This is the story of my twenty-fourth year of sobriety, told together and in two parts. (You'll see. There would have been columns, which is infinitely more satisfying to me, but Blogger isn't set up for such binary sophistication. So - the parts go together, even though they look - to the naked eye - separate.)
Part One, told together and at the exact same time as Part Two
This has been a crappy year. In the general scheme of all my years, there have been crappier, but not by much. It was one of those years I less lived through and more merely survived, finding too many windy, twisty paths and far too many trap-door bottoms as I stumbled through the days.
There was a time, a while back, that I lost just about everything: property, people, positions. I lost them all irrevocably. Each loss felt like an amputation, and I would get those ghost twinges and pains, as if what I had lost still existed, just out of reach, just out of sight, but still it held weight and heft enough to bring me to my knees. This past year, this past crappy year, was not one of loss, but more a long string of break ups. People, possessions, things – all the standard gathering of stuff that one accumulates over time, a simple break of here, and then not.
If I woke, all too suddenly, in the lonely and dark, night shirt clinging and twisted and drenched in sweat, it was less about loss and grief and fear, and more about a constantly-changing body, a war of hormones and time raging just beneath the surface of my skin. But, having been woken by flashes of heat at temperatures just shy of internal combustion, having stumbled to the bathroom to pee yet again, all the voices of all those people and places and things from which I had separated and severed ties (or that – more likely – all those that had broken up with me) came muttering back in, racing through my head, a cacophony of what-ifs and whys that caused no small amount of psychic whiplash as I attempted to follow each whining whisper spinning manic tales that always ended with “and that’s why you’re a horrible mother and a terrible human being!” Dawn did not defeat the monsters of my dark, but rather sent them skittering into deep folds and hidden corners, where they readied themselves for their inevitable return.
I ran out of money. I robbed Peter and Paul both, The lights flickered a time or two while I cobbled together something out of nothing, a game of smoke and mirrors and odd jobs and charity. I can barely stand the kindness of strangers; the generosity of people I know and love is worse, but I gritted my teeth and learned a grudging gratitude. I collected the mail every week or two, whether I needed to or not. Bills went into the if-you-don’t-open-it-you-don’t-owe-it pile. I hadn’t resorted to that since the early days of my sobriety. Of course, back then, I really did believe it: let them all wait while I sorted out my life and my needs and my wants, while I amassed an Enough that was never quite Enough enough to pay any creditor back. These days, as the pile of unopened bills grew with exponential speed, I cringe, remembering something I heard at a meeting long ago, “Hey – people don’t want your money; they want theirs.” I am hemorrhaging other people’s money, desperately trying to staunch the flow that shows no sign of stopping.
I was busy learning lessons of life and faith and God this year. Relearning. Reliving those painful, poignant lessons I could have sworn I’d mastered in early(ish) sobriety. There was no less intensity in the learning, no less wondering or pain than twenty-four years ago.
Again and again during this crappy year, I found myself knee-deep in the muck of powerlessness. This damnably simple truth had, long ago, seeped into my consciousness, gotten under my skin, became as true to me as “two plus two is four,” or “the sun rises in the east.” It has been bedrock upon which the foundation of my sobriety lives and breathes. I do not ever doubt my powerlessness over alcohol (and even grudgingly accept this as a managing principle over people, places and things). It is so true that it is almost-but-not-quite invisible.
I got the crash course review this past crappy year. During that first year or three of sobriety, when I finally began to notice the shambles of my life; when finally noticing the shambles I had made of my life: the gruesome remains of relationships I had pushed past the breaking point, the tiny universe of one I lived in, desperate to avoid pain and entanglement and fear (never realizing that I had tethered and tied them all to me with knots as hard as night), when powerlessness felt draining and all-encompassing and impossibly huge, but there was something I could do, some action I could take that could relieve the absoluteness of my powerlessness. The action would not fix me or the broken pieces of my life, but I could rest easier, trudging along that weary road. I could go to a meeting, make a list, talk to my sponsor, make an amends, go to another meeting, whine for a bit and work on it and pray about it and go to sixteen more meetings and find that, at some point, the moment passed and I was out the other side: still powerless, but sitting in my own skin, crisis (real or imagined) back there somewhere, and I was still sober.
What I didn’t get then – all those early days and middle years and long ago Thens - was that soul-sucking, weak-in-the-knees shock of powerlessness that comes when all you can do, no matter how much you pray or hope or love, all you can do is watch. There is no action you can take, no power you can summon. There is nothing you can do except witness. Hope becomes tattered and gritty, an impossibly shallow breath that cannot sustain a too-weary heart. It is so much easier to quip “I’m a human being, not a human doing!” from the comfort of ease and abundance. It is nearly impossible when the doing and the being may be on you, but the reality is all about someone else. Someone you love, who is facing demons of their own, challenges and stumbling blocks and even death itself. And all you can do is love them, because you are powerless to do anything else, and how the hell can that ever be enough?
What can I do? What can I do? Nothing. Pace. Pray. Don’t drink. Get angry. Get scared. Still don’t drink. Disconnect. Head to a meeting. Write. Don’t drink, even when that fear becomes unbearable. Still don’t drink. Talk to a friend. Rail at God. Pace. Nothing. Anything. Spin like a whirling dervish of activity – all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Cry. Sleep. Wake up. Eat a cookie. Don’t fucking drink. Sing. Hope.
Ah, yes. Hope. That gritty, rusty shriveled old thing. Hope. Don’t drink. Hope. Pray. It gets better. Maybe. It might get better. But you’ll be there. You’ll be present and sober and scared and there. Ready, when it’s time. Time to pray, or mourn, or do the next thing, whatever that thing is. You’ll be ready. You’ll be sober. Don’t drink, go to meetings. Talk. Share. Listen.
I have walked, stumbling and hesitant and with a surprising bit of grace, through twenty-four years of days. I still get scared. I still box with God. I still take it a day at a time (sometimes an hour at a time, sometimes a minute or a breath). I am still powerless. I still mostly hate that.
I’ll live – powerless and present. I’ll pray a little, pace a little. Try to hope. Sleep too little, fret too much. Feel crappy. But oh – what a gift! To be present, in this moment, to celebrate and grieve and worry and doubt and love.
Part Two - told together and at the exact same time as Part One
I’m getting a little annoyed with my editor. She keeps telling me the eBook version of my book will be available soon. She’s been saying "soon" since late June.
She is German, though. Maybe “soon” means something different to her.
Maybe I’m just impatient.
This is a real conversation that I’ve been having in my head. For weeks, I have been getting peevish that the book isn’t yet an eBook, that it’s still not available on every online platform. That I haven’t been written up in the New York Times Review of Books or been handed a Pulitzer.
The fact that I can have this imaginary conversation – imaginary in that it’s unsaid and in my head, but not that the events and situations aren’t true on the face of it – is absolutely and completely mind-boggling.
I wrote a book! I mean, an actual ink-on-paper book. Six months or so ago, I woke up to an email from some woman, the Acquisitions Editor at a small Jewish press in Germany, telling me that, while they normally publish scholarly works and textbooks, they were looking to expand their markets. She had come across my blog online and thought my writing would be perfect to help them do that. Would I be interested in doing a book with them?
Really? Someone has to ask that?
When I was newly sober, still trying on random pieces of my life, those pieces I had left along the wayside as I pursued anything that would bring on an oblivion stronger than my pain – even if only for a minute or three – and desperately trying to shed the wreckage that was threatening to bury me in a field of hidden mines and sharp, rusty edges, I would sigh every so often, saying, “I want to be a writer.”
Finally, one of my friends could take it no longer. “Stacey,” he rasped in a voice laced with too much booze, too many cigarettes, too much loneliness, “a writer writes.” Oh. That. Hmmm.
I filed that tidbit away with all the other verbs that I yearned for but couldn’t quite manage, like sing, or love, or parent, or God. So many verbs escaped me in those early days that stretched into weeks and months and years. Eventually, they came to me, not in a whoosh of perfection, but in fits and starts, all jangly dissonance and wonder. Jack of all verbs, master of none. I practice at them, do them far less than perfectly – which sets my teeth on edge and makes my skin fairly crawl often enough – but I do them anyway, and sometimes even manage to do them well. It never lasts, that, but I learned to live with that, learned to live in a world that is much more silver and gray and messiness than my black-and-white sensitivities would require.
And this year, this twenty-fourth year of my sobriety, I wrote a book! I can say, almost without giggling like a small child who is trying, but cannot quite contain the very large secret she is guarding, “I am a writer,” in answer to the question “What do you do?” I wrote a book, and someone published it and oh my God – seriously?
What a glorious gift this year has been! A few months ago, I was asked to participate in a Storytelling event. What an incredible honor, and so very humbling to be in the company of such masterful wordsmiths. I felt awkward: the story I chose was so different from the others! They were crisp and funny and bright, the perfect blend of wit and wonder. My story moved along in slow waves.
It wouldn’t have mattered if my story was exactly like theirs. I would have felt awkward regardless. No matter. I showed up – because I was asked. Because I was honored beyond belief. Because this was my community, and I am connected to them by more than words or microphones.
I did a horrible job of promoting the event. I had great intentions. Some things change with meteoric speed, others with all the pondering grace of glacial movement. Some things even slower. This was one of them. I had posters to hang, networks to harangue. I managed to put a notice or two on my Facebook page – Hey! There’s this thing! Come, if you have nothing better to do!
I was not hopeful. I had tried this before, this ask-people-to-show-up thing. It mostly hadn't worked. I was pretty confident that it would mostly not work again. I mean, really: who wants to schlep out on a Thursday night to hear a bunch of people telling stories? Ok – they’d schlep to hear them, just not you. Me, They would not come to see me.
(Always remember: the words I say out loud are but the tip of the iceberg. I have a fascinating and very vocal internal life to fuel all the voices in my head. Trust me: the 10% rule fully applies.)
I did not do the publicity thing well, but I did something. And I showed up. And they came. Lots of people came. It was amazing. But oh my! In a breathless moment of wonder and joy, there were a few people who came just for me. They came because I asked.
This still takes my breath away and leaves me teary. I had a reading. I have an editor. I wrote a book. People came because I asked.
Part Three - the hidden track on the CD
I joke that my son has learned every lesson I have ever taught him, whether I wanted him to or not. So, for all that he has become a champion for kindness, for all that he will act swiftly (if not always wisely) if he sees injustice, for all that he will dive into words and ideas and stories and worlds beyond and worlds that should be, it can be painfully awkward to hear the sharp edge of sarcasm coming from the mouth of a four year old. And that is infinitely more palatable than to see him throw up his hands in frustration and walk away from verbal conflict, shutting down, shutting out, wrapping himself in silence because he learned the lesson of avoidance all too well.
My continued imperfection at life continues to confound me. More, it saddens me profoundly, when I see its aftermath writ so large upon my beloved boy. He is smart and kind and willful and sarcastic and snarky and sneaky and funny and gracious. The other day, I broke down. There is only so much crap I can take at any one time, and I had reached the breaking point. So I cried, and couldn’t breathe for a minute, and had no clue for a longer time than that. I was in full panic mode, Def Con 5. I did this all in front of my son. Not necessarily the right move, but I’d rather he see me be human – emotional, imperfect, sniveling and lost more often than I care to be (and probably should be) – I’d rather he see that than something false and not real.
My beloved boy, who has learned every lesson I’ve ever taught him whether I wanted him to or not, apparently has also learned the lessons I could never quite learn myself but wanted so fiercely to teach to him. “Mom,” he said to me, “it’s ok to be vulnerable. It’s not weakness to ask for help.”
The bountiful gift of grace: to be present for one another, in that moment - any moment, every moment - to grieve and worry and celebrate and love.
Synthesis and gleanings, told with the words I see in my heart, not my head
This was my year, my twenty fourth year of sobriety. It was crappy and glorious, both at once. It was never one or the other thing. There are things that I know to be true, like two plus two is four, or I am powerless. These are immutable facts. There are so many more: life is so very rarely one thing. It is mostly a jumble of everything, and the trick is to tease out a single thread – maybe a couple or five – to see where they lead and what they feel like before moving on to the next thread or two. This takes patience. I am quite imperfect at that. I finally know that it is more important to show up, imperfections blaring and embarrassing and feeling all too large and loud, than to wait for a perfection that can never achieve. I missed so much of my life, waiting for it – and me – to be perfect.
I am so very grateful for my sobriety. I am so very grateful for today. It’s the only day I have – to make much of or to hide from or to fritter away while I busy myself with something else entirely. I have this day because I did not drink. I have this day because there are miracles still, and grace and love. I have this day, crappy, resonant, joyous, humbling, scary, lost, magnificent, because I didn’t drink. I will go to a meeting, talk some, listen more, sing a bit, have a conversation with God, hang out with my son, write and remember to be grateful for the gifts I have been given: the gift of struggle and the grace of imperfection.