Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Map to Kansas

Well, August 12 came and went. Again. I managed to orbit around to another mid-August, another year sober. That anniversary was yesterday, accompanied by shooting stars and the streaking space dust of the Perseid meteor shower. I navigated the tricky asteroid belt of early summer, with both old and new rocky obstacles in the mix: the usual early summer anxiety about past behavior, once again a difficult death anniversary and now a dog-shaped hole. Summer will forever be marked by those constellations, however much time manages to try and dim them.

It seemed to be a year of occasionally noticing missing things -- not like "oh, how I miss that!" but actual things gone missing. I opened the china cupboard in the dining room one day and saw little clear rings on the dusty glass shelves; it took me a few minutes to realize that they were left there by a set of little short Moroccan glassware when my house was "cleaned up" while I was off at the nervous hospital. Wine glasses removed, corkscrews taken from drawers, that sort of thing. Left behind, these little perfect circles, to remind me of how imperfect things had been before.

I was in Memphis last weekend; it was a funny place to be so close to the anniversary of my sobriety. Memphis was where my drinking career began in earnest -- I never drank in high school, but things ramped up pretty quickly the day I got to college. I still remember very clearly the freshman orientation party -- I could find the very house in Hein Park if I tried, I know I could -- and the ivy-bound brick patio and the giant metal barrel of Everclear and Kool-Aid and this dumb girl named Vanessa who dove headfirst off a picnic table into the bushes and my hangover after and then the repeat of the whole miserable cycle (though with less picnic table-diving) for almost thirty years after that. I joke frequently that I could never live in Memphis again because of the heat, but what I really mean is that I could never live there again because of the constant reminder of alcohol. Last weekend, every street corner I drove past held a story and almost every one of those stories held some modicum of regret, no matter how hard I tried to remind myself to move past feeling that way. It was an uneasy weekend, but probably necessary. The next time will be less wobbly.

This second year felt steadier, though, more level than the previous one, with fewer extreme peaks and valleys; a drive across a flat, sober Kansas. It occasionally seemed less miraculous than the previous year, less astonishing somehow. It just took me time to figure out that what was happening at last was a return to normalcy, perhaps the most astonishing thing of all.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A List of Mabels

One of the things you hear over and over in the early days of recovery -- and there are many -- is "The good news is: you're sober. The bad news is: you're sober." It's an irritatingly accurate assessment of what those early days feel like, when you're re-learning how to feel things in a normal way. You're thrilled about the highs, the way you bounce out of bed and not throw up in the sink, the way food tastes and exercise feels. You're also cut to the quick and the first to cry over a casual insult or a red light that doesn't turn in time or a cloud that isn't puffy enough. In other words, you feel completely exposed all the time. That feeling gradually fades as your life proceeds whichever way it proceeds and you learn to deal with the highs and the lows and everything flattens out a bit. But occasionally a knife pokes through and rends the fabric so thoroughly that it stops you short, and you really think you won't be able to recover. That protective fabric got torn this week when my sweet little dog Mabel was unexpectedly taken from me.

Mabel came into my life in late 2009, as I was beginning my long, final slide into rehab -- it took a few years before I got there, but she was a witness to all the worst of it. We were instant best companions, me working from home at the time and Mabel staring at me from the other side of the desk until she loved me, after which she would never leave my side. I took her camping, I took her for drives and walks and hikes and she went canoeing a time or two. I would sit at picnic tables -- "camping," you know -- and drink glass after glass of wine while Mabel would drowse under the table, waiting for instruction. Or maybe she was just napping, not waiting for anything. She seemed perfectly content to just share my space, no matter how messy and drunken it got. And she was looking out the door when I finally got in the car to go get some help.

I promise to not go all Marley & Me with this, but Mabel figured into my recovery in two very significant ways and I want to define and explain them before the color starts to drain away from the photograph. I don't want to forget this.

Here's the first way: The first few days of rehab are medically-oriented; all of your time is spent being monitored and poked and prodded to make sure that you are beginning to leave behind the physical aspects of your addiction in as healthy a way as possible. I struggled early on with high blood-pressure, as a lot of alcoholics do. It went on for a few days, keeping me from getting the coveted white ID (rather than the caution-yellow one I had) that would allow me to walk the trail that skirted the facility woods or participate in any physically-oriented experiential therapy experiments that I knew were coming. No rope climbing for me! No trust falls! (And you know how I love a trust fall.)

Several times a day, my blood pressure was checked. Several times a day, I was denied the white ID. My BP just would not go down. I tried visualization, imagining the calmest, most beautiful vista I could summon up. I would think of being inside a snow globe. Eating ice cream. I would think of a swimming pool. Nothing worked. It was frustrating and upsetting and the fretting over it just sent the numbers that much higher, getting me further and further from the goal. If I couldn't get this little physical thing under control, however would I begin to tackle the mental and emotional pressure  ahead? I was completely defeated by these stupid numbers.

About a week in, friends and family brought me a couple of little care packages full of things I had asked for: a copy of Walden, a clickable Sharpie, a wristwatch. One friend threw in a photo of Mabel. It was that last that did the trick. I took the photo with me every day (every four or five hours, actually) to the blood pressure test and each time that my numbers were too high, I would ask them to try it again and I would just stare at the photo of Mabel and "talk" to her in my head, and each time my BP would come down five, six, seven, eight points. Every time, the medical tech would say "look what Mabel did!" And she did do it. The thought of seeing her again, the knowledge that she was even in the world, was enough to literally make me healthier. Pretty quickly thereafter, I got the white ID card and I walked the trail and was able to begin to focus on and think about the possibility of forward motion, of work to be done outside of the clinical environment, work that didn't involve a fabric cuff around my bicep.

The second, much larger, way that Mabel affected my recovery had to do with the concept of "gratitude." Gratitude's a tough thing to get a hold on in the early days of recovery (especially for a cynic) -- there's a tremendous amount of blame and resentment when you're in an environment that's basically designed to make you face up to the problems that you yourself created. Even the people in your life who did their very best to help you come with complicated strings -- someone is mad at you, someone will never forgive you, someone will always think of you as a failure. That's how your mind works, whether any of that is true or not. (I should stop saying "your." That's how my mind works.)

One of the earliest exercises, though, was to take a piece of paper and list ten things for which I was grateful. It was not easy in those first days. So many of the things and people I thought of were still prickly by association; the people who loved me most were also the people who had just dropped me off at rehab with a pillow and a pair of pajamas. It was all so... complicated. It was a bit like trying to pull a single fish hook out of a bowl full of them (that phrase is someone else's, though I wish it were mine). The only 100% motive-free person or thing I could think of, the only one completely free of any emotional land-mine, was the face I remembered looking out the doorway as I left for rehab. Mabel. So I wrote her name ten times.

1. Mabel
2. Mabel
3. Mabel
4. Mabel
5. Mabel
6. Mabel
7. Mabel
8. Mabel
9. Mabel
10. Mabel

One thing -- ten times -- that I could be certain of, grateful for. Over the weeks that followed, that list changed. I got better at identifying the things in my life that were there by sheer chance, things I did nothing to earn but that had shown up and remained anyway. Some of the Mabels came off, replaced by things like "sister" or "mother" or "art" or "mossy path in the woods" or "new Woody Allen movie" or whatever. The list constantly changes now; it gets longer, it gets shorter, some of it is in ink, some in pencil. I've figured out how to be grateful for things. But Mabel stays on the list, steadfast and true, like she has been from the very start.

I wish with everything I have in me that I hadn't lost her this week. The bad news is indeed that I am sober and have to feel all the feels, as the kids these days say. But the good news is that I had thousands of hours of time with her, many of which I spent thanking her for coming into - and saving - my life. Yesterday on the way to the vet to say goodbye to her, I tried to make sense of it -- how could it happen? how could this happen? -- and I suddenly remembered that list of Mabels. It had worked before -- I had listed her name ten times and begun to learn how to be a more complete human just by the doing of it. So I did it again, right there in the car. I listed her name ten times.

1. Mabel
2. Mabel
3. Mabel
4. Mabel
5. Mabel
6. Mabel
7. Mabel
8. Mabel
9. Mabel
10. Mabel

I'll keep listing her that way, like an incantation, until it hurts less to do that, until other things crowd onto the list again. The presence of her in my life saved it; the absence of her reminds me of how sweetly to value it. She'll stay on my gratitude list forever, my sweet Mabel. At various times just a photograph, an idea, a panting presence in the rear view mirror on the way to the woods, but always a dog with a heart that made my own heart that much bigger and my entire life that much richer.

Friday, October 17, 2014


A lot of recovery is corny. I spend a lot of time listening to long-past-shopworn phrases and breaking them down word by word to ascertain their meaning and then reconstruct them in ways that don’t make me cringe when I say them aloud. I’ve come to expect the old chestnuts in meetings or anytime a group of sober people gathers together (what should that be called, a group of sober people? Crows get “murder,” walruses get “pod”… what is a group of drunks called? Oh, probably a “waitstaff,” now that I think about it), but when I’m trying to pin down and articulate how I feel about something in a one-on-one conversation — or trying to type it all out here — I really do try to sidestep the obvious bumper sticker sort of syntax that so much of the recovery industry (and there definitely is one) relies on. I suspect it’s a game I can’t win, but I try regardless.

That urge to express something uniquely has cropped up in a different context this week. I’ve been in the Appalachians, huddled with my dog, Mabel, in a tent for two rainy nights, with two clear ones still ahead of me. My notebook has been open the whole time, the pen loaded with ink, awaiting all-new amazing insights to just tumble down the jumbled mountain stream right outside my tent door. I could kill Henry David Thoreau for saying everything about trees first. Fuck John Muir for getting to mountains before I could. And I’ll slap Annie Dillard just for good measure; I’m sure she got to all of what was left long ago. I certainly now know how Mary McCarthy felt when she lamented about the impossibility of writing about Venice because everyone else had already said it all.

I didn’t take up the outdoors until I was forty and, already long-mired in drink and delusion, I was happy to drop everything and go sit in the woods alone on the spur of the moment. Since then, the motivations for doing so have shifted. Originally, it was all about isolating. I could stock up and drink alone for two days, sleep well into the third one, hop up and return to my life, still slightly dulled but with newly-inspired vocabulary to tell everyone that I was in some way “restored.” Now it’s about pure solitude, which might seem like just a semantic difference, but it’s really quite the opposite. My being alone in the woods isn’t about not being with people or hiding from them; it’s about being with myself, completely and utterly present and engaged with whatever task I have at hand: hiking a trail, setting up camp, cooking food or perhaps just sitting and being quiet for a little while.

A lot of those earlier, isolating trips are lost in a particularly, uh, damp fog. The first thing I’d do when I got to a campsite was have a few glasses of wine; I’m still not certain whether I ever set up my tent correctly…I know I never started a fire the right way.  All of the memories and photographs from that time have a particular kind of off-kilterness to them, like the separate color plates have been printed slightly out of registration. After I sobered up, I hesitated to jump back into camping and hiking expeditions; “camping trips” was frequently just code for “drinking trips,” and I was keenly aware of possessing the peculiar skill of being alone in the woods and knowing exactly where the nearest liquor store was, almost like I was a wine-soaked divining rod. But I should’t have worried about returning to the woods. I’ve managed a handful of trips over the last year and all of them have only furthered my conviction that it’s a right, necessary, thing to be doing and each time I go, the final color image that I take home and keep gets clearer: the C, the Y, the M and the K of it all seem to align perfectly and display a perfect twin of my present being and mood.

Yesterday, I spent a good deal of the morning trying to hunt down an adult American Chestnut tree, one of only a few of the post-blight species left alive in North America; it’s supposedly quite nearby. It’s the sort of thing that I always thought sounded like “a very DG sort of thing to do,” but would never go actually do. I didn’t find it, but I have two more days here. Trust me, I’m almost embarrassingly conscious of how clichéd that sounds, tracking down the remaining trace of something long thought extinct. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past fourteen months, and no one is rolling their eyes reading this as much as I am while writing it. So I can’t be John Muir this time around, I can’t stake any territory Thoreau didn’t get to. But I can find this chestnut tree and press a leaf from it between two pages in the analog version of this blog and move on to the next “very DG sort of thing” that just two years ago I thought I’d never be around to do.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Enough Rope

When I was going through my rehab souvenir box last month on my sobriety anniversary,  there were few surprises. A skimpily-used sketchbook, the folded daily schedules, a menu for one of the weeks, a rock, a piece of origami...all things I still had pretty vivid memories of. But one thing that I had forgotten about jumped out at me: a black lanyard.

Upon admission to the nervous hospital, I was issued a photo ID. It came encased in one of those folded pieces of plastic that then clipped onto my shirt collar or pocket...the kind you might get if you were an attendee at a business convention. My ID had to be worn any time I was outside my room, which meant pretty much all the time, because every day was a long work day -- 7am to 9pm every day unless your mother was visiting. I got used to checking for my ID at the end of every session, after each meal, before I left my room in the morning, after running around a grassy field with a blindfold on (don't ask)...always patting myself down to make certain I had my ID.

Newcomers were recognizable by whether or not they had made it to the campus bookstore to purchase a lanyard. IDs could be clipped to the lanyard and worn like a necklace, rather than randomly clipped to wherever it would clip. I made fun of the lanyards for a few days; I thought it was a silly way to establish myself as a "longtime" resident. But I kept losing my ID. It didn't want to stay clipped to my shirt pocket and I had to go wait in line to get another one each time -- it was like going to a DMV for incredibly fucked-up people. So by my fifth day there, I was ready to part with three of the precious twenty dollars that I had brought with me and get a damned lanyard. I dutifully purchased a black one -- there were several color options, surprisingly -- and never lost my ID again.

At the end of my time there, I was required to give back my ID. I thought about passing the lanyard itself on to another person, someone new, to save him the trouble of navigating the first few days lanyardless, but in the end I decided to keep it and into the rehab box it went, un-thought about for a full year, until this past August 12.

I went out to visit my rehab alma mater a couple of weeks ago. Every Friday, everyone who is currently under care divides into loose groups and all alumni are invited to attend the groups as well, where they answer questions about life after rehab. I've been to a few of these and am usually too stage-frightened to say much, though I've noticed that I don't mind fielding the questions about day-to-day processes rather than the loftier ones about spiritual matters. If someone asks "what should I do if I'm invited to a wine-tasting?" my hand shoots right up.

This visit went the same as the others; I answered a few general questions about how and where to find meetings, how to train your car to not drive to the liquor store (the answer is "get a new car") and how to navigate meeting friends after work for a drink.  The time went quickly -- it always does at these -- but it didn't take long to feel like I was where I was supposed to be, among the people I was supposed to be among, doing what I was supposed to be doing.  At the end of the hour, I stood up to leave and touched my chest, checking, of course, for my lanyard. It wasn't there -- as a visitor, I wasn't wearing one. But I also knew that it really was there, and it was there forever, a piece of rope connecting me to the people in that room and all the people in all the rooms just like it from here on out.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Suddenly, August

I'm not a fan of July anymore. The angle at which the Limelight hydrangeas droop from a neighbor's yard over my backyard fence; the peculiar way the light of each day drags on so late into what should be night that the sky never quite gets black enough to call "night" before it starts lightening again; the insistence of last-of-the-season straggler fireflies lighting up with warning signals meant just for me; all of those things combined crowd my senses and cloud my thinking, all pointing back to a year ago, to an entire month of summer-perfumed regret -- a month where I could feel my own internal barometric pressure changing, of being keenly aware of looming danger.

I've been warned about sobriety anniversaries. Warned that along with a sense of achievement, also sometimes comes a deep sense of shame. August 12 is my sobriety date, and the last forty days has been the toughest so far. I don't want to drink, no worries there. But July of last year was a truly terrible time and the first few days of the thicket of last August were even worse. And every one of these past forty days has been saturated in deep embarrassment over my behavior then -- I remember more and with each tiny spark of memory comes another shadow of shame. People who have been quite successful at recovery tell me all the time to not live in the past, to not regret any of it. But that's impossible; I wake up every day convinced that everyone remembers every tiny bit of misbehavior on my part. "Oh," they're thinking, "today's the anniversary of the day when DG drank a bottle of Fireball before noon and got too drunk to cut his steak."  They're not really thinking that, of course. But it's hard to convince my brain of that, to get rid of the hilarious need to put myself in the middle of everyone else's universe.

Yesterday was when the earth rotated back around to the exact point where it was last year, when it got as bad as it could get, and as I took every sip from each bottle that day, I knew it was the last weekend of it, one way or another. I was perfectly happy to drink myself to death...or to stop drinking and not die. I somehow couldn't make the decision, though. I was very lucky to have the right combination of people working behind the scenes trying to figure it out for me, and everything fell into place as I've documented here over the past turn of the wheel. It could have gone the other way. It didn't.

Will next July be the same? Will I refuse to bring one of those cut backyard hydrangeas into the house because they remind me of a vase of them that sat on my dining room table that horrible weekend? Will I avoid going to the funny little marina steakhouse with foil-wrapped baked potatoes because I'll remember too much about the night I behaved so badly that I rendered five other people awkwardly silent for the better part of an hour? I don't know. I can't see into the future. I can barely see into the right now. But every day after August 12th will be the anniversary of a day when things got better. Every day after August 12th is a year-plus-whatever further away from the worst days of my life.

I have a friend who is thinking about giving up drinking. I don't know what her reasons are, and to be honest, I kind of give terrible advice. I am clearly not official sponsor material quite yet. But I'm always ready to answer direct questions about the whole experience and when she asked me outright "what does sobriety look like?" I only had to think for a second: "it looks like a styrofoam coffee cup most of the time." That's the glib answer, but then I do like a good line. The real answer isn't much more complicated, though. What does sobriety look like? It's six feet tall, with thinning hair and it's forty pounds overweight and it needs to run spell check on this post just as soon as possible.

I'm going to get past August 12th and then I'll see you next year. All of it.

Monday, June 16, 2014


This week marks a truly terrible anniversary. I hate using that word - anniversary - to mark tragic things because it's a word I always associate with party hats and clever, designed invitations and passed trays of finger foods. But I looked in the thesaurus and there's really no other word for it. It's the anniversary of my great friend Jay's accidental death. I don't really know the specific date he died offhand; I only know that we all heard about it on the Monday following Father's Day. So that'll always be the day that feels the longest and the worst: the hot, stupid Monday after the second Sunday every June.

Jay and I became friends as waiters over two decades ago. We worked together for years. I was his manager for a while; later, he was mine. Then neither of us was the manager, back to being just waiters. He was a good drinking friend. Though he never drank like I eventually did, he could certainly keep up when the situation warranted back in those early days. We discovered together one evening that there is indeed a limit to how much chartreuse should be consumed by two people. We drank it from the bottle cap, one glowing green sip at a time. Until we, uh, undrank it all over our friend Marleen's picnic table as the sun rose.

Time passed and he opened a restaurant with his partner and I worked for them for a while. I worked as a host and I did it for the free wine. I'm sure I got a paycheck too, but the constant glass of wine in my hand was the real payoff. I stayed there for a couple of years, drinking more and more...and then I just sort of drifted off. It was easier to drink at home, easier to drink alone. Less risky.

And then Jay died in a freak accident. A few days later, I wore a black wool jacket on a fucking hot June afternoon and I cried a little, I hugged his sisters, I wore a little pallbearer boutonnière and helped carry the casket from the hearse to the grave site in a country meadow and watched it lower into the ground. A group of us stood there in stony silence while the gravediggers filled the hole back up. They stomped the earth perfectly flat and practically stitched the grass back together over the rectangle of soil. After just a few short minutes, there was virtually no trace of Jay left...the headstone wasn't due for some time. Part of the funeral party drove to a nearby friend's house and drank well into the evening. Some people came from hundreds of miles away, all friends and co-workers. I wish I could remember any of that part, any of those people who drove in that day, any of it at all.

I did all the things I was supposed to. All but one: I completely, even willfully, neglected to sober up long enough to grieve my friend. A year later, when the first anniversary of his death rolled around, I was still drunk, still not facing the fact that he was gone. It was just simpler not to.

In the ten months since I quit drinking, I have bumped up against this unprocessed grief more than once. At times, it feels like a trap; at others, like an excuse. I am still uncertain about why I've been so unable to move past it. A tiny part of me thinks it's about the drink, that that's the thing that keeps me tethered to him because that's the thing that connected us for so long, especially in the early years. We worked in a drinking environment, we got off work, we drank. I wonder if I am worried that the longer I stay sober, the further I move away from our shared past, the further I move away from our friendship. Grief is complicated. There's your bumper sticker for the month: grief is complicated. I'm beginning to suspect that it's never over, either.

I miss my friend.
After I left the nervous hospital last summer, I had an out-patient counselor who suggested that major grieving was perhaps too big of a hurdle to try and deal with during early recovery. But he did assign me grief-related homework over the six weeks of out-patient therapy, one of which was to create a visual manifestation of this very specific event. It seemed like a tall order, and an impossible one, but here's what I made.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Places, Everyone

Whoa, June. See, I wasn't kidding at the end of last year when I said I thought about time in a different way. How has five months passed since my last post? I'll tell you: soberly! A few weeks past nine months now; I could have had a baby and you never would have known. Well, maybe you would have, because it does seem like if I had a baby that might be somewhat newsworthy and would probably show up on the news or whatever, but still. Nine months. Hmmm.

Last December, I was preoccupied with capital-T Time and since then, it seems to be Place that's kept my brain busy. I've lived here a long time and it was inevitable that I would eventually end up in a place that held some awkward, embarrassing memory, or one where perhaps some sort of marker dedicated to my historic misbehavior might be erected.

I attended one meeting in a cinder-block room that shared a wall with a bar where I worked for a few years. The space was positively vibrating with recollection -- at first it seemed like I might need to leave; I couldn't reconcile the new feeling with the old memory of the space. Even parking my car on the street felt funny -- why, right there was the parking meter I used to chain my bicycle to and then later each night, unchain it and drunkenly pedal it the few dark blocks home. Did the parking meter have any memory of me? Was it steeling itself for a good haranguing if I couldn't get the bike lock open the first few tries? It sure heard enough of that back in 1990.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, I attend a meeting pretty regularly that takes place in the same non-descript strip mall space where I attended my post-rehab out-patient therapy. It's jammed between a Subway and a laundromat. It's not my favorite meeting but there's something about the space, the way it's only been completely and utterly a safe one for me, in which there is no shuddering of vision when an old bad-behaviored-ghost creeps into my peripheral vision, that keeps me going back to it. No one in that meeting ever remembers my name and I think they even think it might be Gigi, but whatever. Other than having a chip on my shoulder about being mistaken for a French can-can girl, it's a pretty solid healthy hour of my life.

The thing these places -- any places, really -- have in common is that they are only as nerve-wracking or as calming as I can make them be. The spaces themselves are inert; they don't really remember me, or even exist to offer me anything other than an escape from the occasional late-Spring thunderstorm. I'm discovering that the latitude and longitude of my sobriety is not a fixed point. I bring it with me wherever I go.