Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sober? Check. Mom? Check. Single? Well...

The title of my blog has not been completely accurate for over a year now. I am still (gratefully) sober, still (delightedly) a mom. But I am (surprisingly!) no longer single.
Almost a year and a half ago I made a life-changing acquaintance with a remarkably special man. If I had a list of all the qualities I'd want in a man, he would generate a check mark after every single one. Intelligent, kind, patient, good sense of humor, bookworm. Check, check and check. It is my blessed good fortune that I make all the checks on his list, too.
After a series of brief conversations in public we progressed to exchanging emails, then graduated to Facebook chats. After a couple of cautious months we scheduled our first private face to face meeting at a quiet local restaurant.
We didn't follow the first-date rule of presenting carefully edited histories to each other. Instead, we poured our insides out, laying bare relationship histories, drinking and recovery stories, parenting joys and sorrows, what we loved (animals, books), and what we loathed (right-wing politics and all things Kardashian).
Our conversation extended from mid-afternoon coffee into dinner, concluding only when the restaurant closed at 8 p.m. We parted with a warm handshake and a promise to get together again in the near future.
I hurried to my car, shaking from head to foot - in part due to the sharp, frosty January air, but more because something had just happened to me that I hadn't experienced in a long, long time.
When I got home I stumbled through the kitchen door and froze in the middle of the floor, still shaking, ignoring my dogs' eager greeting. Out loud I repeated, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God." Inside me, a voice calmly repeated, "This is a man you could fall in love with."
I envisioned falling in love as a literal fall. I saw myself standing at the edge of a high bridge, looking down into dark, churning water. Was I willing to risk my safe, peaceful life for another plunge into emotional entanglement? The question answered itself almost as quickly as it was asked. Yes, I was willing to risk it. I was willing to dare to fall in love again.
And, in fact, I did - and he he with me.
Falling madly in love with the partner of your dreams doesn't equal happily ever after, as any grown-up knows. Our togetherness has consisted mostly of joy, laughter, understanding, passion, and the deep appreciation that comes with finding "the one" later in life, when you've learned what matters (honesty, respect) and what doesn't (dirty socks on the floor, hogging the bathroom). But there have been some rocky, tearful interludes, when our present lives collide with past hurts and expectations. What matters, though, isn't that we fight; what matters is we always make up, apologize, and work hard at resolving whatever issue is at hand.
I've had to do a lot of changing to keep this relationship alive; so has he. For my part, I've had to confront the ghosts of a past relationship, acknowledge that these ghosts existed, were haunting my new life, and could potentially destroy it. It was scary work that sent me to a therapist's office. After one excruciating argument, when I was beginning to doubt the relationship was salvageable, a close friend of mine gave me a much needed wake-up call.
I'd spilled every detail of my partner's and my most recent ugly fight. I'd been unable to see past his part in it, focusing only on my hurt. Now, I said, I could see with humbling clarity exactly where my old behaviors had exacerbated the fight.
My friend looked me in the eye and said calmly, "You have a choice. Do you want to continue with your old behaviors and lose the relationship, or do you want to change?"
I wanted to change. And change I have. So has he. Because we want to be together badly enough to work at it. We are old enough to understand the value of what we've found together. What we've found together is priceless.
We laugh hard, every single day. We hug. We kiss. We get each other coffee or an extra blanket. We say "please" and "thank you." We have what I like to call cultural exchanges: I have become a Detroit Tigers fan; he has developed a fondness for Cyndi Lauper's songs.
Most wonderfully, we allow for one another. If I come home from work mentally and emotionally fried, he is fine with me taking my dinner plate to the sofa and reading while I eat, my preferred method of unwinding. If he says he is feeling a tad cranky, I leave him to his laptop and keep conversation to a minimum. We can be completely, comfortably, utterly ourselves with one another That is priceless, miraculous, and irreplaceable. And we are, thankfully old enough and wise enough to appreciate that.
Sober? Yes. Mom? Yes, indeed. Single? Happily, blessedly, and surprisingly, the answer is, not any more.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Laugh, cry, goodbye

Last Sunday I was awakened by the retro phone ringtone of my cell phone. It was a little past 8 in the morning, earlier than I typically want to roll out of bed on a Sunday; but this wasn't a typical Sunday. This Sunday I was hurriedly yanking on my jeans and sweatshirt to go downstairs and give my son Daniel a farewell hug as he departed for his new life, thousands of miles away, in Portland, Oregon.

I already knew how hard this goodbye would be. This wasn't the first time I'd bid farewell to a child of mine. Several years ago I'd hugged my older daughter, Jess, and swallowed tears as she set off for college in Houghton. She felt so far away, although it was less than a two-hour drive. I'd been accustomed to having all three of my kids either under my roof, or at least in my ZIP code. Close enough to stop by for Sunday breakfast or mid-week spaghetti. For a few years my house had a revolving door quality, as the older two left, then bounced back home for a while, then moved out again.

Three years ago I hugged my younger daughter goodbye on a muggy late Saturday afternoon in September. She was beginning her freshman year at a small liberal arts college in Minneapolis. As we ate dinner at a picnic table under a shady tree we grew increasingly quiet, much unlike our usual selves. Words and tears knotted in our throats. When Melissa whispered, "Uh oh, oh no," I looked over and saw tears spilling down her cheeks. We hugged, laughing and insisting we weren't crying, we were fine.

When it was time for students and parents to separate, I gave Melissa one last squeeze and walked away quickly. I swiped tears from my cheeks and snuffled softly until I rounded the corner of a dorm building; then I let loose. My friend Susan, waiting for me on a park bench in the courtyard, began weeping in sympathy along with me.

I sobbed on and off on the drive to our hotel and wept a bit on the drive home the next day. When I got home I went directly up to Melissa's room, picked up a pillow she'd left behind, hugged it close, and wailed. I felt every mile of the distance between us. I felt as if I'd been ripped open at the center, and out of that jagged tear poured sorrow and loss. There was nothing to do but give in to the sorrow and cry it out. 

In my drinking days I maintained that I couldn't stand to feel pain, and had to drink to obliterate it. How very special I was, right? Poor, delicate me. Sobriety taught me that not only could I stand pain, I could endure it, survive it, and  - surprise! - move on from it. All pain, at least all the pain I've experienced, has a shelf life. It eventually dissipates, either disappearing or only aching when reawakened. This same equation applies to happiness - which, when I drank, had a desperate quality to it. Quick, grab it and hold on like grim death! You may never be this happy again. In recovery I learned that life isn't a buffet. You cannot choose only happiness. 

That first week Melissa was gone I kept my tears at bay by reminding myself that she was where she wanted to be. She was happily, excitedly beginning her life as a young adult. 

Three years and five months later I stood in my kitchen, stretched on my tiptoes, hugging my son, blotting tears on the shoulder of his woolly coat. He squeezed me tight, crying a little, too. We laughed as we re-hugged several times, reluctant to let each hug be the final one.

Then he was gone, off to build a new life in Portland with his girlfriend. I cried on and off all day Sunday, thinking about the miles that would separate us. I'd never not seen Dan for more than three weeks at a time. Now I probably wouldn't be seeing him until August. On a frosty February morning, summery August felt light years away.

So I sobbed into my pillow, cried on my dog's neck, wept on my partner's shoulder. Life gave me a little corrective when I went on Facebook that afternoon. I saw a photo of a tree posted by a friend whose son committed suicide several years ago. She planted the tree in his memory, and posts photos of it changing with the seasons. 

My son is a phone call, an email, a Skype away. I know where he is, he is safe and well, and I will see him again. Ditto for my younger daughter. My older daughter now lives in Marquette, with her partner and their adorable baby son. 

Happiness and sadness are part of the same soup. As hard as I tried to strain out the sadness with alcohol, all I did was compound my misery. Today I choose to feel my feelings, knowing that I can survive them, knowing they will pass - both the sorrowful and the joyous ones.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Help! Facebook doesn't depress me!

I am an unapologetic fan of Facebook. I like knowing what my local and far away friends are up to. I enjoy seeing my younger friends post photos of their little ones. I appreciate the pet photos,  the status updates, and the majority of the comical or heart-tugging memes. It's just plain fun. And, like anything just plain fun that gets into the hands of a person with an addictive personality, I indulge in it far too often and for too large bites of time. But until I'm missing work or skipping meals in order to indulge my habit, I am going to assume I haven't crossed into the danger zone of Facebook addiction. Yet.

Facebook is a delightful sounding board for the terminally smart-alecky. I derive a great deal of pleasure out of posting humorously cranky mini-paragraphs about the relentlessly bone-chilling weather, or mock news stories ("Local beagle engages in unauthorized litter box feast; owner recoils in shock and horror"). 

I try to avoid inflicting my opinion on religious or political debates, although I will interject if I feel my comment is on target but not snarky. I am a liberal Democrat and a Christian/Buddhist hybrid, but many people I love and respect lean right and are solidly Christian. I have no desire to hurt anyone's feelings or insist that anyone see things my way (although who are we kidding, I'd love it if I could persuade them to).

I try not to post too much mushy love stuff about my significant other, in part because I do have some understanding of decorum, but also because I don't want to embarrass him. I don't want to embarrass myself, either. Love makes me gushy. And too much shared gush comes across as bragging. I don't want to brag. I have nothing to brag about. The fact that this intelligent, kind, funny, thoughtful, compassionate man came into my life is a cosmic gift, not any achievement of mine. And he is the most... Wait. I feel impending gush. Ahem. Let's move on.

I do not post where I am every time I sit down to lunch or walk in the park, as a lot of people do. If this sounds a tad snobby, let me tell you that one reason I don't is because all of my Facebook activity takes place under my own roof. I don't have a phone smart enough to deliver updates on my every move. And that's a good thing, as I doubt there's a person on this planet who gives a rat's hind end that I am picking up paper towels at ShopKo or scarfing down a fish plate at Big Boy.

According to someone's research - I have no idea whose - Facebook has become associated with incidents of depression in its regular users. Supposedly, reading about other people's family joys, business successes and exotic vacations can lead to envy, low self-esteem and bitterness on the part of the less fortunate Facebookites.

I recently read a story on Huffington Post about a woman who detached herself from social media and realized she is much happier for it. She no longer goes online via her cell phone when she can't sleep, scrolling through the posts of friends who are partying gleefully while she lies alone, pitifully alone, in her big lonely bed. She is getting over the compulsive urge to document her every move, and she is finding other ways to fill those chunks of time previously dominated by posting, tweeting, and Snapchatting. She reads books! She talks to people on the phone, or even face to face! She showers more than twice a month! All right, I made that last one up. The point is, she feels liberated. Not so liberated that she's abandoning her online life forever, but when she rejoins cyberland she'll be armed with a dose of perspective she didn't previously possess.

So I guess I've been doing Facebook all wrong. I don't feel depressed. I am not nauseated with envy. I don't wish I could have Mindy's or Bob's or Susan's or, well, anyone else's life besides my own. When I see photos of friends and relatives lounging on the beach in Hawaii or in their box seats at a Detroit Tigers game I don't think, "Dammit! That should be ME!" I simply note their enjoyment. Clearly, I am not reaping the full benefits of online life exposure. I am sadly lacking in sadness, anger, bitterness and resentment.

The credit for this goes, at least in part, to my recovery program. I have been told not to compare my insides with other people's outsides. Income, new cars, or multiple stamps on a passport do not equal peace of mind or satisfaction. Yes, I would love a new car, a trip to Jamaica, and a triple digit income. But the fact that I have none of those things doesn't eat at me. I am, for the most part, content. I am also sometimes cranky, ungrateful, and just plain miserable. Welcome to human-ness. 

Using Facebook as a barometer for one's personal happiness is a sketchy enterprise. Kind of like comparing your life with that of some happy sitcom family. I want to measure my happiness on my own scale. Bills paid? Check. Employed? Check. Sobriety, family, pets all in place? Check.

Now if you'll excuse me, I just thought of a hilarious status update I want to post. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ssh, listen: Mortality's clock is ticking.

I don't know what it is about sitting on my kitchen floor in the morning that lends itself to deep thinking. It's probably the stillness of a house where most of the two- and four-legged occupants are still deeply asleep. And the tentative, soft early morning light. Usually it's just myself and Sadie, my big, fluffy tabby cat, sharing the hardwood floor. Sadie is an unintrusive presence, winding quietly around me, letting me tug gently at her long gray tail. The only sounds are the industrious hum of the refrigerator, the gurgle and sigh of the coffeemaker, and a few damp snores coming from the living room,where my two dogs have collapsed on the sofa to nap after their arduous trek from upstairs to down.

This morning I found myself focusing on another sound in my sleeping house: the sound of the kitchen clock. My kitchen clock is shaped like a coffee pot. On work mornings, when I'm chronically running late, its ticking sounds like the disapproving"tsk" of a cranky old woman's tongue. On lazy Sunday mornings, like this morning, its tick sounds like scissors softly chewing through the fabric of time.

The notion of time has become more and more preoccupying as I grow older. When I hit my 40's - more than 10 years ago now - mortality was no longer an abstract concept. "Everyone will die someday" turned sharply into "One day I will no longer be alive." Each second, each tick of every clock, was carrying me closer to my last day on this planet. This is not a line of thinking you want bouncing around in your head on a long-term basis. Of course, once you have this realization, it's pretty tough to shake. Sometimes I play with this awareness, like a little kid spooking herself. Sometimes this awareness leads me to frantic prayer: Not yet, not yet, oh please, not yet.

On rarer occasions, I find peace in this knowledge. I know that peace comes from acceptance, but acceptance is not my best subject. My addiction recovery program encourages me to "accept the things I cannot change." Naturally, my stubborn alcoholic nature sulks and balks at acceptance. 

I don't want to go! My life is, at this moment, more wonderful, more fulfilling, more happy in every direction than it's ever been. I have a job that allows me to help people. I have three interesting, intelligent, hilarious adult children who are thriving. I have a beautiful baby grandson who unleashes an open-mouthed, lopsided, drool-soaked smile whenever he sees me. I have found a love I thought only existed in my overly romantic imagination. Who in their right mind would be fine and dandy with the idea of leaving all this behind?

Well, as of this moment, no one is asking me to. All I need, acceptance wise, is to understand that this beautiful life is ephemeral. I don't have to love this fact, but I don't have to cower from it, either. What I seek, what I try to live with, is a balance of awareness and gratitude.

Like it or not, fight it or not, one day my name will grace the obituary page. What can I do about that? Not a thing. What can I do with knowing I can't do a thing about that? I can live gratefully. I can appreciate my blessings, learn from my struggles, awaken each day thankful for another crack at navigating the life I've been given. I can be the best woman, mother, grandmother, partner, peer coach, writer, friend, pet owner, and everything else that I can be. I can forgive myself when I inevitably fall short. I can forgive others when they inevitably fall short. I can accept my status as a temporary guest on this enormous planet. And I can be grateful for every ticking second I have been allotted to live here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Happy birthday to everyone

Birthdays: I'm a fan.

Everyone deserves a day honoring their arrival on the planet. A little congratulations, a little hoopla, a day to make the birthday person aware that their presence is a gift to someone, or many someones. We spare no expense when it comes to funerals, to the mourning of a life's end. Why not expend some energy on celebrating the fact that we've given mortality the slip for another year?

Mortality. There's a heavy word. It's the key in the ignition of midlife crises. It's a word that becomes an actual felt presence as our age creeps higher. When you're young it's "Everyone dies eventually." When you reach middle age it's "I am going to die someday." Me. Solid, living, breathing, laughing, going-to-work, parenting, dog walking me, will someday cease to exist.

But not today! Well, so far so good, as of this moment.

And that is the gift we are given as we accumulate more birthdays. I understand as I never did before that each moment of life is a gift, an ephemeral gift, retractable at any moment. Sometimes it terrifies me; in my more self-indulgent moments, I wallow in that terror. But there are moments - and this is one of those moments - when I am acutely aware of being alive, and I am precisely appreciative of the moment in which I'm present. Sitting at my computer on a near silent Sunday morning, hair cool and damp from the shower. My dog is sleeping on the bed next to my desk, his breath an intermittent whisper; the man I love sleeps peacefully in the bed upstairs, the rest of our combined menagerie nestled around him. At this particular moment all is well. At this moment I want nothing more than this moment. If this is the wisdom of age, bring on the birthdays. A crop of gray hair, a scattering of varicose veins and wrinkles, and the need for an earlier bedtime is a small price to pay.

There are other, earthier perks to this middle age business. I dress for no one's approving eye but my own. I say what's on my mind more often than I keep silent to avoid conflict. I am learning to be less harsh with myself, trying to see my mistakes as human errors rather than unforgivable sins. I'm learning to say no to what I don't want and yes to things I may have not dared try before, when I was younger and less me.

Here's something else. You know when people say, "If you want to know how important you are in this world, put your hand in a bucket of water and pull it out. The space you leave shows how important you are." Bullshit. Each of us fits into this world somewhere, and each of us leaves an empty space when we depart. We count with someone, whether it's a spouse, sibling, parent, or the Starbucks clerk who recognizes us because we're at the drive-through every work morning.

Birthdays celebrate life. Life matters. We matter. Definitely calls for at least a cake and some candles, wouldn't you agree?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The "Shameless" life

So much for not getting hooked on any new T.V. shows.
I stumbled across "Shameless" on Showtime one night when I was too tired to read but not ready to go to bed. I'd read an Associated Press article about the series, and it didn't appeal to me. A dark comedy about a chronic alcoholic trying to raise five children after his wife runs off? No, thanks.
But I gave it five minutes, then ten, trying to sort out who was who in the chaotic, cluttered, somewhat grimy lives of the Gallagher family, headed by Frank Gallagher, played flawlessly by William H. Macy.
Frank Gallagher is an unrepentant addict, a scam artist, a man intelligent enough to be a captain of industry but flummoxed by an ego that insists the world owes him a living and an insatiable appetite for mind-altering chemicals of all kinds.
Older daughter Fiona is a typical oldest child, and a typical adult child of an alcoholic. At 21 she is preternaturally maternal, and ferociously protective of her five younger siblings. Her enormous, dark eyes burn with determination, but also reflect the soul of a girl worn out from bearing grown-up burdens. She's outspoken, street smart, and desperately in need of someone to lean on. But of course, when she does find that someone, a kindhearted car thief named Steve, she can't let herself enjoy it too much; she knows that good times are temporary, and the people you love will eventually drop you on your head.
The younger Gallaghers are intelligent, smart-ass, make-do kids. They stick up for one another and they stick together. And although they treat their father with cynical disregard (in one episode they all raised their hands immediately when Frank asked, "All right, how many of you have, at least once, wished you could see me dead?") they go to extraordinary lengths to protect him when he gets himself in too deep. This is partly because they need Frank around to serve as the ranking adult at parent-teacher conferences and when Social Services comes nosing around, but also because he's their dad. If you find that hard to understand, you must not know any families with active alcoholic in them.
One episode captured the pain of living with an alcoholic so accurately I thought I might have to quit watching the show altogether.
Frank comes to after nearly dying of alcohol poisoning and finds himself in the hospital, surrounded by doctors who are fascinated by his resilience. One of them offers Frank $3,000 if he'll participate in an experiment. The catch is, he has to refrain from drinking for three weeks - and wear an alcohol detection bracelet.
Being the kind of man who would eat glass for far less money than that, Frank agrees. He returns to his family a sober man. He cooks breakfast for everyone, he goes bowling with them, he listens when they talk. He's warm, he's attentive, he's involved. He's a dad.
The older kids watch all this with a jaundiced eye. They have scar tissue where their hearts used to be, courtesy of Frank's previous bouts of sobriety.
One of the older brothers gently warns his younger siblings of how this all will end. "It won't last, you know. Don't get used to it."
In an instant I was 15 years in the past, overhearing my daughter Jess telling her younger brother and sister not to get too excited about the trip their dad had promised to take them on next summer.
"He says stuff like that, but it never happens," she explained.
My husband wanted to be the good dad, the loving husband, the family man who worked 40 hours a week and took his family on fun summer vacations. But, like Frank Gallagher, his addictions drowned his best qualities and turned him into someone we wanted to love but had to back away from.
There's no despair quite like watching someone you love destroy themselves from the inside out. There isn't enough love in the world to change an alcoholic who doesn't want to be sober.
In the Gallagher household, sobriety soon changed Frank into a man with grandiose plans and more energy than common sense. When he launches a remodeling project, taking a sledgehammer to the kitchen wall, the kids know that it's time for sober Frank to go. They immobilize him and pour vodka down his throat.
In the final scene the family is watching T.V. together. Frank slumps in a chair, glowering, bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other. Fiona's boyfriend enters and says a cheery, "Hi, Frank!"
"Fuck off!" Frank growls. The kids grin. Life is back to normal for the Gallaghers. And that's a normal a lot more people than you'd expect are comfortable with.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What to expect when you're expecting... Christmas

Christmas is a time of joy and good cheer, baby Jesus, peace on earth, good will toward... Yes, yes, I know.
But for a lot of us, Christmas means stress. It means shopping, which means ricocheting from store to store, sweating in our winter coats as we wait in too-long lines, smiling weakly when cashiers wish us "Happy holidays," hoping we can manage to accomplish all we've planned for while staying within our budgets.
Christmas is damned hard work.
This year I had a revelation which led to a determination. I realized that my pre-Christmas angst is rooted in expectations - mine, not other people's. I assign imaginary expectations to my family and friends and then try to build a Christmas based on those imaginings. Forget visions of sugarplums, I'm too busy picturing the disappointment on my children's faces if I don't manage to match their (meaning my) expectations of what the holiday should bring.
Mind you, the "children" are 19, 23 and 25, and they are the most undemanding, grateful, enthusiastic gift recipients anyone could hope to wrap a box for. Again, it's my expectations that twist my guts and pull my neck muscles tight. I worry about pleasing them. I fear disappointing them. All based on a foundation of absolutely nothing other than my own insecurity and need to control and create an absolutely perfect Christmas each and every year.
This tail-chasing state of mind usually kicks in right around Thanksgiving, when the world around us becomes steeped in pre-December 25th regalia. Carols on the radio. Ads on TV and in newspapers. Christmas movies, Christmas programs. Did I mention Christmas shopping?
This year, just as I was getting a nice knot of anxiety formed, I had a revelation. What if I approached Christmas the way I try to live my recovery program?
Ba-zing! Talk about a new perspective!
Instead of being overwhelmed, I could keep it simple. Instead of thinking of Christmas as the be all and end all, I could think of it as one day, and I could approach that day with ease, one day at a time. And if I didn't manage to achieve Christmas nirvana for my loved ones, I could forgive myself, knowing I'd done the best I could, and done it all with love.
Christmas is now about two weeks away, and my stomach doesn't ache, and commercials exhorting me to get out there and shop, shop, shop don't make me feel panicky. I am aiming for a Christmas focused on family, love and laughter, which is what always ends up being at the center anyway, no matter what the big box stores say. My kids and I will all be together, alive and well. We'll decorate the tree, hanging the breakable ornaments up high so the cats can't bat them down, we'll keep "A Christmas Story" on throughout its 24-hour run on TBS, we'll exchange gifts and hugs. We'll take a day to stand still and celebrate, pure and simple, accent on simple.
May your days be merry and bright. May you give and receive. And may you give yourself the gift of freedom from self-imposed expectations.