41

sitting backstage / someone’s plus one

41
In a few hours I turn 41. Of note: my mother brought me over a large floral arrangement today, along with a deep chocolate cake and three small houseplants each set in a simple copper tureen. Ralph and the children have been out on secret errands, happily procuring gifts. I am grateful to be loved so dearly by my little family.

I’ve spent the last two days practicing yoga, caring for family errands, volunteering, and doing those little business admin bits like invoicing and recording receipts and ordering and collating patterns. It is cold – cold in my studio, cold outside. Emerging from the bedroom this morning I find my husband stepping inside after the dog’s morning walk; Ralph is so cold he looks almost shocked. I pour him hot coffee and convince him to come to bed, where I hold him close. I steel myself as he slides his cold hands up my shirt, against the smooth skin over my ribs. The only one who’s touched me like this for two decades.

I’ve tried to stop judging myself how much it hurts my children are growing, are so independent. Every day they seek me out and hold me, and I am grateful for that. Every day they share with me. They can even be coerced to go on errands and I can always buy them a tea latte or lunch. What may be less obvious to my readers, unless you’ve been with me a long time indeed, is that at one time and for many years their company, their needs and laughter and tears and their words and smells and their hair against my cheek, always the sweetest straw-smelling against my skin, this was my world for fifteen plus years and even though things are as they should be I am bereft. For Ralph life is much as before; he’s had their lifetime away at his job, to come home in the evenings. For the children they have the security of their parents, as they rush off and bury themselves in work and play of their own.

All my life I remember people pityingly speaking of women who were too invested in their children, as if this were some mark of a pathetic, cramped nature, of an unimaginative woman to allow such a thing. One secret I have discovered: you can have a full life, you can have all these interests and a gorgeous career and a wonderful marriage and good friends and a meaningful avocation and a spiritual walk and a self-care regimen: and it can still hurt so damn much when your kids grow up.

 

 

“come downstairs & bring popsackles”

A cardboard box filled with kraft paper; I remove gifts, setting them on the counter. Wrapped in tissue: findings from another sea. Teas, candied ginger. A paper-wrapped parcel of fine chocolate. Two bolts of sumptuous flannel fabric – a pea green plaid, a yellow plaid. Set aside and I run my hands over them each; fine robes for Christmas.

A wooden box, masterfully if plainly constructed, with a fire-branded logo. A note. And opening the box: a plastic shark. I recognize it as nearly identical to the one my children used to play with in the bath.

Then when I call my brother – to thank him and his wife, for the package – he laughs about the shark. “Do you recognize it?” I am confused for a moment. He can’t mean my children’s toy, as he never gave them baths and wasn’t there when they were small.

He says, “It’s just like the one I gave you a black eye with!” He is gleeful.

I am thinking, Oh that’s right. A childhood fight – we were still living in the bus, so I was seven years old or younger. I am set back for a moment. I am blinking at the road ahead, the phone on speaker in my lap.

What I say is: “That’s the only black eye I’ve ever had.” But now I’m thinking of a man who beat me. He never gave me a black eye. I think when you’ve been terrorized it can come to you, visit at any time. On a sunny day, in a lighthearted laugh with your brother.

The shark is now installed in my bathroom, hovering above the glass bar lighting fixture. I cooked and cleaned today, instead of leaving it for my children and spouse. I am coming out of a state of living where I was caring for the children, the home. We are moving and growing; I am working more, and the children are learning how to run a home. They are willing participants, and they are strong.

Yesterday they waited at a bus stop and went to the dentist. The children were gloomy; I woke them up and scolded them when they did not do housework quickly enough. We sat in the living room and we talked about the challenges in the household now that I work. The children listened, and ate the simple breakfast I made – creamed wheat, coconut oil, brown sugar. They put the dishes in the sink and I cleaned the kitchen after they left, then moved to the studio to finish my work.

After their appointments, my mother returned them home – food in hand, of course. They quite circumspectly did not eat hot foods for a couple hours, as the hygienist warned them off. Once they were home we piled in the car and off to the beach; meeting with a new friend who was visiting from inland. I realized well into the meeting that I hadn’t taken a break for quite some time.

After a coffee date, we two women and our four children climbed the jetty down to a little partitioned beach. We showed the visiting girls the tidepools: anemone, barnacles, limpets, chitons, starfish – and the little crabs under any rock you overturn. Every size – from a pinhead to a few inches across, and every manner of color: white, blues, greens, deep purples. The anenomes we instructed – you could touch them. Be gentle! They are gentle to you.

I know I live in a beautiful place. I never forget it. But I don’t often see it as it can be seen to visitors. That itself, was quite a blessing.

something other than fear

Tonight a young man tried to crash our gathering, for alcoholics, our women’s meeting. He asked me if he could attend; he said he’d be “nice” (meaning well-behaved, I suppose – not prone to interruptions).

Truthfully, he is not ready nor able to stop drinking, but he has few places to go. He is homeless (again), and maintenance-drinking so as to not suffer delirium tremens, a severe affliction that I knew nothing about only a few short years ago. Tonight he is suffering a mouth injury that is getting infected; a very ugly wound indeed. In the moments before the meeting I ask him how he sustained such a painful abrasion; he says, “Someone hit me.” I tell him he needs antibiotics. The injury looks very painful, and not at all healthy.

What he really needs is a little kindness, and a little more time to live. Such individuals can get sober, I’ve seen it happen.

In the next hour – well, for the most part the young man behaves himself. Halfway through our gathering however, an authority strides in, interrupting the proceedings, and speaks very sternly. He tells the young man he’s banned from the location. I know this building and know it takes a little bit of bad behavior to get 86’d. The same authority later takes me aside and, his chin shaking, tells me the young man has busted up a few walls, and followed a few women around, and is no longer welcome on the premises.

defroster / defogger

“Hello _____,” I say quietly to the woman at the table next to me.

“Do I know you?” she asks. Her voice is jittery and nervous but doesn’t sound angry. At least. I am glad I said Hi to her even though her appearance frightens me. She is clearly using drugs again. She has lost about eighty pounds since I saw her last, and the effect is shocking.

She peers at me and says, “Oh, uh… I know you,” and gives a short barking laugh. It is very sad because of course, we have had many conversations together over the years. I have spent time with her and her child. I wonder where the child is. I wonder who is caring for him now.

I watch her for a while. Even if I weren’t an addict myself – celebrating my fifth consecutive clean and sober Christmas, praise baby Jeebus! – I know I could never again see those so afflicted the way the rest of the world does. Every person I see, I see them as a child. I see that they were once loved and treasured in a way past understanding. Where are their parents, their grandparents, their grammar school teachers now? Do they think of their loved ones, and wonder?

Today was hard at work. It can be like that sometimes. I remind myself as I get in the car: I’m not supposed to know how to do all this stuff perfectly. I’ve done a tremendous job balancing halftime work and supporting my family. I’m only supposed to do as best I can.

Home and the kids play video games; the cats are napping. Ralph is making up a dinner. Too tired – from being ill, from a hard day – even to inspect my latest fabric package.

Instead: time for bed. In hopes the morning brings a fairer perspective.

réalisant mon espoir

“I don’t understand why everyone acts like Florida is so special,” my son says to me cheerfully – easing the shopping cart through the aisles and every now and then slyly tapping at something in the midway.

It’s a little after 11 PM on a Saturday and even Walmart is fairly empty. I’d had these visions of getting an oil-radiant heater for our freezing little attic bedroom, and am quickly realizing they don’t have anything like that in stock. I’m tired – tired in a way my schedule, and my waking hours, don’t quite explain.

The last few days the sun and balmy skies have given way to rain – vicious, cold, angry rain. “Sidways rain – it gets up your nose!” a cashier in the grocery store cheerfully says to me, yesterday. You’d think, living here as long as I have, I’d be used to it. That my friends and neighbors, and the grocery store clerk, would be too. But we kind of hunch up, retreat; our conversation taciturn, skin roughened by the cold. Grab at hot cups of coffee and stay inside.

And then there’s the bills to pay. A stack of a few more, since my daughter’s sudden illness (she’s feeling better, by the way – responding to medications). And I’d just knocked down our medical debt to within sights of zero. And now – back up again!

I realize my son is still talking – gloriously denouncing The Sunshine State’s undeserved reputation: “… not as if it’s a land of gold and riches or something!” he finishes with a flourish.

His energy is unflagging. Until nighttime when he strips down to sleepwear and tries anything to climb in bed with us. I will miss these days when they’re gone and there is nothing I can do about that.

Last night the friend of a friend ran into trouble; her husband was chasing her around the house. Berating her. She texted a friend and the friend texted me and I did what I could. And tonight I’m wondering how many women I know have those troubles, locked up inside their hearts, in the memory of their bodies. I’m glad my home is a safe one, a pleasant one. Even if right now I’m walking about in the garish lights, asking help from retail workers with red-rimmed eyes and knowing it’s a long cold drive home with a busted heater in the car. I got a home and it’s a good one.

feeling kinda rough

Tonight I’m in a bit of pain as I watch a young person’s life go down the tubes. I’m helpless to stop it. But I have the illusion I could. If I just said the right thing! If I just strategized the right way! If I just gave a little more! If I just withheld a little more!

And this latter, this futile attempt to control something more powerful than the human will, is where the suffering comes in.

If you read here much, you probably know: it means a great deal to me that I’m an alcoholic. It probably will mean something very dear to me, for as long as I draw breath.

And in recovery, I get to work with people. I can help people, which means more to me than I can express. I get the honor of watching people live heroically, with an incredibly powerful and destructive disease – I watch them live in a way that is uplifting and wonderful. Like my husband said tonight about the recovery community we call home: Those alcoholics live by principles that the whole world could take a lesson from.

But yeah, sometimes it goes the other way. I get to know a woman, I get to spend some time with her. We share our lives – we spend hours together in intimate conversation. Our bond grows fierce – deeper than your typical friendship, more poignant for the fragility we’ve come to know, the miracle of just another day sober and another day in gratitude. She knows me – she knows the hell I escaped – and I know her, I know a bit about where she’s been and how bad it was.

Then I watch her go back.

It just – hurts. In a way that is bottomless.

The decline doesn’t happen suddenly, either. It happens slowly. I see it happening. I speak up. I say something. It keeps happening. She asks for my advice again. I give it. She doesn’t take it. It keeps happening.

It keeps happening.

When I watched my father die of cancer I didn’t have the illusion I could stop it. I grieved, I mourned, at times I even felt sorry for myself or felt angry over his suffering. But I didn’t suffer under that illusion of power, of control.

Alcoholism and addiction – they are diseases. They resemble cancer a lot more than people think. But they also lend themselves to another disease: that of perception. We keep thinking we can control it. We can manage it. We can say the right thing. We can “make” someone stop – by kindness, by sternness, by yelling, by pleading, by the silent treatment. By taking something away. By giving something. By giving until we’re dry.

It’s all bullshit because nothing but divine intervention can stop it.

So tonight, yeah, I got a little less peace than I did a few days ago. I’ll feel better soon, but for now? Just: BALLS.

treatment

The young man has incredibly beautiful, large blue eyes. Leonine. Red-rimmed but striking. Today after I ask if he has anything to share, he finally breaks down and talks about the violence he committed while drunk, or on drugs – I’m not sure which (it doesn’t matter). He can barely speak and by the end he is crying as overwrought as I’ve seen anyone in real life. He’s choking and crying and in almost any other place you’d have people rescuing him or shushing him or uncomfortably squirming. This is a holy place though and that doesn’t happen, now.

Still. Since this is an early Recovery setting, there is a break in the sacrosanct listening you can usually expect when there are other “old timers” (like me! Ha!) present. See, addicts in treatment are like a box of baby chicks. Certain things disturb them and they start acting up in concert, popping out of the fog of their meds and talking. After even only fourteen months of regular experience, it’s still rather predictable. Depending on what they’re exposed to, sometimes they’re angry, edgy, and disrespectful. But today they’re offering the young man encouragement, because he’s in so much distress, and maybe they’ve not learned to let someone get through it, because there is no consoling the inconsolable. Or maybe they don’t realize this is a special moment, and our Presence is all that’s required. So anyway they tell him the person he abused will forgive him, the love of family is always there. They say parents are there for you no matter what. They say all the stuff they want to believe but don’t really, deep down, know to be true.

I’ve learned wisdom can come from just about anyplace, and I don’t give less credence to people based on their circumstances. But my thoughts: you can’t get clean or sober based on what your family thinks or whether they let you use them as a punching bag or whether they don’t return your calls. You can’t rehearse the remorse and guilt ad infinitim either without playing with the Relapse thing. And you can’t get clean and sober because you “owe” it to someone. Jack shit on that account. But I stay silent because even though I’m chairing this little get together, I’m not especially needed at the moment.

A few minutes later, incredibly, a young woman M. tells a story of triumph. She’s got it all figured out and she and her ex-husband are going to have a life together and fix everything between them since he’s been clean two years. Another woman asks if she’s afraid, saying, “My boyfriend and I only did heroin together the last four years.” “I’m not afraid,” M. says, lifting her head up. “What am I afraid of? Love? We’re going to be that cute old couple that drives around on casino tours in an RV with a little dog.” Of everyone tonight, she’s the spookiest to listen to. She’s not scared enough, I don’t think. I could be wrong though.

I’m thinking of how much suffering I’m exposed to. It’s quite phenomenal. The human capacity to suffer is incredible. We will take it to such extremes, until we are angry and pinched and flee only to the corners that cosign our bullshit, or the chemicals that give us release, but soon those things aren’t even enough.

Then there are those in limbo. I’m thinking of a woman who came into Recovery sad and frightened but now she’s angry. She’s angry she can’t drink but she’s angry about other shit too. I can see it as clear as I can see through a still pond. She sits in the group and won’t share and smiles but the look in her eyes is crazy-anger. She’s ballooned up in weight and her eyes bulge like someone squeezed her around the middle. But she won’t share. “I’m just here to listen.”

Last night another woman eight months sober broke down crying after many months of “not sharing”. She’s one of those women who’s incredibly beautiful, she did more drugs than I’ve seen and was hauled off to jail and evicted and she’s tough as nails and stunningly lovely. And I sat four inches away and let her cry, it was beautiful and I hope she comes back for more healing. It’s this kind of crying… I can’t describe it. It’s not that congested, angry crying. It’s like watching a river flow, watching a freshet. It’s sorrow, sure, but it’s also a very real moment because someone is breaking down and being themselves, and being broken, and doing this with another human being. It’s one of the most spiritual things I’ve seen and one of the most spiritual things I’ve experienced.

When I was scared I stayed scared until someone could help me, and I did as was suggested and I never got to the angry part. I’m not angry I can’t drink. Well, I can drink. For me, to drink alcohol would make as much sense as drinking Drano. There were many years I drank and thought it did me little harm, and maybe that it helped, and that it was my prerogative. But I was incorrect. It did harm me.

Back to treatment. It meant a lot to me tonight that this young man J. recognized me from last Wednesday, and his face lit up when he saw me. Wednesday I’d made a joke at the end of our meeting, as I’d noticed he had “DGAF” written on his knuckles. Just before we broke the group up I said, “J., I hope it’s not true that you DGAF. I hope you do GAF.” His face went from inanimate to a surprised smile and his eyes came alive. Anyway when he saw me tonight he was glad to see me. He’s one of those who cuts me right to the heart, because at 35 many of these I work with are children. I am often capable of seeing the child in any addict or alcoholic but the ones who are so young, it’s like I want to breastfeed them.

Oh and when I leave tonight a young man C. says, “I like your style.” That’s pretty cool.

I could write pages and pages more just on the last couple days alone. It could be overwhelming if I let it. It helps to write.

One of the most amazing things I’ve learned is I haven’t met the the addict or alcoholic who doesn’t hurt so bad for what he or she did to other people. Not the one and I’ve literally heard thousands of testimonies. It is incredible. It is a blessing. My faith in the beauty of humankind and of God is unshakable.

I’ve also learned to be entirely at home with other human beings.

A woman who helped me so much, and continues to, told me soon I’d feel my heart break because so much compassion would flow in. I remain grateful and humbled by my experiences. There are too many to pray for each evening. Too many to remember in my consciousness. My god-consciousness will have to do, as much or as little as I may have.