I have more curiosity than I have sense. That being said, I had the privilege and honor of witnessing my husband’s vasectomy several weeks ago as I took what I hope to be my only chance to see a vas deferens in the flesh. While in the surgical theater, which was only an exam room because that’s how we roll in outpatient surgery in America these days, I became very grateful to my years of training in dissociation and denial while I was an active alcoholic.
I’ve retained my ability to remember how to withstand a situation by being physically present yet totally not there, which is helpful when one’s curiosity about surgery and the human body needs to supersede one’s emotional attachment to the body on the table. In this way, I learned that, while Dr. Dora’s description of the vas deferens (or, “The Vaz,” as it’s known in the business) was helpful, The Vaz is not so much like “spaghetti” as it is like a rubber band fashioned from a Thai rice noodle.
Good descriptions, like good surgery, require precision.
However, after the Thai noodle simile gelled, I did get a might woozy and thus ended my scrutiny of the procedure. We passed the rest of the time listening to Dr. Dora regale us with a fine but unprecedented tale of a colleague in Arizona who discovered, upon entering a routine proctology exam with a middle aged businessman, a shocking fetishist tattoo.
A good time was had by all.
At this point, I must mention that my husband knows how to fold a fitted sheet properly and without assistance. And he will let another man take a scalpel to his testicles for the greater good of the FRF. So, I married the baddest motherfucker on earth outside of Jane Goodall. Plus he knows how to make a balsamic reduction and tie a complicated series of safety knots, and I’m pretty sure he could do both at the same time, but now I’m just bragging.
I’m telling you all of this because I have some gratitude for the experience of life today.
This is what I do on May 20th. Every year since 2007. I reflect on gratitude, and I think about how things were for me on the night of May 19th, seven years ago.
If you had told me then that one day I would be free and at peace, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me then that I was ungrateful, I wouldn’t have believe that either. In fact, I would have been outraged. If you had told me that eventually I would marry the right man for me, and I would stand by and chit chat with the urologist and my beloved during his minor surgery…
Well, I may have been able to concede that as a possibility.
The last time I remember life making sense, I was 18. And even then life didn’t make much sense, but at least I had a plan that I was 100% sure was going to work out well. I did not want to be a wife, nor mother. I was going to be a writer, and not just any old writer, but a famous one, an important one, one like the writers I read whose descriptions were so precise I could glimpse, for one piercing flash, order in the universe. Truth and beauty made me feel alive. Plus, I suffered from delusions of grandeur and the subconscious fear that if I didn’t make my mark as a writer then I meant, in existential terms, nothing. I didn’t understand that at 18 years old; I only wanted to make other people feel what good writing made me feel. And I didn’t know how else to live up to the greatness I felt in myself that must surely indicate my place in written history.
Stories, like alcohol, had the dual benefits of shielding me from the unpleasant anxiety of living while introducing me to truth. I couldn’t stand the experience of having a body that had to interact with other people’s thoughts and feelings. Books were a great escape, and I preferred the feeling of living in my imagination to my experience in reality. Reality mostly felt like wearing a sandpaper sweater to a picnic. Whereas, my imagination felt like an all-day free pass to my favorite theme park. Alcohol was especially helpful here, and it eventually overrode the power of books as the fuel needed to enter my imagination and stay there. And then alcohol and my mind turned my imagination into a theme park of horrors, and I was stuck there, pretending to be normal and largely succeeding except for public conflicts with fidelity, until I was planning the other way out. I was stuck in that grotesque illusion fueled by alcohol all the way to May 19, 2007.
Yet, on the morning of May 20th, 2007, my first day without alcohol in about ten years, my entire life changed, and so was set in motion the chain of events that would reform my thinking and offer me the chance to find out who I really am. I took the chance. The price was that I had to learn to live in reality as myself, a concept that required an unwavering commitment to a conscious spiritual journey. I could no longer treat the mortal disquietude of my mind with alcohol. I could no longer present myself to the world as the character I had created.
Getting sober, then, begged the question: who the fuck was I?
So it began: This really trippy second half of my life; the conscious spiritual journey in which I would learn the definition of love from a tiger; I would reclaim my true self in Bahia, Brazil via the Everglades; and I would discover the critical importance of sacrificing my will to honesty and compassion—not that I have learned to sacrifice my will consistently; I have only discovered that it is critically important to live my life by honesty and compassion instead of by getting what I think I need to have in order to be what I think I need to be. I have a truly great life today with a normal amount of disappointment and an abnormal amount of adventure, so it’s on the balance, and, most days, so am I.
All of this internal awareness unfolded in good order, I suppose, because I was going to meet Andy, and I would need to know—without doubt—who I was and where I stood on issues of true love, honesty, and compassion. My position on these issues gets tested. Sometimes I do alright in these tests, most of the time I discover where my faith is the weakest. Or: my fear the strongest, depending on your perspective.
I have quit believing that my plans are 100% sure to work out well. In fact, most of the time I am without a plan. Instead, I tend to show up to things that show up in my life, like this upcoming trip to Cuba in two weeks to study sacred and popular dance, which I will tell you about later.
And, I have found that it is possible to function well in the third dimension while not placing my faith in it.
I am grateful I got sober through spirituality. It was a gateway, and I’m glad I took my opportunity to go through even though I didn’t know how it would be possible to enjoy life at all without being able to get wasted.
In my later-in-life years and after seven years of sobriety, I’ve come to realize that many non-alcoholic people don’t relate to this notion of being a body averse to having to interact with other people’s thoughts and feelings (while all alcoholics I’ve met do). Although, I have met many people with depression who get it completely yet they don’t turn into insatiable, unfathomable versions of themselves when alcohol enters their systems. I find it interesting when people wonder, usually without irony, why so many writers are alcoholic.
Mostly because we know we are somehow trapped in the third dimension against our will, and writing and drugs are the only available ways into the other place until we die or realize our art allows the other place into this one; then we have a chance at being free from what, in the vulgar, is termed “our demons.” We have a strange relationship to Love and power because of the constant surging demands of creative release, and many of us misinterpret our divine energy to compulsively create as our superiority or our righteous dissatisfaction or our precious uniqueness. The tension within is wacky, but it can be lovingly resolved.
However, the ideas of “this place”/the construct of reality as created by man and “that place”/sacred space which are, in truth, aspects of the same reality, are hard concepts to explain, especially to people who have set beliefs about alcoholism and writers and artists and dimensions and whatnot. What do you do when you’re confined to this place but know that you belong in that place? And what if you know, in your heart, that that place is the real place and this place is not, but you can’t find anyone anywhere who understands your pain or can explain to you that 1) you are right and 2) there is a way to turn this place into that place, but it takes time and it is not an easy undertaking. That is the spiritual path.
When a high profile one of us dies—take Philip Seymour Hoffman for example—and leaves behind partners and children, I often read social media pronouncements of how could s/he do that to her/his kids? This concept is even harder to explain than the congenital internal separation alcoholics feel as a general rule, especially when a large part of the population (even some active alcoholics) continue to harbor the underlying belief that alcoholics can control their drinking and behaviors if only they tried harder, or only if they “really” cared about someone. But, that’s not how it works. For the alcoholic mind, alcohol is the answer; so, why would I give it up? If you don’t have an alcoholic mind, you don’t understand that logic. The person appears to like being a dangerous, pathetic shithead; otherwise, why would she or he keep doing it?
The more erroneous notion, culturally, is that stopping is the hard part and the easy part is staying sober once we’ve “kicked the habit.” Some non-alcoholic folks can’t understand why someone who stopped drinking would start again, especially knowing the consequences, because non-alcoholics have no way to comprehend the chaos, often subtle, of the alcoholic mind, nor do they comprehend its ability to make a superior argument for why we need the relief brought to the alcoholic mind by alcohol. It is not logical; yet, to the alcoholic, it makes perfect sense.
Movies about alcoholics and alcoholism leave out the beauty of entering a sober life. There’s the long, drawn-out descent, the necessary turning point, and then FADE TO BLACK/CUT TO: PERSON, NOW SOBER, CLEAR-EYED AND SIMILING, SITS IN AN AA MEETING/MAKES AMENDS/WALKS INTO THE SUNSET blah blah blah.
While all of these person-triumphs-over-addiction instances do reflect that sobriety is possible and preferable, at least for an alcoholic, movies skip over the process. The audience gets to go home feeling hopeful about the protagonist, which is basic writing etiquette: leave the audience feeling hopeful.
Sobriety is hopeful. Totally hopeful. But, First Year Sober would make an excellent film, or even First 90 Days. Or, Days One Through Fifteen. Fortunately, I don’t remember much of my first year of sobriety except that I bought a house which was a terrible decision although I got valuable lessons in releasing financial fears and unwanted practice in mortgage litigation.
Live and learn.
The miracle of sobriety is watching the change happen in a human being. I’ve seen a lot of miracles in my life, yet I have never witnessed anything as moving and powerful as watching a person dying of alcoholism crawl into the world of the living and then walk on her own two feet into her own spiritual dominion, knowing what she had to sacrifice to get there. It is worth all the confusions and heartbreaks of life to have the chance to witness just one person come out of the nightmare and learn to be happy and at peace. I wouldn’t have even known such miracles were possible, and happening right here right now as this place and that place collide, if I’d never been dying of alcoholism myself.
So I am grateful to have alcoholism for that reason although there are many times when it is awkward to be outside of the prevailing culture of creating social intimacy through shared intoxication. But it is only awkward; it’s not worth my life to join a party.
Alcoholics have an unnatural, overriding attraction to booze. We are programmed to drink despite the consequences. Most alcoholics are really fun, compelling people who have an uncanny ability to make life more exciting, so some of us don’t have significant consequences for a long time because we are charming our way out of them. For others of us, we make the lives of people around us a living nightmare. Most of us do a bit of both.
We don’t want to be this way any more than you want us to be this way. There is no logic or sanity in the disease, and when we’re in it, we cannot choose you over it. We cannot choose love over alcohol even if we want to; and, what’s worse, we subconsciously sense this dilemma, and we don’t want it to be true, so we do all sorts of awful, crazy things trying to make different choices and be different. It is a terrifying state of existence, and we often say fuck it and give in to the disease in the end because it is easier than fighting. We drown right in front of you. Most of us die from this disease, from the suicidal alcoholic mind or the health and safety complications that are logical results of being drunk all the time. Most of us leave behind very hurt partners and children and parents who do not understand how lost we were when we were being dangerous, pathetic shitheads.
I am grateful to understand that alcoholism lives in me forever. I’m grateful that in the morning I won’t be facing consequences I vaguely remember causing. I am grateful that, in the last seven years, I have been dangerous, pathetic, and a shithead, but not all at once and never with the nozzle from a box of Franzia Mountain Chablis in my mouth.
Sometimes I wonder if “alcoholism” got rebranded to “Bill Wilson’s Disease” or “Spiritual Torment Disorder,” a la PTSD or Alzheimer’s, and people understood that the symptoms include the illogical craving for alcohol and socially unacceptable behavior, if somehow that would end the debate over what alcoholism is and help create a culture of understanding that something more pernicious is at work in us than an inability to control our drinking. It frustrates me to know that there are those of us out there still hiding because they’re afraid to say they’ve got alcoholism.
You know, when I knew I had to get help to quit drinking, I didn’t know anything about alcoholism except that having it somehow signified my epic failure at adulthood, made me a sad reflection on an otherwise proper upbringing. That’s just how alcoholism was presented to me, how I understood it—as a personal weakness that deserved judgment. But, if I’d been diagnosed with cancer or Parkinson’s or some other progressive illness, I imagine my reaction and the reaction of my friends and family would have been a hell of a lot different. But because it was alcoholism—and there are some people who love me very much who still can’t say the word out loud—I walked into the world of recovery more or less alone, which worked out splendidly for me in the end, but if there’s somebody out there who doesn’t know how to walk into that world alone: I will walk with you.
Back to the morning of May 20th, 2007: I thought I’d gotten addicted to booze but whatever was going on in my heart and mind that made me wish I was dead so I didn’t have to deal with the painful, unrelenting sensation of being the one person at the spring picnic in a sandpaper sweater was a separate issue. If I wagered, I’d put my money on lifelong anxiety and depression, some of it a result of environment, some of it not; but, by now I’ve come to understand these twins as symptoms of the alcoholic mind; which, by my guesstimation as I have put forth in this blog, is a suicidal mind programmed to treat itself with alcohol.
If I understand my condition—and the condition of “the alcoholic” as opposed to someone who temporarily drinks too much to handle stress or someone who is a “problem drinker” which I understand as someone who has the physical dependency but not the warped ego with a death wish—then I understand that I am congenitally unequipped to handle reality as it appears to me. However, I have a complimentary personality equipped to present well; in fact, I can present as damn near perfect. Temporarily. Alcoholics are convincing actors. We’re great mimics. This quality, combined with our charm and cleverness and general savoir faire, confounds people who love us. They don’t understand that we are “playing along;” hell, I’m convinced that most of the time we don’t understand we’re playing along until we do or say something to sabotage whatever it is (family, business, relationship, job, event, etc etc) that we were playing along at. As I’ve noted, the disease of alcoholism is not interested in “real.”
Today I am grateful I can be in this place and that place and not need the other way out. I am grateful for standing in the backyard and feeling connected to my backyard and not like some prisoner trapped in a relationship, in a town, in a job, in a set of responsibilities I didn’t ask for, in a bad outfit, in a college I didn’t want to go to, in a trajectory of almost-but-not-quite fulfilled dreams, in a role I assumed would make other people happy.
I am grateful that I have become very, very real. I am grateful that I can walk with other alcoholics. I am supremely grateful for the alcoholics who helped me crawl back into the world of the living, and those who stood there clapping as I stumbled into my own spiritual dominion. I am grateful they didn’t judge my emotions. I am grateful that, in my fears, they didn’t find their own shame. Or, if they did, I’m grateful they kept it to themselves.
I write about alcoholism and having alcoholism mostly out of a personal need; I put my experiences and ideas into words in order to organize what was a very chaotic state of existence, and my mind can still turn on me though I accept it for what it is today, and it’s quite manageable. Recovering from an entire adulthood spent in the stages of this disease has been rigorous with emotional and psychological aftermath, all of which was a necessary part of the grieving and healing process—for which I am grateful today.
I still don’t fully understand this disease, but I do understand that I have a need to know what I think about it. I need to know what I think about living with this disease when I was drinking and now when I am not.
I want other people to see alcoholism and addiction are symptoms of a human condition, that they are not merely physical dependencies. I was physically dependent on Diet Coke and Camel menthol lights. I am currently physically dependent on sugar. None of these dependencies turned me into what I become when I drank alcohol, and kicking Diet Coke (which I got back on) and cigarettes (which I did not) did not require an ensuing psychic change so that I would not kill myself or emotionally or physically damage people in relationships with me.
Not even close.
So, I am grateful for the compulsion to write, for the human tradition of storytelling. I am grateful for what Andre Dubus III calls “the power of art:” the ability to connect one human heart to another, not sentimentally or with ulterior motives, but because we are not separated from ourselves and from all that is sacred, and we need simple reminders, even if they arrive in the midst of surgery while one’s adored husband is, quite literally, exposing his vulnerable insides.
In two weeks, I leave for Cuba on another dance immersion trip, very similar to the one I did in Brazil two years ago, and this time I am going with the specific intention of bringing back that sacred dance for Tampa Bay. I haven’t always been grateful for my experiences and opportunities in life because my fears made humility impossible. I learned that hard truth about myself on the spiritual path, and it is this road that led me to Cuba and to the mystery of dance, to its sacred language. What I can tell you is that I want to spend every minute in Cuba in humility and gratitude so I can learn and learn as much as I can without fear and without reservations—much in the same way that I want to love Andy although I fall short most of the time, and I will fall short in Cuba, too.
Night night beloveds. You also have my gratitude for continuing to read and walk with me. I apprectiate your company these last ten months of contemplative blogs as I get my mind right about what these experiences and revelations have meant to me. And I especially am grateful to those of you who have reached out to me in private messages about your own struggles and evolutions and growing relationships with whatever you find sacred inside yourself and within our beautiful planet.
I think I’m going to lay off writing about alcoholism for awhile as this blog seems to recognize some peace I needed to make with it, but I want you to continue to talk to me about it if you want to or need to. Like I said, I’ll walk with you.
Andy and I have some fun adventures up ahead and are heading to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas next week before I land in Cuba. I want to get back to more nature and travel writing, and I also want to tell you about the funny experiences Andy and I just had in Colorado. Remind me to tell you about Ms. Eloise and The Weed Store in case I forget.