“Fallen Soldiers”

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Proving that Facebook is still good for something, I got inspired enough to return to the blog.

My friend Ben posted some pictures he took yesterday.  They weren’t of his kids, or his food.  He was documenting the sheer number of “fallen soldiers” – empty nips, beer cans, bottles of bottom shelf liquor – spotted around business parks while he was taking his lunchtime constitutional.

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We all see empties around the city.  For some reason we don’t really pick up on them the way Ben did yesterday, being that these particular empties seemed a lot more incongruous on the grounds of a business park in the suburbs.  Ben called what he documented “discarded evidence of alcoholism.”

And he’s absolutely right.

Day-drinking is fun, and funny, until it isn’t.  Until it becomes necessity.  Until it becomes the dirty secret that compels us to tell our coworkers that we’re “going for a walk,” like we’re just taking a break from the project at hand, to sneak off to the parking lot (or, in my case, the supply closet) to drink.  And we’re not sipping and savoring, wherever we are.  We’re furtively and desperately chugging, praying for that “relief” to wash over us so we can just FUNCTION.

Because as I’ve said countless times, drinking – for us – is not about pleasure.  It’s about drowning the howl we’re trying to keep from roaring up.

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Ben’s pictures broke my heart.  Because I remember what this is like.  Buying something that can be smuggled in, making excuses to sneak off somewhere to drink it, stuffing gum and mints into your mouth to mask the fumes, repeating this as many times as is needed throughout the day.

AND THEN – figuring out how to get rid of the empties.

Personally, I didn’t want to litter.  I still had enough shame around what I was doing to grasp the importance of proper disposal.  If you haven’t amassed an embarrassing number of empties in your hidey-hole, you can get away with stuffing them in your purse (arranging them against other objects to avoid the tell-tale clinking noises when you leave).  I also didn’t want to just dump them out into any old trash receptacle on the street, in plain view of everyone.  I preferred the dumpster in the alley next to a popular chain restaurant.  (You know – just sauntering down a dirty alleyway in my kitten heels and bolero jacket, like you do.)  Then a quick toss into the dumpster, and you’re good to go.  Until you have to do it again.  And again.

Can I tell you how EXHAUSTING that is?  Honest to God – it’s like a second full-time job, day-drinking is.  Except no one is supposed to know you’re doing it.  You’re pretty sure no one knows you’re doing it.  And that might be true.  For now.

And I’ll tell you something else – every last one of us knows how fucking insane this is.  But we HAVE to do it.  We tell ourselves that when things calm down a little, when there isn’t a deadline looming over us, this won’t be necessary anymore.  But when you’re an alcoholic, that time simply never arrives.  Because at this point, you ARE the crisis.  The ongoing, seemingly unsolvable crisis.  But you don’t see that.  And so the shitshow continues, with no intermission.

I saw those pictures, and said a little prayer.  Mostly of gratitude, because I haven’t lived that life in almost 16 years now.  But also for those parking lot drinkers, those smugglers of artificial solace, the people who’ve painted themselves into a corner and don’t realize that they can walk out of it at any time.

Ben put it all better than I could (unsurprising, since we were in graduate school together and he always could outwrite me):  “…addiction is never invisible, if you know where to look.”

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(All Photos courtesy Ben Kauffman.)

Dear Friends I Saw Play Last Night –

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What a great show. Seriously. You all transported me for roughly an hour back to a place where music was pretty much the only friend who’d never abandon me. Sometimes you forget how important certain artists/albums/songs were in your formative years. Last night was a nice reminder.

But when I saw you after you’d finished playing, I was stiff and awkward and not as animated as I usually am.

I feel bad about this, so this morning I’m going to try and explain.

You all know I’m sober, and have been for a number of years now. Even with that amount of time under my belt, I have to make difficult decisions when it comes to being social. I have learned that if I’m feeling even a little bit like I’m going to be uncomfortable, it’s usually best for me to stay home. I ignored that niggling little feeling last night, because I really, REALLY wanted to see you play.

I won’t say I made a mistake, because I didn’t. You all delivered, and then some. But as the tiny club filled up, I felt myself shrinking up against the wall, trying to find a little elbow room for myself, trying to ignore the smell of everyone’s drinks, praying that something wouldn’t get spilled on me. I kept imagining that happening, and wondering what I’d do about it. It didn’t even happen, and yet I found myself as tense and miserable as if it HAD.

I won’t lie; I very much wanted to bolt. I was ready to tell my husband that I’d take the T home. I hadn’t felt that uncomfortable in a long time, and it scared me.

Fortunately, my husband can read me astonishingly well. He found a table for us further back, not so far away that we couldn’t see and hear you, but enough away so that I could breathe without smelling beer/whiskey/fruity alcoholic concoctions. Enough away so I could feel a little better and in less danger of being jostled. So I got to watch your show, and it made me really happy.

But I still felt bad. I felt bad that people have to make concessions for me, the non-drinker with considerable anxiety issues who doesn’t want to be a drag, truly. I feel bad that sometimes I have to ask people not to drink around me. And I get tired – really tired – of feeling like I have to explain myself.

So by the end of the night I was exhausted from – as needlessly DRAMATIC as this sounds – just trying to keep it together for the few hours we were there. Resenting every glass of beer sloshing in front of me. Not wanting to hug people because they had drinks in their hands and on their breath. Feeling stupid and infantile for feeling resentful and wary. Knowing that I can’t expect everyone around me to change the way they live to suit me, just because I can’t drink. Not understanding why, after 13 years of not drinking, this shit still sometimes GETS TO ME. Well, understanding WHY, but being mad that it has to be this way. I’ve always said that I never wanted to be a “normal drinker.” I always wanted oblivion. But last night I really wanted to be normal. I wanted to be normal so badly I could taste it. Not just so I could drink. So that I could feel like not wanting to crawl out of my skin.

And so I wasn’t particularly effusive after your set. I could tell how happy you were to see me, and I felt like I couldn’t muster half of your enthusiasm. Please know, friends: I love you. I love the work you do and the passion with which you play. For an hour or so, I was transported. But I crashed hard. And so you guys got a tepid hug and a wan smile when I should have been jumping up and down and squealing. You didn’t deserve that.

The next time I see you I will jump up and down and squeal. Because what you all did last night was incredible. I mean – spot fucking ON. I love you guys so much and am so grateful that you’re my friends.

This is me, usually. I swear:

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What about Bob (or: Staying Sober In The Zombie Apocalypse)

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I’ve had kind of a tumultuous past week+, so I’ll try to make as much sense as I’m able.

My mother-in-law is in the hospital with pneumonia. This is, unfortunately, very common with Alzheimer’s patients. Dysphagia, or difficulty with swallowing, happens in the later stages of the disease, causing people to aspirate and therefore develop pneumonia.

(This is yet another reason why I have little-to-no patience with Alzheimer’s “jokes” — like when people say they have Alzheimer’s because they lost their keys. Just…no. Stop. It’s not only not funny, it displays unimaginable ignorance as to how horrible this illness really is.)

She is bouncing back fine, and was cheerfully confused when we went to visit her yesterday, but will now have to be on a fairly strict puréed diet. It’s simply one of those things we now know to expect.

So while it was a mostly pleasant visit, it’s one of those things that remind me that my life is still not “normal,” in the sense that once you’ve committed to caring for someone with this disease, you can’t ever go back to where you were prior to taking on the responsibility, even when you are no longer an in-home caregiver. This is probably going to happen again. Or something else will happen. We’ve certainly learned that there are no shortage of rugs to be pulled out from under us.

I was still recovering from a conference I’d been to last week, which was book-ended by air travel snafus going to and coming back. Some air traffic control mess outside of D.C. caused my flight to the conference to be delayed several hours, and severe weather caused an even longer delay coming home. I didn’t hit my own bed until around 2:30 in the morning on Friday. The conference itself was great, but every day was scheduled such that I was up early and in bed late. I think I averaged maybe 4 hours of sleep a night. And maybe some of you can function fine on that, but this girl cannot. So I spent most of my first day home asleep either in my bed or on the couch.

I roused myself sufficiently to attend Walker Stalker Con (which my sister and I had been planning on since LAST year’s Walker Stalker Con) on Saturday. Among other cast members, I got to meet Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.

CNDFRwkUkAAHUcmHis character, Bob Stookey, an Army medic prior to the outbreak which has created the zombie pandemic in the series, is also an alcoholic. I found Gilliard’s portrayal to be spot-on and incredibly moving, and when I met him on Saturday, I got to tell him as much (I may have gotten a little weepy as well). He was really happy to hear this, and said, “You know, I figured, in this alternate universe – you know there’s gotta be people like that out there in it. I wanted to do that justice.”

I’ve thought a lot about that since Saturday. It’s sort of comical. Like, where are you going to find a MEETING in the zombie apocalypse? And if you did find a group of recovering addicts out there, what are you going to talk about?

“I took this walker’s head off with a mop handle, and while I KNOW I did the right thing, I just keep thinking about how GREAT a glass of Scotch would be.”

“Wow. I so relate. I had to shove a crowbar through my coworker’s skull, and I have SUCH a resentment about it.”

I kid, but I’m also kind of serious. I THINK ABOUT STUFF LIKE THIS. Especially now that the companion series has started and one of its principal characters is a drug addict. We’re not exactly equipped to deal with even mundane things like paying bills without wanting to anesthetize ourselves, and here are these characters trudging a Road of Happy Destiny that’s strewn with big globs of gore and severed body parts. It gives one pause, it really does.

And it comes down to survival, doesn’t it? We’re faced with a decision. We have to make that decision every day. Drink or don’t drink. Use or don’t use. Live, or die. Maybe it’s not quite on the level of…magnitude…as a zombie apocalypse, but…you know, actually, it really kind of IS. Let’s not even get into the parallels of substance abuse (and the way it can render someone who previously had been vibrant) and being a shuffling, unfeeling walking corpse. Let’s not talk about insatiable need. Let’s just talk about getting through a day without being destroyed by something inside of you. About finding the people who’ll survive alongside you. About the importance of connections, even when shit is falling down around you.

It’s not that much of a stretch. Not to me, anyway.

In recovery, I’ve absolutely learned that I can survive just about anything without drinking. I can sit with discomfort. I can handle 4 hour delays in the middle of a lightning storm at the Orlando airport. I can be present just sitting with my severely-addled mother-in-law in an unfamiliar hospital. So, you know, I could probably deal with zombies.

It’s just too bad that Bob had to die on the show.  We would have stuff to talk about.

Today’s Rant

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Most of the time, I feel supported, if not entirely understood, in terms of my being open about addiction and recovery. Friends and loved ones take the time to read what I write, and engage in respectful, supportive discussion.

It’s enough to make me feel pretty good about what I’m doing. That’s why it’s always a punch to the gut to hear someone describe people like me in some really unflattering terms.

I’m still reeling a bit from seeing a thread on a friend’s Facebook wall last week. My friend was wondering why some people “look down” on those in recovery, and those who are still struggling. And a friend of hers went on a rant about how addicts will ALWAYS fail, we will NEVER recover, and we’re basically doomed to die terrible, scumbag deaths.

And it’s just…sigh. You know, I get that the majority of non-addicts out there still believe that this is a moral shortcoming, that we’re a bunch of pleasure-seeking selfish idiots who could just, like, stop if we really wanted to. I also know what it’s like to have lived with an addict, and been the recipient of the pain and humiliation that comes from that.  I get that.  But then I see the judgment bubbling out of people every time a celebrity addict dies from their condition: Why are we caring about Whitney Houston/Amy Winehouse/Philip Seymour Hoffman when good people are dying of X/Y/Z?

Because there are limitations on compassion, right?

I write and post about people who die from the same thing I battle every fucking day because it’s what I know, and it’s but one of the things I care about. And when I call people out for denigrating addicts, I invariably get: “But I’m not talking about YOU!”

Except that they are. Because I’m only one drink away from being that scumbag alcoholic. I’m one drink away from being the obnoxious drunk on the train. One drink away from being the selfish asshole with no self-control. They are talking about me, because of this refusal to see people like me as ill. Gravely ill.

I tend to keep it light on Facebook. I’m not the kind of person who goes online and says, “UNFRIEND ME NOW if you think _____.” But I have been sorely tempted to do just that every time an addict of note dies, because the willfully ignorant bile coming out of folks – who are purportedly on board with me as my “friend” – is enough to make me doubt just how valid some of these “friendships” are.

It doesn’t matter that you’re not talking about me specifically when you’re bashing addicts. See above.

It doesn’t matter that you’re “just joking.” It’s not funny.

It doesn’t matter that you’re just trying to point out that there are “more important” things to talk about. “Important” is relative. Would you be giving me as much crap if I were posting about someone with cancer? Don’t tell me that’s “different.” It isn’t.

I have a condition that will absolutely kill me if I don’t remain vigilant about my specific route to recovery. I don’t think it’s out of line for me to ask that folks take a second to muster a soupçon of empathy before unloading their judgmental ish on me and my kind. Because the junkie you saw that you have so much disdain for? That’s me. The guy reeking of beer sweat in the subway station? That’s me, too.

And I can pretty much PROMISE you that not a one of us sets out to become an addict. I don’t ever – EVER – hear anyone in recovery say, “When I was a kid, I COULDN’T WAIT to become physically and emotionally dependent on substances. Like – woo! – SIGN ME UP.”

When I was seven, I wanted to be a writer. At 16, I thought maybe I wanted to be an actor. Sobbing and retching over the toilet every morning, alienating everyone I cared about, covered in bruises because my liver couldn’t keep up with the steady flow of poison I was drowning my organs in? Not at all in the game plan. But that’s what happened to me. Because I am sick. My condition is in regression, and it’s certainly my hope that it won’t rear its head again, but this is what I’ve got. What I’m dealing with. And it’s no joke. And when you say ugly things about people who die from this, or people you pass on the street who can’t get well, you are talking about me.  And it hurts.

So if that’s the way you really feel, then perhaps you aren’t my friend after all.

Do with that what you will.

Sticking Up.

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A post I wrote a couple of years back has been making the rounds again, and has brought with it a bunch more followers.

I always get a little nervous when this happens, like I’m being thought of as this Sobriety Guru, like a wizened Yoda-type sitting on a lily pad doling out sagacious tidbits about not drinking, when really I’m just another clown on the bus trying to stay on board. I mean, you’re dealing with someone who sticks her eighth grade picture into pre-existing photos and works of art. I am really NOT the person to look towards for sanity and wisdom, y’all.

So I feel a responsibility to let folks know that while I do a fair amount of talking about recovery, it’s not the ONLY thing I talk about, and a lot of times you’re going to also get stuff about Alzheimer’s, zombies, and garden variety potty humor. If that’s not your bag, and you want to bail, I will totally understand. But getting sober frequently means rediscovering other areas of interest, and one of the great things about sobriety is that while it’s still gotta be first and foremost, it doesn’t have to be ALL you talk about.

Something I will address today is sticking up for yourself and your sobriety. That can mean anything from shooting down overly-personal questions about why you quit to voicing your discomfort.

Case in point: I share a practice space with my bandmates. As someone who’s contributing to the rent, I think it’s fair of me to ask that people not leave their empties lying around after practice. It’s not like I’m going to run around drinking the dregs in said empties (although I definitely wouldn’t have been above that 13 years ago), but – you know – I also don’t particularly want to look at them, either. So the other night, I politely asked folks to pitch them in the trash can in the hallway. I’m not a Puritan by any stretch of the imagination, and I get that sometimes people want to have a beer at practice. I was able to express my discomfort about the empties in a respectful way, and everyone was on board with being a little tidier.

That’s maybe an overly-simplistic example, but I think a lot of alcoholics/addicts also have fallen into the habit of being really, really passive aggressive. Before I started really getting into the work of being sober, I just assumed that everyone would immediately sense my discomfort and summarily capitulate without my having to say a damn thing. And if they didn’t, then I’d find some insanely roundabout way of getting what I wanted. That’s exhausting for everyone.

But what I’m basically trying to say is this: you’re dealing with something that could kill you; it’s okay to protect yourself. You have the right to turn down invitations to parties if you feel you’re going to be uncomfortable in any way. You have the right to ask if a get-together can take place somewhere other than a bar (I’m usually okay in a bar if it’s also a restaurant, and I can occupy myself with nachos or fries). I’ve learned over the years to understand that this is NOT an outrageous proposition. If I know I’m going out to dinner with vegetarian/vegan friends, I will order vegetarian/vegan. It’s just common courtesy. I will say that it’s interesting that this is a courtesy that is very seldom extended to me as a non-drinker, even though I’m generally comfortable with someone ordering alcohol with dinner. I’d say less than 5% of the time I’m asked whether or not I’m okay with someone drinking in front of me, and maybe that’s because I’ve been pretty sanguine about it over the years. I don’t know. It’s nice to be asked, though.

I am, however, wicked uncomfortable around people who are obviously inebriated. That’s just plain no fucking fun at all, and it’s why I’ve sometimes either stayed home from a party, or bowed out early. As I get older, this becomes less of an issue, since most of my friends by and large aren’t into getting stupid drunk anymore. Me, there is always going to be that urge, however long it’s remained dormant. I am hard-wired for oblivion, and there are still days where I have to tread carefully, and it is 100% okay for me to ask my friends and loved ones to help me out when I’m on shaky ground. And it’s okay for you, too.

The Places That Scare You.

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If you haven’t been watching the news or following the Twitstagrambook feeds of your friends and loved ones in New England, we’ve been effectively hobbled by repeated “significant weather events” for several weeks now. We have been buried under many feet of filthy, dog-pee-and-car-exhaust-riddled snow. It’s not Currier & Ives; it’s the Apocalypse. Roofs have collapsed, snow emergencies and parking bans are everywhere, and public transportation has become a terrible, terrible joke.

Because of what I’ve learned in recovery, I am grasping onto a precious few straws of gratitude in the midst of all of this. One is that we have not lost power during any of the meteorological pummelings we’ve received. Another is that my mother-in-law is snug and warm in the memory unit of the assisted living facility she’s been in since late June. I cannot even fathom how awful all of this would have been had we still been in daily, on-the-premises charge of her care. I frequently have to stop and remind myself of this as I start to complain about the 10’ piles of snow outside our house which are obstructing our view of the 10’ piles of snow across the street.

But in the midst of all of this, we’re trying to move. Granted, we’re just moving from our downstairs apartment into the upstairs apartment formerly occupied by my mother-in-law. But this has required Herculean amounts of organizational skills which I do not possess. Purging a three-bedroom apartment of possessions and clutter acquired over a period of decades, when the former occupant is still among the living, is emotionally trying and just plain shittyawfulhorrid. It is constantly second-guessing and attempting to determine value, both sentimental and monetary, of these things. What goes to charity? What gets saved for the grandchildren? What gets thrown out? I try to be efficient, and wind up wandering weepily from room to room, overwhelmed to the point of distraction.

I have, however, managed to get most of this packed up. There are boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff that can go to charity at any time, except that it can’t really, because of the aforementioned piles of snow. They have turned our fairly wide street into a barely-plowed-out path flanked on both sides by pee-stained, icy behemoths. No truck could idle there for even 10 minutes without drawing the ire of our neighbors and those who use our street as a throughway to get onto Route 1 more quickly.

I am beyond stressed about this. We have to be completely moved upstairs in a matter of weeks; our friends are moving into the downstairs apartment and must do so by the end of March. The whole shebang requires trucks. Big trucks. If I think about it too much I start getting wheezy and unhinged. I mean, more so than usual.

So I’ll talk about one thing I managed to do which I’d been putting off for a long time, and that’s empty out the cabinet under the bathroom sink. Most people would think, “What’s terrible about that? You toss a couple of bottles of Drano and a few old hairbrushes, right?”

No, friends – that cabinet was filled not only with the things you’d expect to find in a bathroom cabinet, but a whopping load of real bad mojo.

As some of you know, the final year of in-home caregiving for us was pretty bad. My mother-in-law’s mental state had deteriorated to the point where she could not/would not care for herself in the most basic ways. Brushing her teeth. Bathing. Properly disposing of toilet paper. Her Alzheimer’s had also ramped up her pre-existing OCD, causing her to scratch and pick at her skin, leading to a constant threat of cellulitis and other infections. Mornings and evenings were spent donning latex gloves and coating her hands, arms, and ankles with both prescription and over-the-counter antibiotic ointment. Because she would slap at me and yell if I tried to get her to take a bath, many times I had to give up that particular battle and use pre-moistened washing mitts, which she would permit, up to a point, when she would then threaten to scream if I came near her with them. And when incontinence became an issue, the cabinet was then the home of the flushable wipes and Depends.

So this cabinet was something I’d been trying to avoid, even with the knowledge that I no longer was responsible for any of these things on any significant level. I just didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to open the scary bathroom cabinet and deal with the physical and symbolic throwing away of these things. I felt guilt, remorse, sorrow, fear, and resentment, in varying order and degree. It felt very much like avoiding looking under the bed, or into my psyche, really the same thing if you think about it.

But one afternoon about 2 weeks ago, I grabbed a trash bag and did it. Out went the prescription ointment, the latex gloves, the Depends. What I could handle saving, I saved (boxes of gauze pads and BandAids, hand sanitizing wipes). I tied up the bag when I was done and brought it into the room where we’re storing all the stuff that needs to be thrown out/trucked away.

Here’s where I’d like to say that I felt as though a great weight was lifted, that I was washed clean in the light of my bravery or some such bullshit. It didn’t feel great. It felt sad. It felt crappy. I have to do this. When faced with any seemingly insurmountable obstacle, my mantra has always been “It’ll get done because it HAS to get done.” You’d be surprised how calming this actually is. It’s much more of a soul balm than “You don’t have to do it alone!” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle!” Because I’ve found that neither of those things are necessarily true. Sometimes you do have to do it alone. You have to go to the places that scare you, even when it’s just under the sink, and you have to do it alone. Because you HAVE been given more than you can handle, and this is one less thing you have to worry about.

To Megan.

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I was directed to this painful read yesterday.

It’s heartbreaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waking Up On Couches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.