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 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

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

“It’s just one story”

(Spoiler Alert: In case anyone’s watching or planning to watch “True Detective,” I’m writing about the final scene.)

I’ve watched “True Detective” three times. When I finished the post before my last (“Hand to God”), I was up to my second viewing of the final episode. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t remember the all of it. And what struck me was the final conversation between Rust and Marty, because this is what I’d written in that post:

“So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?”

I’ve mentioned “True Detective” several times now; if you haven’t been reading along, Rust and Marty are two detectives trying to solve a macabre murder. Rust is the dark one. The fact that his two-year-old daughter was hit by a car and died is a huge part of what drives him.

The final scene in “True Detective” takes place at night, outside the hospital where Rust and Marty had been taken after being attacked by the suspect they’d been pursuing. Marty was already released, Rust was in a wheelchair. He’d sustained more serious injuries, was in a coma for a while. As Marty pushes Rust in the wheelchair, Rust talks about what we’d call a near-death experience, but not quite like the ones most of us heard about, the ones with the white light. He says he went somewhere dark, and in the deeper-dark he knew his daughter was there; he could feel her love. In that place, he said, there was nothing but that love. And even if you haven’t watched any of “True Detective,” if you’ve read the bit I wrote about it or watched any of the scenes I linked to, you’ll know Rust is not a sentimental guy. Hell, in eight episodes his one and only smile was a smug one.

Rust says that he wanted to stay in that love, and so he let go. That’s quite the opposite of near-death experiences I’ve read about, where people say they didn’t want to “come back,” but they knew they had to. Rust had no such dilemma. He let go, but he woke up. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he cried.

So Rust is crying in his wheelchair, and Marty looks up at the sky, at all the stars. Marty reminds Rust that Rust once told him that when he lived in Alaska, he used to look at the stars and make up stories. Tell me a story, Marty says.

“…I was thinkin’. It’s just one story. The oldest,” Rust answers.

“What’s that?”

“Light vs. dark.”

Marty looks up at the sky again. “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah. You’re right about that.”

But then a minute later, this is what Rust says, the last lines of the show:

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong. The sky thing…Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

Light and dark – there it is. Rust found something in that deep-dark that allowed him some light. It was Love. Because if Love is real, is tangible, there’s a reason to live. I don’t consider that a ride-off-into-the-sunset moment. It was a transcendent moment, which is no guarantee of what any next moment will be. But each moment like that is a star twinkling in the blueblack night. If you’ve ever looked deeply into a sky lit with stars, you know the beauty that comes from the interplay of dark and light.

Years ago, when I first joined AA, I met Maria. We shared the same sponsor and vied for her attention like two children. It was part of the friction between us, but I had no friends except the ones I was making in AA. I needed her.  Maria was short and dense with a long, serious face, wildly curly black hair and eyes that warned you away, like there was something inside she was keeping watch on. I used to think she was mean. But maybe she was watching the hurt that she’d been trying to drink away, maybe she was protecting that hurt because if your pain runs your life, what are you without it? And if that pain’s lived holding hands with alcohol, what kind of monster does it turn into without it?

One day Maria told me she’d seen God. What do you mean, I asked – you saw Him, like He was a person? Yes, she said, I saw Him. He’d come to her in a vision of robes and glory. I didn’t know if I believed her. I imagined such a thing was possible, but talking about it made it sound loopy. I wanted to ask Maria, “Then what could ever be wrong for you? If you saw God, if you knew He existed, what could your sorrows be?”

I didn’t ask because I didn’t want her to think I doubted her. Truth is I was envious. Why’d God visit her and not me? I’d stopped drinking and was trying to “turn my will and life over to the care of God” like everyone around me. It wasn’t working. But if I had a vision, I would finally be once-and-forever all right because I’d know something I hadn’t known before. If God revealed Himself to me I could believe there was something beyond this deeply disturbing world. But where was He, and why should I want to live in a world that even He refused to inhabit?

There isn’t – for most of us – a single epiphany that causes a big enough shift that world settles down forever. That we settle down forever, because the world is the world and it isn’t going to change. If you want to change the world, change your mind about the world. That’s the way to peace. I’ve had moments of transcendence, and never more so than since Philip died – not the least of it being the way he communicates with me. Two years of it and I’m still sometimes shocked. Philip’s wise in ways I didn’t have access to when he was alive. To be this close with him in death is pure grace. But what do I do with it? I know these daily signs are nudges from him telling me to wake up to life. He told me a long time ago that signs are pointers to the truth. At some point they’re not necessary. But he knows I’m too hurt and shaky to do without for now.

Never have I felt as loved as I do since Philip died. A broken heart means I’m as vulnerable to love as to grief. But my dark still has a lot more territory. I know that sometimes life’s irredeemable, sometimes people die sad and broken. So I have to ask myself what do I make of I’ve been given and what’s been taken? Will I die treating my life like a tragedy?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Every Story

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
“Landslide” by Stevie Nicks

Where does anyone turn to answer those questions? Because I’ve a sickening feeling about the season my life’s turned into, the one about moving on without Philip. I don’t mean “moving on” as in “getting over it.” I mean life is motion and where life goes, so go I. And I don’t mean – really – “without” Philip. I’ve said much about the way he communicates with me. But I’m facing his death, the loss of his physical presence, and I’m weak in the knees once more.

I am in need of spirit, and I’m still asking myself how to find it, though I know the answer is within, not without. I’ve done enough searching to know I’m not going to find it through a go-to guru – Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Madonna and her Kabbalah included. Don’t ask me what any of them are talking about – that they’re on TV giving the rest of us their version of spirituality is enough for me not to listen. My big turn-off to New Age “spiritualism” came after reading something or other Louise-Hay which had me walking around “affirming” over and over what I thought I wanted and having a pit in my stomach while I was doing it. Whatever I wanted wasn’t happening, and trying to convince myself that it was, wasn’t working. Then I saw Ms. Hay on a talk show. It took a few minutes of her one-size-fits-all earnestness to realize no one thing works for everyone, but when some one thing works for someone, they sure like to tell the rest of us about it.

I’ve found some sense in Eckhart Tolle’s writing. When I first saw “A New Earth” in my friend Rebecca’s yoga studio, I thought, “Another book about saving the earth? Most of us can’t even save ourselves, never mind the environment.” And while I’d jumped on the green-is-better bandwagon way before it became chic and expensive to do so, I was sick of the moral indignation that made people care more about the air quality than they did each other.

But a few years ago, when my normal depression had spiked into crisis-mode, my friend Melanie told me Eckhart Tolle was a spiritualist, not an environmentalist, so I bought “A New Earth” on CD and drove around listening to it. It made a whole lot of sense. But I didn’t come upon Tolle in a vacuum. For years I searched for some sort of spirituality through AA, A Course in Miracles and Buddhism – to name a few. Then came the years of not searching for anything at all because it was too damn hard to find something when I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

But the stopping was just as important as the searching. I wasn’t grasping for something any more. I wasn’t at peace, either. Tolle came into the spiritual silence I’d been in, and what he was saying was an amalgam of all that I’d practiced before, in language I could understand.

Of course, considering him a teacher made it easy to go right back into the unconscious I was trying to wake up from. Yeah, yeah, yeah, live in the now, present moment, the past is gone, life doesn’t end, etc., etc. So I’m sure I’ve already heard Tolle say, “Every story ultimately fails.” But when I heard it the other day, I stopped the CD to think about it. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and taking what comfort I can from it. Which isn’t much at the moment, but there’s something there that feels like truth, and no matter how hard a truth is, accepting it is better than arguing with it.

That every story fails is hard to hear, but it’s not a negative assertion. Stories “fail” because they involve form, and all forms are temporary,  are disintegrating even as they’re existing. That includes “thought” forms. Meaning, like, say I think of myself as a really important artist and I create all these wonderful paintings that everyone agrees are phenomenal and then one day I wake up blind. My thought of myself as an artist takes a terrible blow – who the hell am I now? My story as important artist ends and I have to make up a new one. Or not make up one at all, and just try to be. Because every time a form dissolves – whether it’s physical or mental – it leaves an opening to God.

And I use “God” to mean whatever it is you might think is divine in life. Whatever you think is more than you are, whatever force you think there is in this world. The Divine needs space and attention, and we can’t give it that if we’re only concerned with accumulating forms that we think will show both us and the world who we are.

But stories can have truth and beauty, and that doesn’t change when the ending does. And what I mean by story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, instead of living them – the stories about the way things are or were or should be, about what any of it means. Like, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday without saying a word – she’s such a shit. Or, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday – I’m such a shit.

Maybe So-and-So didn’t see me. Maybe So-and-So is suffering and preoccupied. Maybe So-and-So really can’t stand me. What does any of that have to do with me?

And ultimately, both So-and-So and I are going to die. Where’s my story then?

There’s nothing “wrong” with form – it’s our attachments that hurt us. We can enjoy the world of form – through it, we can sense the deeper joy and beauty that is as much a part of life as the terrible grief it seems easier to feel. How many times did I wear that dress before I tore it where it can’t be fixed? How many places did that car take me before it was too old and worn to do so any more? How many days, months, years, how many hours did I take joy and pleasure in  Philip before he died?

But it wasn’t enough. Philip is my child. In my story, he goes on to find work he loves and a woman he loves and they have kids and Natalie and her partner have kids and even though I’m alone I’ll always have somewhere to go and maybe I’ll let everyone else cook Christmas dinner while I sit by the tree and play with my grandkids.

But Philip went and died and half my story is gone and I feel like half of me has gone along with it. What he’s left me is that opening to the spiritual, which I can define as simply learning to see things differently. This is where it gets hard. Really hard. Because the stories we tell are to invent a self. That’s why when one of them disappears it can cause a crisis. And while in so many ways I understand this, where the fuck does that leave me with Philip? In essence, the work is no different: How do I live in the face of loss without feeling diminished?

The short answer is, one breath at a time. And while some part of me knows that, some other – bigger – part of me sees that as just words on a page.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

My Secret

I ended my last post with what was to be next. Instead, I digress.

 *******************

 AA says you’re only as sick as your secrets. The light’s supposed to shine away the dark. Because it’s always there, the light. It’s a matter of if you see it.

Secrets are built into addiction. It’s a matter of survival. “Addiction” becomes this thing you are, not this thing you have. It’s a force, and it wants to survive. It’s not supposed to be able to thrive in the light. So where does the light come from? Just from telling the secret? What exactly happens when you say the thing you think you are or think you have? With all the AA I’ve absorbed, you’d think I’d know.

I have bulimia and anorexia. I don’t mean I had bulimia and anorexia. I mean I have bulimia and anorexia. That’s been my response to Philip dying. At first I wouldn’t eat. For months after Philip died I picked at food. I was drained. A bag of bones my clothes hung on. It wasn’t so much a choice; the food wouldn’t go down. Anxiety was a tsunami in my belly. If anything went in, it would have been blown back out.

In the mess of days after Philip died, people wanted to feed me. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?” they’d ask. I could only shake my head. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do normal. I couldn’t pay attention to anyone because they weren’t in my world. In my world the only answer was, “I will never eat again; I will starve myself to where my son is.”

David Foster Wallace, himself a sober addict when he died, wrote about benign and malignant addictions. “Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign.” He then adds, “…  something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes.” And so round and round I go.

I am so damn angry. And I’ve a habit of punishing myself when I suffer loss, which I wrote about here. In the past, it was about The Guy. The one who always turned out to be a jerk, because, of course, it was his fault. All I wanted was to be loved. I lived for these guys, yearned for them, dressed for them, got on my knees for them; why the fuck couldn’t they love my need away? So I’d leave them, depressed and angry, and start the Food Games. Months of barely eating until my body couldn’t take it any more, at which point I went to war with it. Hunger was a betrayal, forcing me to eat when all I wanted to do was die. I’d sneak into delis and grocery stores, head down, walking as close to the shelves as I could, as embarrassed by my hunger as by my cartful of cookies and cupcakes and chips. I’d start eating in the car, and once I was home, tore through that food until I felt like a blimp about to burst. Then into the bathroom to hurl it all back at the universe. And soon as I got hungry again, I did it all over. Buying more food at different stores. At my worst, binging eight or nine times a day. At my worst, all 5’4” of me weighting 98 lbs., and counting down.

It was my mind that drove me crazy, and my body that I punished.

So what happened? At 28, I met my husband and it hit me it was either him, or my crazy. I chose him. I got help. I settled down. I learned how to eat, how to listen to my body. I stabilized at 125 lbs. The more I let myself eat, the less food was an “issue.” I got married, had kids. And to my wonder and surprise, after Philip was born, I lost more than my pregnancy pounds. I weighed in at 118, where I stayed for the next 20 years.

The blow of Philip’s death blasted me into a suffering I was helpless to deal with, so I turned to food. Same pattern – I went from barely eating, to vomiting. Back and forth, back and forth. Down to 102 lbs., obsessed with staying there. Telling no one; not anyone, for longer than I can remember. Until the day I told Kirsten, told Rose, who is sweet and lovely and who I’ve yet – but hope – to meet. Finally, I told my therapist. And most importantly, I told Natalie, because I would never have taken the risk that she’d find this out through a blog instead of directly from me.

I’ve been throwing out weight and height to make a point, to make the picture clear. To make myself see what I am doing, to shake myself into some semblance of caring for myself. Because much as I’m taking the steps to do what’s right, it’s coming from “I have to,” not, “I want to.” The have-to is because of Natalie; I love her enough to understand she needs me right where I am. It’s all for her; I don’t know how I ever let it get to be for me, too.

Here’s where I stand: I have stopped throwing up. I am afraid to eat, even though I do. I do not weigh myself. I am probably somewhere between 110 − 115 lbs. I am told I am too thin. I do not believe that. When I look in the mirror I don’t see what you do.

And I’m exhausted; I’m tired of worrying about food, tired of it always being on my mind, tired of the voices in my head  that don’t even sound like voices, just sound like normal thoughts. Normal? Here’s a sample: “Oh, are you going to eat that for lunch? That’s too heavy. You better not eat breakfast. Eat some grapes and drink some Vitamin Water. Don’t finish what you’re eating. It’s good to leave food on your plate. What are you going to eat for dinner? You ate lunch, after all, you can’t eat too much for dinner. And don’t eat too late. What? You’re eating popcorn at 10:00 at night? I don’t care if it’s fat-free; that’s bad. Very bad. Bad, bad, bad.”

This isn’t the end; it’s just all I can say for now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Gratitude

In AA there’s a lot of talk about gratitude. Make a gratitude list. Replace guilt with gratitude. Put some gratitude in your attitude. All I ever felt about that was resentful. Gratitude for what, exactly? And it wasn’t my circumstances so much as the way I felt. I didn’t take my first drink at 11 for nothing.

Things were difficult with my parents. But I’m not talking about abuse; I was an emotionally precocious kid with a mom and dad I felt I had to manage. At 55 I see they did the best they could; back then, it wasn’t enough.

In the nature/nurture debate, I stand on the side of both. We come into this world with what to work out, and our parents don’t always help us in the way we want them to. Sometimes we can only learn what we need through difficulty, starting with the Moms and Pops. And as far whether we carry either light or grief (or anything in between) into this world, I can speak to this because of my pregnancies. With Philip I felt the same light and ease about him as I did for all the years he was here. With Natalie, I felt a heaviness, and a stubbornness. And she and I have talked about what it is she feels she carries because there are times and ways she’s troubled that seem to just be part of her.

And she is both wonderfully and exasperatingly stubborn.

Regardless of how I got wherever I was, when I was 24 I walked into AA  and thought I found the answer. Back then, I thought there was an “answer.” A one thing I was missing that maybe could be found there. I went to meetings nearly every day for ten years. I watched people come into the rooms and get sober and get earnest and get God and I just didn’t understand why I didn’t get it, too. After two years of not drinking, a man I knew said to me, “This is the first time I’ve seen you at a meeting and you aren’t crying.” Crying has been a big part of my life. It was the only way I knew to ask for help.

I refused gratitude because something always felt wrong. I didn’t want to live and I didn’t think that was normal. I figured most people were happy to be alive but had their moments when they struggled. Not so me. Depression was my baseline; anything else was an aberration. I had a job, a nice apartment, I was making friends in AA; none of it mattered because of what I felt. No matter what I did, I was unhappy. And angry that I was following the rules but God didn’t reach his hand inside my gut and wrench that misery right out once and for all.

I didn’t consider that vomiting on a daily basis had anything to do with my state of mind. I’d started doing that when I was 22, and continued for the first three years or so after I stopped drinking.  I stopped when I met Phil, who seemed quite sane in the face of my crazy and who I didn’t think would stick around if I kept flushing all dinners he treated me to down the toilet. So I dragged myself to the city to attend the Bulimic/Anorexic stepchild-meeting of AA and got control of not only eating, but of letting the food stay in my belly once it got there.

But AA remained the main front. One day I did my fourth step. That means I “made a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. There isn’t any one way to do it, but at my sponsor’s suggestion I looked at all the troubled relationships of my past and wrote about them as honestly as I could. Four hours later, I’d learned something. Every relationship I wrote about was the same. I could’ve save 3 hours and 45 minutes had I just changed the names. It couldn’t be that all the people in these relationships were the asses I thought they were. I had a part in all of it, but I couldn’t yet see it.

Of course, all that did was cement the idea that there is something wrong with me.

It’s been a torturous route to gratitude, and it isn’t the fullness and peace I imagined it would be. And I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why so much of what matters in life is learned through suffering. Is it the curse of living in a world of opposites? I mean, how do we know except by contrast? If everything was, say, red, then we wouldn’t know not-red. If I’m “happy” all the time, how would I know that I am, except by its unhappy opposite?

Ironically enough, I’ve learned of gratitude through Philip’s death. See, I know how much worse this could have been. If he had to die, at least there was the clarity of love between us.  And I do believe I was being prepared for his death. The images of him dead, picturing myself at his wake, the terrible vulnerability I felt in him and the desperation I had to let him know that I loved him. The joke about finding him dead of an overdose.  That apology I made to him, that seemed to come from nowhere. Philip’s answer to that was, “Mom, I love you and I’m grateful for you.”

He was 21, and he knew gratitude. When I was 21, I sat in a bathtub  and hacked at my wrists with a razor. Yet he is dead, and I am not. Am I the only one who finds this bizarre?

I am grateful that much as Philip’s dead, he’s not gone. He’s not here the way I want him to be, but he’s here in the way I need him. I’m blessed to feel him, to hear him enough to write down what he’s trying to teach me. I’m grateful for the people he’s brought into my life since he died, and for forcing me to feel the heart I didn’t know I had.  He is my muse. And I am grateful that he cracked me wide open because something had to jolt me into the reality I’ve spent my life trying to avoid.

But gratitude is a place I visit, not the home that I yearn for. I’m still struggling with things I’ve struggled with long before Philip died, before he was even born, things that seem insurmountable now that he’s gone. And if my life felt hard more than good when he was alive, it feels impossible to cope with now. Philip’s trying to teach me how to do that. Then you shouldn’t have left me, I tell him; you shouldn’t be gone.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Maybe God, Maybe Not

When I joined AA I had pretty low opinion of God, if I had one at all. He wasn’t much of a factor in my life. If He created me, He must’ve gotten interrupted by a phone call or needed a bathroom break so that when He got back to it, He forgot what He was doing and left a piece out. If He existed, why wasn’t I happy? It didn’t seem fair that I walked around wanting to die while every day millions of others actually did.

God made no difference in my life, but drinking did. Why waste time on my knees when The Answer was limitless, close and affordable? And fast. If there was a God, He took too long, what with all those people he had to care for. So I took care of myself, starting with Boone’s Farm Apple Wine when I was 12 (those days I could take my 12-year-old-self into the liquor store and buy what I wanted) then graduating to rum, vodka or gin (mixed with soda so it wouldn’t taste so bad), pot, quaaludes, amphetamines and whatever I could find in any bathroom I entered that had a medicine cabinet.

God was a nonstarter until January, 1983, age 24, when I took my beaten self to an AA meeting. Instead of finding smoky basements filled with the old and the wet-brained, I found a group called Young Winners* and met people my own age. Younger, even. The group met on Friday nights, which made sense because Friday was drink-your-ass-off night. After the meeting, we’d go out to a diner. I didn’t do God and I didn’t do diners but I was doin’ what I was told because I believed it would make me better.

AA gave me the idea that maybe it was God that I was missing. I thought if I changed His name to Higher Power, it would change the way I thought about Him. Except HP As I Understood Him was still pretty much as distant and pissed off as my parents used to be. I was told prayer was talking to HP, and meditation was listening, so I tried both but I still felt like the only one I was talking to was myself. I was told not to worry, to “believe that we believe.” After a couple years, that’s exactly what I did. Praying got me nowhere so I let everyone else believe and concerned myself with keeping sober and trying to find the right group or the right book that would lead me to some version of a Benevolent Being just right for me.

What I didn’t know was that I was looking for something Out There that only existed in here. The connection I wanted was with  myself which sounded like some platitude until I understood what it meant. I thought I had a connection to my-self, a worthless, shameful self I devised and despised and so when I wasn’t drinking to destroy that self, I tried to do it by vomiting or starving myself (name me one addict who has only one addiction). I didn’t know that the “self” I hated was born and nurtured from the voices in my head which, powerful as they were, were just, well, voices, and since they were in my head not only could I choose not to listen to them, I could make them say something else. Something nice, even, weird and uncomfortable as that felt.

Which brings me back to Simple Isn’t Easy, but at least it’s clear and sensible. And revelatory.

Feeling more connected to a self that I was starting to like let me feel more connected to my kids. I was never as close to Philip as I was when he died. I might’ve tormented myself when my kids were growing up, but I didn’t torment them. My heart hurt for loving them and for not being able to feel how much they loved me back. And when I would tell Ed that in a show of love, Philip did this or Natalie did that, he’d say, “Why do you act so surprised every time you realize how much your kids love you?”

In the couple years before he died, Philip grew more tender than I’d ever seen him. Or maybe I just noticed it more because once he left to live on his own, he no longer had to come if I called, but he did. He’d often get in touch with me in the middle of the night to tell me he loved me. One night he called and said, “Mom, you fascinate me.” What the?? I was living on the top floor of my friend’s house ‘cause I couldn’t afford an apartment, I hated my job, I was manless and restless and still wondering what meaningful thing I could do when I got up in the morning, so what the hell was so fascinating?

“Because you’re growing up,” he said. “And I’m growing up. And we’re doing it together.” `

To which I said nothing because he’d taken my breath away.

The year before Philip died I found myself desperate to tell him I loved him. He was sweet and vulnerable and I didn’t know what I meant by that except I felt a hole in him that I was trying to stuff with my love. I told him that when I was a kid I was struck by the idea that an inch was such a tiny thing, but if you divided it, it became infinity. “I am that inch,” I told him, “and inside this body, my love for you is infinite.”

And a few months before he died, I sent him a text that read, “I am sorry for any time I was ever angry at you or made you feel bad about yourself.”

There was something between us, me and my son. Something relaxed and familiar and right. Something like we fit together, and all it ever was was easy. And that is why on the landing, when I finally stopped crawling and screaming and gave Phil a moment of space to say what he had to say, and what he had to say was, “They found him…” I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence because what I heard was Philip, and what he said was, “Mom, you gotta go deeper.” In the hot, swirling, sinking, stinking mess my world had become, I heard my son and I knew what he meant but all I could think was, fuck you, are you fucking kidding me, is this some fucking cosmic joke? and it occurred to me that right then, right that very second, there were people all over the world who were finding out their children were dead and they were feeling exactly what I was feeling and if it was possible to feel like this, what was the point of being alive?

Accept it, leave it, change it. Somebody, anybody – please, tell me; are there any other options? Because these are not going to work for me this time; these are most definitely not going to work.

*I’m not sure if anonymity only applies to people, but just in case, this was not the real name of the meeting.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Next Time

I don’t exactly know what happened next. I remember bits and pieces.  Maybe I can talk to Phil about it one day.  Maybe he can fill in the gaps, give me his version. When he’s ready. It seems important, much as it can’t really matter. I mean, what of it? If we disagree, we get a do-over? I get to figure out how I could’ve stopped this, changed this, given us the happily-ever-after that required nothing other than our two children living longer than we would?

But I want details. All I have of my son is my story; sorrowful as it might be, I want it all. I want to know what time Phil came over, how long we sat on the landing, if I started to cry right away. I want to know how he knew the New Brunswick police were driving Natalie home, if he spoke to her before he came to me.  I want to know exactly what the police said when he answered the door, what he said back, how he felt. Shock, disbelief, grief – of course I know this. But I want to know where he felt it in his body, how he experienced it. Because if he tells me how he felt, maybe I won’t be so alone. Maybe he can help me find the words I need to find my way home. I don’t know any other way; I have faith in words. I believe that if I can say it the way I need to, I will be well. I believe that what haunts me are the stories I don’t yet know how to tell.

The loss of a child is not so easily shared. Phil and I went to a parents’ bereavement group a few months after Philip died. I am not unused to support groups – years of AA taught me that when a problem seems bigger than you are, finding people who’ve dealt with it can help. Not so this. At least with alcoholism, the path to healing has some sort of shape – if you’re a drunk and you want to start living, you have to stop drinking.

But how am I to find my way on this path? In AA we talked about drinking vodka and drinking wine and the stupid things we did and the dangerous things we did and how we almost died from embarrassment and how we almost died. We talked about what we felt like. We identified. And in our sameness lay our hope and our help.

What was I supposed to identify with here? Maybe I am a mother and you are a mother and I lost a son and you lost a son, but you didn’t lose Philip; you didn’t lose my son. Your “identification” was not what I wanted. It changed nothing. Besides, you couldn’t possibly understand. For you to understand, I’d have to be able to explain what I felt like and I couldn’t. I could not say it to anyone because I didn’t have the words. I could say “grief” and “despair” and “desperation” but that wasn’t what I really meant. Those were ordinary words, words I’d used before. Losing Philip was nothing like anything before. I’d have to invent a language to tell you. And this loss of language unmoored me; I was slipping, slipping away, gone to a place where I could see you and hear you, but you didn’t make any sense.

Ground Control, there’s something wrong. Something terribly fucking wrong.

I started this post intending to continue my narrative. Next time. I’m still skittish from the last piece of it; I’m touchy and sore and I’ve spent the last few days wondering if I’m crazy for doing this. If you’ve found your way here through Facebook, you know I wrote that I’m in a new version of surreal. I’ve stopped telling everyone, including the cashiers where I shop and the telemarketers who somehow breach the do-not-call barrier, what happened. I shower regularly, change my clothes daily. I even put makeup on again. But my heart is broken, a chunk of me is gone, I wake up every day wondering, what now? and I feel kind of crazy to be functioning like a normal person when I’m anything but. I’m small and too scared and I want my son. Sometimes I wonder who is the parent and who is the child, because I cry to Philip, help me, please help me; please come home, please don’t be gone, I miss you and love you and what am I going to do without you, Philip? What am I going to do?

© 2013 Denise Smyth