“It doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t.” (pg. 218 My Vices Collide; A Celebration of Being a Little Messed Up)
Is it vain to quote myself? Well, maybe so, but no truer words have ever been spoken by me. So I will say them again:
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I am proof.
You think it is a secret. It is not.
You think you’re alone. You’re not.
You think, “If I can only learn to moderate…” You can’t.
You think it will always feel like this. It won’t. It doesn’t have to. I swear to you it doesn’t have to.
Talk to someone. Before the sun sets today, tell someone that you’re struggling. If you can’t imagine who you’d tell, then tell me. You’ve got my number. Really.
The following story, “Do Tell,” was the third story in the “Redemption” section of my first book. It was hard to write. It took me three weeks. I thought I had nailed it. My editor thought otherwise. So, I went to work on the next chapter, “All Told.” It took an additional month, and once I was done, I felt like a weight had been lifted, followed immediately by an odd feeling of apprehensive determination. Was I really going to publish this?
Yes, I was. I did.
I did it for you, because you think you’re alone in this.
I’m just the teensiest bit compulsive (and prone to understatement). I have been this way for as long as I can remember. I like to think I’m just a little quirky, so that I don’t have to think that I’m just a little crazy. They say there’s a genetic component to OCD (Thanks, Mom) and that it dovetails nicely with all kinds of other disorders, afflictions and addictions. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to see the connection. No, you could follow me around for a few decades and get a pretty good idea of how this works. Don’t have time for that? Well, let me break it down for you:
I once gathered up every white sock in the entire house—even Taylor’s itty bitty ones the size of cashews—and threw them all in the garbage with coffee grounds dumped on top, and went to Target and bought brand new ones for everybody, because I couldn’t bear the sight of even one more mate-less sock in the laundry.
I carefully alphabetized all of my spices and turned all labels to face east (toward Mecca?) because no-one needs three cream of tartars and four corianders. And now that I could see what I had, maybe I wouldn’t buy a fifth paprika.
I ate nine “Hot, Now!” Krispy Kreme donuts alone in my car in the 20 minutes it took me to drive from Destin to Mary Esther, and tossed the last three, along with the box, into a dumpster behind 7/11, because well, inquiring minds would want to know—and I didn’t want them to.
I suddenly found myself jogging on the utility strip of an interstate outside Tokyo because, in my head, I still had twelve more minutes to run before I was allowed to double back toward the hotel. Never mind, though. The Japanese highway patrol thought it best I cut my run short, and they escorted me back in a car with bars and brightly flashing lights.
I drank eight Cosmopolitans one night during a girls’ weekend getaway and threw up seven of them into my own purse because Tammy’s brand-new Suburban still had that new car smell, and it was so clean, and maybe no-one would notice. (Uh, they noticed.)
I rewrote, four times, this quote to put on my refrigerator, because the “P” should have been capitalized, or my handwriting looked sloppy, or it needed to be centered: Perfection is the enemy of done.
I watched all 210 episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, in less than a month because I had been feeling depressed, and everybody knows that laughter is the best medicine, and I was out of Zoloft.
I flossed my teeth three times in a row, one right after the other, because I had skipped two days and had to make up for it to get back on track.
I straightened the crooked painting at Lillo’s, our favorite Italian restaurant—just the one in my line of sight—even though I knew it was intentionally hung askew for design purposes—because I couldn’t eat my chicken parmesan with that thing all cattywampus in my face.
I decided to go on a diet. I’d start it on Monday, as all diets must start on Monday. And wouldn’t it be better to start it on the first Monday of the month. Or better yet, Monday, the first of the year. Yes, that is the most auspicious of diet-starting dates: The first Monday of the first day of the year. I’ll pencil that in—January 1st, 2018. And if that doesn’t stick, there’s another one right around the corner, in 2029.
I banned all Christmas presents not wrapped in color-coordinated wrapping paper, from being placed beneath my turquoise, silver, and white-themed tree. I was visibly shaken when a dinner guest placed his sneaky Santa gift, wrapped in red, black and white paper, front and center. Did he not get the memo?
I counted every step, in sets of four, that I took on my hour-long runs around the Sydney Opera House and Botanical Gardens. I counted the steps from the back door of my house to the Gulf (310), my bedroom to my office (29), and my car to the door of the gym (46-63, depending on my parking karma.)
I carried a single paper clip I had found on the floor around with me for three hours while facilitating a medical conference. I had no pockets, and the appropriate paper clip place was on my registration table back in the conference room and I couldn’t just throw it away; that would be wasteful.
I read the entire users’ manual cover to cover when I bought my first car—with little checkmarks in the corner of each page to keep me honest. I particularly enjoyed reading about the viscosity classes of engine oils, the California Emission Control System Limited Warranty Parts List and the implied warranty of merchantability, which is, of course, limited to the duration of the express warranties herein.
I added four items to my daily to-do list that I had already done because, well, I had done them, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t gonna get credit. Besides, the list is so much more impressive to look at with lots and lots of line items with lots and lots of strikethroughs. Too much empty space on any calendar page implies that I’m a slacker. Which I, most certainly, am not!
And then there was that time when I was a teenager and decided that food was highly overrated, and maybe I could avoid it altogether if instead of actually eating it, I obsessed about eating it every moment I was conscious and many moments I was not, thereby slowly starving myself.
And then, decades later, I decided that alcohol was highly underrated, and maybe I could get away with drinking it continuously instead of moderately, every day for a very long time, thereby slowly annihilating myself.
Oh dear. This is the part where I talk about those specific Colliding Vices that must be “acknowledged, eradicated and atoned for.” How easy, it seems, for a funny little quirk to morph into a pathological obsession. How quickly, it seems, a familiar comfort zone can transform into a deadly danger zone.
In truth, though, it is rarely easy or quick—this descent into the madness of anorexia or addiction. It takes discipline and perseverance to get there. In fact, it uses up both of those qualities in the most subversive of ways until you are left with neither to help you escape. No self-control. No purpose. No way out, it seems.
I have been on my knees in my dark bedroom in both scenarios whimpering, “God, why won’t you help me?” Silence. Seems he wouldn’t tell me why. He wouldn’t tell me anything, or maybe he tried—but I couldn’t hear his voice, the voice of reason and of grace, for the din of disordered thinking that had highjacked my brain, my body, my soul. In both cases, I was trudging, or staggering along on a slow, hungry death march. I didn’t want to die. But being alive didn’t seem to be working for me, either.
And yes, it’s all a learning process—if you don’t go ahead and die. Sometimes you do; I know that now. I’ve seen it happen. But having been spared myself, I can say that the biggest lesson I’ve learned is this: the way it seems when gripped by an obsession is not the way it is. God, that is so important. But you couldn’t have told me that—as a teenager when I was congratulating myself for my willpower and discipline on the days when I consumed fewer than 500 calories, subsisting on iceberg lettuce, yellow mustard, and Premium Saltine Crackers. You couldn’t have told me that—as an adult when I was positive that the only relief from my excruciating anxiety and grief was an ice-cold Pinot Grigio, at 10:15 in the morning. These compulsions were the solutions to my problems, or so it seemed. And though my problems were real—whether genetically imposed, as anxiety and depression often are, or imposed by life, as disappointment and death always are—the relief I was seeking could not be found in my refrigerator. I know. I looked.
I have learned that when you’re suffering—either acutely as in the stunning horror of sudden loss, or chronically, as with severe depression or anxiety—relief is all you crave. And there comes a point that any respite will do, no matter the cost. It will cost a lot. But you will ignore your mounting psychic debt for absolutely as long as you can, because, in the moment, the cool rim of that first glass against your lips reminds you that there is a different way to feel; it gives you hope, maybe. And then a few gulps later you’re left staring at the bottom of your glass. And the bottom of the glass is just not bearable, so you pour it in till it brims. And again and then maybe just once or twice more so you can sleep. And you forget your pain for a very short while, but you also forget your dreams. When did it become a matter of just getting through the day until you could be unconscious again?
But sleep is fitful and tenuous and morning comes like mourning—and it breaks your heart to awaken. And the cycle repeats and repeats and repeats, and the shame of it all shoves you deeper and deeper into solitary confinement in a prison of your own creation, and even your hour in the yard becomes intolerable. You beg to be left alone.
Just leave me alone, Mom. Can’t you see I just need to lose three more pounds? Just leave me alone, Ted. Don’t you understand that I need this glass of wine? I need it just to feel normal; I’m not having a party here. Just leave me alone. I’ve got this under control.
Control. Cliché but true. I need to feel like this is all controllable and that I get to hold the remote. Every compulsion I indulge, from benign teeth-flossing to malignant calorie-counting to the deadly metastasis of addiction, is a grab for the clicker. But soon the batteries are dead, and those buttons I’ve always pressed to change the channel on my mood don’t work anymore. Hopelessness sets in. Which forebodes the end—or heralds a beginning. Your choice.
My choice. I always had choices. At 15, at 35, at 50. Now. There is always some alternative. But isolation and shame were hard crusts that formed over the top of possibility, and the obsessive brain that brought me to this place on my knees railing at a god I no longer liked, that mind had been struck deaf, dumb and blind to possibility. Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Of course we can’t. If we could’ve, we would’ve. If it were as simple as saying, “Ah, I’m not eating enough to sustain my life. I think I’ll go eat a sandwich now.” Or, “Wow, I don’t remember going to bed again last night, I think I’ll quit drinking today.” If it were that simple, we would all be hunky-dory.
It isn’t. We’re not. My brain told me that my life was better this way—actually, that it was the only way. Even as a skeletal teenager who saw black every time she stood up. Even as a middle-aged mom who, in the end, would wake up, from hell-dreams, shaking, craving, dying. My thinking—the thinking that delivered me to my nightmares, could not save me.
So then, what could? What would? What did?
You did. Yes, you. You, my son. You, my mother. You, my spouse. You, my best friend. You, the toll booth operator. You, the guy at CVS. You, my ladies at the gym. You, the toddler across the street. You, the addict in the rooms. You, my creator. You, the dog at my feet. You, the songwriter. You, the artist. You, the yoga instructor. You, the aunt. You, the niece. You. All of you.
But I had to let you. And to let you, I had to connect with you in some way. I had written in my journal during my darkest time: “Disconnection is fatal—taken to the extreme edge, as in addiction, depression, madness. Detachment always ends in the death of something. Sometimes, the death of everything.” To live, I needed to go sit next to you, be with you and your friends, your family. I don’t even like the term “reach out” because the metaphor implies too much effort, athletic and purposeful, and my soul was neither; it took all of the energy I had, simply to look up from my life. But when I finally did, I saw you.
And I introduced myself, as if for the first time. And you smiled back, and invited me to sit at your table, or swim in your pool, or play in your yard. And in a little time, we talked. I told you things. You told me your things. And that was a start.
I learned that you have been lost, too. Maybe not in the same jungle or swamp or bottomless ocean, but you, too, have struggled. You, too, have struggled. It’s not just me. St. Therese de Avilar wrote: “To reach something good, it is very useful to have gone astray and thus acquire experience.” Your experience can help me. And, how fortuitous is this? Mine can help you. But you have to talk to me. I have to talk to you.
I am convinced that while many, many factors contribute to my waywardness during difficult times in my life, the one that keeps me lost and in peril is shame. Researcher Brene Brown, writes, “Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” I know this to be true.
And though it can be scary at first letting those feral cats out of their bags—What have I done?—you will find that they are far less vicious in the light of day than in the dark litter box of your mind, where they can claw your eyes out from the inside. At least, when you let them out, they have the savage beasts of others to play with.
I told. Just one person, to start. Just one person I trusted. I told Ted. And with that one confession, that one plea for help, my shame no longer had what it needed to fester. My “secret” was out. My deadly silence was broken. And as my shame began to diminish, so did my brutal self-judgment, along with my fear that others would judge me harshly. It helped that not only did Ted refuse to judge me, he joined me in the fray. From the very first day. Seemed he’d been waging his own private battle with the bottle, too. I had been too soul-sick to see. So we held hands. That’s the best way to do scary things. It’s one of the rules Robert Fulghum reminds us of in his list of things he learned in Kindergarten: When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Why didn’t I remember this? Why did I suffer in silence for so long? Why do you?
I don’t know you, or maybe I do, but I do know this: The next time you find yourself in that black, bleak pre-dawn hour—suddenly, regrettably conscious, with dread and remorse sucking you down, down, down, like quicksand—the next time you awaken and wish you hadn’t because it’s just too hard, remember this: It doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t.
Talk to someone. A real person. Talk to your best friend, your rabbi or minister, your aunt or your cousin. Hell, talk to that toll booth operator. Tell them about the paper-clip place and the alphabetized spices and have a good laugh. But tell them, when it’s time, about the deadly hunger, or the drowning thirst as well, and have a good cry. But tell.
So I told. And not just God this time. I told Ted.
You’d think I wouldn’t have to tell on myself, that it would be obvious to everyone—that there would be a whole committee of interventionists ready to swoop in and rescue me. But this wasn’t my case. I was dangerously discreet in my battle, but my very soul was dying. And since no one had ever had to scrape me off of a barroom floor, or bail me out of jail, or even take away my car keys, I didn’t show up on Dr. Drew’s radar. No-one knew the awful truth. Not even my husband.
Not even myself. I knew I was messed up—this time in a perilous, imminently deadly way—but even I couldn’t separate the crushing grief over Jenna’s death, the ensuing depression, the life-long undercurrent of acute anxiety, and my myriad compulsions. It was all a black blur.
And getting blacker by the day. I had tried everything but one thing. Told my doctors everything but one thing. Blamed everything but one thing.
I blamed my genes. My mom suffered from severe depression and anxiety much of her life, as did her mother. Mom went to bed in her fifties and didn’t feel much like getting up ever again.
I blamed grief. I had never experienced the full force of it before. Losing Jenna felt like losing the stars. The heavens went dark.
I blamed my own personality. This is just the way I am. I’ve always been this way. People don’t change.
And finally, I blamed God. I clearly remember being on my knees in my dim bedroom, whimpering, “Where are you, God?”
But when I wrapped my fingers around the cold stem of that wineglass at 10:30 in the morning on a Monday, something shifted. I can’t tell you why it was this particular morning and not any number of equally bleak moments, but that morning I clutched that glass in my hand and slid down the kitchen cabinets to the floor. I drank it. And I was done. This was that one thing.
I called Ted at work. He came home. We made a plan.
It started, as most plans do, with a decision. I love Augusten Burroughs’ take on it: “Decisions are beautiful. They are the polishing cloths of life.” And whilethis one specific decision didn’t eradicate all of my dysfunctional pathology, psychology and theology in one fell swoop, it did begin that polishing process that changed every single aspect of my life for the better. There is no part of my life that wasn’t positively affected by the decision to change this one thing.
One thing only that day. Ted and I stopped drinking alcohol on the same day several years ago.
To say that this abrupt withdrawal almost killed me is not hyperbole. Around the third day I was so sick, I sought medical help. Around the third week, the fog started to lift. Around the third year, I went to my doctor for a routine physical. I had absolutely nothing to write in the space that used to be too small to list all of my medications and substances. I did tell him that I still run with scissors on occasion.
It was hard. But it isn’t hard now. And even if it was, I know now that I can do hard things. It seems so odd to me now that not drinking alcohol seemed like such an absurd proposition. I remember listening to a guy struggling with his own alcoholism as he described his reluctance to give it up once and for all. He just couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to share a champagne toast at his daughter’s wedding. His daughter was two at the time of his admission. I could relate. The thought of never drinking alcohol again made me feel somehow lonely and oddballish. I had never even tried to quit before—mostly because I thought I could not do it. Since my first piña colada at a house party in East Hill when I was a teenager, to my final greedy gulp of Pinot Grigio on the floor of my kitchen, I had always been a drinker, with brief breaks for pregnancies and nursing. It didn’t concern me—until it did. I hadn’t always imbibed in my bathrobe and socks alone on the cold tile. That was a relatively new development. I drank like everyone else. Until I didn’t.
And I do not know when I crossed that line. I love the descending elevator analogy I’ve often heard. My elevator opened to many, many floors between the time I first found myself as a young mom thinking, “It’s been a rough day, I deserve a glass of wine,” to the desperate morning years later when I found myself picking at crumbs on the floor by the refrigerator, my first drink of the day in my hand—at 10:30 AM. I could have gotten off at, “OMG, that was fun, but this hangover is pure hell.” Or, “Oh, shit, did I really text that last night?” Or finally, “I wonder how it’d feel to add a couple of Xanax to the mix.” That floor should have killed me.
It didn’t. See, it didn’t. I am so very not dead. I am more alive than I ever dreamt I could be. Certainly more than I should be. I wake up every morning without shame. That, to me, is the best part. Life is still really, really hard sometimes—surely never more so than during these last couple of years of heartbreaking loss. But sadness, even excruciating grief, is endurable with a clear mind—and a clear conscience. Once I gave up on the notion that some substance or compulsive behavior would help me cope, I was free to live my life according to values that, despite my waywardness, had always been an intrinsic part of me. I was no longer flailing against myself. My behavior started to line up with my ethics. And that was so freeing.
In the beginning, when people would ask me why I wasn’t drinking at social events, I’d laugh and say, “I’m not thirsty anymore.” Then I’d tell them my simple truth: I lost the privilege. I was drinking irresponsibly and pathologically. I couldn’t handle alcohol anymore, so I quit. Invariably, they’d ask, “For how long? Like a month or a year?” And I’d tell them another of my simple truths: “Forever.” I will never be able to handle alcohol. That ship sailed many hangovers ago. And I’m fine with that—a little relieved, actually. One less daily decision to make. I can’t have and do every single thing on the planet. And taking away alcohol wasn’t the tragedy I imagined it might be. Quite the opposite. I have so much more to celebrate—and I get toremember it all—without a headache. Without regret.
People were curious. And just a few months into my recovery, the “why” questions morphed into the much more complicated “how” inquiries. I wasn’t the only one in my social circle who was struggling. That became tragically evident to me just a few weeks sober, when a dear friend’s elevator opened for the last time at the very bottom, and she died drunk.
I would like to say that once I made my decision, I simply pulled myself up by my bootstraps, or bathrobe sash, and carried on triumphantly. But it didn’t happen that way. No, not at all. Ted was able to do it that way, but not me.
Once I made the one decision to stop drinking alcohol, just the one, (I didn’t decide to overhaul my whole life there from the floor of my kitchen, I just decided to quit drinking) I solicited help from every source available. I knew, intuitively, that I could not solve this problem alone. I had failed so many times to simply moderate my drinking; I’d never be able to quit this habit without a lot of support.
I had never done this before. Never seen it done before. I don’t come from a long line of alcoholics and addicts. Neither of my parents drank a drop when I was growing up. Nor did aunts, uncles or grandparents, at least not in my presence. I had no experience with “recovery” or “sobriety” or “one day at time-ing” or any of the other buzzwordy aspects of this path I had chosen. But I chose it nonetheless. I would say I had no choice. But the truth is that my elevator had quite a few more increasingly pernicious floors to descend to before it bottomed out.
But I was afraid of the basement. Despite the seemingly reckless behavior that delivered me to the cold floor of my kitchen, I’m not an impulsive person. I’m not the chick in the horror flick that’s compelled to explore the cellar when things go bump in the night. Oh, no. Thank God. Literally, God thank you, for instilling in me a healthy fear of the basement. Basements are dark and dank and dangerous—and, most tragically, uninhabited, except maybe by monsters or psychopaths, or that tall, faceless guy in a black robe and hood brandishing a scythe.
No, I got off on a floor that was still doing business. Ted was there. Kitty, a wise and compassionate counselor, had an office there. The welcoming fellowship of AA was there. A music room was there. A whole library of inspirational books was there. The exercise class I teach was there. My BFF was there. A tranquil yoga studio was there. The beach was there. A fresh supply of Paper Mate Sharp Writer #2 mechanical pencils was there. God was there.
I got off on that floor. I stepped out and the elevator doors shut behind me. I still had to go knocking on all those doors, and that took all the humility and courage I could muster, but knock, I did, and every single door opened graciously to me, as messed up as I was. No-one turned me away. I am so grateful.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. I entertained a crowd of dear family and friends, and it was my pleasure and privilege to carve the turkey and whisk the gravy and even pour the wine. (I don’t presume to know what floor anyone else is on or even if they’re in that building.) I pulled the biscuits out of the oven and looked around the crowded kitchen—happy, hungry people hovering over this feast that we had prepared together, eager to chow down. Gratitude overwhelmed me. I dropped the oven mitt and bent to pick it up off the floor. What a contrast, this kitchen floor with that one. I’m thankful for them both.
Today, at yoga, as we all returned to our mats for the final restorative pose—Savasana, or corpse pose—Sydney, my instructor said, “Welcome the floor.”
I did. I do.
Please share this post (or any portion of it) if you suspect that anyone you know may be struggling. Please. It just may plant the seed of change. I cross paths with so many good people out there who are suffering needlessly, people who erroneously claim that they are “better buzzed.” No, nuh-uh. Ethanol has never been known for its character improving qualities. There is a better way.
Illustrations courtesy of Jem Sullivan. (Jemsullivan.com)
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