The Art of Caregiving

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We’re getting a weekend “off,” effective this evening, from being caregivers.

I feel guilty for being so, well, kind of psyched about this, but I’m sure a lot of you know what I’m talking about. Kevin had mentioned our weekend to a coworker of his, a woman with a fairly new infant, and she said, “Oh, yeah…I get it. We went to visit my parents not too long ago, and on a Friday night, my husband and I spent, like, four hours in CVS. It felt like such a luxury.”

And when Kevin told me that, I said, “Oh, my GOD. That sounds AMAZING.

In many ways, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is like caring for a small child. The person is utterly dependent upon you for just about everything, you have to make plans practically months in advance to just be able to go to a movie, and if you turn your back for even an instant, something is going to get broken/lost/drenched/flushed down the toilet.

The difference, of course, is that in most cases, a small child is going to eventually become more independent and able to follow directions. That’s not the case with a 73-year-old woman in the more advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. “Don’t use your sleeve to mop up water on the counter” means nothing to her. She is unable, more and more, to create NEW memories, so she will pretty much just continue to “clean” with her sleeves, and we will just continue to hand her paper towels, which she’ll fold up neatly and store in the dishwasher.

This morning, my mother-in-law was up and at ‘em much earlier than usual, and so when we went upstairs to give her breakfast, she’d already created enough minor chaos to delay our getting to work. We’ve made it so she can’t turn on the stove or stop up her bathroom sink. We’re relatively certain she won’t burn down the house, or flood our basement (again). But she can still pull all of her socks and bras out of her bureau and scatter them throughout the house in fairly short order. Why? Don’t ask. We don’t. I’m sure there’s a logic to it, but I’m frequently just too tired to crack the code there.

But there is a code. I’m certain of it. As her language skills continue to decline, she finds other ways of expressing herself.

A couple of years ago, when she started losing the ability to shop for herself, or find the words for what she needed, she relied on something that she still knew how to do, and that was to draw pictures. And so her shopping lists for us became little works of art:

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She’s since lost that ability (her home health aides tell us what she’s getting low on). But she now leaves what I refer to as her “art bombs” all over the house. They’re really fascinating.

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In a strange way, it’s both comforting and life-affirming to know that art can still happen, everywhere, to anyone, even accidentally. She can’t remember how to sign her name, but she can do this. She can communicate, in her way, what is happening to her brain. It’s shrinking. I cannot even begin to fathom what this is like, and yet here she is, telling me.

These are things that belong together. I wish I could tell you why. They’re all small. They all remind me of something. They look nice here. I’ll keep them here for a bit until I decide they need to go somewhere else. But look at them, please. Notice them. Pay attention. Be in the moment with me.

The biggest challenge for me anyway, regardless of my current caregiver status, is staying in the moment. Trying not to spiral off into a grim future, or hang onto something that’s done and gone. The present is intensely uncomfortable for me. Maybe that’s an alcoholic thing. Nothing, save early sobriety, has forced me into this state of accepting the present moment for what it is, more than caring for someone with this disease.

I’d like to think that this is the greatest “reward” for living in this house, keeping her here with us for as long as she’s able to be here. Too, I am reminded that this is what it means to be committed to someone. That whole “for better or for worse” thing. I can’t say “I didn’t sign up for THIS,” because the fact is that I DID. And that’s okay. It’s made our marriage stronger, whereas others have crumbled under this kind of day-to-day pressure. Another “reward,” although I don’t really like to think in those terms. I can name at least a half dozen friends who are going through the exact same thing. What I’m doing? Not so unusual. I don’t deserve some kind of karmic prize for this when it’s all said and done, and it’s not particularly helpful to me to expect one.

I can only hope that I’ll get to spend a few hours in CVS. Because that still sounds AMAZING.

This is me making this about myself.

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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.

The Year That Was.

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I’ve been saying this for several years now, but it bears repeating (mainly for myself):

I don’t have any expectations for New Year’s Eve. Or Day, for that matter. Or for the “new year” in general.

Back when I was still drinking, I placed a lot of stock in December 31st. Had to be somewhere, had to kiss someone, had to have SERIOUS resolutions involving self-improvement. Year after year, I couldn’t quite grasp the lessons that each New Year’s Eve attempted to teach me. From getting stood up to getting beaned on the noggin by a flying champagne cork, it was as if Something Out There was telling me, “Just stop. Seriously. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

And then there was New Year’s Eve 2001. My last New Year’s Eve as an active alcoholic. Nothing horrible happened that night. No screaming fights, no bouts of sobbing in the bathroom. I did pass out in the car on the way home, but on the whole, it pretty much was a “successful” night of drinking for me back then, at the end. But I woke up New Year’s Day 2002 exhausted to my very core. And I knew I had to stop drinking, if only to see if it would, possibly, make me feel better.

And so, since then, I’ve pretty much stayed home, with an array of snacks, and fallen asleep on the couch. Which is perfectly fine with me.

2013 was…rough. But it was also pretty great. I’m not one of these people with a wrist permanently affixed to my forehead come December, going on about how this year needs to BE OVER, already. I’m certainly looking forward to the HOLIDAYS being over, but condemning an entire year, to me, seems excessive.

On the not-so-awesome side, the house in which I spent my formative years was torn down to make way for a pre-fab “McMansion.” That hit me pretty hard.

And my mother-in-law continues to decline. This year was the most dramatic in terms of her loss of abilities and communication skills. Her stove has been disconnected. We’ve had to remove the stopper from her bathroom sink, after two instances of her flooding her bathroom (and subsequently, OURS). All of her meals have to be prepared for her now, either by us or her “companions” (who are with her during the day while we’re at work). Similarly, we also have taken over the feeding of her cat; that has to happen regularly – if we don’t keep the bowl full, she will put anything from potato chips to Kit Kat bars in it. In this regard, 2013 has been stressful and sad. We have been feeling the strain, as caregivers, especially hard this year. We’re both seeking help for the anxiety and depression, but we are remembering to laugh (because, come on, a Kit Kat in the cat food bowl IS pretty funny).

So we did the “Memory Walk” this year, with some friends of ours who just recently lost their dad to Alzheimer’s. So many people on that walk. So many photos along the way, of people who are still there, but not really THERE. I thought about this the other day, too, as I pulled out my copy of Music For Chameleons, which my mother-in-law had given to me years ago, when Kevin and I were just dating. I had admired Truman Capote’s work, but she turned me on to the stuff I hadn’t considered reading. She told me all about the La Côte Basque scandal, how it ruined him, how all these rich society folks felt utterly betrayed by him. It was clear that she was completely on his side. My God, she adored Truman Capote.

That woman is gone now. It’s no stretch to say it’s like a death. She’s here, in our house, but I can’t tell her now that I’m re-reading Answered Prayers, and can we talk about it some more? Holy shit, so catty. So filthy. So FABULOUS.

But, you know, maybe I’ll sit her down and read La Côte Basque 1965 aloud to her, see if that sparks something.

I don’t want to end this on a downer – 2013 marked 15 years of marriage and 11 years of sobriety. Both pretty impressive achievements if you know me.

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I got to go to the Tony Awards, too, which was also awesome.

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I performed several gigs with my Very Swell B-52s Tribute Band.

I spent several days in Los Angeles with my best friend, reconnecting in ways that I’d prayed would come about, and have. Ten fold.

I found the PERFECT. SHADE. OF. RED. LIPSTICK. That was thanks to the new great friend I made this year, Lisa Blankenship. Oh, she’s so foul and has such great taste. I love her.

And then there was the discovery of Keytar Bear:

There’s a great line from Tennessee Williams: “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly!” That’s kind of how I feel about Keytar Bear.

I do have hopes for 2014. I’d like to think we’ll have more support systems in place for my mother-in-law, that we’ll get closer to getting her the total and professional care that she needs. (This is an ongoing legal and financial mire that we’re wading through…the best way I can explain it is that if you are super-mega-rich, or totally destitute, your needs will be 100% met if you get Alzheimer’s. If you’re middle-class, if you did what you were supposed to and socked money away into a retirement account for years and years…well…eligibility for certain benefits becomes ridiculously complicated.)

And I’ll try and drink more water.

“Luck” of the “Irish”

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I was emailing back and forth with an ex of mine recently (I am, in fact, friends with a couple of these fellows, despite the fact that they, by and large, had every reason to completely cut me adrift). I’m not even sure what prompted the “conversation” (probably an invitation to see a show), but at some point I mentioned the series of seemingly miraculous interventions that enabled me to survive my twenties without, you know, dying. And he said something like: “us micks are made of strong stuff.”

I have mixed feelings about that.

I was brought up in an “Irish Catholic” household. In terms of my heritage, I have been taught to identify chiefly as coming from “Irish” stock (and on paper, that would be hard to dispute: I am the product of a McColgan married to a Flaherty, who in turn wouldn’t have come about if a Flaherty hadn’t been married to a Coyle). Going back another couple of generations yields the surnames Daley and Dorsey.

Now, I must needs confess that German and Dutch are also in my personal mix (Wirth on my mother’s side; Janse on my father’s). And yet not much fuss was ever made about that; we were, at turns, “Irish Catholic,” “Boston Irish,” and the sneering “Two Toilet Irish,” when my family moved from the city proper to a suburb south of Boston (an area known as the “Irish Riviera”) and eventually obtained a house with two bathrooms.

Culturally, we’re taught that as “Irish,” we are supposed to be loyal, hot-headed, creative. And, apparently, drunk.

To boot, we’re also supposed to be able to endure that heady mix of temper and perpetual intoxication. Hence, my ex giving me a verbal chuck-on-the-chin by telling me that I lived to tell about my decade-long bout of self-destructive behavior because I am genetically predisposed to survival, as much as I am also genetically predisposed to alcoholism.

Drinking is the arguable birthright of anyone coming into the world with even an infinitesimal fraction of “Irish blood.” You’re expected to drink, and to fight, because the history of colonialism, poverty, starvation, and persecution has embedded itself into your cultural DNA. But on the flip side, you’re not supposed to talk about it if it becomes a problem. Stoicism. Shame.

Even when I was still drinking, I avoided St. Patrick’s Day revelry. Even as I began to feel the cold, damp grip of my addiction preparing to yank me into the depths of hopelessness and desperation, I was unwilling to participate in the ritual of deliberate public inebriation, trimmed with shamrocks. I suspected, even as I drank alone at home, that perpetuating that stereotype was none too smart. It certainly wasn’t anything that I held dear, at the end, when I’d lie in bed at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking about dying. I wasn’t thinking so much of suicide as I was realizing that if I just, well, died somehow, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

And yet I get it. On the surface, it’s funny. I still joke about it. A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook not too long ago, of a bunch of girls in green tshirts passed out in various improbable positions above the caption “IRISH YOGA.” She tagged me and my friend Niamh (born in Ireland, not a “plastic paddy” like myself) and asked, “So is this accurate?” And I scanned the picture and made note of a partially finished pint of Guinness and replied, “An unfinished drink on the dresser? Hardly.”

But then I think, “Aren’t I still willingly contributing to the stereotype by joking about it?” I joke about it, in part, because this is something else I’ve been programmed to do. The Irish joke about terrible things, casting our misfortune in a darkly humorous light, because that’s the way, isn’t it? Example – my father is a twin. He survived birth while his twin did not. Nobody really talks about this, other than to tell this joke (typically at wakes): “Sure, Johnny was a twin. Ma had a boy and a turd. The boy died.” My friendship with Niamh, as long and as deep as it is, is peppered with insults. Tinker. Knacker. Scrubber. It’s how we communicate. We see nothing disrespectful about it.

And so I struggle with this idea that I am supposed to be these things, that I am supposed to accept that I am these things because of genetics and culture and the counties where my Nana and Pa were born. I survived my alcoholism for the very same reason I became an alcoholic? I don’t know.

As Americans of Irish descent, we cling to these ideas of who we are, I think, because we fear a lack of identity. We wear the Aran sweaters and affix the reproductions of vintage Guinness advertisements to our walls and tell jokes on ourselves. And a lot of us drink. And a lot of us drink too much. Some of us survive that slow and steady poisoning of our bodies and spirits. But some of us don’t.

I let it go at the time, the comment about being made of strong stuff. I don’t know that I am. I’m not strong. I’m lucky. Luck of the Irish? Jury’s still out.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ghosts

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I’ve been having some rather vivid nightmares lately.  About ghosts.

Now, in the echelon of Things That Scare Me, ghosts rank pretty low.  I’m always the one who will happily go into a graveyard at night.  I work in a theater that’s allegedly full of ghosts, and the only thing I’m frightened of is the possibility of offending them by referring to the Scottish Play by its actual title.

And yet the last couple of nightmares I’ve had – the ones that lead me to actually cry out in my sleep (prompting Coombsie to rouse me) – have involved ghosts.  Ghosts moving me against my will through the house.  Ghosts pulling down my bedcovers.  Ghosts controlling the elevator in which I’m riding.  The other night Coombsie woke me up as I was yelling: “I can’t make it stop…I can’t make it stop.”

I’ve perused enough dream analysis books in the Occult section of Barnes & Noble to know that these dreams are not about ghosts so much as they are about CONTROL.  Or, more to the point, my lack thereof. 

Coombsie and I live, daily, in a situation where we cannot control a lot of what is happening.  We cannot control my mother-in-law’s steady decline into full-blown dementia.  We can’t stop it from happening.  This is not something that my mother-in-law is going to “beat,” like other people beat cancer, or Lyme disease.  It is slowly and insidiously going to rob her of nearly everything that makes her who she is, and we are powerless to stop it.

The funny thing is that I’m just having these nightmares now, when we finally have daily help in place.    Coombsie’s brother takes her to his house when we need a weekend off.  She has three different nurses/aides that are with her on weekdays.  They fix her lunch, take her shopping, help her around the house, and one of them even reads In Cold Blood to her for about an hour or so a day (this might seem a tad inappropriate to most, but pre-Alzheimer’s, my mother-in-law was a HUGE Truman Capote fan…when Coombsie and I were first dating, she gave me a copy of Music For Chameleons).  They are all so wonderful and I don’t really know how we managed without them.

With a little of the pressure off, it would seem that my subconscious has kicked into overdrive.  Because I’ve felt like I’m not allowed to collapse into a weepy puddle for fear of upsetting people, I’ve pretty much maintained a party line of “everything’s OK” when asked, which of course is totally the WRONG thing to do.  Now that we’re not feeling quite so alone in this, the stress is coming out in my dreams.

I’m a recovering addict.  My whole illness feeds on a need for control, a need to know exactly how things are going to unfurl.  And that’s just not possible.  It’s even more impossible when living with someone with Alzheimer’s.  If she’s having a series of fairly lucid, “good” days, we cannot assume that this is going to remain the case.  Now that the days are getting shorter, her moods can turn on a dime.  This is called “sundowning,” and it’s very common in people with dementia.

More than ever, I’ve had to practice the things I was taught at the very beginning of my recovery:  first things first, easy does it, keep it simple, live and let live.  I hate that shit.  Platitudes are so irritating because they’re so often true.  I have to do this one day at a time.  I have to stop worrying about next weekend, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and a year from now, and focus on what I can do today.

But it’s scary, this having so little control.  It’s scarier than ghosts.

“Wine Humor”

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We just got back from our yearly mini-vacay in Ogunquit.

There’s something about a beach town that brings out attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to everything I stand for.  First of all – there’s the very idea of being on a beach.  Ask any of my friends and loved ones to make a list of everything that describes me, “outdoorsy” would fall somewhere between “conservative” and “HUGE John Mayer fan,” which is to say – nowhere.

But I do like the beach.  I like the beach at dusk, I like the beach when it’s raining, and I generally just like the IDEA of the beach, so long as it’s relatively EMPTY.  Because that’s another thing about me:  despite the great many people who are identified as “friends” on my Facebook page, if you put me in a room with all of them at once, I’d completely break down.  One of the reasons I drank was to deal with the intense anxiety of having to be “on” in a room full of people.  Nowadays, I have to do a check-in with myself before I go to a party or a show:  Can I make it for a few hours without feeling overwhelmed?  Do I have a plan in place if I need to bail early?  Should I just stay home?  These are things that I am only just starting to learn, and to implement.

Anyway.  This was not going to be an entry about my anxiety issues.  This is, in part, about how going to Ogunquit every year makes me do things that I don’t ordinarily do.  Like go to gift shops.  I can’t help myself; even though I know what’s inside of each and every one of them, I have to go in.

Ogunquit is LOADED with gift shops.  And, but for the names and the locations, they are more or less the exact same gift shop inside.  One or two of them may go the extra mile and sell one or two things that the others don’t, but by and large you can expect every gift shop to have:

  • Vera Bradley bags.  Science may one day explain why everyone wants to go around with purses and totes that look like they were salvaged from “bed in a bag” kits on the clearance table at Homegoods, but it has yet to do so.  Count on at least 10 square feet devoted to all things quilted and flowery.
  • Bits of crockery and metal imprinted with inspirational words like “dream,” “believe,” “love,” “despair,” “dysentery” (okay, I made those last two up).  These are typically kept in little glass bowls at the point-of-purchase, so you can load up your pockets with inspiration for roughly $2.99/word.
  • Soap.  Soap that smells like blueberries, pine needles, and “beach” – which smells like no beach on which I’ve ever set foot.  Apparently “beach” is supposed to smell vaguely floral.  “Beach” really smells like hot asphalt, melted ice cream, Coppertone, and just a hint of decaying marine life.  A not entirely unpleasant smell, but I guess that’s not what people want their SOAP to smell like.
  • Ceramic trivets celebrating the joys of dog ownership.
  • Charm bracelets.  Particularly those Alex & Ani numbers that you apparently need to have 50 of – 25 for each arm.  Remember when everyone had to have a Tiffany bracelet?  Now you have to have an Alex & Ani bangle, only you have to have a million of them.

The remaining floor space of these gift shops is dedicated to objects that celebrate what I can only describe as “wine humor.”  Refrigerator magnets, plaques that have been sanded down and dragged across a 4-lane highway to look “weathered,” bottle stoppers, towels, pajamas, t-shirts…basically anything that will trumpet the owner’s lust for the grape.  “Wine glasses” the size of slow cookers.  Overpriced crap with zippy one-liners (“Wine improves with age…I improve with wine!”), like, hahaha – I sure couldn’t function without my WINE!

It’s really only been in the last couple of years that I’ve noticed this whole “wine humor” thing really take over the internet and, now, gift shops.  And maybe it’s because I’m sober, but I find the whole thing…irritating.  Almost like a nudging, winking acknowledgment that ALCOHOLISM IS FUNNY!  I’m not reeeeealllllly an alcoholic, but it’s sure fun and whimsical to wear a crystal-studded t-shirt suggesting that I might have a tiny problem with WINE!  Hee hee hee!

Listen – I’m not some strident, mirthless neo-prohibitionist.  I’m not anti-alcohol.  I’m the first one to poke fun at myself and my disease.  Humor is one of the many ways I keep it in check.  But there’s something about “wine humor” that I find really off-putting, and…kind of scary.  It feeds into the still-prevalent idea that alcoholism is something to be laughed at, except when it gets ugly or otherwise inconvenient, and then it becomes something to point fingers at.  Where’s your self-control?  Why don’t you just stop at one or two?  What’s the matter with you?  Ohhhh, look at that doormat!  It says, “You can’t buy happiness….but you can buy WINE!”  That’s so cute!

But the main issue I have with “wine humor” is that it seems to particularly target women.  It pushes wine as a harmless, and humorous, antidote to stress and anxiety.   A recent Wall Street Journal article about women and alcohol cited some rather disturbing statistics:

In the nine years between 1998 and 2007, the number of women arrested for drunken driving rose 30%…between 1999 and 2008, the number of…women who showed up in emergency rooms for being dangerously intoxicated rose by 52%.

In addition, women who abuse alcohol are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease and cirrhosis.

And yet cutesy gifts effectively giving women the A-OK to drink lots of wine are apparently really popular.  Wine, you see, is respectable.  It’s classy.  There is a ritual to wine.  Wine is something you pair with cheese, something you select based on your dinner menu.  Even if you’re drinking maybe a little more than you really should at night, it’s not something you’re abusing.  That’s vodka.

A sober friend of mine ONLY drank wine when she was still an active alcoholic.  And not Two Buck Chuck.  And always out of very nice stemware.  But it was always too much, it was always to drown out the voices in her head – the voices that nearly every woman alcoholic I know hears – telling her she wasn’t enough.  It was always to quiet the virtually nonstop thrum of panic.

11 years after my last drink (a plastic cup of Chardonnay, by the by), I am still learning how to deal with a stressful day/painful situation/room full of people without the aid of alcohol.  I don’t get to have a glass of wine to smooth the rough edges, and I suspect some people who are reading this believe I’m spoiling the “wine humor” fun for everybody else out of (pun intended) sour grapes.

As I said earlier, I’m not anti-drinking.  What I’m saying is this: most humor is not without its basis in some kind of pain.  It’s why I can laugh at myself, and at the absurdity of my situation.  But “wine humor,” to me, just isn’t particularly funny.

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.

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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.