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

Simple Isn’t Easy

One day Krishnamurti told his followers he was going to tell them his secret. I can imagine the excitement rippling through the crowd, the expected relief, the gratitude that they must be his Very Special Followers since they were the ones present at this much-unexpected announcement. I imagine many of them thought their journey was over, that once they knew this secret, their suffering would end. And I expect it would, if they could really understand what he said. Because what he said was, “I don’t mind what happens.”

Truth is simple. That doesn’t make it easy.

I already said that Natalie was unhappy at school. She was a freshman at Rutgers in New Brunswick, the same college where Philip was a junior. This wasn’t a matter of oh-she’ll-be-fine-in-a-couple-of-months. In February of 2012, she was in the middle of her second semester, and I was still talking her off the ledge. She was working on transferring, and I was trying to encourage her to hang in and just finish the semester.

Conventional wisdom says “Going away to college is good for them.” CW isn’t always – if ever – wisdom. CW easily turns into something she said so he said so everyone says but not many give much thought to what they’re saying. Some kids do well at college, some don’t. There’s more than one way to live a life, and SAT brilliance coupled with a $60,000-a-year Ivy League education doesn’t mean you or your kid are going to have the fantasy future you think it promises. If you have a future at all, that is.  But it sure is fun to tell your friends about it. Even more fun than telling them about your last raise or your new Mercedes or any of those other things that make us really proud to be us until we need the next proud thing because the first proud thing is well, just so yesterday.

Philip took easily to living away, but Natalie did not. Many of my conversations with her were to remind her that there were three options in any situation: Accept it, leave it or change it. She was trying to change it by applying to other colleges; but on the way to leaving Rutgers, all she could do was accept that she was there for the short term. To do that is to take responsibility for your life, for what you’re feeling and how you’re thinking. Blame your circumstances all you want, all you’ll get is more suffering. Which isn’t to say you “accept” any kind of crap that’s thrown at you. You recognize it’s crap and figure out how to clean it up and stay out of its way once you do. And not once; it’s never once. It’s the work of a life, the work that matters most, the work that every degree in the world isn’t going to ensure you’ll have mastered.

Not to suggest this is any sort of easy. See, I’d been grappling with How to Live forever. The first time I drank I was 11, which is just to say how early I was unhappy, how early I was looking to escape. At 24 I joined AA, but nearly 30 years later I still didn’t get what was so great about life, why after 30 years of therapy and 10 of antidepressants I still didn’t want to be here. But I’d spent the year-and-a-half or so before Philip died listening to Eckhart Tolle CDs whenever I drove anywhere – and often, to listen was the reason I got in the car in the first place. Accept it, leave it or change became my credo because it gave me a way to think about a given situation instead of reacting to it.

And I paid attention to the 24/7 film festival that was going on in my head, which was mostly playing reruns. Stories of vengeance, hate, anger, victimhood, all of which I wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Worst of all, I believed them, and my emotions acted accordingly. It wasn’t the situation that was causing the feelings; it was the endless, looping, dog-chasing-its-tail stories that kept my gut churning.

So I stopped. I became a spectator instead of a participant, stopped the show when I didn’t like it. Simple, but not easy. But the work was to stay here, in the present. Not in the past that was gone or in a future that never came except as the now.

When Philip was little, I used to tell him that I was going to paint on his wall, “Be here now.” I was so busy noticing he wasn’t present that I didn’t get that I wasn’t either.

Accept it, leave it, change it. This was the work I was doing at the moment of impact, the moment I crashed and burned on the landing.

© 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

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