Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Lateness of the Hour

So here I am at the end of this year, which I have alternately called my annus horribilis and my annus mirabilis, depending upon what part of the year I'm talking about. Spare me the annus jokes. The lateness of the hour will keep these notes short, but I wanted to get them in before the turn of the calendar year.

The calendar year. That's a funny way to think of time now, because for weeks and weeks now, everything's measured not from January 1, but from August 12 - when I decided to not drink again. That's New Year's Day now; that's the midnight I look forward to clanging in with a pot and a wooden spoon. So just pray that you're not my neighbor late next summer.

But time in general feels so different now; it's all measured in ways I never measured it before.  Lots of sixty-minute chunks, or days in multiples of thirty. The big cliché is "one day at a time," but just last week I found myself needing to live life one minute at a time for a bit...which worked out so well that I turned around and offered it as advice to a friend in turmoil. That's not a deep thought or anything; sorry for the bumper stickeryness of it. I'll try to keep the aphorisms to a minimum from here on out.

I do feel like big-T Time is adding up in my favor, that I'm gathering more of it each day, that more of it ends up in the plus-column. All that time dedicated to my addiction -- to looking for the money to pay for it, to figuring out how to keep that money secret, to going to get the wine, to drinking the wine, to passing out and sleeping poorly through the best hours of the night -- is now time I'm not quite sure what to do with. It seems to be pointing back to art-making and ha, that would be funny after all this time of thinking that part of my life was over. Arts and craft hour at DG's! Come on over and bring your yarn and popsicle sticks; we'll make those spinny twirly things.  And there's more time to go on a hike, or go somewhere and pitch a tent and start a fire and watch the night sky spin. I'm still figuring out what to do with it all.  I haven't had a drink; that much I can tell you. And I can tell you exactly how many days it's been: one hundred and forty-two.

Toward the end of fall, when the weather still showed signs of clemency, I made a habit of rising earlier than usual to let the dog out. Mabel would sniff out traces of nighttime rabbit frolics in the front yard while I sat on the porch and thought about different things, practicing my new morning meditation. My brain was usually docked in that in-between place, where I was thinking about whatever dream I had just had and the mechanics of the day I had ahead and I loved it if I could extend that feeling just a little longer, if I could keep my dream and the day ahead intermingled for as long as possible...sort of a mental salt point. Eventually the time wore on and the fresh water of morning would arrive and the day would open up before me. But this was time I never had before, so every one of those autumn mornings surprised me.

It's colder now, of course. I've been run off the porch by the season's sharp frosts and I've been run out of the woods whenever I thought it would be a good idea to go spend some time there. Frozen fog and rime are no friends of the tent camper. But I can look ahead at the calendar and make some marks and some little penciled promises to get back out there when the weather turns again, when all this time I've found adds up to a day or two here, a day or two there.  For all of the manic drunken panic during my frenzied drinking life, all the worry and stress that things wouldn't, couldn't get done, it turns out there is just loads of time. Twenty four hours of it every day.

That's cider in those glasses.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Three Little Things

I'll hit 90 days this Saturday. Three months. I've had wine without that much age on it. I'm settling into the day-to-day of it all, how to live a regular life with this as a part of it. The things that happen now are smaller, the revelations come at a slower pace. I'm fine with that.

So just small things this time around:

Shakespeare. Y'all know I have a Shakespeare thing, so of course he's all over recovery - and now I see some Shakespeare things through recovery-tinted glasses...The Henriad in particular strikes me as a recovery story. But anyway. He shows up a time or two in the Big Book and "To thine own self be true" shows up on a handful of sobriety chips. A lot of people think that quote is biblical or Aristotle-ian or whathaveyou, but nope, it's Shakespeare - from Hamlet, to be precise. It's a strange thing to have on a chip in my pocket, since the quote is spoken by the conniving Polonius, who ends up stabbed behind a curtain. They leave those details off the chip, by the way. And like most Shakespeare quotes taken out of context, it doesn't quite mean what it seems like it should. But it works for people, so I have no objection to it. When I read Hamlet aloud last month, though, I was keenly aware of the 30-day chip in my pocket with Polonius' words on it.

The Lord's Prayer. When I started this whole deal, I promised to be honest about it all with myself. Part of that honesty is to not embrace any specifically Christian dogma -- the things that I am willing and eager to embrace spiritually have absolutely zero to do with any of that. So I found myself in a sticky wicket when I found that the prayer a lot of meetings close with is the Lord's Prayer. I said it - mumbled it - for a while, until I realized it was counter-productive for me...dishonest. I've quit reciting it recently. I just look around while other people bow their heads and say it. I was surprised to see several other people opting out, so now I feel less weird, less "other," about it. Someone told me that it's a Southern thing - that you don't run into it at as much outside of the South.

The Meeting I Hate. I've been going to one particular meeting every week and I just can't stand it. It's a little puzzling, since some of the people there overlap with two other meetings that I like just fine. But there's something about this one...some strange one-ups-man-ship, where one war story follows another, each tale featuring increasingly feverish and dire circumstances until you half expect a committee of judges to start handing out ribbons.  It feels a little like an audition...and I didn't even prepare a song! And I find this meeting a little scolding - when anyone with less than five years of sobriety attempts to engage, there's a definite feeling in the air that some horrible crime is being committed. So I've been struggling with how to deal with that - it seemed so weird to me that here I was in a program designed to help me deal with Resentments with a capital R and here the meeting was creating one! Well, sobriety hasn't made me much smarter because it took me a month to figure out I could just go to a different fucking meeting and never think about this one again. So! Problem solved.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lost in Thought

For the past few weeks, I've been meditating. Not sitting around on my porch or anything....I mean going to organized, guided meditation. I've been going once a week for ninety minutes, about half of which is Buddha talk and since that's not really my thing, I meditate extra during those parts. I'm sure I'm doing it wrong, but I'm finding it helpful. I'm not emptying my mind, if that's what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm just re-arranging the things in it and prioritizing them, and that's good enough for me right now.

I'm not certain if it's part of the "official" meditation instructions, but each time I've been, as the leader of the group guides us into wherever it is we're headed as we're sitting there with our eyes closed, he says "nothing needs to be done right now." Every time he says it, I can feel hot tears pressing against the inside of my eyelids. Because recovery is hard. Really hard, like full-time job hard. I spend a lot of time thinking about meetings - which ones to go to, which ones I like, which ones I don't...and that's on top of my regular job. One of the recurring things I hear in meetings is "if you work a tenth as hard on recovery as you did on drinking, you'll make it" so I must have been working REALLY hard all those years.

Like any normal person with a job, I do find it hard sometimes to find the time to do the things that help me re-set my life when things get a little messy and history shows that if I don't do that, the consequences get ugly.  So I'm taking a few days and going to the woods to unplug, to sit and be quiet, to breathe in and out and be conscious of my breath. Nothing has to be done right now.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Weight, Loss

What is the weight of a single resentment? Of a particularly nagging fear? Of months of sadness and grief? What does the physical presence of those things look like?

These things come up because I'm starting to do the part of all of this that involves looking at fears and resentments and my part in them all and if you think that sounds like something you would like to do...well, have fun.  It's hard, and I'm struggling with it and would rather be doing almost anything else. But I'm not. I'm doing this, because I can't do the rest until I do. It's not all sixty-day chips and free coffee, apparently.

At the same time, I am losing weight like crazy. I'm down twenty-plus pounds in just over a month. As each pound disappears, it's hard to not imagine it walking off hand-in-hand with whatever particular resentment or fear I'm trying to rid myself of. Ohhhh, that lady cut me off in traffic! Let it go, let it go. Oh look, there it goes, in tandem with a half pound from my left side. I've started thinking that the more I clear my brain and heart of dark things like fear and anger, the skinnier I'll be. So that's my new fad diet idea -- look for it at a bookstore near you soon.

I don't think it's nuts of me to make those connections. People say it all the time: I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off of me. Well that's what it's like: every time I get rid of something bad, my back gets straighter, my shoulders go up, and the dial on the scale inches counterclockwise.  Some of the things that were weighing me down were easy to get rid of...one of my biggest triggers in the past was that I was incapable of saying "no" to invitations. I would say "yes" (and mean it) to every e-mailed invite that came my way and then as those dates neared, I'd look for ways to cancel. I mean! I could drink at home! Right? And then that would start a whole cycle of resentment: whoever I stood up would be mad at me for canceling and then I would be mad at them for being mad at me and then I would drink and eat until I needed to go put on my fat pants.  Well, that's all over now. I've learned to say "no" in the damned first place and to be honest, I find it very slimming.

But some are harder. Grief, for instance. I'm not ready quite yet to deal with some of it head-on, but I am allowing myself to nibble at the edges of thinking about it. At a meditation session last week, I used almost the entire time to meditate on my lost friend and put in order the different things he was to me over time. Acquaintance, drinking buddy, co-worker, friend, confidant, not a friend, friend again. It was important to put them in the right order so I could deal with losing each one of those people. I'm not dealing with it yet, but I'm getting ready. That's all I can do for now, other than look really skinny for him.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Dates of Birth

So this program is really birthday-focused. When I first started going to meetings, I noticed that there was a lot of birthday talk. "Please fill out an index card and put your birthday on it!" I kept hearing that and I thought, "oh, that's nice. They give you a little party on your birthday, how sweet." But even though I was going to the same scheduled meeting over and over, I picked up on the fact that that there wasn't ever any cake. It took me longer than I am comfortable admitting to realize that they meant sobriety birthday and that it was tied to the chips that I had seen handed out like Yellow Pages. So, whew, there's a bullet dodged...me declaring my 47th birthday just two months out of rehab.

As luck - or coincidence - would have it, my 47th birthday is this Thursday, the same day as my 60th day of sobriety. It's not really a sobriety birthday ("birthday" is only for years), but it's still funny that they ended up on the same day after I almost made a fool of myself over the whole birthday thing. A few people have asked me what I have planned for my actual birthday, and you can tell that they are kind of disappointed when I say "Nothing. I am going to get my 60-day chip and then I am going home to bed." And I can't fucking wait.

Birthdays in the past have been celebrated in epic fashion - dozens of friends gathered around sizzling hibachis at one of those silly cook-two-shrimp-in-front-of-you clip joints, all of us posed like Leonardo's "The Last Supper" - me in the middle, like Jesus. Or ten people bowling in progressively drunken fashion over the course of three or four hours, coming up with equally progressively stupid team names (the winner: "I Can't Believe It's Not Gutter").  In past years, October 10 signaled the beginning of The Haze, a season of near-constant drunkenness that rounds up each fall and winter holiday and doesn't end until January 2.  But I need this year's birthday to be the opposite of those prior; I need a new tradition for this day. This isn't the year to figure it out exactly; I am, uh, otherwise engaged with larger issues. But I do want to make a point of breaking the birth-day cycle of the past. So, early to bed, with a plastic chip on the bedside table.

I thought about what my gift to myself would be as well. I ran through all the bumper-sticker ideas - "I'll give myself one day at a time!" "I'll take it easy!" "I'll blah blah blah and be grateful about blah blah blah until I blah blah blah!" Then I decided that I had kind of given myself enough stuff over the past couple of months. I gave myself time, I gave myself some confidence and - crucially - I gave myself peace. All of that seems like enough for this year.

Except....I have a friend from out-patient therapy who - one night when we were comparing war stories about our drinking pasts - said "sometimes, the greatest gift of all of this recovery stuff is being able to brush the back of my tongue without throwing up in the sink." I could not agree with him more. So happy birthday to me! And happy birthday to me.

Friday, October 4, 2013


One of the biggest things that happened to me during my days out on the rehab ranch was that somewhere along the way, my guard lowered. I know that sounds like a completely positive thing - and in most ways, it was...I was able to talk about ways of feeling that weren't just anger or frustration, two emotions that had been kind of dominant for a long time. I was able to discuss grief and sadness and regret and happiness and joy, and I was able to discuss how I wanted some of those and didn't want others. But a lowered guard is a little like a compromised immune system: bad stuff can get in too. I discovered that I am a little bit of a "fixater," especially if I find out that someone likes me for any reason. Even a total stranger who laughs at a joke of mine can become an object of my fixation. It's not stalker-y...I don't mean it that way. It's more like the way you really admire a pair of shoes and can't stop thinking about them until they are part of your shoe collection - even though you have plenty of shoes and will probably never wear this pair. So maybe "fixater" is the wrong word; perhaps I am just a collector.  Whatever it's called, it's a distraction and once I noticed it, it kind of embarrassed me...not that I could in any way control it. Other bad things crept in too: my competitive streak ("I want to get an 'A' in rehab!"), my jealous streak ("why is the counselor paying so much attention to that idiot over there instead of me?"), my mean streak ("oh, this guy might as well get a rehab punch card").

Worst of all is sadness. I did a good job of keeping it at bay while I was out there, and I've fenced it away toward the back of my brain as much as possible, but a few days ago, I could detect a few drops of black ink in the clear water surrounding me. It wasn't too tough to pinpoint why...a friend's relapse, some job stress and the impending end of my out-patient therapy. This last was particularly distressing; I absolutely loved my out-patient therapy and had been feeling anxious about its end. The final session was last night. I was predictably teary and more than a little upset later in the car on the way home. I took the long way so I could just cry it out, but when I got in the driveway, I was still churning out big fat tears.

But I did not drink. Which is how I normally deal with sadness. I just drink until I am not sad anymore. This has gotten me in a significant amount of trouble - I still have to deal with a tremendous well of grief from an event about a year and a half ago. But I'm not going to drink over it.  I'm also not really ready to deal with it realistically so I am back-burnering it for just a while longer while I concentrate on the rest of me for a bit.

What I can do now is work on raising the wall a little - not all the way back up to be full-on on-guard, but just enough to slow some of the bad things down, to tamp down some of the sadness until it's a tiny pile of embers rather than a full-on fire. Otherwise I'm like a baby, reacting to things completely based on emotion rather than stopping and thinking them through before deciding how to process them. I am a lot of things, but a baby is not one of them.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Someone once told me - and I really wish I could remember who, because I have talked about this before - that in the hiking world, there are really only two types of hikers: Destination Hikers and Journey Hikers.  It's easy to figure out which one you are: if all you can think about is the magical waterfall at the end of the six mile hike and then the parking lot going the other direction, you are a Destination Hiker. If you stop and look at every fucking leaf on every fucking trillium and oohhh and ahhh over the pattern of the bark on a tree and hike for six hours and only go a hundred yards, you are a Journey Hiker.

For years and years, I was a Destination Hiker. I was the first one out of the car, barking orders and getting everyone to line up and making sure we all had film in the camera so that when we got to Ohmygod Falls, we could all pose for the identical picture that everyone else who had ever hiked there had also taken, which was also available as a postcard in the gift shop. The hike would begin and I would set the pace and god help anyone who happened to be interested in lichen along the way.

That did gradually start to change, but not because I was having any big revelation. It changed because I got seriously out of shape and getting to Ohmygod Falls started to be more of a concept than a reachable goal. Many hikes were abandoned mid-trail, many friends disappointed by my lack of enthusiasm over the very hobby I had gotten them all interested in.  I did manage to complete one whopper of a hike, 14.6 miles at the famous Fiery Gizzard, but I should also tell you that I had a Percocet at about Mile 11, so I'm not sure I can say I well and truly completed it.  But my poor health did make me more of a Journey Hiker. I didn't have much choice - I had to pay attention to what I was seeing along the way because it was fairly obvious I wasn't going to see Ohmygod Falls. "I'll see you back at the car," I would say, and peel off from the end of the hiking column and head in the reverse direction.

This whole recovery experience has been kind of similar, I think. I'm definitely now a Journey Hiker, this time by choice, though I don't think there's really a Destination Hiker option, because I don't think there's anywhere to get. The journey is the hike, it's the point. I take note of things I didn't before, even dumb small things. I climb into the linen envelope of my bed each night and notice how it all feels, smooth and cool and soft and designed to help me rest. Before, I just fell down on it and sozzled off to sleep until it was time for breakfast wine. But every little thing matters differently now, or they all seem to have different meaning, anyway.

Last weekend, I bought a new hiking pole. I used to have two of the fancy expandable ones but they both broke. So I replaced them with a hand-made wooden one, turned in some hillbilly's woodshop up in the foothills of the Smokies. It feels better in my hand than the metal ones did, friendlier and warmer. I can use it in the physical world to find balance, to poke my way across a boulder field, to ward off snakes or - if such a gift were mine - even divine water.

Today is the final day of my out-patient therapy. After this, I have to proceed along this particular trail on my own, with meetings and the help of a sponsor. But there are no more requirements; I don't have to collect any more signatures or add up hours spent in conference rooms or turn the pages of worksheet assignments. It's all me from here on out. I think, though, that recovery is allowing me to do in the abstract world what my new hiking pole is doing in the physical: to balance. To poke my way across a boulder field. To ward off snakes. To - if such a gift were mine - even divine water.

I'm ready and willing to use either pole. I guess it depends on the journey.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

East Wind

I used to have a big tree in my backyard, a giant river maple that was about fifty feet high. He shaded half of the yard for a season every year and dropped leaves into it for another and then just stood there for another, arms raised. I never really thought about him much. Not a particularly beautiful tree -  I think river maples never really are - but a tree nonetheless, and one that broke up the grassy monotony of the backyard.

One late summer during a particularly vicious Tennessee summer storm, all howling straight-line winds and singing electric wires, I sat on the back steps and watched the wind do a number on the river maple. Nothing it couldn't really handle, but it certainly wasn't very interested in hanging onto its leaves for a while. Then, quite quickly, the wind changed direction and came from the east, a very unusual occurrence. So unusual, in fact, that you could smell it - it was a different wind, from somewhere other than Arkansas or points more westerly. And within a minute of the wind changing direction, there was a deafening twist and crack and whopping whumph! as the tree was uprooted from its very base and knocked over with such a force that mortar fell from between nearby bricks and the strings of the wind-up clock in my living room shuddered and vibrated a minor chord for a full minute.  Fascia board was ripped from the house; phone poles were brought down on the back property line, a fence leveled. All that drama and damage simply because the wind changed direction.

I am thinking of this tonight because at a meeting this evening, a friend from in-patient therapy told me that another friend from in-patient therapy, T, had relapsed and returned to the rehab facility, this time for the longer, 30-day stay.  To say I was surprised would be a massive understatement - I was so distracted by this information that I didn't hear a word the speaker who spoke for thirty minutes said, nor did I listen to a single other person who raised his hand the other half of the hour.  All I could think about was T and what his relapse meant.  T was the alpha male of our group while I was in rehab. It was an elastic group in number - anywhere from ten to sixteen at any given time, depending on intake and discharge dates - but there was always a core of eight or so who all got there at roughly the same time, and T was large and in charge the time he was there. He took it very seriously; he had a lot to lose if he couldn't make it work.

One of the things a counselor told us - and we were never sure if it was a scare tactic or the truth - was that only one in six of us would succeed. One in six. It seemed easy to look around the room or listen to what people said during group discussion and know which five wouldn't make it.  People are either ready or they're not; the timing has to be right...sometimes the first time through, sometimes the third time through's the charm for people....sometimes they have to leave in the middle of the night and get picked up by the police after committing eight felonies within six hours of leaving.  But I was convinced T had it, so to hear this evening that he didn't quite, not just yet, was a little bit of east wind stirring up and heading my direction. A momentary swaying, a creaky branch here or there, leaves swirling all whichaways.

But no up-rooting. I took deep breaths and thought about the positives - T knew to check himself back in the next day after his relapse, this time for a longer and more rigorous program. He has a supportive family and a job worth keeping. I am still certain he is the one in his six. I am the one in mine, and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise.

But I would like the jet stream to behave itself for just a while longer.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Summer Song

You know how every year there seems to be a sort of unofficial "summer song"? Like the song that is on everyone's radio or iPod, whether they like it or not? I always like to review the summer and think what song it might have been, even if it's a type of song I would normally loathe. I remember the year of that TLC "Waterfalls" song and lord, I sang that thing in the privacy of my shower until tiles fell off of the wall, even though I hated it (sorry, Left-Eye!). Sometimes, it's a really terrible song like Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," but you still go with it because somehow a particular song hits all the Zeitgeist buttons and there's no sense fighting it. And there's no use trying to be ornery and pick something obscure to be your summer song; you will fail. I love you, Uncle Tupelo, but nobody ever chose any of your songs to define a summer of throwing themselves down a Slip 'n Slide in the backyard. Nope. That was time for "I Want Your Sex."

I've been thinking about what this past summer's song was because the tail end of my summer was spent in rehab, where there is virtually no music at all. I was not allowed any music player - no iPod, no phone, and no access to television (except for a single monitor that played Hallmark Hall of Fame's My Name is Bill W. in an endless loop. Someone told me that they used to alternate it with another movie but that another someone stole the other movie, which upon investigation turned out to be....Robert Altman's Popeye, the very idea of which is so deliciously strange that I kept meaning to look into it).

Anyway, music was hard to come by. There was a morning meditation that - depending on who was running the show that day - would sometimes be accompanied by music, but it was almost always some sort of whale-bleating twiddly-twee-ing to make my mind go elsewhere from the place I was. Frankly, it made me want to go to a gun shop. There was one weekend counselor who would play interesting things during meditation, but even that was only for three minutes or so. Other than that, no music.

A few times a week, some of the patients residents would be rounded up and volun-told to go on the bus that would cart us to various recovery meetings around town to get us used to the idea of attending meetings. So thirteen people would cram into a short-bus and the first thing that would happen was the radio would get turned on. No talking! We were listening to music! And it was invariably the really bad kind of country music, that weird sub-genre that is always about pickup trucks and rope swings and dirt roads and Sundrop and cut-off jeans and, oh, I don't know, hookworm.  And with those songs, you are never more than one verse away from a big bottle of something or other, so it was always funny to me that we'd be a baker's dozen of alcoholics careening down a two-lane road in a bus singing boozy love songs at the top of our lungs. I mean...I didn't think we should be three-part harmonizing "Bringing in the Sheaves" or anything, but it was, well, weird.

There was one song, though, back at the ranch, that did turn out to be the official "summer song" of late August...or at least the time that I was there. For some odd reason, one morning the meditation song was Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." It was an unusual selection, what with it having little to do with sounding like the mating call of a lovesick whale, but it actually engendered pre-meditation conversation. We were asked in advance how many times Withers sings the words "I know" in it. Think about the song for a second and you'll remember the part - he repeats " I know, I know, I know...." and let me tell you: he sings it 26 times. 26! That's a lot of "I know"s.  But somehow the song stuck in everyone's mind and for the rest of my time out there, I couldn't escape the song. I'd hear it late at night on the way to get my last iced tea of the evening, or someone would whistle it while peeing on the seat in the bathroom or it'd jump from lip to lip in the lunchroom line. One night a couple of people who could really sing dug into it and sang it on the smoking porch so loudly that it echoed down the field and bounced across the bluffs across the river - you could hear it twice if you paid close attention.

I still wasn't sure why that song cropped up in meditation that day, so when I got home I looked it up on unimpeachable Wikipedia, and this is what I found:
Withers was inspired to write this song after watching the 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses. He explained, in reference to the characters played by Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon, "They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. It's like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren't particularly good for you. It's just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I'm not aware of."

Who knew all that shit was going on in that song?  None of that got explained that day, so I wonder if the person who picked it even knew. If not, it's yet another astonishing coincidence. If so, well, maybe they know what they're doing out there. They're sly.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Each part and tag of me is a miracle. - Walt Whitman

Rehab out-patient therapy is a completely different thing than in-patient therapy. In-patient therapy has a clang to it, like a really heavy metal door slamming behind you (for better or worse) and you spend a lot of time staring at the door, thinking of ways to get the door open, or learning to make a key out of soap or whatever.  Out-patient therapy is more casual, like you are on probation, picking up trash on the side of the road and your mind can wander a little bit but then you get to the end of the day and you think "oh, look, I just cleaned up five miles of garbage."

That's not to say I disliked in-patient treatment. It was a little bit like a slightly sad, all-inclusive cruise ship that didn't serve booze, but ended up being fun anyway, even though there were a lot of power-point presentations about STDs.  But I ended up being sort of sad when I left.

But out-patient is completely different. In a lot of ways, you have to focus more because Real Life precedes and follows it every day. Wake up, eat, work, run errands, REHAB, get dinner, sleep. So you have to change gears and get all selfish and egotistical for a few hours right there in the middle of the day, which is - no pun intended - sobering. Nothing like a good sob-fest in a strip mall on Donelson Pike. There's a Subway next door.

I was in a session the other night and somehow, we started adding up time. Lots of different kinds of timetables - time spent drinking, time spent throwing up, time spent trying to figure out how the Shoney's Big Boy ended up on the roof of the house. But I started adding up my actual time spent in active recovery since August 16, when I entered rehab. I was in a 14-day in-patient program, but I subtract the first day and the last day, because they're mainly paperwork days. Subtract another day for detox (if you're lucky, just the one) and then subtract two more for Sundays, which are usually family days and you either hang out with your family or you sleep. So that original 14 days is now 9 days of actual brain work.

Now let's move on to out-patient therapy. Twenty sessions, three hours each. Sixty hours. So two and a half more days. Let's add that to the in-patient time. Eleven and a half days. THAT'S IT. That tiny amount of time is what I got to figure out how to reset the clock on my life. I know, I know, meetings forever, that's where and how I get more time. But still.

My out-patient counselor says all the time to people who are wavering in their commitment to recovery, "don't leave five minutes before the miracle happens."  Well, you know what? Me sitting in that chair, feeling the way that I do right now and being able to clearly see a path through the brambles after that tiny amount of time is fucking miracle enough; if there's another one coming, bring it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Out of Control

If you've ever been on a camping trip with me, you know that there is a certain amount of, uh, direction that you are going to get. Put the tent here. Make it face this way so you get the morning sun/sunset/moonrise. Put this kind of yogurt on your granola. Use this hiking pole. Walk behind me. Walk in front of me. Choose a color of napkin. But don't choose the green one, that's mine. Any other color. Here, choose blue. Do you know why witch hazel is called witch hazel? Well be quiet while I tell you. Let's go on this trail until I decide to not be on this trail, then we will go on another trail and then later I will lament not finishing the other trail. When you sign up for a camping trip with DG, you sign up. You actually get a dossier with menus, itineraries, nearby sights, star charts, moonrise schedules, hiking options, printed maps, etc, etc. Be ready for near-daily e-mail updates regarding our upcoming adventure. It's a lot. A friend once called a trip we were on "a really well-planned, well-catered death march."

I get why I do it. It's all about control, an issue I have struggled with a lot. Even in social situations like dinner parties, I tend to go into "dance for Grandma" mode, where I try and be the "glue" that holds everyone together. It's not usually necessary; everyone in the room knows each other. But I want to control what's going on in the room, even if it isn't my party.  And sometimes that takes a lot of, uh, fuel.

One of the contradictions of the rehab process is this whole control thing. When I made the decision to go, I thought "oh, I am making this decision to be in control of my life." And then the first thing I noticed when I was there was that a large number of lessons and activities were about me relinquishing control, surrendering. The way those two conceptions of control brushed up against each other was eye-opening and it's something I'm working on. I am consciously avoiding social situations where there might be more than two or three people present out of fear that I'll start the darling pet monkey routine. I can't make the lady in front of me at the red-light go any faster when the light turns green. I just can't get upset about things I cannot control anymore.

So here's the thing. Let's say we go camping together sometime this fall. We might finish up our dinner and let the fire die down and lie down on our sleeping bags and look up at the night sky. I will know that we are looking at Camelopardalis the Giraffe and Auriga the Charioteer and Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethiopia. You can just look at them without me telling you in excruciating detail what you are looking at. Unless you ask. I will have a star chart in the car.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

We Are Family, IfyouknowwhatIamsayin'

You meet a lot of interesting people in rehab. Sure, there's a large contingent of spoiled frat boys who partied too hard for too long, and there's a particular group of house-husbands who all seem to come from the same place (hello, Kentucky!), but there are doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs too. Real estate agents, college professors. Welders, writers, waiters. All types, all sizes, all of whose very best thinking led them to addiction and then to rehab. Me included. But during my time out at the ranch, one gentleman rose above them all: Tony the Enforcer (name changed to protect anonymity. And maybe my safety).

There was a lot of lore surrounding Tony the Enforcer, a lot of whispered hubbub. The general consensus was that he had been an, um, employee of a certain type of capital-F Family, if you know what I am saying. He was intimidating, terrifying and completely charming. He became the Den Mother to almost everyone under the age of forty and for those of us longer in tooth, he became a very bizarre and unlikely role model. We all either wanted to be him or be close enough to him that we could steal some of his stories and pass them off as our own. (By the way, remind me to tell you about the time I had to get rid of an eighteen-wheeler full of hot potted meat.  Oh, wait, uh, ssshhhhhh.)  He could remember everyone's name and that's saying something for a drug addict in a room with sixty-five other people. But if you were very very lucky, he would bestow a nickname on you. On Day 8 of my stay, my nickname was granted: Señor Bashful. (Bashful, eh, I know. Hey I didn't say he was a genius at figuring out personality traits accurately). For the next week, I could rely on a hollered "Hallllo, Señor Bashful" echoing across the common spaces at all hours of the day or night. Getting a nickname from Tony the Enforcer was the second-greatest thing I accomplished out there.

I collected my 30-day chip today. I had delayed picking it up for a day so that I could do it at a meeting along with some other people from my time in rehab who have stayed in touch and helped each other with meeting attendance. I really wanted to get the chip in front of people I knew...or rather, people who knew me. I met my friends outside and when we walked in, there he was! Tony the Enforcer! Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine. And best of all, the part that made me almost explode with happiness, was that he was getting his 30-day chip as well. Just the two of us! Entwined forever, Tony the Enforcer and Señor Bashful. 

So don't fuck with me. I know people now.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

New Math

The arithmetic of recovery is mind-boggling. Numbers, numbers, numbers. Everywhere I turn, numbers. Blood pressure: 144 over 85. 120 over 80. 188 over 135. Pulse: 100. 96. 72. Weight: plus 4, minus 11. 5 days of detox. 3 days of detox tapering. 3 roommates. 14 days. 13 days. 12 days... 3 months to 2 years before dopamine levels in the brain behave normally again. 5 weeks of outpatient rehab, 20 sessions. 1 sponsor. 12 steps. 12 traditions. 1 dollar bills in baskets. A bill for $6.88 for 1 pill not covered in rehab.

Everything in medical terms measured in milligrams. 200 milligrams. 100 milligrams. 50 milligrams. Peeing in a cup 2 times a week. List 20 consequences. List 10 more consequences. List 10 reasons to stay sober. Meditate for 4 minutes, minimum, and please don't slam the door if you leave early. Be on the porch at 7 to catch the bus to a meeting with 12 other guys.

Rate the headache pain on a scale of 1 to 10. No, "ow" is not a number, we need a number please. So: 6.  Meetings at this location are at 8, 12, 5 and 8. 90 meetings in 90 days. 2 meetings in 1 day counts as 1 meeting; don't try and cheat it. Medical can only dispense 1 ibuprofen every 6 hours, and only before 9 and after 8. 3 people in each room, 6 to a bathroom. We are moving you from Room 205 to Room 206. Lights out at 11.

Another number popped up today. 30. 30 days. That's how long I've gone without a drink. Don't feel like you have to comment.  1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30. It takes a long time to count to 30. But not as long as it took to get there! Now let's see how 40-60 treat me.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Souvenirs of Rehabilitation

Rehab has a gift shop, you know. Mine had an actual store you could go in and buy inspirational recovery books and t-shirts and some uplifting sayings carved on rocks sorts of things. There were also practical things that the inmates, patients, residents (I never figured out what to call us) might need: pens, pencils, legal pads, fudgesicles, lanyards (to hold our must-be-visible-at-all-times ID badges), wristwatches (an extremely popular thing to have; there are not a lot of clocks in treatment, but you have to be ON TIME to everything, so you feel set up to fail right off the bat until you figure out to just follow everyone else, since everyone is doing the exact same thing you are at the exact same time and then you don't feel like such a failure).

There were also various stickers you could purchase for your car - "Friend of Bill W." or that weird little triangle in the circle thing that I never knew the meaning of until now; I always thought it was something Masonic. Someone on the smoking porch told me to not get one, though. He said those stickers were "cop bait" and if I put one on my car, I'd get pulled over daily by some hopeful cop with a quota picking all the low-hanging fruit. I thought it would be funny if they had a sticker that said "My Child is an Honor Student in Alcohol Rehab" but on the whole, I have found that early recovery stuff isn't big on the jokes. Anyway, I resisted all of these things. I went into rehab with a ten dollar bill and a roll of quarters and managed to spend almost all of it on M&Ms and Cokes. I came home with change.

But I did come home with some souvenirs, all of which are way better than anything that was in the gift shop:

There was a sweet, unusual kid from Chattanooga who roomed with me for one night who spent all of his free time making origami. I was never sure how he talked the Powers That Be into letting him have his origami paper and the instruction book, since almost everything not recovery-related was forbidden. But he spent his time making boats and frogs and cranes, one of the latter of which he gave me.

Another roommate who was a bank president left a clean, neatly-folded handkerchief on my pillow when he left while we were all in group one day. He had seen me struggling with allergies.

I came home with a copy of a Jose Saramago book that arrived quite unexpectedly; again, surprise that something made it past the censors. Sure, "The Gospel of Jesus Christ" sounds like an inspirational title, but it's pretty clear they didn't thumb through and run across the juicy bits.

I also have some natural bits and bobs: a rock from the trail that rings the property and a flower nipped from a vase-full that a friend sent me. I pressed it between some journal pages and gave the sweet nurses in medical the rest of them.

All of these things seem like the right things to have; all personal and connected to real people and a real, particular place. I've boxed them all up - along with all the letters I received and my rehab journal - in a little box labeled REHAB BOX and maybe when I am feeling unsafe or vulnerable or if things get a little shaky, I'll pop the lid off and rifle through all of those things just to remind me of the comfort and safety of the bubble of rehab and then get back to my real life, assured for another day by a rock, a crane and a handkerchief.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On 'and.'

One of the things that has recurred over the past few days is people asking me "and?"  Like, ok, DG, you are doing this recovery thing. But then what? And? 

It's a good question: What does come next? What is the thing that comes after the thing I am doing now? It's a bit of a puzzle because it's never really going to be done; it'll always run along the edges of whatever else is happening in my life, piping around the edges of big piece of cloth.  But I also get the meaning behind the question. It can't just be this. It has to be for a period, but eventually (to stick with the fabric metaphor), my recovery will need to be strands woven through my larger swath of fabric.

So I have been pondering "and."

There's a lyric in the musical Into the Woods that I've always loved:
Must it all be either less or more,
Either plain or grand?
Is it always 'or'?
Is it never 'and'?
I love that final line, that plea for compromise or open-mindedness or in-between-ness. It's about multi-tasking and not controlling things and letting other things crowd in without sacrificing the larger things that matter or freaking the fuck right out when they do crowd in. We can have "ands" in our lives and still have lives.

A few years ago, I got involved with a project called "Skin." It's a short story written by Shelley Jackson that only exists as a series of single-word tattoos on the bodies of people who volunteered to receive a word at random from Jackson. There were some ground rules: you had to get the tattoo in a typeface that might appear in a real, published book and if you got a word that was a body part, like say "hand," you could not get the tattoo on that body part. Then you were supposed to take a picture of yourself and the tattoo and send it to Jackson, who would then send you a typewritten copy of the completed story. But nowhere would the story actually be published or readable for anyone not involved with the project...that is, only the "words" would ever know the whole story.

Needless to say, I jumped right on it and sent an application to Jackson and was accepted. I've had the reply hidden away in a box for years, waiting for the right time to get the tattoo (there's no time limit). I was never really sure when that right time might be, but I think it's finally here. I'll choose some upcoming anniversary - my 47th birthday or my 60-day-sober mark, something like that. I wonder if you've figured out what word I got back in 2005. Eight years ago.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Spiritual Thing

I knew when I decided to enter rehab that I was going to hit a roadblock pretty early on - I was sure the "spirituality question" would trip me up.  Most successful rehabilitation programs involve a spiritual component, and this particular one was no different.  I fretted over it, having never really been at all religious (and not ever being a believer in the Christian brand of it at all), but I decided to dive in and see what people more successful at being non-drinkers might have to say about it.

I needn't have worried too much; it's really not a "conversion" program, though if what you're looking for is a group to read scripture with, you can find that pretty easily in any corner of any room. There's as much Official God Talk as you could ever want. But I had more than one conversation with more than one counselor/advisor/case manager where there was plenty of support for and approval over the idea of a non-traditional higher power.

A few years ago, I had a chance encounter with a bear when I was on a solo hike in Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the Sierras of California. The bear came crashing noisily through the thicket of ferns to the right of me, stepped into the path directly ahead of me and froze, staring at my face for a second. He shook his head as if to clear a thought from it and then continued down to the left of me toward a stream, where he was headed for water. I finally thought to breathe and continued on my way, sure that I was safe from any danger. And I was safe. Nature did not have it in for me that day. Nature was just trying to get water to the bear; that's the only reason the bear was put in my path.

I thought about this encounter a lot the first few days before I entered rehab and the first few days I was there - I was trying to put my finger on the thing, the power that was higher than me, that I could turn my unmanageable life over to. And it finally occurred to me that I was spending a lot of time trying to define this nebulous, abstract thing and not a lot of time going and looking for it.  I only had to walk outside and watch the snake of morning fog lifting up from the river hidden just past the first row of distant trees to know there was something larger than me, and I didn't have to figure out what the fuck it was called. It was right there and that was enough.

I pick up a chambered nautilus and look at how it's formed and I recognize Math as a higher power. I watch a leaf trace a Jacob's Ladder arcing back and forth through the air as it falls from branch to ground and acknowledge Architecture as a higher power. I think of a particular alpine lake fed by a glacier in eastern Nevada (yes, Nevada) and I know the possibility of snow in July signals the presence of a higher power.  I remember that yards from that same lake, I held a ten-thousand-year-old bristlecone pine cone in my hand and acknowledged the existence of a higher power too abstract for me to attempt to articulate. I string these little beads of acknowledgement together and that strand of beads becomes my higher power: The Natural World.

I have known all this for a long time, but I allowed my alcohol abuse to veil my senses for years and now each day that I am another step away from it,  I catch the scent of something I forgot about - the strange allure of a faraway skunk or the sweet, funky smell of mountain galax - even if it's just a memory. And each time that happens, I know that there is a power higher than me.

One thing I learned about spirituality in rehab is that I don't have to go form a church about it; I don't need any converts to agree with me. I can just have it. And now and then I do get a little jealous of the people with a lot of organized religion under their belts, because it's easy (and acceptable) for them to start going on about Jesus or Buddha or Whoever and they can quote things chapter and verse to prove their connection to a higher power. And I'm sometimes not sure how to "prove" mine. Should I just rustle up a campfire right there in the middle of the table at group therapy and say "SEE?! It's called FIRE!"? But I know I don't really have to do that. I should, though. That would be funny.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Coincidence and Metaphor

If you ever enter a rehab program, one thing you will need to pack is your suspension of disbelief because coincidences stack up like firewood pretty quickly. 

One day when I was there, I had to list a few trigger things that might have contributed to my current condition. One of the ones I listed was the death of a friend a while back. Within five minutes, I discovered that the person I was sitting with in a grief group was the person who had been cutting my friend's hair for the last year or so of his life.  On the third day, I learned that one of my roommates was married to my sister's high school math teacher. And just last night, in my outpatient therapy session, my counselor played a cover of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" to point out a lesson. If you scroll back just three posts in this blog, you'll see I'd already cited it as a favorite thing a few years ago, before I put this blog on hiatus.

But there were dozens of them; my little rehab journal is full of coincidences, and I wondered quite a bit about the nature of them. Were all of these little frissons random? Or had they been happening all along and I was just too drunk to notice? Was my new-founded mental clarity responsible for me seeing the patterns that were working behind the scenes all along?

Another thing I noticed quite quickly while I was there was that the language of rehab is largely built on metaphor. Almost everything they say and do means something more than you think it does. "You have to drive your car all the way to the bank." "You don't get off the donkey until you get to the top of the summit." We stumbled blindly through a rope maze.  We held taut ropes until we were able to "let go" of one end.

 And everything you see takes on meaning that might not even be there. On the final day, I was sitting on the porch watching the sun push up over the heights across the river and I noticed a little bird hopping around in front of me. It had tiny, fluffy useless wings, obviously fallen from some nearby nest. He struggled and struggled to fly but just couldn't do it. I watched him for about twenty minutes, the whole time thinking "no wonder this place costs almost a thousand dollars a day!" I mean...training baby birds to hammer home the recovery point on my last day! It was too much to think about.  Do I even need to tell you that by lunchtime the baby bird was flying around just fine? No, I do not. You wouldn't believe me.

Friday, August 30, 2013

"And now the great work begins."

I'm writing this on Wednesday, August 28th, two days before I am released after two weeks at the nervous hospital. I'm more clear-headed and energetic than I've been in years, and I'm also as fragile as a light bulb filament. It's been incredibly hard work, but the great thing is - and I say this as a new-found fan of hard work - is that it's still the easiest part of the whole process. I've got five weeks of intensive out-patient therapy ahead of me, and after that, ninety AA meetings in ninety days, and after that, more meetings and sponsors and sharing so far into the distance that the horizon blurs into the sky, sfumato-like, before I can even begin to see the possibility of a true and sober life. But I've been given powerful tools in this place, and I've decided to ask my friend Hannah to teach me how to aim and shoot a gun, because I have a metaphorical one in my holster now. It has twelve chambers, and each one of them is full. I'm locked and loaded and if this disease comes towards me across a field again, it better be prepared to take a bullet to the fucking heart at twenty paces.

There are two roll calls in the morning at this particular treatment center: one at 7:30 and another two hours later, with breakfast and bed-making in between. When I first arrived, I sat on the outside ring of neatly arranged chairs and quietly peeped "here" each time. But over the course of these two weeks, I have been pondering those "heres." They're not just acknowledgements of physical presence. They're declarations of intent. I am here. I am present. Which are things I have not been able to say for a very long time. I have been nowhere for a very long time, tied to some long-lead dog tie-out, numbly running in circles. By this near-end of my in-patient treatment, the seemingly rote calling out of a single "here" has become a promise to myself, so I boom out a hale "I am here!" twice each morning with vigor and eagerness. They're just four letters that don't add up to much in Scrabble, but it's as clear as a windowpane that every morning, the most powerful thing I can do is string those letters together and calmly announce to the world and myself that I am here.

It's only been two weeks. I am not an expert. Indeed, I'm barely a beginner. I don't have a certificate suitable for framing. But if you read this on the day it posts, I'll have been sober for nineteen days, the longest sober time of my life since my early twenties. It's a tiny drop in the very large bucket that is the remainder of my life. It's nothing. And it's everything. If writing this seems premature, I can only say that it's another way of holding myself accountable. The most I can do is to not drink today. And then not drink tomorrow. And then not drink the day after that. I cannot say that I will be sober forever, but I can say that I will be sober today. I'm lucky to have had a group of friends who cared enough to help me disentangle from the briar patch that I had let grow up around me, and I can't wait to show them I've chosen a different, better life. Right now, I can only tell them that; no one will believe me until I prove it with actions. I'm going to do this and I will be amazed before I am even halfway through.

It veers from "official" AA literature, but I chose the title of this post very carefully. "And so the great work begins." It's pulled from Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and though I appropriate it slightly out of context, the intent and urgency so nestle with my current state of mind and sense of willingness that I can't help but lift it. Each word of it is chosen so carefully, especially that last: begins. Kushner doesn't write "and now we do the work" - there's an implication of finishing a task in that. Instead he chooses "the great work begins." No hint of arrival at a destination, no sense of self-satisfaction at work completed. Only mention of the beginning of an ongoing process. We can only begin the work and share the load of it with others until we evolve into a different, better species that won't tolerate the suffering of a single addict more.

I'm DG and I'm an alcoholic.

My morning view for the past two weeks.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem

Since I think "Honesty" is the third-best policy (after "Never Put Tomatoes in the Refrigerator" and "Don't Negotiate With Any Neighbor While Either of You are Wearing a Bathrobe"), I've decided to go ahead and talk about what's going on in my life.

Thanks to the prompting of a few (ok, 514) friends, I've elected to enter rehab tomorrow morning for a short stay to help clear out the corkscrews and cobwebs in my brain and emerge with a clear head and a toolbox full of tools to help me navigate the rest of what's ahead. It's hard to talk about it all without dinging the (as my friend Beth says) cliché bells, so if that atonal ding-donging makes you itchy, you don't have to read any further.

I've been a drinker for a long time, and a pretty heavy one for over half of my life. Things have ramped up over the past year - and especially over the last six months or so, since the loss of a job I loved. I'm not blaming that loss, just identifying it as a trigger. But for years now, I would accept each and every invitation I received if there was the barest hint of a promise of noon wine. (I think that might be a Tennessee Williams quotation, but I'm lifting it for my purposes).  And oh, I was FUN! Fun fun fun! I could always be relied on to be the fun one. My friends got tired of it before I did - by a long shot - but everything coalesced last weekend when just the right people were in my orbit to help stop the hurtling asteroid. If I have to sacrifice being "the life of the party" to being a "party to my life," well, then that's what's going to happen.

It's been four days in between the decision and now - it took some time to work out the financials of going to get help - and that's a lot of time to get scared and second-guess and think non-stop about the liquor store, all of which I've done. My only serious regret about last weekend is that my final glass was Corbett Canyon boxed chardonnay. If that's not a sign of a cry for help, I don't know what is.

I'm nervous about 12-step language and method because so much of it is faith-based, and the only thing I have faith in is Cate Blanchett's talent. But I think if every time "god" comes up, I just think of a pretty path in the woods or the crackly poppy sound a campfire makes late in the evening - you know, my particular brand of religion - I can get through even that.

I'm scared to death and practically haven't stopped sobbing for four days, but it's Time, and I use the capital letter on purpose. A capital letter comes after a period. A long, terrible, period.

Think of me when you can and I'll be back soon, better than ever.