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

Background

Some background.

I had my first drink when I was 11. When my own kids turned 11, their innocence still intact from alcohol, I felt sad for the child I was that felt that much misery that she had to drink to escape it. I was too little to drink with friends or go to parties, but I found ways to sneak it into my room to drink in secret. I didn’t like the way I felt and that was my way out.

The first time I drank, my parents had gone out on a Saturday night and left me to baby-sit my seven-year-old brother. Soon as he was in his room for the night, I opened the liquor cabinet which had quite the array. Besides the hard stuff, there were cordials and liqueurs and brandies and wines. My parents did not drink alcoholically, but they kept a stocked cabinet for their dinner parties. My predilection was to go for the hard stuff that’d get the job done, but I was afraid it was going to take a lot to get me drunk so rather than drink too much from one bottle, I took a mouthful from all. Then I reeled up to my bedroom, passed out, woke in the middle of the night, threw up all over my bed, passed out again, woke up with a hangover and couldn’t wait to do it again.

I spent the next thirteen years drinking and drugging as much as I could. It was what I lived for. There are stories, of course, but I’ll tell the one that’s relevant given my last post.

Around the time I started drinking, maybe before I started drinking, I had a death wish. I think I was around twelve when I went through a short period of taking aspirin, thinking it would do something to me. I took 5 one day, then 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, up to 11. I can’t say I was looking for death, but I was looking for something to be altered. I don’t know the first time I wished I’d die but I do know the wish grew like a cancer the older I got. By the time I was 22 I was desperate. I’d bought a pack of razors and hid them, waiting for the right moment. It came the weekend my parents drove my brother to the college he’d been accepted into. I had the house to myself. That Saturday I went to a party, got drunk, took quaaludes. My boyfriend Chris was there and when he passed out at 2 in the morning I decided it was time. I went home and did what one who was about to slash her wrists was supposed to do. Ran the water in the tub, placed the razor on the tub edge and a bottle of scotch on the floor. I was already drunk but I knew I needed more to deal with the pain of slicing a vein. Into the tub I went, swallowed another mouthful of scotch, and started in.

It wasn’t easy. It hurt like hell no matter how much I drank, but I was determined. I hacked at my wrists as best I could and I don’t know if such a thing is possible but I thought I nicked a vein because suddenly blood sprayed out. Not dripped, but a thin shot of it that hit the tube walls and made a mess. And all I thought was, “I am doing this. I am really doing this.”

It wasn’t my time, though, because through the splashing of the water coming out the tub spout and the screeching in my brain, I heard my phone ringing. It was around 3am. And it was ringing and ringing and I looked down at my bloody bath and shot out of there straight to the phone where as soon as I heard Chris’ voice I started screaming, I did it I did it and he kept asking what did you do and all I could do was scream.

By answering the phone I’d chosen life and Chris came to the rescue. From his end, he’d woken from his drug-induced coma and asked where I was. I hadn’t said good night to anyone but a couple people saw me leave. He said he’d gotten a bad feeling and had been ringing the phone for ten minutes, trying to figure out how he’d break into my house if I didn’t answer soon.

He came, he saw, he left to buy bandages at the 24-hour drug store, cleaned me first, then the bathtub. I watched him from behind scrubbing and rinsing the blood away and thought I never loved him more.

Of course that wasn’t a happily-ever-after. I needed help. As far as my attempt, I was ashamed that I had tried and failed and knew I would never do it again. My reasoning at the time was I didn’t want to turn into a half-measure suicide attempter who used the act as a call for help. I chalked it up to a failure on my part and resolved never to fail in that particular way again.

I don’t believe in coincidence as random. I wasn’t supposed to die that night. And I made the choice not to. So something was there, some part of me wanted to live.

And something else, more recent. A couple days after I wrote my last post, I was at work, standing and talking to a co-worker. As we spoke, I started to get light headed. Everything shifted. I couldn’t stop it, I didn’t understand what was happening. “Spiro,” I said, “I don’t feel well.” The world felt like it was slipping away and there was nothing I could do. I am having a stroke, I thought. Or a heart attack. I don’t want to die.

I don’t know what that was but it passed in about ten minutes. And when I let myself feel I was faced with possible death, I rejected it. Can someone tell me – who the fuck am I?

To be continued.

© 2020 Denise Smyth

29

Philip would have been 29 today. I’ve read the posts I’ve written in the past on his birthdays. How thoughtful of me. For all the times I called grief a spiral, I thought things like his birthdays, or the anniversaries of his death, would be more linear, with me gaining some sort of cumulative wisdom along the way. This is not true. This, today, right now, nearly seven years later, is the worst-most-hopeless I have been in a long time.

I hate being alive. I HATE IT. This is more than just a today’s-Philip’s-birthday-I-have-the-blues rant. This is about an impossible loneliness I am inadequate to remedy. This is me, me everyday waiting and watching and hoping that this night, this night when I fall asleep, my nightly prayer will ring true:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the lord my soul to keep

I pray to die before I wake

I pray the lord my soul to take.

I don’t want to fall ill, I don’t want to contract some nightmarish disease or even an ordinary one.I just want to to sleep and not wake up. And stop with the twisted horror or pity on your face. If it’s there, you don’t know. Your desire to live and ability to enjoy yourself is just as alien to me as my craving for nihilism is to you.

It’s no one’s fault. I am severely unequipped  to handle life on life’s terms. I think I once thought I was, but now it seems that was arrogance. It’s more than the fact that Philip has died. Phil, my ex, has lost him too – and look how he’s doing. A LOT of friends, interests, a lovely home, a long-time partner, his daughter who adores him. I am happy for him, and grateful that Natalie has one parent who can show her how it’s done.

I think I suffer from mental illness. I stopped therapy over the summer – it’d been 40 years plus countless medications and still I don’t want to get out of the bed in the morning. I still can’t sustain a relationship. Not even with K, a person so much more loving, wise, smart and compassionate than anyone I could have imagined. But I managed to push her away and eight months later I am still mourning. And what am I doing to help my daughter? She lives in the this crappy little apartment with me but I do nothing to help her get on the right track, simply smiling and nodding while I watch her life spin more out of control.

I tried AA these last four months. But the problem is I bring myself there, with all my resistances and self-doubts and isolationist tendencies and I don’t pick up the phone to call anyone so I might as well stay home and watch TV where I at least don’t have to hold hands and say meaningless prayers during the end credits. There are people in AA who would be more than willing to talk to me. But I have to make the first call and when I think about doing so, the phone becomes unreasonably heavy and I cannot lift it. No one more than me realizes  how much I get in the way of myself but if I’m to be relied upon to help myself out I’m just going to drown.

Today I am waiting for call from a woman I’d asked to be my sponsor. She’s busy with work and with other women she helps and said she’d know for sure by today if she’ll be able to work with me. I don’t think I’ve ever given AA a fair shot. AA’s idea of God isn’t mine and the closest I can come to “turning my will over” is to stop resisting what is so. Aside from my language objections, there must be some sage advice the program has to offer me if I can hear it through the right person and I am desperate enough to want that. But what if she doesn’t call? Everything is the final straw with me; everything brings me to the brink and the hopeless tears don’t stop. I’m scared. What if she doesn’t call? Find someone else, you say. You don’t understand. This is just more confirmation of how alone I am and of my inability to connect. What’s the point of being alive with this much loneliness? What’s the point when I don’t want to go out, and when I am out, all I want to do is get back home and hide? What’s the fucking point?

K called and asked if I wanted to meet her for lunch today in Brooklyn, just get out and not spend this day alone. I almost said yes, but at my peril. She can see me as a friend, she can take care of me today and then let me go home tonight. I am not there. I want to see her because I want to hold her and cry with her and I want her to soothe me in bed tonight. And all this knowledge does is make me more lonely and grieved. Makes me more want to stop waking up because I cannot tolerate all this pain, all this only-pain. This is not something that just-passes. Oh, the intensity of it, sure. But not the the dull ache of everyday’s WTF am I here for and when is this going to end. I hear plenty of people grateful to have one more day, I hear plenty of people in AA claiming to have a life they never thought they could. And I am alienated further. My son is dead, my daughter grows distant, I’ve barely any friends. I am alone. What else is there to say? I am in trouble, and from what I can see, this time through’s not the way out.

Do I?

Of all the many moments that stand out for me in Game of Thrones, one is the scene where Theon Greyjoy goes home to the Iron Islands after ten years and is confronted by his father Balon and sister Yara. When Theon is shocked that his father considers Yara his heir instead of him, Balon Greyjoy says of his daughter, “She knows who she is.” That simple – she knows who she is. What I would give give for that clarity. For that power, for surely that’s where power resides.

A few years ago I stopped writing. Something snapped, in spite of everything, in spite of the countless times I’ve written grief is a spiral, as it – as life – actually is, I’m still disappointed when the linear evades me.

When the agony, terror and sheer shock of Philip’s death forced me to action, it was writing I turned to. How else to map my heart which was so much more than broken? A heart breaks when a lover leaves. What words are there for when a child dies? And in the years after, during the time I wrote my blog most intensely, it seemed that I broke through something I’d tried my whole life to break through. A nearly unendurable pain, made tolerable by the words I could put on it. Until I couldn’t anymore, until the pain of Philip’s death got mixed up with the pain of life prior to his death and I found myself back down the rabbit hole, silent and dark and full of things too murky to describe but painful all the same.

I am 61. When I say it like that it’s with the addendum, “Enough, already.” But those decades seem to belong to someone else. Surely 61 brings with it its own wisdom? I should know better. Age is a given, wisdom isn’t. And whatever wisdom I once felt I had earned has slipped beneath the layers of anxiety I’m more aware of than anything. Loss is all, is what I think. It obliterates whatever realities come between as it’s felt more keenly than any of it. And what brings it all up is suffering is the loss of my girlfriend which I can only blame on myself. For nearly a year and a half we were together, and for a year and a half I was ambivalent. I don’t know how I feel about you, I kept saying. I don’t know how I feel. Until she had enough and who could blame her? We need to take a break, she said. Of course she was right. And of course that’s all it took to explode my ambivalence into shards and now that the break has officially become a break up I’ve only come to love her more, while she has come to trust me less.

I miss her. Every day I miss her and it’s been months. I’m tired of loss and my coping mechanism is to give up. When I am alone I tell myself to give up, let nothing matter, wait until it’s all over. I don’t like being here. I don’t know what to do with myself so I spend lots of time watching TV, the fantasy that is other people’s lives which are so much better than mine. Can’t someone give me a script? Of course not. I have to write my own.

I’m lonely and it has nothing to do with people and everything to do with grief. Recently I went back to AA meetings. I did it because I was smoking weed at night so I didn’t have to listen to the voices in my head, didn’t have to miss K so much. I’m an addict. When Philip died, after nearly 30 years sober I tried drinking again and that didn’t work. I drank mostly at alone and tried a few times to drink with friends. I am not a social drinker. Put a drink in my hand and all I’m thinking about is the next one. I might be trying to hold a conversation with you but I’m not all there and I want to drink until I’m really not all there.

So I stopped drinking and started smoking weed. It seemed more manageable. No hangover, no sloppy drunkenness, But I drank mostly alone at night and the same with weed. Getting high was not a social event. It was in place of a social event. I went back to AA because besides needing to stop smoking I need to be around people. My life has been Ground Hog Day. Get up, go to work, come home, smoke weed, watch TV, go to sleep. All the while feeling like shit about myself for what I’m doing and what I’m not doing.

I think I’m supposed to be a different way. I think I’m supposed to like museums and opera. I think I’m supposed to pay more attention to politics, have a more interesting job, be a more interesting person. How could anyone like me, never mind love me. But K loved me and Philip loved me. One I pushed away and one died. So how will I choose to live with loss? Do I really give up? Do I really just wait to die? Do I try to make meaning out of loss, so I see that I can live in the face of it?

Maybe starting to write is the beginning of the answer.

© 2019 Denise Smyth

Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

Natalie and I just had portraits taken. This is my favorite. I have a portrait of Philip and me, I wanted one of me and Natalie. How happy I look – it makes me smile when I see it. And it’s genuine – I love my daughter and I am able to enjoy her. “Enjoy” is a word I thought I would never use once Philip died. But the deep and grievous wound of his death has made me vulnerable to love as well as to pain. Never have I realized how deeply I love my daughter. Or that the fact of my love for my son is what sustains me through his death, even as it brings me to my knees in grief.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I say Philip’s name. I call out to him. And I realize how little his name is actually said. And how saying it doesn’t mean he’ll answer the phone or sit across from me and chat at dinner. It reminds me that something’s gotten smaller and more lonely. His name is lost in space. I can say it, it can go out there, but I will never speak it out loud to my son again.

I used to scream Philip’s name in my car when he first died. Now when I say it it hangs thin in the air, like an empty clothesline. A reminder that there used to be a person at the other end of that name, there used to be hair and flesh and hands that had two differently shaped thumbs. I’m the only one, besides him, who noticed. He was over 6’, tall enough to for me to lay my head on his chest when I needed a moment of love and protection. Reassurance, because what could be wrong if he was all right? That’s why I didn’t worry about him. Because he was all right until he wasn’t, and worrying wouldn’t have changed anything.

I’ve been wondering if I’m lonely. Another one of those feelings I thought would feel one way when in fact it feels another. I imagined lonely as sitting with my head hanging and wishing desperately for company. I imagined it small, sad and helpless in the kind of silence no sound can disturb. But that’s not what it is. It’s quiet, for sure. It’s a longing for I-don’t-what. It’s a restlessness. It’s me hurrying home because that’s where I’ll find what I love. My daughter. My dog and my cat. And it’s where I go to do what I love – to write, to quilt, to knit. When I’m creating I feel alive.

But I have to follow the flow of my energy because there’s only so much of it. I know when I want to write or knit or sew. I also know when I’m done with it for the day, and that often leaves a space that I fill with TV. The only television I used to watch was news. Now I can’t watch the insanity we call “the world.” The grief I hold for Philip is all I can manage. So I look for series, the longer the better. I started that when Philip died. It didn’t take away the sick knot in my stomach, or that I felt raw, bloodied and beaten up, but it quieted my mind. And if I needed anything, it was relief from the damn screaming in my head.

Now there’s no more screaming, just the chattering of the monkey mind. And confusion about what it is I’m yearning for but can’t find. Whatever it is, it’s not “out there.” It’s a reckoning from within. The past informs my present too much. Growing up I felt I was in the wrong world doing the wrong things. I was drunk and directionless. I went to college, then dropped out because I wasn’t interested. I got a job in the last place I thought I’d wind up, Wall Street. For years I worked there in misery. I knew I was in trouble the day I got a $12,000 bonus and looked at it with a shrug.

It is not enough to say, “it’s a job, you’re not supposed to like it.” If that’s what you make of it, then that’s how you’ll live. It was work I was after, not some job, but I didn’t know how to find it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was asleep. What I wanted to do, what I always wanted to do, was write – but at 18 I was incapable of making decisions that didn’t involve alcohol. I wandered into FIT (Fashion Institute) in NY because my friend went there. As if I gave  a shit about fashion. When that didn’t work out I wandered into a job on Wall Street because a friend got me an interview. I spent my free time drinking and when I decided to stop, I spent my free time in AA.

I didn’t understand what I know now. Back then, the world was the problem, as if I had nothing to do with anything. As if I was at the mercy of an implacable universe. I used to say there must be a God because this much pain can’t be random

I can’t say how I think my life should be or should have been. The doing is only the reflection of the being. If I had the presence of mind when I was a kid, I would have gone to college to study the things that called me – writing and literature. That would have led to a different life. Not necessarily better, just different. But that’s not what happened. I am where I am because of choices I made and things that have happened that I have no control over. The classroom I learn from is wherever I am.

There is a way to live that feels right. You have to pay attention to where your spirit leads, not to what the world says. The world is crazy – why on earth would you want to listen to it? I’ve listened too long and too hard and much as I begin to disengage from the false, the truth is not so easily revealed. Or maybe it is and I still can’t see it. I’ve an inner struggle that manifests in the material. Today, talking with Kirsten, I realized that much as I don’t particularly think about the future, I have a sense that this is all there is, this is where I stop, this is where I’ll be when I die, restless and lonely, wondering what it was I was asked to do but too scared to hear the question.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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