What it Takes?

I started this blog a year after Philip died. I was as raw as I’d ever been – no, more raw then I’d ever been. I spent years trying to put words on what I felt like. There was no other way to survive. I wrote that there weren’t words to describe what I was feeling because the usual words – grief, despair, agony, etc. – were words I’d used before and what I was feeling was beyond any of that. So I strung words together best I could and made whatever sense I could.

Over the years, grief’s hold on me lessened, old habits of depression felt normal, life felt hard and unmanageable. Writing no longer interested me, quilting did. That’s where my creativity took me for a few years until I lost interest in that, too. I’d write posts here and there but not much else. I started watching a lot of TV and just didn’t care too much about anything except Natalie. A couple years ago, as I mentioned in my last, I started reading about the Tudors. Kings and queens fascinate me, Game of Thrones had ended, reading finally gripped me the way it did when I was younger and would not go anywhere without a book. I still watch TV here and there but it’s reading that I’m mostly caught up in.

Still, not much creative output. It just seemed easier to let it all go and wait. For what? I’ll leave it there for now.

I am at the Jersey Shore at my cousin Maria’s house and will be here until Labor Day. So much to say about this, but not now. When I’m here I usually go for a walk first thing in the morning, around 6:30 or so. When I’m back I make coffee and sit outside to drink it. Her house is on the bay, her backyard spa-like. There are multiple places to sit or lounge, a dock with her boat and jet-skis, a pool and a jacuzzi and her big, beautiful, long-haired German Shepard to keep me company. Last night he slept with me, the only male I’ve had in my bed for a decade.

When I sat taking it all in this morning my mind was going its un-merry way. I’m 64 now, and I can say that physically I’ve had a good 63 years but things have started going wrong and I hate it. How unfair, I was thinking, that we are born into bodies that take up way too much time distracting us from what really matters, yet distract us they do. Whether we’re young and insist on basing success upon physicality or older and doing the same but with the bitterness of our aches and pains, what’s the fucking point if we have to constantly deal with our bodies?

Somehow, I caught myself. Is this what I want to be thinking about? Am I even thinking, or is this just mind-meandering, an updated version of former, similar unhappiness? And I remembered earlier years of writing this blog, when I certainly had a lot to be unhappy about. But there was a quality there that stood in sharp contrast to what I’d just been doing. Of course I was inconsolably, desperately, unhappy. But I was somehow with it, open to it, and willing to put words on it. It was not work to do so. I was too devastated by Philip’s death to be anything else.

For years I have been unable to be in that place. It’d been suggested to me I was having a “dark night of the soul,” that I would come out of it. Just words, I thought, because it’s been years of it. A matter of will? How does one will oneself to care? I don’t know how to explain how I got there any more than I know how to explain why today I’m able to sit with this, why or how I’ve been able to write these last few posts. I coast along, not forcing a particular direction. That’s what I’ve been feeling like for years and not caring to do otherwise. I’m not saying I’ve made a big change, some willful decision, but – for this moment, at least – I am wanting to think about what is going on. With me and Maria, my mom and Alzheimer’s, my extended family, my addictions, my solitude and most of all, my children.

There’s one change I want to note. In my early 40s I decided to go on antidepressants. I’d been in therapy for 20 years at that point, sober for about 17 and still depressed. I’d had several therapists suggest medication but I’d wanted to get to the bottom of my misery without chemicals. Finally I thought, “what the hell” and started seeing a psychiatrist. That led to over 20 years of trying this med and that med and settling on Wellbutrin for about 14 years. At some point that wasn’t working, so my doctor tried adding this other med and that other med and when, in 2010, I had a meltdown, my mood-managers got together and decided an anti-anxiety medicine was in order. By then I was hooked on thinking some kind of drug has to help me and when I was prescribed Gabapentin I thought I hit the jackpot.

Gabapentin made me feel good about being alive. It was not subtle, like an anti-depressant. Its effects could be felt within a short time of taking it. But I am an addict. So if a bit of something shifts my mood enough that I feel good about being alive, then more of it must make me feel even better about being alive.  It was prescribed, so it was okay. I managed to get my initial dose raised about as high as it could be, then started taking none on one day so I could take extra another day. I talked about this to no one. Eventually Gabapentin worked against me. I was irritable, forgetful and nervous and fearful of everything. I was also trapped because I saw no way to stop taking it. 

Except I did. I’m not sure when except that it was months and months ago. Sometimes I wish I paid more attention – if you know anything about AA, anniversaries are a deal. People might say, “the person who woke up the earliest is the one with the most sobriety” but I believe few really feel that way. I was as caught up in year count as anyone else – had I not started drinking when Philip died, next year would’ve been 40 years, people would’ve admired me and I’d have eaten it up. But I also know the emptiness of that – needing that kind of recognition and approval does not fill the hole that demands it.

I still see no clear cut path as to how I was able to stop using something I swore I couldn’t live without. If I’d asked for help – as I did when I went to AA  – then the steps would be obvious. But this I did mostly by myself. I began to ask Philip to help me as – and again, I will not get into this now – he is very much with me and it is he who I turn to for help every day. Between the two of us I managed to stop by tapering off. I did not involve my psychiatrist. The only medical professional I turned to was S, the Physician’s Assistant who works in my office and who is my practitioner. When I was down to taking the bare minimum before actually, finally stopping it altogether, I was not feeling well. Not emotionally or mentally, but physically. Weak, tired, fatigued – not the kind of symptoms I could find while trolling the internet for “Gabapentin Withdrawal.” My PA suggested I might need to stay on one or two pills a day. I refused. The weeks went on, the symptoms went away. It was over.

Next went Abilify, which was supposed to enhance Wellbulltrin. That was easy, I did not feel any different. And finally, Wellbutrin. For both of these I spoke to my psychiatrist as to how best to taper off. I am well aware one does not just stop taking antidepressants on a whim. I received my instructions, bid her good-bye, told my PA what I was doing and that if I needed her, I’d let her know.

I am now off all of it, and have had no repercussions. I tapered off the Wellbutrin more quickly than advised because through each stage I had no adverse reactions and because sometimes I know my own body better than somebody else. Again – I wish I kept track of when I did it, again I can say it was sometime this year. So I’ll leave it that 2022 was the year I stopped taking prescription medication designed to make me emotionally and mentally “better.”

I’ve written all this because I assume it is an aspect of why I have the ability I’d believed I’d lost to sit and think about the life I experience. And for all the decades of trying to deal with my life through alcohol and drugs, both legal and illegal, the only organic way I have of doing that, of attempting to take myself seriously and at least try to find meaning, is writing. And that requires removing whatever blocks my process.

NB – This is my story, my experience of working with a psychiatrist and the medications I was prescribed. It is no one else’s and I am certainly not recommending anyone flush their medications down the toilet. I am not a doctor, I have not even done any amateur research into this topic. I do know there are levels of depression and psychosis and when someone needs help, my only suggestion would be to find a doctor you trust to help. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to leave behind Wellbutrin so easily. And whatever I’m going through now is not something medication, prescribed or otherwise, can “cure.”

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Surface Dive

Self-centeredness, self-pity. Traits, I’m told, of the alcoholic. Traits, I say, of humans. But in the context of addiction, the work is to learn to live sober and these are two of the things to pay honest attention to on the road to recovery.

Note – it might be prudent to explain my mother’s current condition. She is fairly healthy for 90, on two medications for her memory and one for high blood pressure. She can, with difficulty, get up and down the stairs on her own, can bathe and use the bathroom on her own. She dresses herself. She is no longer allowed to drive, which is causing her great angst. She remembers things from long ago but forgets what happened two minutes ago. I have called her within a few minutes of someone else calling her and she does not remember talking to that other person. She will often call me after I’ve spoken to her to ask if I just called and what we talked about. She repeats the same questions over and over during conversations and repeats the same sentences no matter how many times you call or how often you speak to her. She is irritable. She is at a point in this disease where it is not clear what she needs, but it is clear she should have even a few hours of daily company which is why we’ve hired someone.

I am going to start by indulging in self-centeredness. My mom’s Alzheimer’s might not be about me but that’s how I come at it. My behavior does not reflect this. My rage does. I call my mom regularly, stay on top of her caregiver, am working to get her Medicaid, helping to manage her finances. All this I do with my brother R. and sister-in-law M. and I try to focus not only on the fact that I am doing for this for them, but that being in this situation has brought me close to them in ways that previously did not exist. So mom, thank you .

Overriding all is rage. “Radical Compassion” by Tara Brach has been suggested reading for me. Once in a while I’ll actually purchase something suggested, most of the time I’ll read a couple pages before it finds its place, in alphabetical order, on the “Definitely Later” Shelf. The fact that I’ve purchased a title in book form instead of as a virtual download doesn’t give it much chance of being read. I read mostly fiction on my iPad as it is easier on my aging eyes and for the last two years it’s been difficult to get me to read anything beyond historical fiction dedicated to The Tudors and the centuries prior to their reign.

But I have begun to read “Radical Compassion,” which discusses meditation by the RAIN method. If you’re as disenchanted with meditation as I am, I’d suggest you give this book a shot. RAIN stands for Recognize – Allow – Investigate – Nurture. Since I’ve only read about 50 pages of the book, if you like what I say go ahead and get it for yourself to see what the whole thing is about because I sure don’t know. I plan on reading more, but I’ve begun to work with the first few steps which are much more interesting – as well as more painful – than my usual way of meditation which involves sitting quietly and focusing on my breath. Then when I notice I’m thinking, I label my thoughts, “thinking,” and bring my attention back to my breath, and so on. I admit to never having given that enough of a chance – I’ve done it for weeks at a time, then lost interest.

As for RAIN, I’ve gone through the first few steps, using my mom’s Alzheimer’s as a starting point. Recognizing, which means simply recognizing what I’m feeling. Allowing, letting my feelings be. No judging, ignoring, wishing them away. Investigate – this is the interesting part. Brach writes specific questions regarding this stage in case you’re having trouble. I left out the Nurture part for now. But I came up with a couple realizations and lots of self-centeredness.

It’s not just that I’m enraged that my mom has Alzheimer’s and that I am powerless over this. It’s realizing what’s expected of me and I want none of it. I am trapped in this. My mom needs help and Alzheimer’s does not get better. It’s progressive and unpredictable. It can take months or years to reach full progression. It is costly and having taken a look at her finances, she doesn’t have what she needs which is yet more angst as I find myself wanting to screech My dad did not deal with this and I certainly am not going to! She needs daily attention and we do not know when this will turn into hourly attention. To that end, my brother and I are working with a Senior Advisor to get additional insurance in place for her to be able to get her the help she needs. The goal is to keep her in her house. Which, I might add, does not have a bathroom on the main floor nor space to add one. She can get up and down the stairs for now, but for how long?

R and M have been going the extra mile. They live closer and will pick her up to take her places. My brother works in Brooklyn and will at times stop by after work to see how she’s doing. I’m in New Jersey. Not so far, but travel there is through the Highways of Hell (for any who gets it: Garden State, Route 280, NJ Turnpike, Staten Island Expressway, plus two bridges thrown in) and the early morning 50 minute drive invariably turns into at least 2-1/2 hours to get home.

Sitting quietly and “investigating” brought up only the tip of what I’m experiencing. I’ve already known I want no part of this, that when I sit and think about it, I feel the anxiety. I am ashamed that these feelings will be seen by my brother and M and they will hate me for it. I am afraid this is going to go on for a long time and I will not be able to keep this pretense up. I am angry about what’s to come – the act of going to her house and dealing the decades-old accumulation of boxes and paper and what looks to me like junk that’s held on to for the sake of holding on. It is hard to breathe in that house, the house I grew up in since third grade, the house I flew out of at 22 as soon as I was able. Still I feel whatever I am saying here is at surface level. Still I must do a deeper dive if I’m to come to a real understanding of what’s driving me. But the closest I’ve come to something new is the fact that I have depended upon my mother to be the one to the blame and without her, without that, who am I?

© 2022 Denise Smyth

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 posting 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

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

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