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

Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Stay (Suicide, Part One)

No, I’m not going to kill myself. But I’ve been preoccupied with being dead, and since the inner eventually becomes the outer, all things suicide have been coming my way.

Natalie bought me a book about suicide for Christmas. “Stay,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I find the title wrenching. “Dad asked me if I bought it because I was worried you’re thinking about killing yourself,” she said. “I told him no, it’s just I know you’re interested in suicide.”

My therapist is concerned. So I asked Natalie, who, after getting annoyed about the whole thing, pointed out that she knows I once tried to kill myself and hence, my interest; that she heard about the book on NPR, which gave her the idea to buy it; that if I was going to kill myself I would have already done so, since I’ve gone through the worst thing in my life so far; and that anyway, I wouldn’t do that to her. And no, I wouldn’t.

But she’s the thread I’m hanging from. I have enough sanity to see she’s a reason not to die. But it feels impossible I’ll ever get to the part about wanting to live. Or maybe I don’t think about that for the next few-whatever. Maybe I first get through Philip’s birthday on January 20th, then February 23rd when it’ll be two years since he died. Because if I’ve learned nothing else these last two months, it’s that this year-two stuff is pretty sickening. Year one’s unreality has been replaced by year two’s finality, and where’s there to go from here?

I get a daily poem from The Writer’s Almanac, which, by the way, is connected to NPR. 95% of the time I don’t read them. But one day last week, I got two emails from the Almanac, the second one correcting the first. Maybe I should read it, I thought; maybe that poem’s trying to get my attention. It was a poem about suicide. I mentioned it to Natalie because of the book she’d given me, and she said maybe it was the same author. So I checked, and sure enough, it was.

And if that’s not enough suicide-stuff, a couple weeks ago, I got a link to a blog post about suicide. The blogger – who I think had once felt suicidal and is now really happy to be alive – decided that those who kill themselves are selfish and cowardly. I don’t argue online – I don’t usually have the energy or self-righteousness for it. But this closed-minded, cliched version of What Kind of People kill themselves incensed me enough to let the blogger know exactly what I thought, which included the fact that many who’d read the post were the ones who’d lived through a loved one’s suicide, and what kind of burden does that add to a load that’s already broken a whole bunch of people to pieces? (And the end of that story was instead of getting flipped-off, the blogger read my entire blog and left a lovely comment. Who knew??)

Since Philip died, I’ve come across people whose loved ones have killed themselves, and I don’t pretend to know what kind of hell it is to live with that. Especially if it’s your child – what ginormous excess of grief must that create? Suicide has nothing to do with the people who love you. It has to do with unfathomable loneliness, other-ness, not belonging, not seeing, not getting why you’re alive if this is what it feels; if all/most of the time, this is what it feels like. And screw feelings-aren’t-facts. Feelings are the world if that’s what you let them be.

My secret mantra has yet again become, “This won’t last forever because I will die.” Not exactly suicide, but a way of becoming one of the walking dead. I already wrote about what Philip said to me about suicide here. And I promised him I’d stop wishing myself dead. But lately, I’m not hearing anything but the battering between my ears, and I don’t know what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my little mantra. Maybe I think it’ll bring a natural death faster, and no one will blame me if that’s how I go.

I become unreachable when I’m lusting for death, which I’ve long considered the only way “out.” When I finally figured out that if I thought death was the answer, I was asking the wrong question, Philip died. And even though I remind myself that death remains the wrong answer, these last few weeks I’ve given up and given in and I see no way through. I’m not in touch with anything inside me that knows how to live, much less wants to. It seems wrong and unnatural, but life’s never much felt like a home I belonged in.

For whatever the reason, I was miserable and angry about life since I was a kid. When I turned 11, I decided the way out was to drink. By 14, I added pot to the mix. By 22, I had bulimia. For years I turned the rage I felt but never understood into a scathing diatribe against myself. I swore God took special pleasure in my unhappiness or else He’d make it go away.

When I was 21, I sat in my parents’ bathtub at 4:00 in the morning while they were away for the weekend, drinking and hacking away at my wrists with a razor blade. I thought I was making progress when the blood started spraying, but that’s when I heard the phone ringing. I guess I wanted to live more than I wanted to die because I answered it. It was my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Chris. Earlier that night, I’d left him at a party, drunk and angry that he hadn’t given me any of the Quaaludes he’d already passed out from taking. What he later told me was that he’d woken up out of his stupor and knew something was wrong when he couldn’t find me. He came over and wanted to take me to the emergency room. I refused, so he wrapped a towel around my wrist and went to a 24-hour drugstore for some butterfly bandages. When he was done patching me up, I sat in the bathroom watching him clean the blood from the walls around the tub.  On his knees, he tossed his long Jesus-hair back over his shoulders and never said a word while he worked. I longed to lay my head on his long, narrow back while he rinsed that bloody rag. I wanted him to love me as much as he wanted to save me, but when he stood and turned to me he was the Chris I knew again, his ever-increasing remoteness further justified.

After that, I went to therapy. I still didn’t want to live, but I was embarrassed by my failed attempt and by what I considered my cowardliness because I knew I wouldn’t do it again. By 24 I went to AA and I stopped drinking. By 30, I married Phil, which went a long way toward stabilizing my violent moodiness. I relied on his steadiness, but it offered no insight into how to build a life that I could enjoy. I’d stopped drinking and vomiting and had even given God a shot, but I wasn’t happy. I was living in a long, gray corridor called depression.  Wanting to die was my default position, the only way to permanently right what was wrong. I got it together for everyone else; I loved my kids and took care of my family, but the life I was living didn’t seem to include me.  I was bored staying home with the kids, unhappy being married, despondent because I had no career, resentful that being a wife meant having sex when the only touch I didn’t object to was that of my children. I was waiting my life out. I thought about swallowing pills but had no idea how to get them. Sleep was the only peace I knew, and the nights I was particularly despondent I’d crawl under the covers, pull them up to my chin and curl up to say my adult version of the prayer my mother taught me as a kid:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I  pray to die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

But the Lord wasn’t listening, so I kept a package of razorblades in my kitchen drawer. I might’ve been too scared to use them, but they were my version of hope.

Next: Suicide, Part Two

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Choosing

After 15 years of living in a house, Natalie and I have to think apartment-style. We are overstocked with groceries we have to eat through and shampoo and conditioner we have to wash through. It’s Costco and its coupons that’s turned me into a hoarder. Excess disappears into the nooks and crannies of a house. Here – what am I to do with the 50 or so vintage chenille bedspreads I’ve collected to cut up and make into pillows? I could sew for the next 20 years and still not run out of fabric.

I’m swirling in the chaos of the newly-relocated; there’s nowhere for my eye to rest. And I’m still not done moving. This week, Natalie will pick up the last of what’s left at Nadiya’s. Except for the dozens of books I bravely decided to get rid of. What am I supposed to do with them in the short time I’ve left to decide? Have I ever considered that each thing I buy needs a place, that I am responsible for where it goes and where it winds up when I’m done with it?

At home, I’m taking out the photographs, taking out the urns. I found out urns came in different sizes when the funeral director handed me a catalog full of them. You can put all your ashes in a big one, or distribute them among varying styles. You can put some in mini-urns to give to family and friends. They even sell necklaces with charms to put them in so you can carry them with you all the time. Natalie and I sat browsing the catalog one day to choose. Is this fucking crazy, I asked? We’re picking out urns like we’d be picking out our next pair of skinny jeans. I wanted the large rose Cloisonné since I’m all about flowers, but decided to try something different, gold with a band of Mother-of-Pearl inlay. Phil couldn’t deal with looking, so I chose a smaller, more masculine-looking one for him; a rich, deep blue with a matted, etched silver top and bottom. Natalie chose a tiny one similar in style to Phil’s; charcoal gray shot through  gold, with a matte coppery-gold top and bottom.

Phil hasn’t taken his so I’ve given it a place here. Natalie’s is in its velvet box in a drawer. Me? I should have gone with the rose Cloisonne.

There used to be a commercial where a decent if neurotic-looking woman was speaking into the camera with desperate earnestness about all the reasons you shouldn’t smoke. By the time we realize she’s speaking to her kid, the camera pans back and we see the kid’s just a quizzical babe in a high chair, more interested in sticking his fingers up his nose than anything his mom had to say. The message, of course, was to start planting those seeds early and all will be well.

I did that. I am an addict. I told my kids the things I was supposed to tell them about smoking, drugs and alcohol and the science that says alcoholism can be passed along in your genes.  I thought my loving attention would be enough to stay addiction’s hand. I drank because life was unbearable. I thought all I had to do to keep that from happening to my kids was to remove the misery factor. Happy kids don’t drink or do drugs, right? And they certainly don’t die before their parents do.

When Philip was maybe 16, Phil and I found out he was smoking both pot and cigarettes. I was more surprised by the cigarettes than the pot. Who does that any more, especially without a job to afford it? As far as the cigarettes, Phil and I talked to him and he promised he’d stop. Then I got a call from a friend. I was uptown, she said; I saw Philip smoking and I thought you should know. When he came home that day, I told him I knew he was smoking and where he was when he was doing it. He shrank. How do you know, he asked? Because I know, I answered; there are more things I know about you than you realize.

Which wasn’t true, of course. I was trying to strike the fear of God into him. Or of Me, which really wasn’t necessary.  Philip wasn’t a sullen, rebellious kid; he didn’t want to risk my anger, much less my disappointment. I never knew how much he needed me.

And as far as the pot, a week after we found out about it, the three of us sat down with a therapist whose specialty was addiction. The following week, two home drug tests arrived in the mail and Philip was seeing the therapist by himself. It took one visit for her to tell us this was not a kid with a problem. Still, we did one random drug test on him a couple weeks later. It was negative. We kept the second one in a drawer as a threat.

Ed says I feel tremendously guilty. My therapist says the same. Since I do not believe I could’ve done anything differently, I don’t see why they should say that. I mean, a different mom might have grabbed Philip by that long, curly hair she so lovingly encouraged him to grow and not let go until she knew he was safe. Until she knew he stopped hanging around with the kids she didn’t want him hanging around with. Until she got him so interested in books and music and ideas that his mind would have been full of the richness of life instead of being fucked by drugs. But I am not that mom. I am this mom and I did the best I could so what do I have to be guilty about?

See, what I don’t understand is all this talk about what a good mother I am. Philip was sweet and funny and responsible and if you met him, he’d shake your hand and look you in the eye. That didn’t come from nowhere, I’m told. But if I’m to take credit and comfort for the loving face he presented to the world, where does my responsibility lie for the drugs and the alcohol and the poor choices he made that led to his death? I am not God is another thing I’m told. Fair enough. But I am his Mother. Wasn’t my job to teach him enough to choose better? This is the knot I can’t untie, this is where my thinking twists and turns and wraps around itself because no matter my love for him or his for me it wasn’t enough to set him on a path that would have kept him here.

I’m only just realizing the depth of the guilt that’s been running my life. It’s hitting me now how deeply ashamed I feel that Philip’s dead whenever I see a mom and her son doing whatever everyday things a mom and son might do. And if this was your story and you were telling it to me, I’d tell you just how much you didn’t have to feel that way because I’d see it so clearly. But to see it about myself – not so much. It’s going to take faith to see that life means something and discipline to stop my monkey mind when it says otherwise. Faith and discipline, both of which turned to ashes when Philip did. Thing is, how come I believe Philip’s spirit doesn’t lie in those ashes, yet not believe that mine doesn’t, either?

© 2013 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

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