“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

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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