The One With 38 Days…

Hi, my name is M. and I’m an alcoholic and an addict.

I haven’t said those words in a long time. About 14 months, actually. That’s when I relapsed. After 7 years of sobriety, some things started going wrong and I fell back into the trap of dealing with life by not dealing with it. It was a habit I formed early in life when it just became too unbearable to deal with certain things. At 8 when I was raped by “J,” that’s when it started. I remember quite vividly the very moment I collapsed within myself and could no longer deal with things in a normal way. I took my first drink at 11, just before the abuse stopped. I smoked my first joint 2 years later, and by 17 it was balls to the wall in terms of substance abuse. I was in it. It almost killed me, but back then it’s what kept me alive. Being numb. If not for that, I’d have surely swallowed the business end of a gun long before I even reached my 20s. I’m now at the tail end of my 30s and though the vast majority of this decade of my life has been spent not only sober, but happy, successful, and productive, I find myself once again on the precipice, thrashing wildly between madness and sanity as I try to escape the grip of this insidious disease.

Truth be told? I’m far more afraid of my addiction than I am of my HIV. And at this point I’m far more likely to die from it. When you’re in it–I mean really in it, that addict head space—it is so dark and hopeless and lonely and scary that it makes it difficult to breathe. Being in that head space creates an indifference, an apathy, so deep within you that fighting for anything, including life, doesn’t seem worth the effort. I’ve been in that head space a lot lately. And it has taken its toll, emotionally, physically, spiritually. But here’s the good news: I’m 38 days sober today. Thirty-eight days doesn’t seem like a lot, but what it means is that I’m 38 days removed from the overwhelming feelings of shame, despair, grief, desperation, sadness, and loss that led me to isolate myself in a long-abandoned cabin in Maine for an extended period of time, contemplating whether or not to just end my life and get it over with. Slowly, over these 38 days, I have scratched and clawed my way out of that blackness that was so suffocating. Slowly, over these 38 days, I have come to once again embrace life and I am more determined now than ever to hold on to it as long as I can.

The cabin. The place that holds my heart hostage. The cabin belonged to my grandparents. It holds many fond memories for me. I felt safe there, a feeling that was all too unfamiliar to me as a child. My grandparents raised me until I was 8, and I spent a lot of time at the cabin with them during vacations and weekend getaways. I was happy there. We all were. When my grandmother died 5 years ago, the cabin became a safe haven for me. I had lost one of the only people who truly loved me in this life. The only person who ever protected me. She was my heart. I was broken. I needed then, more than ever, to feel her love, her nurturing, her protection. I found myself retreating often to the cabin just to feel her presence. I was calm there, and all the love she had for me enveloped me like a warm blanket when I was there. It has become my escape. It’s fallen into a bit of disrepair over the last 5 years. No one had been there for quite some time before my grandmother’s death, and I’m the only one who goes there anymore. Still, it remains my sanctuary.

It’s not easy to be at the cabin for any length of time. There is no electricity. No indoor plumbing. It’s hard-living, to say the least. But there’s something about being up there, steps from the placid lake, surrounded by silence, that tends to bring me back to life. That’s what I was hoping for this last time when I made my way up there: that single moment of clarity that I could grab onto, that would make me believe that giving up was not the right thing to do, that living was a viable option, that living sober was the only viable option.

So I went to Maine, to the cabin, and I did what I do when I’m there. I let the memories wash over me, I thought of my grandmother, I sat on the porch and stared long and hard at the exact spot where the water meets the sky, I embraced the solitude, the stillness. I read. And I wrote. Always, it comes back to the Words.

I had brought several books with me to the cabin. Two were biographies of women who have dealt on some level with some of the same demons I have and have not only survived, but thrived. These are women I admire, women who inspire me, and by reading their words, their stories, I imagine I was hoping to glean the Jedi fucking secret of how to keep your head above water after you’ve encountered pure evil, drowned yourself in booze and drugs, and are on the razor’s edge of insanity, if not death. I suppose I was hoping on some level that reading their words would infuse me with the courage I needed to continue voicing my own.

Tatum O’Neal and Mackenzie Phillips. Those are the women whose books I brought with me. As I sat with Ms. O’Neal’s book, I was amazed by her courage and her honesty. She spoke beautifully, hauntingly about her struggle. Some of her words could have come directly from my own heart.

“No life, particularly one in which a child is traumatized, is ever perfectly resolved.” God, if that’s not the truth. Life can be ugly sometimes. The scars left on our hearts can be jagged and so painful, but the resiliency of humans is also quite astounding, and I do believe that there are life lessons to be learned from every experience; we just have to be willing to see them and accept them.

She talks about her inability to bond with people, keeping them at arm’s length, trying to process everything alone because that was “the only way [she] knew to endure the grief and anguish [she] was suffering.” She speaks about the challenge that intimacy presents for her, and the difficulty she has trusting people. She speaks candidly about suicide attempts and, failing that, having to rely on drugs to endure. Her words moved me to tears, as words so often do. I wanted to hug her through the pages and thank her for fighting as hard as she does. Her continued determination to fight this disease is what lights my own path right now. It gives me hope.

In reading “Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home,” I discovered that Ms. O’Neal had been sexually abused as a child. I hadn’t known that about her. She writes: “In forgiving even my worst victimizers, I was deciding not just to survive but to move forward.” That sentence struck me. Forgiving your worst victimizers. Surviving. Moving forward. Things I have not been able to do. I remain haunted by the things that happened to me as a child. And then as an adult, the final assault left me infected with this virus that threatens to cut my life short. How do I forgive the people who stole so much from me, who took who I was meant to be and created this shell in her stead? But how can I not and expect to move forward? I don’t know. It’s still a question I’m working on. It’s a work in progress. I know only that there needs to be a confrontation at some point. I need to confront the man who ended my childhood at 8. Perhaps then I’ll find some closure. But that can’t happen yet. The fragile structure of sobriety that I’m building for myself would surely implode if I took on that monster right now. Some day though. Some day.

Ms. O’Neal has been sober since June 29, 2010. I have been sober since June 19, 2011. May God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; courage to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

I haven’t yet finished Ms. Phillips’ book. I left the cabin before I got a chance. I’m making time now to read it though, because the little I’ve read so far, has been equally inspirational.

Ms. Phillips talks about being a person who starts things and can’t finish them. “As a junkie, as an actress and musician, as a mother—it’s been hard for me to complete even the simplest cycles of action,” she writes. I understand that all too well. My understanding of that sentiment is in part what this blog is all about. More on that in later posts.

She also speaks of demons that haunt parts of her life and herself that are painful and scary. “Facing them, revealing them, makes them too real,” she says. I get it. In our mind’s eye, they are as horrifying to us as adults as they were as children. But I’ve come to realize that being paralyzed by fear is letting the bad guys win, and it’s also as sure a way as drowning in absinthe and despair to bring our lives to a screeching halt.

This passage, especially, resonates with me: “I think of all that happened before, between, and after. The rest of the story. It is time to sort out a life that too often I left blurry, unprocessed, unreal, hoping that in doing so I would be leaving it behind me forever.”

It is time. These women, their words, will be with me on this journey I’m on. Their stories have emboldened me to do the unthinkable: believe in myself. I will don their determination and courage like armor as I wind my way through this chaos I’ve created.  And I’m thankful as hell for it. I will come out the other side.

So here’s the deal. I’ve been back a couple of weeks. It’s a slow process. And by slow, I mean fucking torturous. But it’s a process, nonetheless, and I’m working it and I’m committed to it. I have to change the way I do things. Clearly what I’ve been doing isn’t working. Obviously I need to start working the program again; that did right by me for 7 years, and there’s no reason to think this time will be any different. But there’s a lot of fallout to clean up, and I need to deal with it.

My life has been very strange for the past 14 months. A little surreal. Soon after I relapsed I was introduced via the wonder of the *Interweb to a man who I probably would otherwise never have met. He’s become a good friend over the past year. He’s been sober over 2 decades, and though our lives now could not be more different, we share a similar painful background that quickly bonded us as we navigated the early stages of our friendship. Since writing is how I’m most comfortable communicating, our friendship has been mainly an email one. We’ve shared hundred and thousands of words. He and his wife have been a great source of support and encouragement for me. They are busy folks and I don’t hear from them much anymore, but we still check in with each other, make sure each of us is still standing and breathing….such has not always been the case over the last year, for either one of us.

Some of the words I write in this blog are taken from emails I’ve written to my friends. At times, I will sit and look over the emails and put them together in blog form so I have a timeline in front of me of where I’ve been and what’s been going on. It’s interesting to go back to that, especially during moments of clarity, and see just what the hell has been going on this past year. It’s been a scary ride, one with too many close calls. I’m ready for the ride to end. I’m ready to say Fuck You to the demons and thumb my nose at all that haunts me by once again becoming the fun, passionate, active, strong woman I was for 7 years when I was sober and able to deal with my life. I want that back now. And more. I want more. There are things I want to do, things I can only do if I’m sober and healthy. It’s time for me to take the power back.

Last month, I met another new friend, D, through social media. He, too, is sober. And he, too, is someone I would likely never have met if not for the wonder of technology. But in talking with him over the last few weeks, I realize he is someone I can totally see myself sitting next to in any meeting in any city across this great nation. He has a number of years of sobriety under his belt. He met me at what probably has been one of my lowest points since my sobriety came to a crashing halt last spring: just before my self-imposed isolation in Maine. The details of our introduction are actually a bit fuzzy, but I know I spoke with him on the phone a few times while I was so out of it I had slept on the streets for 2 nights.

Last week, after my return from Maine and during a very transitional stage for me, I spoke with D at length about the future. It wasn’t a concept I had been considering much lately. But something clicked with me during that talk. He spoke of taking this opportunity to reinvent myself, to grab life with both hands and not let go. I deserve that. I think I do, anyway.

That conversation led me here, back to this blog. Writing isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am. It’s how I express myself. Writing is cathartic. It’s invigorating. And it’s where I feel safest being completely open and honest and vulnerable. The thing is, I’m at a critical point in my sobriety right now. I know that a strong wind could blow me to one side of the street or the other. It’s crucial that I make all the right moves right now, because anything else will be my ultimate undoing, of that I am quite certain. I’ve done a lot of damage to myself this year. It’s time to repair it and move on. But I can’t do it alone. I need to be held accountable. For everything. I need to stay the course, and the only way for me to do that is to be accountable for the things I do. I’m going to be writing on this blog as often as I can, talking about where I am, what I’m doing. I’ll be writing a lot about my sobriety, my health, my work. This will keep me focused. I need that right now more than anything. The journey begins…

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