Kid, but – in the parlance of frustrated teachers throughout the Hingham Public School system – I was lousy at “applying myself.”

I figured, then, that if I couldn’t actually be smart, I’d hang out with the kids who were. I couldn’t dazzle them with my intellect, but I could make them laugh, and so they let me tag along. I felt rather like a poodle in a sweater around them, and I never could quite shake the feeling that as soon as I ceased to be amusing, I’d stop getting invited to their parties. Of course that wasn’t true, and when it came time for our senior yearbooks to be passed around and signed, I was struck by how many of these Smart Kids saw through me: in so many words, they told me that they sometimes wished I’d drop the “character” and let people know the real me.

All these years later, I still struggle with this idea that I’m not “smart” enough. I couldn’t hold my own in a discussion about public economics or second-wave feminism. Even in groups of people who share my interests (writers, musicians, actors), I feel like I don’t have the c.v. to pass muster. I used to drink to cover up for my perceived intellectual inadequacies. Now I just have to hope that someone will wonder aloud, “Whatever happened to Alfalfa, anyway?”

And when THAT happens, watch me hold court, y’all.

“Borrowed Nostalgia”

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I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.

I always chuckle a little at that particular line in this LCD Soundsystem song.  “Borrowed nostalgia” is something I simultaneously embrace and abhor.

I was a little kid in the Seventies, which – as anyone who lived in the Seventies knows – was a decade in which everyone was nostalgic for the Fifties.  Happy DaysLaverne & Shirley.  Sha Na Na.  Grease.  I had done some mental calculating and came to the realization that my parents had been teenagers in the Fifties, and thus grilled them relentlessly on the veracity of the onslaught of wholesome, peppy imagery I was being fed throughout the mid-to-late-Seventies.  Did my mom own a poodle skirt?  Was my dad a greaser?  Did everyone sip milkshakes and listen to Elvis and sing “shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom” every time it was clear that some nice girl was about to lose her virginity to John Travolta?  I HAD QUESTIONS.

I had also developed a serious obsession with my parents’ record collection, and became a tiny Borscht Belt comic, rattling off Rusty Warren and Allen Sherman routines to the great amusement of, well, anyone over the age of 40.  My peers, on the other hand, viewed me with bewildered disdain.  I became convinced that I was “born at the wrong time,” and holed up in my bedroom, furiously studying up on old MGM movies and silent film star scandals.  Even now, I will SCHOOL y’all on any of this.

So I grew up with borrowed nostalgia.  I absolutely was nostalgic for a time in which I wasn’t even alive.  And this, of course, led me to wonder what people would be nostalgic for in the future.  I distinctly remember sitting on our front steps waiting for my mother to give me a ride to the Central Junior High School auditorium, dressed in what I believed to be the only “historically accurate” costume for our production of Bye Bye Birdie (a simple red sweater over a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and a Pendleton plaid skirt that my mother actually wore in high school, as opposed to the garish poodle skirts of my castmates, which I considered clownish).  I smoothed the green plaid skirt over my knees, and started to wonder what people would be nostalgic over in twenty years.  “Pinstripe jeans, probably,” I thought.

In my twenties, I was witness to a perverse collective need to throw “Seventies Parties,” where everyone decked themselves out in chest medallions, Danskin leotards, and stained polyester leisure suits picked up at Goodwill.  By the end of the night, everyone would be rank with sweat and sticky with spilled TAB.  And I thought, “Why does anyone want to remember this shit?

Now, Mad Men is all the rage, with everyone throwing classy cocktail parties and sporting slick, retro duds.  Yet I’m not as bothered by that, simply because those are the kinds of clothes that actually look good on me, although I do regard these get-togethers with a little side-eye, because if you’re really, truly paying attention to this show, all those cocktails are leading to nowhere good.  (Fuck’s sake, people – Don Draper is at the point now in the series where he HAS to have a drink in the morning, because if he doesn’t, he’ll have a seizure.  I digress.)

But when it comes to the decade in which I spent my formative years, I am ridiculously territorial.  A couple of years ago, my niece Caroline was going to an “Eighties Party” at a friend’s house, and was happily telling me about her outfit, which of course was a combination of all the WORST sartorial statements of that decade:  big hair, leg warmers, shoulder pads.  I wanted to tell her that not everyone dressed like that.  I myself favored giant plaid old guy shorts worn over long johns, paired with floral vests bedecked in vintage brooches.  Let me tell you – I was HOT.

I find myself putting a far more positive spin on that decade than I should.  I was, in the main, pretty miserable in the years between 1981 and 1988, for all kinds of reasons that I won’t get into right now.  But the music that acts as aural Prozac for me has always been music that came out during that time.  I have every damn 45 single I bought from ’81 on, and you’d best believe I still play them, ON A RECORD PLAYER, whenever I am in need of a psychic boost.

Kevin and I went to see Big Country a few weeks ago.

The current incarnation of this band includes members of Simple Minds and The Alarm.  As such, there was no goddamn way I was going to miss this show.

There are those that say that the bands we listened to in our youth have no business going out there and playing those songs for us.  They’re old, we’re old, it’s silly, it’s somehow…sad.  I disagree.  I’ve been to a lot of shows in the last 28 or so years.  The ones that rank the highest?  Bands on so-called “nostalgia/reunion” tours.  Bauhaus.  Gang of Four.  Adam Ant.  Big Country.

I was completely swept up in that show.  I cried, I hollered, and I bounced around in front like a happy puppy.  AND I GOT MY PICTURE TAKEN WITH DEREK FORBES.  DEREK FORBES.

994864_10153074664515085_752475421_nIt was everything that my 15-year-old self could have wanted:  I was wearing a dress from the Fifties, standing next to the former bass player from Simple Minds (who smelled really, really good, despite the fact that he was also really, really sweaty).  God.  DYING.

It’s nice to have nostalgia that’s purely mine.

Eleven

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I am eleven years sober today.

If one looks at one’s sobriety date as a rebirth of sorts, I guess you could say that I am in the “tween” stage of my recovery, like the sober equivalent of a Belieber who writes stuff on her arms in pink marker. Beginning to assert my independence by being kind of a brat. “Just drop me off HERE, Mom….I don’t want anyone to know YOU drove me.”

Does that make sense? Probably not.  Anyway…

Usually what I’ve done in the past, when I’m writing something on my anniversary, is go back and talk about what an unholy fucking wreck of a person I was in June of 2002. I was standing on the precipice of just one more in a series of burned bridges for which I was responsible because I couldn’t stop drinking. But most of you know this.

The morning I had my last drink (which kind of – technically – wasn’t my last drink because I actually couldn’t keep it down) was like every morning which had preceded it for months and months. I was singularly incapable of dealing with anything without anesthesia. I’d have something to settle my nerves and to stop my hands from shaking, and then sit at my desk and try to look like I was doing something, until the panic would well up in me again and I’d have to scurry off somewhere to attempt, once again, to drown it.

But as any recovering addict will tell you, you can never, ever chemically beat the fear into submission. It always comes roaring back, angered by your attempts to hold its head underbourbon. Or undervodka. Underchardonnay. Whatever.
But I wasn’t going to talk about all of that today.

This morning was like nearly every morning which has preceded it for several years. I got up. I scooped poop from the litter box. I made coffee. I assessed the leg stubble situation to figure out if I could get away with one more day of wearing a kicky little dress without shaving.

Let me tell you something: these are all miracles.

Part of my recovery is making sure that I never entirely lose sight of the fact that by the end of my drinking, I couldn’t even handle doing laundry. Another part of my recovery is making sure that I never tell myself “I wasn’t THAT bad.” Because I was. I was well on my way to drinking myself to death. That I can have a morning involving cat poop and leg stubble is a gift.

There are challenges right now. My mother-in-law continues to decline. I have to accept that I cannot reverse what is happening to her. There is no “reset” button I can hit that will make her the person she used to be. It is difficult to see this as a “gift.” It is a learning experience, certainly.

My mother-in-law lives from moment to moment now, pretty much. Explaining something that is coming up even two days into the future puzzles her. In a way, it’s kind of a template for the way I should be living. What I have is today, with its accompanying cat poop and coffee and challenges and joys. If I look too far ahead, I get overwhelmed. If I hold fast to expectations, I will invariably be disappointed.

Today’s pretty good so far. You?

Single Set Drama

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In high school, our Drama Club competed each year in a one-act play festival. We’d square off against other high school drama clubs in an orgy of hormones, showtunes, and Ben Nye pancake foundation. It was horrifying. It was glorious.

The challenge, each year, was to come up with something brief-yet-substantive, with a set flexible enough to travel and to fit onto more than just our own stage. As a result, someone sitting through a typical round would see a lot of single set plays. Living room dramas, dining room farces, kitchen confessionals. Keeping things small and compact typically ensured our repeated success.

I think back often to those festivals, and to the time I spent in Drama Club in general. Despite a great deal of turmoil on the home front and a deeply complicated relationship with my father, the time I spent onstage, backstage, on buses to and from competitions and to and from New York City, was a time in which I was the most comfortable with myself. In that environment, I felt utterly safe and valued. It provided a near-daily shot of magic into a life that was otherwise fraught with a lot of uncertainty. I never wanted to stop the process of transformation. So I went on to study theatre in college.

But then I “grew up,” which is to say that I started engaging in activities that I thought were pretty sophisticated, and more real than those which had protected me as a teenager. Those activities typically involved a lot of alcohol, and rather spontaneous “romantic” encounters. And even after I’d settled down on the latter front, on the former I drunkenly raged through the rest of my twenties and into the beginning of my thirties, long after drinking had any sort of even remotely magical effect on me. Oh, it was still transformative, to be sure, but I no longer transformed into anything pretty, witty or bright.

The other thing I began to notice was how very small my world was becoming. Because I was no longer particularly interested in alcohol as a social lubricant. I had no desire to be social. No, what I really liked to do was buy an asspocket of Jack Daniels, retreat to the “music room” (which in any normal house would have been the dining room, but I felt no need to entertain people in that kind of way, and so it became the room in which we put my records, the turntable, and our various and sundry stringed instruments) and drink. Drink, and listen to the same two or three songs over and over again. Drink until I felt better, which is to say nothing, and pass out.

This is what happens when alcoholism creeps up on you: you become the solitary performer in a single set play, only there isn’t any audience, or if there is, they’re walking out in the middle of it. It happened to my father, who by the end of his drinking lived in one room. It happened to me, hiding in one room and mentally staying in that one room even when I left it to go to work. It’s not particularly interesting to watch or be a part of, even as we convinced ourselves that we were the principal characters in our own great tragedies.

It’s an act that goes nowhere. Dramatic stasis. It will go on and on just as it’s going unless something comes along to change it.

So my father and I had to decide if it was worth writing a second act. It was. We did. It’s still in revisions. Generally speaking, we don’t give a shit what the critics will say.

In sobriety I found that comfort again. I’m not able to memorize lines quite as quickly as I used to, but I surround myself with magic, and with magic people (a couple of whom were in Drama Club with me all those years ago). I am acutely aware of what sustains me, and I don’t ever want to wander away from it again. And when the curtain goes down, I want this production to have been a success.

Symbols and dishonesty.

3

One of the things I knew I’d have to work on the hardest, once I managed to get the “not drinking” thing more or less under control, was my niggling habit of being a total liar.

I think that’s one of the things that kept me drinking long after drinking ceased to work, to be honest (see what I did there?).

In the time I’ve been sober, and in the time I’ve been hanging around other sober people, I’ve come to understand that they’re pretty well entwined, substance abuse and telling whoppers.  They’re reactive behaviors.  I did both as a response to what I was perceiving.  I did both because they (very temporarily) provided a quick “hit” of relief whenever I was feeling any kind of discomfort.  I drank, and I lied, because these things allowed me to be somebody other than I was.

Feeling awkward in a social situation?  Drink.

Feeling like I’m somehow going to be found wanting when weighed against someone else?  Lie.

Yes, I’ve read that book.  Yes, I am also a fan of that movie.  Yes, I know who that obscure German industrial band is.

Will I be more interesting to you?  Then I will say these things.  And I will drink so that these things pour out of me like bad poetry into a spiral notebook.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Years ago, I read a biography of Edie Sedgwick, and was struck by something she did during her time living in Cambridge.  She was hanging around with a lot of Harvard University students, and while they adored her, and despite the fact that she was studying sculpture, she insisted on walking around Harvard Square with a hardcover copy of A Tale of Two Cities.  I related immediately to this little quirk.  I grasped that she, in essence, wanted everyone to believe she belonged there.  Simple enough to carry a book around and appear as though you’re well-read.  Just pray that nobody asks you what you’re reading.

When I was in college, I went to Cocoa Beach one weekend with my roommate, her boyfriend, and a guy I thought I was seeing.  I wasn’t really clear on what we were supposed to be to one another.  And this little weekend getaway was going to clear that up for me.  He’d hold my hand, put his arm around me, and I’d think that maybe he was heading into boyfriend territory.  But then we went out for coffee at some diner, and after we’d ordered, he closed his eyes for a few moments and then looked at me, meaningfully.  “I just sent a thought to someone.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.  I sent it to the girl I’m in love with.”

He then proceeded to tell me what a complicated relationship they’d had, but she was in Michigan.

“I see.  Did she get it?”

“I think so.”

“Well, maybe she’ll send a…thought…back to you.”

The next morning, my roommate and I went to get breakfast to bring back to the condo in which we were staying.  And I ducked into Ron Jon.  And it was in Ron Jon that I found myself seriously considering buying a used surfboard.  Just to have in my room, you know.  In case someone walked by and saw it and would come to the conclusion that I was….Gidget.  Or something.  I was so craving reinvention at that moment, was so desperate than to be anyone other than the girl sitting across from a guy who was “sending thoughts” to another girl in fucking Michigan, that the complete absurdity of buying a surfboard was nowhere in my thought process.

Fortunately, common sense – in the form of my roommate – prevailed:  “And how in the hell are we supposed to get that back to the dorm, Lees?  Jesus.  You’re insane.”

Edie’s book.  My (potential) surfboard.  External symbols of an internal need to be someone other than who we are, because who we are seems woefully inadequate.  Edie became a drug addict.  I became an alcoholic.  Edie died before having a chance to get at the painful truth about herself.  I’m trying to be more honest with myself.

Structure

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One night this past August, I found myself on West Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, directly across from the House of Blues, a building I’d heretofore managed to avoid on my trips out to California over the last several years.

I was standing on the sidewalk opposite this place I’d held directly responsible for what was the biggest heartbreak of my early “adulthood,” when my boyfriend, who’d sworn that his feelings for me were unprecedented and that he was “in it for the long haul,” decided – seemingly overnight – that working at the (then) brand-new House of Blues in Los Angeles looked much more promising than staying in Boston with me. I was devastated, and it threw me into a depression (and an accompanying riot of poor life decisions) that would take several years to navigate my way out of.

So here I was, nearly two decades later, regarding this building, and its deliberately weather-beaten façade, with a mixture of curiosity and bitterness, as if the House of Blues itself called the shots and determined what would become of that relationship. It was like observing a new flame in the aftermath of an imploded romance. What did the House of Blues have that I didn’t? I watched several young women totter across West Sunset — wearing impossibly high heels and tiny dresses — and make their way into the club. It was certainly no place where I, a forty-something sober woman wearing sensible footwear and a jaded smirk, belonged. Even in my twenties, when I was truly honing my chops as a drunken hot mess, I suspect I would’ve hated it in there.

And while I wouldn’t trade my life now (sober, reasonably serene, filled with love and friendship and creativity) for any other, I still couldn’t help but feel a little resentful at the House of Blues, and the look on my face as I regarded it must have given me away, because my best friend squeezed my hand and said, “I know.” Not because I was still pining for what was lost, but because sometimes an old scar can still flare up like an emotional charley horse. Muscle memory. The heart is a muscle, and it remembers.

We place a lot of stock in structures. I still have dreams about the houses in which I grew up or spent considerable time. In my dreams they become much bigger than they actually were, they have additional rooms (and in some cases, ballrooms and chapels). When we move on from these places, we almost feel like we owe them an apology for leaving. I did so when my parents sold the last house in which we’d lived as a family. We want to believe that these places will remember us, miss us.

A few years ago I went back to my high school, to see the Drama Club’s annual musical. I wanted desperately to go backstage, into the classroom that’s still being used as the “green room,” to remember the smell of Ben Nye cake foundation applied with little foam rubber wedges. I wanted the auditorium to somehow psychically convey my “homecoming.”

And that night in Los Angeles, I wanted to march across West Sunset Boulevard and tell the House of Blues that it didn’t break me, as ridiculous as that sounds. The House of Blues merely provided the catalyst my then-boyfriend needed to extract himself from something that had become too much for him. For me, it was a symbol of my failure to keep him with me. But for someone else, it might be the place she met her true love. For another, it’s the place where he saw the best concert of his life.

I wonder what buildings are in my future.

The Dead

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You know as well as I do that the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth … and the ambitions they had … and the pleasures they had … and the things they suffered .. and the people they loved.

Of all the themes explored in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, this is the one that always kills me, in every production I’ve seen and in every re-reading I’ve given it.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught, particularly if we were raised Catholic. What are saints after all but the dead, whose very purpose is to take a keen interest in the living, delivering our petitions to God himself and interceding on our behalf? And have not most of us, at some time, believed that our loved ones are “smiling down on us,” or somehow present in our times of despair?

I grew up with ghosts. One in particular lived in my Nana’s house. He had followed her and Pa from Ireland, to take up residency in a third floor bedroom. We lived in terror of Monaghan (although for later generations of cousins, he was the friendly spirit who inhabited lamps that suddenly grew brighter). My sister and I have seen “ghosts” for as long as we can remember…but what exactly have we seen, really? Psychic imprints that we’re more in tune with than are others, perhaps. Residual energy from lambent happiness, or abject despair. Certainly these things don’t come when called, or we’d have gone into the paranormal connectivity business long ago.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

It’s a series of lines that shake me every time I hear them or read them, even though I am no longer affiliated with any formal religion or religious practice.

This is, I think, because I want to be more important than I am. It’s standard formula in tragedy: one loves, and the other is loved. When loved ones depart, I want them to miss me, be as involved with and interested in me as they were when they were here…more so, since the shedding of one’s mortal coil would imply an immediate grant of omnipresence. You can be with me all the time now. I can sit here sobbing on my bathroom floor and I will somehow be comforted by you, because you cannot bear to see me grieve.

I suppose it makes sense that Wilder’s line is still something I cannot quite wrap my brain around, after all these years. When you have been hurt by living people long enough (and we all have; I don’t pretend or presume that I’ve been hurt more than anyone else), sometimes you want to believe that the dead will intercede, drifting in as haze and enveloping us in some misty and mystical comfort.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

The living don’t stay interested in the living for very long, either. At the absolute nadir of what was the biggest heartbreak of my young “adult” life, I wanted to believe I could send my pain in a telepathic package, to the other side of the country where my erstwhile beloved had gone. (Oddly enough, I had enough good sense to not rack up horrific phone bills by calling him, to vocally plead my case and beg him to come back. Even at drunk o’clock in the morning, an odd sense of self-preservation would kick in and keep me from making an ass of myself, at least in that regard.) I wanted to believe that we were so connected that he would feel my sorrow from 3,000 miles away. Comebackcomebackcomeback. He did, but with his new girlfriend in tow.

The living move on. We lose, and we lose, and we lose again, and yet most of us eventually will laugh at a joke again. Most of us will find new loves, new things to be fascinated by. We are scarred, certainly, but we move on. We do this in part because we are programmed for survival.

And this is, perhaps, what Wilder had in mind when he wrote those lines. The living move on because they must. And so it stands to reason that the dead do the same.

A Birthday

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When Chloe was born, I didn’t call the hospital to see how she, and her mother, were doing.

Because I was drunk.

Chloe, my sister’s firstborn. A kid I had been wildly excited to meet. It was December of 2001, and my drinking had “progressed” to the point where I needed alcohol first thing in the morning, several times throughout the day, and well into the evening. I drank not for pleasure, not to “take the edge off” a rough day, but for complete oblivion. Other things mattered, other people mattered, but I could not get out of the corner I’d painted myself into. My alcoholism had (as alcoholism tends to do) crept up on me gradually, all through my twenties, until seemingly overnight I had no other coping mechanisms left at my disposal. Simply put, I did not know how to exist without drinking.

And when Chloe was born I was so paralyzed by my own self-manufactured misery that I didn’t call the hospital.

This was my bottom.

I wish I could say that I stopped drinking on Chloe’s birthday. In point of fact, I went through the rest of December in a stupor. I had nip bottles strategically placed in pockets and purses to get me through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, all the while being very careful to never have more than two glasses of wine in front of my family. I’d excuse myself and go to the car, to the bathroom, and drink the way I needed to.

It was the worst December of my life.

I didn’t want to be the drunk, scary, weird aunt. I didn’t want to scare my nieces and nephews. I didn’t want to pull them into embarrassing hugs, and even more embarrassing conversations. I didn’t want to cover their little faces in wine breath. I didn’t want to make slurry declarations of love.

It wasn’t too late to simply be the WEIRD aunt. The aunt that these kids would perhaps eventually look up to. The aunt that would take them to plays, buy them books, agree to not tell their parents about their piercings or tattoos. I could be all those things for them. But only if I stopped drinking.

Chloe is eleven years old today. And I am just a shade over 10 1/2 years sober. Chloe has never seen me drunk. And neither have her brother and sister. It’s Chloe’s birthday, but she’s the one giving me the gifts. I don’t expect her to understand that. I pray to God she never does.

Happy Birthday, Chlo-Bo-Cop. You are made of awesome.

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