Prelude

I am angry, I wrote in my last. Once I had someone sigh and say, “That again?” Yes, that again. Like what, it has a term period? A date of ending, when I can check it off the calendar as done and over?

Truth is, what I have needed to do is slow down and pull apart the tentacles of my anger, to look at what it is these tentacles are clinging to. I’ve pushed aside, for later, what seems too unwieldy in order to peer more closely at those things I feel ready to contemplate. And there is nothing I am angry at that is not born from a lack of control. Nothing.

I am angry at the weather, the heat and lack of rain. I am angry that Trump is. I am angry that I – literally – do not know what to do when it’s my choice. Work and obligations aside, most of what I want to do is read, with maybe some TV on the weekends. That doesn’t much hold my interest, either, although I’m pretty happy with Succession. I don’t want to go out and meet people, there’s nowhere in particular I want to go, and I’m frustrated and angry that I am not someone who can say, “Hey, I’d like to ____ and then go find someone to do this mysterious activity with me.

I could go on. But I’m going to get to the one thing that angers me the most – my mom has Alzheimer’s and where to start with that? I will thank you all for your sympathy in advance. Direct it at her. While my part in this story can’t be unique, I don’t think it follows the usual trajectory in terms of feelings. But what do I know? Maybe positing this will show me different.

No matter what we’re suffering, our personalities, experiences, and habitual ways of dealing with things will surface and color our reactions, if not our actual actions. Sometimes we have the forethought to understand we might feel like saying, “fuck this” and then walking away, but something more rational takes over, sees the implications of such action, and maybe tries to do better.

Like me.

I don’t think I’ve ever really sat here and took a good, deep look at the relationship I have with my mother, who I see her as and who I see myself as in this context. In fact, a few years ago I decided I wanted to turn my blog into a memoir. During the writing it hit me how much a part of my story my mother is. There was an incident that occurred a few days after Philip died that I wanted to write and I went dumb. There I was, writing the most excruciating account, day by day, of what I felt like losing Philip, but I could not figure out how to describe an incident that concerned my mother. It was after that that I gave up the memoir, started writing much less in my blog. That is not the whole and complete reason for my withdrawal from writing. It is, perhaps, a tentacle.

Mom and I are oil and water, which I can pretty much say about my whole family. Yes, I am that one. I’d always felt on the outside but refused to think too deeply about why. I come from a large Italian family where every Sunday was spent at Grandma’s. My mom was the only girl out of seven siblings, which placed a unique burden on her when time came to helping with chores or taking care of the little ones. Two of her brothers were younger than she and she was often responsible for them. My mom’s 90, and there is one of them she still feels responsible for. In fact, in younger days when my dad was alive, the family joke was that if my dad was lying in the road and Uncle M was across the street, my mom would walk over my dad to get to my Uncle. Wasn’t any funnier then than it is now.

I used to think that maybe I felt odd because I was the only daughter of the only daughter. When Sunday dinners came around, My family would have to get to my grandparents’ extra early because my mom had to help my grandma get dinner ready. Soon as I was able, I had to do my part, whether it was putting glasses on the table or running downstairs to the club – where the men would gather and play cards while the women cooked – to get the men to come upstairs for dinner. 

Another reason I may have felt odd was because I wanted to drink. When I was 7 or 8 I asked my mom if I could have one of the cordials in that glass that just so cute. My mom said yes but my dad overheard and forbade it. I hated him then, but by 3 or so years later I figured out how to get some myself.  My grandparents made wine in the cellar, and while everyone (except the kids) drank, it was obvious that my grandfather was alcoholic. 25 Years in this county and he did not speak one word of English – only his native Italian. Many a time he’d be escorted into bed or another room, happily singing drunken tunes. Once, during dinner, there was a commotion during desert as my grandmother began hitting my grandfather over the head. Turns out he’d poured wine into his coffee cup and was blowing on it as if it was coffee because my grandmother had given him stern orders not to have wine at the table.

My grandmother lived in a two story house in Brooklyn on the top floor. The bottom, as I mentioned, was the club where my dad, my uncles and their friends hung out. On the second floor lived my Aunt J., Uncle G., Cousin R. and Cousin Maria, who is exactly two years older than I am and the sister of my heart.

I have lived very much outside the lives of the family I grew up with. Most of my uncles stayed in Brooklyn, cousins scattered to NJ, Long Island, Staten Island. My brother and sister-in-law moved to Staten Island, and I wound up in NJ with my immediate family when Philip was 7 and Natalie 5. I kept in touch with my cousin Maria on and off throughout the years – and if you’re a follower you might remember Maria was the first person I called when I found out Philip died. For the last two years I’ve worked for her and her husband, and they have graciously allowed me to escape to their shore home when I need to.

This has been a short but necessary background – next, Alzheimer’s

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Time

They must’ve told you – someone, somewhere, many someones in multiple some-wheres, how, “Time heals all wounds.” And you probably had to find out for yourself that it doesn’t. I wrote about this once, somewhere in this blog. The priest at Philip’s wake told us so and I was grateful. There is no comfort, particularly at the nadir of one’s grief, to think, in time this will go away or one day I won’t feel so bad, I will be able to manage this. When Philip died I existed in a dimension called Grief and the idea that time would heal it meant…what? That it would be okay, that I would be okay? That there was somehow going to be something called Life as Usual?

The naiveté. The shallowness. Even if said from a loving heart with all the kindness, concern and worry that comes from the helpless onlooker who truly cares for you. This month it is ten and a half years since Philip died. Since my son died. I had a therapist ask me why I called him “my son.” He is, after all, his own person, not my possession. He has a life apart from me. Except he no longer has a life – at least on this earth – apart from me. I have two children. And calling them “my child” is an acknowledgment of the bond that can be between me and them and no other. I need that. I need to know that what was and is between us is special, real, everlasting. If calling Philip “my son” soothes me that way I’ll skip the analysis of where he ends and I begin because I dare anyone with a dead child to try to figure that one out.

Then there was Phil, seeing my grief-hysteria weeks after Philip died. “Denise,” he said, “You gotta stop. Philip wouldn’t want this – he wants you to be happy.”

I turned on him. “How do you know?” I demanded. “How do you know what he wants? Maybe he’s missing me. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he wishes I could go keep him company!”

Phil blinked slowly. “You are really sick,” he said softly. Which fits in pretty much with the way I view myself. If thoughts wear grooves in our brains based on usage, then, “There is something wrong with me” is my Grand Canyon.

But how did he know what Philip “wanted?” We know nothing about the dead. But when it suits us we make proclamations?

I did, though, have an experience to counter this. Driving one night, not long after this exchange, I was thinking that I was going to kill myself. I once tried – and obviously failed – when I was 21. This, too, is for another post, but throughout my life I thought the only way out of the prison of my brain and the repetitive negative thinking was death. So it was natural for me to be thinking in the face of Philip’s death, “I’m done. I don’t know how yet, but I am done.”

That’s when I heard Philip. He’s behind my right shoulder, he speaks into my right ear. “Mom,” he said, “It doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.” And in that instant, it occurred to me that I took the responsibility of having two children, one who died, but one who was very much alive and needed me. And I saw myself standing next to Philip looking toward Natalie, but now unable to reach her. The grief was just as intense. That’s when I knew things were as they were and I must deal with them in that way. Natalie needed me. That was all there was to know.

I also understood at that moment that suicide was not a solution. It was a continuation of what I was trying to escape. If I believed death was like going to sleep and never waking up, then suicide made sense. Philip was teaching me something different. He was telling me the way out is to find the joy. I can tell you that ten years on, I have not found the joy. I still circle back to “There is something wrong with me.” I watch people, I watch the things they do and what they enjoy and what keeps them going and I still feel the odd one. My greatest pleasure is reading, which I do for hours on end daily. Today I started to write – something I have not been able to do for years even though it is one of the things I have loved to do and it was certainly what kept me going during the earlier years when Philip died. 

I have been, I am, so angry.

But back to where I started this post. Time does have a part to play. Its passage changes things. I no longer cry for hours on end every day. The constant knot in my stomach is gone. Philip is not on my mind 24/7. I can laugh. I can hold a job. I can eat. No more drinking, no more bulimia. Outwardly, no one would be able to tell I suffered such a tragic loss, that my world is upended, that I will never be the same in ways I can only accept. And that maybe I shouldn’t accept, but I do.

I have a picture of Philip from when he was maybe 5 or 6. If I can figure out how to post it under photos I’ll put it there. He’s wearing an orange pullover with a collar. His right arm is leaning on a table, bent at the elbow, his face is leaning into his hand. He’s not looking at the camera but a bit to the right, a smile on his closed mouth, his far away thoughts giving him secret pleasure. If I look, I can just make out his left hand resting on the table, clutching a small dinosaur. He is angelic. Months ago I made that picture the background on my phone and it still unsettles me to see the beauty of that innocence. It still brings me to tears, still makes me stop what I’m doing and give pause. And I would like to say I smile to see my little boy so happy and so at peace, but mostly my heart twists into something unnatural because of what I have lost and my inability to find adequate words to share this with so that maybe someone can…help? Understand? What do I want? There isn’t any help, and from those who can understand – unfortunately, there are far too many who do – I cannot take comfort. 

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – Addiction Part 5

Covid-19 or not, there are people looking to hire. Sometimes I’ll send out a resume. The job has to be fairly close so the drive isn’t long, salary somewhat close to mine because much as I bitch about work I’m paid well for what I do, no insistence on Powerpoint or advanced proficiency in Word and Excel because I’m more basic proficiency when it comes to those. Go learn Power Point, everyone says. It’s easy. Sure. Easy. I spent over $300 taking advanced Word and Excel classes. The Adult School I went to does not allow handouts, so we were being taught complicated formulas without notes to refer back to. Plus nothing we learned is anything I needed to use when I was working and when it comes to software, use it or lose it. I could’ve taken that money and bought a lovely pair of shoes and at least I’d have had something to show for it.

But I do need a job. My boss hired me back after initially laying me off due to Covid, but business didn’t pick up so its back to unemployment and serious job hunting. This feels surreal. In part I feel protected because with unemployment I’ll have about three more months of income. But that’s it – the reality is I need a job and I am terrified. The idea of presenting myself to someone…who would want me? What do I have to offer? This year my age has come into play. I am 62. I have long felt that my age doesn’t matter – I look younger than I am, I’m in good health, I have a lot of energy. But faced with job hunting I feel old. Who wants to hire someone close to retirement age? What I know is that all of this is a racket in my head that I should ignore and just look for a job. My heart and my head are at war.

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July 2019. I was suffering the loss of my girlfriend and tired of smoking weed. So I stopped. And there it was – the space in my life I didn’t know how to fill, still don’t know how to. Over and over I told myself it was up to me, but I couldn’t come up with what I wanted to do. I was lonely and grieving the end of a relationship and all I did was sit around hating myself because there was  a whole world out there and I couldn’t join in. I was living in a world I didn’t belong in and I didn’t know how to be okay with my life. I told myself to travel, take yoga classes, go for a walk, call someone , figure out how to get out there and do it. I was – I am – paralyzed.

Before my lay off, I had a long talk with my boss. He told me his history of drinking and how he got himself under control. How every three months or so he and his girlfriend call up their friends, get in an Uber, go to the city and have a blast. Most of the time when I’m listening to someone I’m deciding who is living the better life and I am always the loser. Not that I need to go have a “blast” but just the idea of wanting to do something and having enough friends to do it with. I am never part of a crowd. I don’t have a group – I have a friend here and a friend there and no matter how many here-and-theres it is never enough. I am lonely but I don’t reach out.

AA seemed a solution. It’s a spiritual program and people make friends there. People love it there. People are always talking about their gratitude about being sober and of all the friends they’ve made along the way. If I say that like it’s a bad thing, I don’t mean it that way. It’s more of a foreign thing. I don’t get how to become part of it. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t want to do the things to be more part of it. I could join a group, take a commitment, go to their business meeting, call people. Now that there are Zoom meetings instead of live meetings it makes it even harder. I resist.

I went back to AA last September. In March the pandemic hit. Much as I’ve been faithfully Zooming in on meetings through it all, I never stop wondering what I’m doing there. I try to pay attention but I don’t feel like these people do. At least the ones who are sharing. I’m often in meetings of upward of 50 people, and maybe 15 of them share in any given meeting. Surely there are people who feel disconnected, who are uncomfortable with others’ depiction of how God works in their lives because much as AA teaches to find your own conception of a higher power, most people buy the one where God’s directing your life and you have to sit back and accept the ride. I actually don’t have too much argument about that. At least the acceptance part. I don’t believe in a God that’s involved in the minutiae of my life, but I do believe life is a force greater than me. I can’t control it, I can only stop resisting it.

And that includes Philip’s death. Lately I feel crushed when I think of him – how in the world am I supposed to go on when he will never again come through my door? It’s been seven-and-a-half years and I am still deeply lonely for him. I yearn for him. So how do I hold my grief yet try to live? The loneliness in living is coupled with my grief and what I need to learn is how to hold two things together. Grieving him yet learning to live. It’s not a betrayal but it feels like one. I thought I was past this but grief is a spiral, not a straight line. As is life. I still struggle with wanting to live. It feels easier to give in to the grief, to let it suck the life out of me…is this an excuse? Do I use his death as a reason not to live? My grief is real, yet is it honest?

I go to meetings because I am trying to find something that eludes me. I drank because it made me feel better. By the third drink there was a “click” – I was home. Life was okay. I could talk to people, I could connect, temporary as it was. That’s what I ‘m looking for – that “click.” There are people in meetings who have clearly clicked. Their earnestness fascinates me. How did they get there? How are they not consumed by their darkness? Am I that unique that it can’t be me? That can’t be so, yet here I am stuck and waiting, waiting for my click.

Covid 19 – Addiction Part Four

I work for a design and construction firm. I’ve been called back to work because we received a PPP loan from the government which requires 75% of it be spent on payroll. I haven’t much work to do – the only construction job we have right now is a restaurant in NYC which is still closed down because of the virus. So I work part-time, do what I have to do and go home, while getting full-time pay. For the eight-week duration of the loan, that is. After that, if there’s no work, I’ll either get my hours cut or go back on unemployment. I prefer unemployment.

It’s complicated. I don’t like going to my job, yet I only half-heartedly look for different work. My boss told us all that if we didn’t want to come back, if we preferred to stay on unemployment (with its extra $600 on top of the weekly pay) that would be fine. Be honest, he said. In a perfect world I would’ve say bye-bye. But I was scared. Not coming back would mean I officially had no job and what does a Covid-19 job market look like? And much as I say if my hours are cut I’d prefer unemployment, if time comes we’ll see. Unemployment doesn’t last forever and I need income. Steady income. So for now I put up with it – and don’t think I don’t know how fortunate I am. So far quarantine has not affected me financially and for that I am grateful.

Anywhere I work I’ll have to put up with people. I have a fantasy that I go to a new job where everyone smiles and the boss is kind and I can spend the rest of my working life there because I never, ever want to look for another job again. But people are hard for me. My boss is the most difficult and demanding one I’ve ever had. Never a kind word but he knows how to harp on mistakes. I am not used to this. My bosses have always loved me. Or at least acknowledged I’m good at what I do. This one tells me he appreciates my loyalty but wishes I were more efficient. I’m as good as I can be. My memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be but I’m organized enough to find whatever it is he’s looking for. But he still mourns the woman I replaced three years ago. She was not his work-wife, but his work-mother, telling him when he could go vacation and whether or not he could buy that computer he’s had his eye on. Not my job – I am mother to two and that is enough for me.

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Smoking weed got boring in a way alcohol never did. Alcohol brought me to a point where it felt good to be alive. Of course, I’d quickly drink past that to the point where I didn’t know what it felt like to be alive. If I drank around people I enjoyed them. If I drank by by myself I didn’t need them. Then the hangover, which justified lying in bed for hours which is where I preferred to be, alone and away from a world I couldn’t tolerate. Weed didn’t have the same drama. I was altered – reserved, withdrawn, occupying a space that could contain only me. When I got home from work I was mostly in for the night because I didn’t know what to do with myself. Weed both ensured I stayed there and made it tolerable. I lived – I live – with my daughter but in certain ways I feel like I don’t. We are together separately. We are not – nor should we be – like a couple who figures out how to get along together on a daily basis. Instead, we figure out how to meet in our separateness. N is a 26-year-old woman who is trying to work out what she wants to be doing with her life while she has one foot out the door, a foot I am still paying for.

By last July I got bored with smoking. No big deal, no big commitment, no light bulb turned on. Just a shrug and enough with the disappointing highs. What I needed, I thought, was a spiritual solution. Not a come-to-Jesus moment, either. A spiritual solution like when Philip died. “Solution” isn’t exactly the right word because it sounds so final. When Philip died I didn’t turn to God and beg for mercy. Nor did I blame God – S/he wasn’t part of the equation. When Philip died I was forced into a grief that blew me up and scattered me into pieces I still can’t find. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken to jigsaw puzzles. The satisfaction, the intimacy. The miracle of each piece. Taking each one and putting it where it belongs, the hopelessness when it seems impossible to get these things to fit. Until suddenly they do. Over and over the impossible comes into meaningful form. Until the thrill of finishing still leaves something missing because while it seems that I’ve finished there is more that I’m wanting.

Philip’s dying put me in sacred space. The spiritual “solution” I mentioned simply meant I was alive to what was happening. I made meaning in my grief. His death forced me to live as I never had before. It was that or die and how could I die when I had another child to tend to? I’d taken the risk of having children. One was dead but one was very much alive and I had a responsibility to her. It was through Philip I found awareness.

People die, relationships don’t. I am fortunate that Philip was with me then as he is now. His presence was my spiritual solution. By grace of that connection, by the grief of his bodily loss, was I able to be in touch with a power far greater than myself. Not something I called God. Not something that had the form of woman or man. But a power, which I chose to call Life. Life is my higher power, the fact of what is. For years after Philip died I felt an expression of that power, saw it in all that was happening around me. Caught it by writing what I saw. What I experienced. Until something happened. Something big but not tangible. Not an event that made me withdraw. It was more gradual than that. Outwardly, I started to write less. That was the biggest sign. And I can’t remember if I started smoking weed to deal with this or I started smoking weed before and thus came to feel like this but certainly this lethargic state’s cause and effect is entwined with weed.

To be continued

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – Addiction Part Three

The bubble has been pricked: I have been called back to work. For many, this would be a great thing. For me, not so much. For nearly seven weeks I have been making my own days and I love it. No one telling me what to do. No stress.I don’t mind not going out. Much as I complain about my apartment and need to move, I like being in it. My stuff is here. My fabrics and sewing machine, my quilts. My jigsaw puzzle, my comfy couch and chair, distressed furniture, computer, books and TV. My clothes. I don’t get to wear them much for now but I do love them.

I will mourn this. I wasn’t ready for structure, for a crazy boss and a stressful job. For getting out of bed before I was ready to. I have been at peace. The world feels different. There’s a quietness, a new order of things. We move carefully behind our masks, keep our six foot distance and pray we don’t go the wrong way down the grocery store aisle. It is a time to see what we really can live without. And there is much I can live without. What do I need? Food, water, shelter. My daughter and my pets keep me company. I zoom in on AA meetings or with a friend and I am content. Sitting in my brocade chair talking through my computer is enough. I don’t miss going to work or going to meetings. I don’t miss putting on makeup and figuring out what to wear. I don’t miss going outside. Maybe it’d be different if Natalie wasn’t here or if this was to go on endlessly. I have always known this was temporary, and maybe that’s why I could enjoy it.

But the bubble’s not burst yet. The world remains the same, I am just moving around it more. I am removed from the horror of it, from the sick and scared, from the people who die alone in hospitals and the families who have to grieve their loss in that way. There is much that hasn’t touched my world.

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Some alcoholics say they go to meetings to see what happens to people who don’t go to meetings. I find that rude and arrogant. Others talk about progression and how if you go back to drinking after being sober things are worse. It wasn’t that way for me. For the most part I controlled my drinking in public, only got drunk at home when I knew I was in for the night – nowhere near the way I used to drink. Except for the time I went to dinner with C and her friends. One was a single lawyer that C thought I might be interested but I found him short and unattractive and besides, I wasn’t looking for a lover, I was looking for a bottle. We were stuffed in C’s boyfriend’s van and I had to share the front seat with her, side by side. We went to a restaurant on the water and before dinner, sat outside by the fire they had going. Whatever I ordered that night was particularly strong, and I drank it on an empty stomach. I drank one more as we ordered, another with dinner. By the time we were finishing up our entrees, I was in the bathroom with C vomiting up mine. On the way home in van I was lying on her as she stroked my back. I reeled out of the car and into her house, where I slept for the night.

That was enough for me. C had only laughed as she held me but I was embarrassed and woke the next morning with a thick tongue and aching head. And just like that I stopped.

But drinking is only a symptom of the deep unhappiness I lived with, an unhappiness as familiar to me as my own face. I didn’t know how to get out of it. Depression kept me company all the time and not drinking didn’t solve it. I was lonely and out of place in the world. When I was at work all I wanted to do was get home, and when I got there I didn’t know what to do with myself. I spent the weekends mostly by myself. I made quilts because working with fabric comforted me. Then came weed.

Smoking weed wasn’t like drinking. No hangovers, physical, emotional or otherwise. It didn’t have the awful taste of liquor. I was a drunk who hated the taste of alcohol, wine included. Especially wine because I couldn’t hide in tonic or soda. Weed was neat and clean with none of the bloated feeling when I drank too much. Instead I had to deal with the munchies, which I mostly did by eating grapes and flavored pita chips. Which brought the stress of my distorted body image into play. I woke up with the guilt of having snacked after dinner and the dread that I wouldn’t be able to zipper my jeans. Round and round I went.

I smoked weed for years. Three? Four? Five? I am not sure. I told myself I’d smoke two or three times a week, as if that would make it a casual habit and not a thing. Mostly it was four or five. And the only reason it wasn’t every day was because I hoped skipping a day here and there would magically dissipate my immunity which only increased the more I smoked. The first time I smoked was a pleasant dream where I drifted through a world I could see but not touch. By the time I stopped I was a slug. If I was high I was unavailable. I didn’t answer the phone and if Natalie came to talk I’d nod and wait to get back to my second watch of West Wing . If you could call it watching – I was so foggy I couldn’t keep track from one scene to the next. I’d sit for hours at night smoking and watching TV, taking in as much smoke as my lungs would allow, smoking through the burning in my chest, holding it in until the burning stopped, hoping each hit would get me to the place where I’d lose my body and my mind would be floating down the River Lethe.

It didn’t happen. Weed didn’t get me high enough. It dulled my senses so that I could tell myself nothing mattered but it didn’t get rid of the underlying dis-ease. My job, my daughter, my girlfriend, my life. It didn’t plaster the pain out of me like alcohol did, but it was all I had so it would have to do.

To be continued

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – Addiction Part Two

I was laid off on 03/20 so this is my seventh week of Covid quarantine. It’s 68 degrees today and I should go out. Except quarantine is a rare time to stop shoulding myself. At the moment I prefer to write.

Weather’s often on my mind. For most people, sun is good, rain is bad. Neither is true – the weather is what it is and we either enjoy it or we don’t. I understand people’s spirits lifting as the weather gets warmer. Mine don’t. I am comforted by rain. I am comforted by fall and winter with their early darkness and chill. It’s a time that doesn’t expect me to go outside. It’s a time when no one is watching. It breaks the tedium of mostly sunny days. Spring approaches and the boundary begins to dissipate, expectations rise. There is nothing I can do but not resist it. Trees and flowers begin to bloom, the lawnmowers come out, more people are running and walking. Everywhere I look something is growing. And I am reminded once again that Philip has died and he will never grow, he will never change. He did, once. He was my bud, my flower and he bloomed and died. The way these flowers will bloom and die, the way one day nothing will be what seems to be now.

Here is what Philip said to me as a little boy: “Like I’m heaven and all the people are flowers. Then I fall down in the clouds and I have a flower for a parachute to fall to the ground and come home.”

Would that he could.

We lived in Brooklyn when Philip was born I hadn’t been drinking for eight years. I had been going to AA all that time, but a few months after he was born I stopped. It wasn’t an actual decision I made, I just found it difficult to drag him to meetings that I was bored at anyway.  I didn’t go one day which turned into the next day and then the next and then it was nearly thirty years. Wanting to drink wasn’t an issue. By that point most of friends were in AA so I was surrounded. I never thought about drinking. I raised my children sober for which I am grateful.

We moved to Montclair in September 1998. The kids were in school, I wasn’t working, so I decided to go back to AA. I went on and off for a few years, made a few friends, even got a sponsor, Crazy Z. She was a tall woman in her sixties with spiky heels, always red lipstick, heavily lined eyes and blonde, curly hair that nearly reached down to the butt of her skin tight pants. She was willing to meet me for coffee once a week and listen to anything I had to say. Truth is, it was hard to find what to say because as much as she gave her attention to me I didn’t feel connected to her and if I’m not connected to someone I struggle with words.

Same with AA. I met a friend who I’m still close to today. As far as the rest of it, I was uncomfortable in meetings, I didn’t know how to meet people, I am terrified of approaching anyone, and I found meetings boring. I had no patience for all the literature that was read at the beginning of each meeting (the steps are on the wall, we can see them), my focus was on the crazies who I had nothing in common with and holding hands and saying a prayer at the end of each meeting? Not for me. I belong to AA in the sense that I’m alcoholic and don’t drink anymore, but that’s not why I was going. I wanted to make friends, I wanted for feel like there was a group I belonged. It wasn’t working. So I stopped.

There are no words for losing a child which is why I started this blog. As a writer, as a mother, I had to get try find some to wrap words around it, to keep from spinning around in the spiral of grief. I used to say the words to describe Philip’s death weren’t yet invented. I’ve used the words grief and trauma and horror and nightmare and despair – none of them lived up to what I felt like. So I did the best I could to write my life with out my son.

When Philip died I drank. I’d been sober nearly thirty years by then. I did not care. There’s a saying that “there’s nothing worse than a head full of AA and belly full of beer.” Yes there is. A dead son. I drank with no remorse, with only a deep relief that there’d be a break in the torment. For months I drank, keeping Vanilla Vodka In my closet. I hate Vodka but I drank it because it did the job quickly and I was hoping the vanilla would make it taste better. It didn’t.

In my last I wrote about how I never tried to drink normally. This time I did. At least when I was out. For the first time in decades I ordered drinks in restaurants.  I announced to my daughter that I was going to start drinking again. I felt both guilty and free. Guilty because everyone knew I’d sworn off and what if someone in AA saw me, and free because too bad if they did. I told myself I could have two and that would be fine because I was in control. Besides, I would not get drunk in front of people.  I used to order hard liquor to get drunk quickly even though I couldn’t stand the taste. This time around I ordered the “specials” which were usually sweet. I’d question the waiter to find which one had the highest liquor content. But after my I went home to Vanilla Vodka.

One night I went to Vinny’s in Bloomfield for Italian with my friend E. He always brings a bottle of with him (Montclair/Bloomfield restaurants are mainly BYOB). He  pours himself less than half a glass, savors it, shows me the proper way to drink it. And when he’s done, he has enough to take home. But we were out during my liberation from all things sober, so this time we got two glasses for the wine. Two smallish glasses. E pours some in mine and my heart sinks. There’s no way this is going to get me where I want to be. I slowly drink the wine before the food comes, he pours a second which was to become my last. And what’s happening during dinner is my attention is divided. I am listening to E yet absorbed by the wine. I’m tuning in to my body to see if the wine has any effect. I’m trying to decide the proper space between sips. I’m nervous that he won’t pour the second one. He did, but after that he poured no more and I was afraid to ask.

To be continued

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – Addiction Part One

I wish to to understand. I wish to be understood. Sometimes I think if I can explain myself enough someone will find the key to me and I will be free. I can’t seem to find it myself.

I was made for quarantine. Rainy quarantine is best. I find comfort in lockdown, moreso when the sun is hiding. The world demands too much from me. I’m content with solitude, with not having to be anywhere, no pressure to be doing, just learning how to be. It’s like being in a bubble – I feel safe. I stay home a lot anyway and I fret about it. I should be out, I should do yoga, I should exercise, I should have more friends, on and on. Suddenly Covid 19 and I’m ordered to do what I somewhat already do so the pressure’s off. I’m fortunate this has not yet affected me financially. I had no problem getting unemployment and am getting paid more than when I work. I know this can’t last and it frightens me. I don’t want to go back to pre-Covid. I don’t want to go back to my job. The main stressor in my life is work. I should be looking for a new job, but the same voice in my head that nags at me about not going out nags at me about job hunting – I’m too old, who will hire me, I’m not skilled enough, I’ll have to take a cut in pay…

Fear paralyzes me. It stops me from pushing “send” when it comes to my resume. It keeps me from writing. It even stops me from talking at the AA Zoom meetings I go to because who wants to hear what I say anyway.

Zooming AA is one of the things I do in a day. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing there, sometimes I am moved. Yesterday I was moved. Yesterday I took a chance and said something. People were talking about the different ways they tried to talk themselves into thinking they could drink normally, ways that never worked. That was not my experience. I never tried to drink “normally.” I was in pain and I drank to feel better. There was no point in having a drink if it truly was “a” drink. It took me three drinks to have that click in my head that told me everything was all right, then continuous drinking to make sure I stayed there. When I was reeling that was enough.

Yesterday I watched “Mrs. America” on Hulu with my daughter, Natalie (highly recommended). It’s about the struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment. The episode was set in 1974. I commented on something that happened in the show, to which Natalie replied, “You should know.” She meant that I was alive then. I did the math – I was 16 when this was going on and I paid no attention. All I cared about was getting high. My first drink was at 11 and I didn’t stop until I was 24. For thirteen years my attention centered on what I could get that would make me high. I stole liquor from my parents until I could buy it on my own. I took my mother’s diet pills. I went into the medicine cabinet of any house I visited. I found a crazy doctor whose mouth was cracked and dry from taking the diet pills that he freely prescribed to the line of waiting women in an apartment building in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Liquor, amphetamines, barbiturates. Quaaludes. I loved Quaaludes. I mixed liquor and pills. I sometimes took what we called “uppers” before I went to sleep so I could wake up happy. Because only high made me happy.

I am what’s called a high-bottom drunk. Drinking did not (directly) affect school or work. I showed up every day and did what was expected of me. By the time I was 22 I moved out. I had to get away from my parents, I had to have a place where I could drink in peace. There was no way I’d let liquor keep me from work because I had to pay my rent and I had to buy my drugs and booze. I was never arrested, never had a DUI, never did anything sexually that I wouldn’t have done when I was sober. I just drank when I could and found pills when I could and by the time I walked into AA I was at a point where I carried Vodka in my handbag because it comforted me.

I walked into AA after having a moment of grace. It was New Year’s Eve, 1982, and I was out to dinner with my boyfriend John, who disapproved of my drinking and didn’t hesitate to be nasty about it. While I preferred hard liquor, I ordered a glass of wine because I thought it more respectable. Soon as I finished it I began glancing around for the waitress. I didn’t want to flag her down and be obvious – I wanted to catch her eye so she’d come over and I could casually order another. Getting it down on an empty stomach was best. John, who was watching me, wasn’t fooled. But he was kind – he asked me if I saw what happened to me when I drank, how I couldn’t have just one or two, how I changed when liquor was around. And in that moment I saw myself at 50 doing the same thing I was doing every day, spending my life in an alcoholic Ground Hog Day, misery my company. It was over. I had to do something.

Two days later, January 1983, I walked into my first AA meeting and decided that if these people weren’t drinking they weren’t alcoholics and I had nothing in common with them. Up until that New Year’s Eve dinner, I didn’t care that I was alcoholic. My world was small and I was lonely, but at least being alcoholic meant I was part of some group somewhere. At the end of the meeting Charlie came over and introduced himself, walked me over to meet some women who gave me their phone numbers. I spent the next three weeks going to meetings, getting phone numbers, not calling anyone and getting drunk. I even went to meetings stoned on Valium and not liquor because I didn’t want anyone to smell my breath. Then came the storm.

Monday, January 24th, a day I don’t remember but I know what I did. I mixed Valium with alcohol, passed out, woke up in the morning dizzy and high, managed to call work to let them know I wouldn’t be in, managed to call my aunt because I needed help, passed out again and woke up at 5:00pm. Got myself out of bed and walked downstairs to my kitchen where an intervention was waiting. My mother and father, my boyfriend, my brother, my aunt. Staring at me in my pajamas, waiting for me to say something. I remember nothing other than the horrid embarrassment I felt, but when they left I made my first AA phone call and  that was my last high for nearly 30 years.

To be continued.

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – This Body of Mine, Part Two

I met my ex-husband when I first landed in AA, and three years later decided I liked him. I mean, I liked him. He seemed a normal guy to me. Steady, stable, kind and reliable. Smart and focused. Funny. I liked the way he dressed. I really wanted to date him. Have a relationship with him. But I wasn’t normal. I spent a lot of time with my head over the toilet bowl. I figured if I wanted to get involved with a guy like that I better get more normal myself. So I started going to ABOA (Anorexic, Bulimic, Overeaters Anonymous) meetings in NYC. I found lots of young women like myself. With their help, I began to learn how to eat. I got involved with the guy, got married, and did not live happily ever after.

The one thing about alcoholism and drug addiction is that there is a clear path. Do not pick up the first drink, the first narcotic. Not so with food. We have to eat, so where does that leave us? I continued to go that NYC meeting for a while, then found a few meetings closer to me in Brooklyn, where I lived. Looking back, I can’t say exactly how it happened, but I stopped binging, I stopped vomiting. I went through a short period of trying to go on a diet-for-bulimics that someone came up with, but that didn’t work. Eating, for me, is about control and I couldn’t control what I ate. But with bulimia, at least I could control what I kept in my body. Having someone tell me what to eat made me feel out of control again and I rebelled. I decided to eat my way. What I had on my side was that I knew how to eat healthy. I’d been a vegetarian for a few years (which does not necessarily mean healthy) and knew to eat whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. I began to be able to feel when I was full and so stop eating. I was eating to satisfy myself and my weight stabilized at 125 lbs.

Then came crisis in my marriage. By this time I had two children, ages 1 and 3, and I had a mental freak out. I couldn’t take it. I didn’t want to be married, I didn’t want this life I chose. I was trapped. I couldn’t get out – I had no job, I had kids, what was I to do? And I discovered a sort of anorexia – my anxiety was such that I had no appetite, and having no appetite I went days without eating. And after a few days when I felt hungry, I’d eat and then puke it up. Before too long I was 102 lbs.

My then-husband didn’t notice. My sister-in-law did. Knowing my history, she asked if I was vomiting, I told her no, I was going through a hard time and eating was difficult. That’s all. She didn’t look like she believed me, but what could she say?

I had an extraordinary doctor, Dr. Kokayi. Board-Certified, NYU, but who also studied homeopathy and acupuncture. I’d roll my eyes at that as soon as the next person, except when used by the right doctor they work, and I am the proof.

Like so:

-I had developed a ganglion. That’s a terribly painful cyst that made it nearly impossible to use my right hand. Dr. Kokayi gave me a remedy and in two days it disappeared.

-When Philip was 3-1/2 years old he was still in diapers. He was afraid to poo on the bowl, and yes, of course I had a mini potty just for him. No matter how much and how kindly I spoke to him, he wouldn’t use it. I took him to Dr. Kokayi who talked with him for a while, then gave me a remedy to give to him. I remember its name – Pulsatilla. Three days later Philip was using the toilet.

-And my first visit to him was quite astonishing: Seven months pregnant with Natalie and my back was torturing me. It was suggested I go see Dr. Kokayi. We met on a Friday afternoon in May. Since I was too pregnant to lie on my belly and get acupuncture in my back, he put the needles into my ears and left me to sit a while in the exam room, wondering what the hell I was doing. This baby’s only getting bigger, how could the pain possibly stop? But It did stop. Monday morning I was pain free and remained so for the rest of my pregnancy.

I brought my kids to him while we still lived in Brooklyn. They never had antibiotics – whatever they had, he cured with homeopathy.

I bring him up because I was a miserable and desperate 102 lbs. Eating/not eating was ruling my life and I could do nothing about it. We sat down in his office and he looked at me a while. “If you don’t start eating, “ he said, “I am admitting you to the hospital.”

I don’t know that he could have forced me into a hospital, but I had a vision of myself being there for what I felt a most shameful reason while someone in the family took care of my kids. He could have kicked his foot all the up my ass and it wouldn’t have had more of an impact. I went home and started eating.

Even that wasn’t the end of this. There’s the noise in my head that tells what’s okay to eat, what’s not okay, how much is enough. That voice is always telling me I eat too much dinner. That voice is proud that I never eat breakfast and that I eat salad for lunch. That voice warns me that all this not exercising and all this eating what I want is going to make me fat.

I can tell you I’ve lost the desire to binge. I don’t have food cravings, I have hunger. I had a pretty long spell of not vomiting, then Philip died. My weight had been 118 lbs. since I gave birth to him. One of my reactions to his death was to start drinking and stop eating. I could not control the universe and bring Philip home, but I could control my eating. Days I’d go without food, and when I ate, I picked at my plate. When time went by and the hunger grew too strong, I began eating and vomiting. I went back down to 102 lbs. and wanted to stay there.

During this time I was living on the top floor of my friend Nadiya’s house. One evening, I left Natalie upstairs so I could use the bathroom on the first floor. I wanted to vomit where Natalie couldn’t hear. When I was done, I felt a pain in my chest on my left side, where my heart is. I knew it was nothing but I pretended. I bent over, concentrated on the pain, told myself I was having a heart attack. Made myself believe I was have a heart attack. Stayed with that pain as long as I could and I began to panic because Natalie was upstairs and I knew how much she needed me. I couldn’t die, it wasn’t time.

And that’s how I stopped vomiting that time. I’ve probably vomited two or three times in the years since. The worst of this addiction has gone. But what’s left is the power I give to that voice in my head that leads every day to a moment of despair about this body of mine.

Truth is, I am not my body. My body is simply the vehicle through which my thoughts, my actions, my emotions, my spirit come through. It is not the most important thing about me. Love is the most important thing, always is. Shame about my body is another block to loving. It means I decide how people feel about me based on how pleasing I think they think I look. It came between K and me because I could present myself any way I wanted during the day but at night we were two naked bodies and mine was always scared and hesitant.

And that opens a whole new door of pain; I leave it here, for now.

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – This Body of Mine, Part One

Chinese curse: May you lead an interesting life.

Yes, these are interesting times. To say the least. But in my world things are quiet. Dull, even. There is pain and death all around me but I’m detached from it, like something about this isn’t real. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing what I’m supposed to. I don’t want to be sick – I have a friend who said her sister got the virus and it felt like she had glass in her lungs. I am in the high risk category. This could kill me and that’s frightening.

I am, so far, in the fortunate group that has no symptoms. But with so much going on around me, I feel like I’m missing something. On the one hand it’s a GOOD thing I’m missing – on the other, I want something happening here. Something different. Something new. Something interesting.

It would be good to be grateful for the calm I’m living in. What I am right now is antsy. What is this thing l’m longing for? This feeling isn’t new. I feel like this when I have down time – after work, on the weekends. Now all I have is down time.

This week, I had a root canal. Hey – I got out. I baked chocolate chip cookies, lemon cookies, caramelized onion-gruyere biscuits and Naan stuffed with cheeses and kale. And I worry that I’m gaining weight. Oh, we’re all gaining weight, some say. I take no comfort in that. While I’ve been Bulimic and Anorexic, I no longer vomit what I eat or restrict it to the point of starving. But my mind is all messed up about it. If you saw me, you’d say I could use a few more pounds. Not that I would believe you. I’d tell you my weight but I threw my scale out because my self worth fluctuated by the pound when I owned one. I’d say I weigh between 112 – 115 lbs. I am 5’5”. I wear a size two or extra small. And I still see myself as a half-chubby (that would be the bottom half).

It’s my thighs, my butt. If I gain weight that’s where it will go and I have nightmares of the body I had when I was twenty years old. 138 lbs., all in my ass. People would call me bubble butt. Thunder thighs. I was told when I turned a corner it took my ass five minutes to follow me. I was told my butt stuck out so far it was like a tray you could balance glasses on. In passing two men I heard, “She’s nice looking,” “Yeah, but her ass is so fat.” I even had a boyfriend who claimed having so much weight on my butt was a health hazard.

If this wasn’t about me, I’d be laughing. Perhaps I should learn to laugh. As I write this, I admit I am. A little. But there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t angst about my flabby butt. I don’t do anything about it – I don’t exercise. I don’t even walk. But that’s another story. This story is about body image and the inability to see what I look like. When put my pants on all I see are my thighs sticking out. And the stomach I’ve developed which had always been effortlessly flat. I am not my body, I tell myself. But my body tells me otherwise.

It’s no wonder I was a solid 138lb. By the time I was in my early twenties, I drank like a fiend and ate whatever was in sight. I was never full unless I was uncomfortably full. My pants size continued to grow while my breasts were as small as two little teardrops. Cut off my legs and I would’ve been a Weeble. My pants size grew to the point where I was struggling into size 12 and that’s when it hit me. One more size up and I’d be in the teens. And I heard the guy I had a crush on called me thunder thighs. Something had to be done, and quickly.

I am an alcoholic and an addict. I want instant gratitude. Always. I didn’t know how to lose weight without eating less and I didn’t know to do that either. But I remembered something I’d read in Cosmopolitan Magazine about women sticking their fingers down their throat and vomiting in order to lose weight. Why not?

Within a a month or so I lost 16 lbs. I was now a respectable 122 lbs., but couldn’t stop there. I would have to vomit a certain amount to maintain, and even more if I wanted to lose more weight. Which is the way my addiction works for me. When I went out to drink, I had to get the first three down as quickly as possible to get that click in my head that told me everything was all right. That wasn’t enough, of course. I had to keep drinking to ensure everything stayed “all right.” 122 lbs put me in clothes I was comfortable in, but I was out for greater glory. 122 wasn’t safe, because what if I went to 125, which wasn’t acceptable. Better to get into the teens. But the teens soon turned into 102 and then 98 because double digits were best. 88 was my next thought, but 98 was where I remained for a while.

I learned to drink a lot of water when I ate. A full glass before and as much as I could while eating. All to make it easier to hurl my food down the toilet bowl. Sometimes, right before, I’d jump up and down or put my hands on my belly to shake it to make sure the water was all mixed up with the food. In the bathroom, I’d tuck my hair back into my shirt, lean over the bowl with my finger down my throat and heave. It was always difficult at first. Sometimes nothing would come out and I’d dig deeper, heave harder. Sometime a little bit would come out, just a tease. But I always kept at it until I hit that sweet spot, where everything just burst and flowed until there was little left in my belly and I was satisfied. Clean the bowl, wash my hands, rinse my mouth and I was ready to meet the world.

I had it bad. In 1983 I joined AA but it was three years before I got help with my eating disorders. I was vomiting nearly every meal I ate, and if I was having an emotional crisis I’d binge and vomit as much as nine times a day. I lived alone, so that was easy. Going out to eat, not so much. When time came to exit the dinner table and head for the bathroom, there would often be stalls that could be occupied. The stall at the end felt safest – furthest from the door, and the chance of only one person next to me. I would often sit and wait until the room emptied. Sometimes someone would walk in anyway and disrupt the process. If I thought I could be quiet, I’d continue. If not, I’d swallow and figure out how much longer I could stay in the bathroom without someone looking for me. I was not always successful. If I wasn’t, I’d go back to my table nervous and distracted, wondering how long before I got home, would I still be able to puke up my dinner or would it have already digested and turned into fat?

And when I got home, if I was having trouble vomiting, I’d drink some water and eat some more food in the vain hope that if I could get that food up, the rest would follow.

Part 2 tomorrow

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Covid-19 – 04/10/20

As of this moment, neither I nor anyone I know and/or love has been infected with Covid-19. That said, it’s easy for me to look at the brighter side of this pandemic as it affects me.

I am laid off and I could not be happier. I no longer wake up and wonder what I’m here for. I don’t walk around with the stress of my boss looking over my shoulder (real or imagined) or the obsessive and soul-sucking need to please him. His presence looms dark and large and while I fear it, I am freed of it.

But what do I do? How can I go back there if he reopens? I would rather stay on unemployment and look for a job – but what will the world look like when this thing calms down? Will there be jobs available? No one can answer that. Can I take that risk?

While I’ve known for a long time that I need to look for a job, I couldn’t force myself to do so. I have an absolutely crazy dynamic with my boss. He is angry and critical, I resent him for that but try desperately and foolishly to please him. Yet I also have an overpowering feeling that to leave him is to desert him and how can I do that to him?

There’s much talk of living in the now. Because now is all there is. On a simple level, paying attention to what you’re doing or who you’re with without letting thoughts distract you is living in the moment. It’s a practice, as our monkey mind chatters always. But living in the now is more than that. I am letting my past inform my present when I treat my boss the way I do. I react to him the way I learned to react to my mother.  As a child I had to figure out how to cope with her verbal abuse and active unhappiness. But my boss is not my mother and still I act as a hurt child who just wants to be seen and loved.

This is not news to me. I have known this for the three years I have worked for him. I actually thought this would be a good thing because given a replay of my childhood drama would give me a chance to work it out. I could learn to handle him like an adult, not like a child. But there’s too much in play here – he’s smart, he’s intimidating, he’s nasty, he’s demanding. He rarely misses a thing and if a mistake is made, he flips. If that weren’t enough there’s this: he’s tall, dark and handsome and he has a LOT of money. I would like to say that doesn’t matter, but if I’m honest, it does. Much as I resist, it’s difficult for me not to buy into the fact that people who have a lot of money are better than I am and people who are beautiful are better than I am and if people have both I’m invisible to them. Add it all up and I wear a mantel of darkness that is stressful and exhausting.

The answer seems simple. Get out and get a new job. Besides dealing with the drama I’ve just taken you through, I am terrified to look for a job. I am paid well for what I do and when I look at similar jobs, the pay is way lower. Okay. I might have to take a cut for my sanity. I also feel unskilled – I can use basic Word and Excel, I can use Outlook. Most jobs want proficiency in Microsoft Suite and often want Quickbooks. I took some classes in Word and Excel to help myself, but if you don’t use it, you lose it.

I am almost 62. I am not planning on retiring soon, but I’m at a point where I want a job I like that will be my last.

The difference in the way I experience life has drastically changed because I got laid off. I do not take seriously enough the effect my job has on me. I used to wake up wondering why I was still alive, how was I supposed to get through another day? No more. I just wake up. I work my way slowly into the world and at some point decide what I want to do. I’m not depressed. I’m experiencing other feelings about self quarantine, but not depression. And that is a blessing.

Part of what’s saving me is that I’m a homebody. There’s a comfort to be asked to stay inside. It gives legitimacy to all the staying in I already do. I can watch as much TV as I want without judgment. My judgment. I give myself a hard time about what I do. What I don’t do. When life was as we used to know it, I would come home from work worn out and I wouldn’t want to do anything. Some nights I’d go to an AA meeting. I always thought I should be doing something I’m wasn’t. I would envy those people who have a lot of friends who do things together and can talk about their shared experiences. What do I do? Go to work, come home, go to a meeting (sometimes) and then home. Maybe see a friend on the weekend, maybe stay alone. In this I find great shame – and it’s not so easy to tame that.

But I do get antsy at times being homebound. I’ve been cooking and baking cookies. I went to the dentist. I take trips to the grocery store with its empty shelves. I even senior-shopped once as you have to be over 60 to qualify – yikes! I go AA Zoom meetings, sometimes bored and sometimes not. I text, talk on the phone, read, FaceTime, House Party. I watch a lot of TV . On Saturday mornings I deliver food to seniors.

And I feel safe. I feel protected.* When I can slow down, when I can feel Philip’s presence, I feel okay to be alive. If you’ve read my last posts you see the struggle I have to take my part in life. But Philip is ever here, ever loving. When someone dies their love remains. Cold comfort when all you want is for them to please come home. But they won’t, so we live with what we have, what is real. And what is real is Love.

*This has nothing to do with the virus – masks and gloves are necessary.

© 2020 Denise Smyth

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