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.
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.
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.