That’s why I’m really here to open the door of my home and to invite women in to share their stories. I’m really here for the messages that I get from old friends and strangers, the ones that say, "I don’t want to feel this way anymore. But what next?” I’m really here to hold the bottle of sparkling water in my hand in rooms filled with wine glasses and to never have to mention a thing about i, unless you want to know. I’m really here to say I’ll tell you where I was so you can see how I’ve been transformed, so I can say that if you want this too you can have it and more.
This is a repost of something I shared last year on Christmas Eve, with a few edits. It still rings true. My greatest hope today is that the person who is suffering feels the promise of hope and knows that she is not alone. If you’re not struggling with alcohol today, chances are you know someone who is (we’re everywhere). She may be the one who looks like she has it all together at Christmas dinner, and she may not. This list is for you too, to help you be a friend.
Today I pray the light of this season finds you where you are, and if you need encouragement, know you are loved and not alone. Merry Christmas, ESS
The truth is that at 1000 days I am just a beginner. Nearly three years after I first waked into 12 Step Rooms, I realize how much I have to learn. “Shoshin” is the Zen Buddhist term for the beginner’s mind. I feel it as I start to re-read texts I read when I was a true beginner at recovery, the words taking on a whole new meaning now that that alcohol is long washed away. (Oh that’s what a co-dependent is! Oh that’s how trauma gets lodged in the body.)
I know nothing at 1000 days and I also know what I need. At 1000 days this beginner knows I have to go deeper into my own recovery
That’s what I want folks who are starting to get sober to know recovery results in miracles but they don’t always come by the time the turkey is served. Mostly I think the biggest lesson I can share is that terrible cliche that time takes time. This may not help you when you are on the edge of trying to decide to take a drink or not, I know. But I hope if you are reading this in a quiet moment, you hear me when I say: “It can get better. Please give this a chance.” And then do whatever it takes to protect the most precious gift you can give yourself: the chance to show up fully for yourself and for the world.
I’m not sending them flowers, though (sorry, guys!). I believe a more fitting gift on this day, for anyone who has or loves a gay uncle (or LGBQT aunt for that matter) is a donation to an organization working to ensure and protect civil rights of all LGBQT people. And votes. And every day conversations in our community.
Astrologers say that today is the Lions Gate: August 8. Apparently it's August 8 every year. Something about it being a day where we are more open to guidance from angels and other beings. I just know that I woke up to a howling aged pug who had thrown up and had, well, bloody stools, and I was trying to figure out how, during lunch I could be in three places at once:
Vet, meet-the-teacher day (aka writer 5,678 check days) and to meet not one but two windshield repair men. A rock had flown through the windshield of our new car, the one we'd bought seven days before, and in addition to a new piece of glass the whole system needed to be re-calibrated. The re-calibration will make sure that the digital maps and the parking cameras are aligned, which will be helpful as I tend to drive into things and need all the help I can get.
Re-calibration is about where I am too.
After a day of work and the handling of the things, and before the meet-the-teacher night (yes, two separate sessions), I immersed myself into a very hot bath. At this point I'm just pouring containers of Epsom salts into the water, layering on face masks, and looking for a suitable meditation to calm my central nervous system.
These are the things I do to calm my nervous system:
- Essential oils (I feel like I'm supposed to say this but other than smelling nice they don't radically change my life but maybe that's because I have the TJ Maxx versions)
- Talking to my friends
- Dancing to George Michael
I used to have shortcuts to turn off my central nervous system, but I don't anymore. So instead I sit with this central nervous system, listen to it to discern if there's really something I must be aware of. Then I and say to it, "Hey there, I see what you're trying to do. You're trying to protect me. But I'm good. I'm really really good. So go on now, relax."
Earlier, I'd wrapped the dog in blankets so she wouldn't poop on the seats of the new car. It was a big deal, this new car, one we'd waited and planned for. The rock through the windshield had happened on the way to the beach, and though it was a pain to replace, that's what insurance for. I couldn't deal with another mess though, and the vet tech swaddled the pug like a baby. We made it home safe.
In the bath I flipped through meditations on YouTube, settling on one about this Lions Gate Day. I noticed the symmetry in the 8/8 when I wrote yet another check to the school during meet-the-teacher day. The meditation said this was the day I was supposed to turn my heart chakra toward the pyramids and let go what was no longer serving my higher good.
There was also something in there about whales, and receiving messages from them, which is right about the part they lost me. Instead I thought about the names of the saints painted on the steps of my son's school:
"St. Francis, Pray for us. St. Thomas, Pray for us." Today I needed saints and whales.
Pretty much every meditation involves "letting go what no longer serves." Because that's also what happens again and again in life.
Standing in line for a spirit shirt at the school, my seventh grader no longer wanting to take obligatory back to school photos, I feel that sense of time slip by. No longer does the meet-the-teacher day hold promise back when I was a younger mom. His school is fine; there's much we need to supplement, and I'll never be a PTO mom. I'm thankful for the police officer at the door and also sad for the reasons why.
At the end of the day I have a new car windshield. The dog has pancreatitis and will live another day, though the vet says we need to be prepared. Now she is wagging her tail and taking probiotics. My son's uniform is pressed and he is squeezing the very last hours of video games before he walks through the school doors.
I am growing by leaps and bounds. I handle all of the things and eat a bowl of ice cream and will wake up to make a gratitude list. I mean it, the things I will write down. Saints and whales.
"Barn's burned, now I can see the moon."
-Mizuta Masahide, 17th century Japanese poet and samurai
Photo credit: Lindsey Tillman
Last night I was taking out the recycling and caught a glimpse of the moon reflecting in pools of water in the road. "Thank you," I thought.
For the past year I've been asking myself the question, "What's next." The next, for me, is here, in so many areas of my life.
Today I'm sharing a new look and feel for my site. It is a work in progress, but much more reflects who I am today. I slashed and burned, deleted a lot of the old posts that tried to answer that question, and kept only what reflects who I am today.
There are a lot of new things in my world, particularly professionally. I'm not quite ready to talk about everything yet, but will say: I am so thankful for where I am now. For being able to use all of my skills and experience in some very meaningful ways.
For now, I'm going to kick off this year with a list of gratitude for the things that happened during #41, my in between year. All of these things, each and every one, were blessings from a power far beyond my own design. All of them happened because of a couple simple factors: I showed up, did the work, and surrendered.
During 41, I did these things. Not ranked in order. I'm not listing them to be self-aggrandizing, but because a)I am thankful b)I want other people to know that there is so much life beyond the one we can imagine for ourselves.
No, seriously. On my last birthday I felt so "in between." During this past year I learned to sit with that discomfort and also trust that life was unfolding exactly as it was supposed to. I hear they call this faith. It grew by leaps and bounds.
- Wrote on an index card on January 1 the following guiding word for the year: "Identity."
- Thought about what I wanted my life to look like, and what kind of work I wanted to do, professionally and personally.
- Interviewed from some jobs around conference room tables that made me think, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert, "Not this!"
- Drove Alabama backroads in search of velvet paintings at the World's Longest Yard Sale
- Dropped off and picked up my son from sixth grade nearly every day.
- Spent time with my niece and nephew.
- Helped redesign and guide an independent, hyperlocal restaurant site (What To Eat in Birmingham)
- Learned that I am physically strong, making and keeping commitments to move every day
- Confronted every old story about myself and made new ones on the Pilates reformer, doing things I never thought were physically possible for me.
- Celebrated my mother's 70th birthday with every member of the JazzHandsFamily
- Was a fairy godmother to a sweet two-year old friend, spending a week with her in Washington D.C.
- Saw "Hamilton" (finally!)
- Tried to pray every morning. Some days failed and scrolled through Facebook. Other days quieted my mind and felt God's enormous love.
- Witnessed my brother marry the love of his life in a field in Tuscany. Cried tears of joy watching my father perform the ceremony.
- Wrote two stories for The Washington Post. One was about a poop train.
- Got to take my son to the Washington Post newsroom for a tour, by a former writer of mine. Stood on the roof with them and experienced profound gratitude for this life of words.
- Shared my recovery story openly and freely, understanding that this is in part why I was put on this earth.
- Was interviewed for four podcasts and one video series (getting better at this and the secret is it involves breathing)
- Launched a movement to help people have tough and important conversations around alcohol and alcohol messaging aimed at women. Tell Better Stories brings me so much joy, mostly because I get to encourage folks every single day to show up, do the work, and surrender
- Spent time making my home more comfortable and right for us now. Yes, this included getting an adjustable bed and a dryer that plays a little song when it's finished.
- Was a better wife, mom, daughter, sister, and friend (I hope).
- Spent time with my cherished lifelong friends, including seeing three of them in one week in one city.
- Made so many new friends, friends who talk about real issues and vintage clothes and movements of women who are changing the world. Some live in my city and others live around the world. This network of women are people I can call on any time day or night.
- Realized that the prayers that didn't come true were really blessings of protection.
As for 42? Well, I have some ideas. But mostly it's just continuing to show up, do the work, and to surrender. Oh, and probably to buy a new vintage dress or two.
Can I tell you a funny story?
It’s a story about a magazine editor who had it all together but sometimes had to have an extra glass, or seven, of wine.
One who was reasonably blonde and reasonably successful, and who helped manage a big job and a family. How did she do it? The way millions of others of women do it: willpower, caffeine, and chardonnay. Then one day that magazine editor had a spectacular fall — literally fell over and collapsed, torn apart from the two lives she was leading.
You know how everyone posts cactus and pool photos and is all #PalmSprings? Yeah I'm that person. Or was. Now I'm a person sitting back on her couch in flannel leopard print pajamas, but for six glorious days I was all sunsets and cacti. And it was pretty great.
This trip (his spring break) wasn't as much about sightseeing -- Nate and I have both spent time in the city -- it was more about meaningful connection. (OK for him it was more about getting to the In and Out Burger, but we'll get there.) Connection with each other, time with my brother/his uncle, and visiting with old friends who could give him a glimpse into the world of content creation, because he wants to be a writer and photographer. (And it's not as cool to hear writing advice from mom. Ahem.)
So, armed with an iPhone and his Fujimax, we set out together.
We arrived on a Saturday evening, and the moment we got to Santa Monica, met my brother, dropped our bags and headed for the pier as the sun started to fall. It wasn't the first time on the pier for any of us (Ryan lives a few blocks away), but it was our first time to ride the ferris wheel at Pacific Park. There's no better place to catch a sunset here than high above the Pacific. And, as Nate said, the wheel conveniently stops for selfies. Aka to let people on and off.
We made it a conscious effort to not try to pack in a million things each day. Since there aren't directs to LA from Birmingham, and we chose to fly from Atlanta (cheaper flights), the trip out there and back takes up nearly two full days. I'm now at a point in my life where I need a day to recuperate from a cross-country trip, which is what we did our first full day -- Sunday. So we sat by Ryan's rooftop pool, Nate swimming and Ryan and I working on details around his wedding ceremony. Why would you want to leave this view?
Sunday evening we had an amazing meal with our friend Eddie at Shutters on The Beach's casual restaurant, Coast. Highly recommend sitting in the window boxes to watch people skate, ride, run, and twirl by on the bike path. (The lobster roll served with hush puppies the size of a feast was the perfect meal.)
Come Monday, we were refreshed to walk to Venice Beach. We are lucky to have a brother/uncle who lives in one of the most prime locations in the world. Honestly, we could just walk this stretch for days and be happy. Plus, the steps we got in that day were off the charts.
Beaches! Sunsets! King of the World Poses!
A pause for a moment.
Here's the thing about LA: you have to plan your activities around the traffic. This goes against my nature of trying to fit a number of activities into a travel day, but it is real and involves strategy.
So that day we Ubered over to offices of Entertainment Weekly, where my friend Anthony Breznican graciously agreed to meet with us. Anthony is a senior writer there, covering, among other things, the Star Wars franchise, and has pretty much interviewed every celebrity you'd want to meet. He also happens to be just about the nicest guy. We caught up over burgers and Nate interviewed him about his career back at the Time Inc. offices. (They have better snacks than the ones we had when I worked at a sister title in Birmingham, by the way. Plus a hell of a view of downtown LA.)
Anthony gave Nate some really good career and life advice, but you're going to have to wait for that story from the young writer. I will say it involves getting really, really good at what you do and building strong relationships, both of which Mr. Breznican is a pro at.
That night we dined at The Grove with our cousins Brendan and Sullivan, eating at The (Original) Farmer's Market. There we had a brief and momentary *celebrity* sighting, followed by angst, as Nate momentarily spotted The Martinez Twins, who are apparently YouTube stars. But being a 40-year old mother I did not know of said twins, and he spent the rest of the night searching amongst food stalls to try to find them. Content creation in 2017, people.
Though the hunt for The Martinez Twins was unsuccessful, we did find donuts and coffee. Score!
Tuesday we set off for Palm Springs. I'd gone back and forth about adding in this overnight trip, knowing we'd miss a few things in LA (like LACMA and Huntington Gardens). In the end, we decided to go for it, because I HAD NEVER BEEN TO PALM SPRINGS. What? I know. Plus the chance for Nate to see the desert -- a first -- was one we couldn't pass up. So we got a rental and drove the 2+ hours East. Not going to lie: I was saying "Jesus be a shield!" the entire way out of LA, and had a slight anxiety attack driving through traffic.
Because I believe in writing the whole truth I have to say that my anxiety flares while driving, But whereas I used to clench my entire body and have to take Xanax to calm down, and end up scrunched up in a hotel trying to unwind the physical knots from my body, now I'm not such a mess about it. Serenity now!
(Editor's note: six days after we got back from this trip, I was rear ended in Birmingham. But I survived LA driving. Ha.)
Once out of LA, the drive is lovely, with the mountains surrounding you like the most peaceful reminder of grace, and wildflowers blooming, and a child asking "Why isn't there WiFI?" Wait, back to the serenity.
I lived in the desert for a short time after college, and being in that landscape does something magical to my heart. As do roadside dinosaurs! "Mom you're such a tourist!" Nate said as we pulled over to see the Cabazon Dinosaurs. "We are travelers, love." Because is there anything better than posing under a T-Rex saying "Tell 'Em Large Marge Sent Ya?" Answer: no, there is not. And yes, we paid admission to take the tour to see each and every one of the majestic prehistoric pals and to also ride on one. Plus climb up to the top of the T-Rex and sit in his mouth. What a glorious Tuesday.
Upon arrival to Palm Springs, we checked into The Ace Hotel & Pool Club. I love an Ace property and apparently so did all the other parents taking their children to Palm Springs for spring break. More friends to play with in the pool. And what a pool it is. (But oh how the vibe will change in a few weeks come Coachella ... )
I loved the '50s vibe of the Palm Springs Ace. A former Howard Johnson, it has all the charm of a mid-century motel reimagined for the 21st century, like the former Denny's turned "King's Diner," where I could't stop thinking of the Mad Men episode when Don and Megan eat at the Howard Johnson's. "It's not a destination -- it's on the way to some place." The Ace, however, is a destination. (Pro tip: wake up early to snag the best pool seats, like that big old bed by the pool, or a spot on the sun deck.)
After our pool time, we headed to shop downtown. Palm Canyon Drive, the town's main road, is a shopper's delight. Since our time was limited, we went straight to Trina Turk's flagship store. Can't you tell Nate was thrilled to be inside Mr. Turk? I stocked up on gifts, including this gold foil covered tote that reads "Golden State" by Sisters of LA. OK the gift was for me.
Dinner was across the street at Workshop Kitchen + Bar, where we ate at the beautiful communal table. Workshop won a James Beard Award for Best Restaurant Design in 2015, and is it ever gorgeous, in its minimal California simplicity and sophistication. Plus the scallops were divine.
Everyone says to to the Palm Springs Arial Tramway, and it really is a must. We got there just in time to ride up the 8,516 feet for sunset (because apparently we love a sunset ride), and it was glorious. It's the world's largest rotating tram car, and the ride up affords gorgeous views of the Coachella Valley.
The crazy thing is that once you get up to the top, it's 20-30 degrees colder than where you started. We ran out, took some photos (snow and desert in one hour) and huddled inside, drinking hot chocolate and eating fudge.
Knowing we had to get back to LA for an early evening appointment (in-home Botox, if you must know, because, LA), we were at another strategic crossroads. My gut said to head to the Parker Palm Springs for breakfast at Norma's. And one's gut never lies, especially when it comes to the jewel of mid-century modern revised decor. This Jonathan Adler-designed property is spectacular in its aesthetic. Only a small part is open to the public -- the ground floor, including lobby areas and Norma's. It is a must-visit for a Palm Springs trip.
Nothing is cheap here -- including breakfast, where blueberry pancakes will set you back $25. I ordered the potato pancakes with homemade cranberry apple sauce and sweet carrot payasam. Frankly, I didn't know what payasam is but it was all delicious.
After breakfast we checked out the lobby, which is basically my dream home.
Oh, and that front door? To die for.
Before heading back to LA, we spent some time at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, a short drive from Palm Springs. We didn't make it to actually see any animals, for it was at this point in the trip one of us hit a bit of a wall. I plan on returning during our next visit to Palm Springs, because the botanical gardens, populated with plants of the desert, are stunning.
On the way back, we stopped for the customary In and Out Burger and I had a date shake from Hadley's Fruit Orchard . Because, fruit. (Conveniently, they're right across from one another. Score!) Sadly, we didn't have time for Desert Hills Premium Outlets. Because 10 year old boys and outlets and pressing Botox appointments don't mix. File under next time.
Not going to lie, despite trying to pace ourselves, I was pretty beat by the time we reached our last day in LA. The highlight was a long lunch with my lifelong friend Dave. We met in elementary school and have deep ties, but hadn't talked in a while. But, as old friends do, we talked like no time had passed by. The funny thing is that we both do similar things professionally, and had the best talk. I'm so crazy proud of him and what he's doing.
And that's really travel really is about now for me.
Not checking off every box, running from place to place every day. But real connection. Time with people I care about. Being present for all of it. Till next time, Cali. May it be soon. xo
As we talked over stories of what had happened in the year since we had last visited -- life transitions and changes -- I realized that the gift I got for myself for my 40th birthday had found a home. The Giving Keys aren't meant to be kept, but passed on. This one is inscribed "Effatha," which means "to be opened."
For months I’d struggled with how I would cope with this wedding in the heart of wine country, in a place where every single trigger would be triggered. Long, physically taxing days, family dynamics, wine at every single meal. Climbing up the hill to the country house in the car, my back screamed. “I can’t do this,” I thought.
But I did. And here was my brother, and his groom, and my parents. And my aunt, a Cuban refugee who had survived so much -- oppression by a dictator, her own cancer, an the cancer that took the life of her husband. This broken, brutal world.
I’d show you a photo from my last day one except that there aren’t any. The photo up above: hang with me on that.
On my last day one, my phone was in the back of an Uber and my pants were crumpled up in a bag at the front desk of the hotel where I was staying for a business trip. I lost things a lot back then — phones, time, my dignity.
Had I had a phone I probably wouldn’t have used it, because for once, there was nothing I wanted to document. I called rehabs from the hotel phone to ask if they took my insurance, and I messaged friends privately via Facebook. “I’ve done it again,” I said with a shaky voice, the contents of my purse strewn on the hotel floor.
It’s easy for me to mythologize the events of that day. It was the day everything changed. But only recently am I realizing the grace of the way that I was rescued.
But then? Then was not pretty.
That morning, with my mouth dry and head pounding, I posted in a secret Facebook group for sober women, group that was born from a podcast. I said “Help” and that I had drank yet again, ignoring the intention of not, the tiny Big Book in my suitcase, a few months of on and off again sobriety, and the promise of a sober SXSW. Many women replied to the message. One, an Austin resident named Sondra Primeaux to whom at that point I'd never spoken, wrote:
“Do you have running shoes? Put them on and I will meet you downstairs in the hotel lobby.”
A stranger, looking at Facebook, heard the cry of another woman and offered to drive across town and tell her she never had to live like that again. That this could be her last day one. Really and truly.
I don’t remember many details of the conversation. The alcohol had wrecked me, drinks from after parties and my sad after party of one. Years of drinking to self-medicate, drinking to try to keep up with what the world told me to be, drinking for energy (I know), drinking to cope with physical pain and anxiety. This was not about "fun" and hadn’t been in a long while. Dehydrated and shaky, Sondra walked me along the edges of the Colorado River. She was a mother too, and a seamstress. I think she said something about vintage lace. I said things like:
“But you don’t know what I’ve done.”
She assured me that this world was filled with people who had done all the things I had done, and then some. And that there was actually a way to move through this life healed from those mistakes. She shared because she had been there. She had stopped drinking and stayed stopped and done the work to look her past in the eye and it did not kill her.
Also would I like a smoothie?
That is what I remember: we walked, talked, and drank smoothies. She told me there was a way to get better, but I’d have to do the work and find community. The sun made my head hurt even more, and I stumbled back into the hotel and slept again, embarrassed to find my coworkers. They tracked down my phone, and a kind Uber driver returned it. He was deaf — I remember this, and I was struck by his act of kindness. He didn’t have to do that. Maybe the world was good. But first, to get through hell.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but it's 24 months. I have done nothing different than a million people who came before me: I’ve gone to meetings, connected with other people in recovery, and most importantly, developed a deeper relationship with God. I’ve also become deeply connected to the online recovery community, creating actual real-life relationships with bloggers, podcasters, and fellow writers in recovery.
I got out of my own way.
The first year of sobriety was like clutching onto dear life. It was trying to stay sober hour by hour, while still performing the motions of a former life: going to an advertising job that didn't feel right, trying to show up anyhow, and breaking out of 40 years of comfortable-now-uncomfortable people pleasing. My infant sobriety needed to be fed, watered, and changed all the time. I needed to put myself and this baby sobriety to bed a lot, while still acting like everything was fine, just fine. It was not.
They say that the first year is about physical sobriety, the second about emotional sobriety and the third is about a spiritual shift. I agree with that for the most part. But nothing is linear, and there is no calendar or clock to this way of life. While I got physically sober in year one, year two has been about the physical for me as well. For instance, wedged between year one and two I came to Pilates for healing after two car accidents, and stayed because I discovered a practice of mind, body and soul integration. In year one I got rid of the booze and in year two I arrived back into my body, one I'd never truly inhabited.
In year two I began to share more of my story. Remember Sondra, who showed up at that hotel? Well of course God sent me a woman who was a fellow creative. He knew, on that day in Austin, that I needed to hear her exact words. That I needed to be scooped up by woman and an artist who had walked the path before me.
In year two I got to share my day one story the podcast Sondra shares with fellow artist Tammi Salas (The Unruffled). Yes, the person who came to my rescue that day one was a person who would go on to do a podcast about the intersection of creativity and recovery. Someone who collects vintage clothes just like me and repurposes them into new creations. God had this whole thing planned out. (I see what you're doing there, Jesus.)
Here I am wearing one of Sondra's original creations. I wear it like a magic robe. On days when I'm having a hard time I remember that I was sent someone to literally pull me off the floor and set me on the right path. AND SHE MAKES KIMONOS.
But it doesn’t stop there. Oh honey, this is just where we get started.
We help other people in sobriety because it helps us stay sober. We learn we can’t give what we give away what we don’t have. This is the club no one wants to join ("Oh hi when I grow up I want to be an addict!"), but once you’re in you realize it’s the real deal. People in my club learn how to be honest, don’t do small talk, and general cut right to the chase about the things that matter.
There’s a line in one of our books that says “We are not saints,” and this is true as well. But we do have a system — a “design for living” — that helps us process the challenges and the joys of life.
In my second year I started working with other women, sometimes as a sponsor and sometimes as a friend. Many of the people I worked with have returned to drinking. This is the reality of addiction. It always makes me sad, but I know everyone must walk her own path.
Every time I see someone go “back out” I reflect on what brought me to my first day one and just how easy it would be to return there, to that hotel room. Negative consequences are not enough to stop those of us who are addicted. This disease is cunning, baffling, and powerful. We drink when things go wrong and we drink when things go right. I'm particularly reminded of this as things have begun to go very right for me.
Sobriety is filled with dichotomies, like how each of us has to walk this road alone but we’re also not alone. Sondra walked with me that day and assured me I didn’t have to do it alone (I’d done enough research in that department). I have stayed sober so far because I surrounded myself with people who were deeply entrenched in sobriety and recovery. Every day I have a choice: drink or not drink, stay sober or don’t stay sober. Left to my own devices I might. So I turn it over to my higher power.
Sometimes I am better, but sometimes I am still a jerk. I know one thing: when I stay out of my way long enough, I am able to show up for another woman.
The story is played forward.
Two weeks ago I got a call from a friend (let’s call her Allison) who said she had a friend in need. Could I meet them at a 12 Step meeting? We sat in my friend’s minivan in the rain and I explained what to expect. And then, 55 minutes later, my jaw hit the floor when Allison said, “Um, I think I am an alcoholic.”
What? Yes, during the meeting Allison realized she too had a problem with alcohol.
“Can you get a silver chip for me?” Allison asked. (The silver chip signifies as desire to stop drinking.)
“Nope, but I can walk with you to the front of the room to pick one up,” I replied.
Just then, I knew what God was doing. We do not walk alone, yet we must first make a decision. We must recognize the problem and we must be willing.
Allison, a mother to several small children, kept going to meetings. One night I picked her up for a 12 Step meeting. On the way there, I grabbed us two smoothies. Walking out of my gym I looked down and saw it:
The tennis shoes.
Only now I’m the one able to answer the call.
I messaged Sondra a snapshot of that photo. I said, “Look what just happened.”
Allison made the decision to go to in-patient rehab. I visit her, bringing nail polish. It’s Essie’s “Master Plan,” which made me laugh because this plan was not one either of us would have imagined. I tell her about Sondra and how she was there for me at my start. I tell Allison that she will one day do the same thing.
This second year was hard. I imagine so will be the third and the fourth and the fifth. And so will the rest of my life, because, life. But it was also good, so good. Some amends were made, a job disappeared, a better use of my gifts appeared. The old me faded away some more, wounds were healed, and I began to truly let go of the life I planned (sometimes with claw marks).
Every morning I start the day with “Thy Will, not mine.” Then I do my professional work, pick my son up from carpool, and hug my husband when he comes home. I've become an accidental advocate, focusing specifically on the alcohol-as-lifestyle narrative in media and marketing (@tellbetterstories2018). All of the paths that God created for me -- as a writer and storyteller, as a woman, as a mom, as a person in recovery, as a lover of vintage clothes and things that are repurposed -- he's included all of them in this story.
On the best days, I get calls and texts and messages from women in recovery or ones who want to get sober.
I show up with smoothies.
I say put on your running shoes.
I say that we can walk together.
Apparently this is the most stress filled Thanksgiving ever. The Boston Globe even has a term for it: The Thankspocalypse.
"TV anchors are urging people to remain calm. Therapists are adding office hours to accommodate the panicky. Doctors are warning diabetics and heart patients about elevated health risks. Motorists are being advised to plan for hurricane-evacuation-level traffic jams. Pet owners have been put on alert.
The threat? Thanksgiving."
They go on to point out that we do actually have real crises on our hands, aka our country imploding. That is very, very real, of which I'm reminded by daily as I drive by Roy Moore signs in my state, as well as the constant stream of tragedy and bad news. So our national, community, and individual psyches are beat down. Not to mention the very real daily lives we are all still living: the illnesses and deadlines and births and deaths, and also did you give the dog her insulin?
The Boston Globe story also talks about people needed intense pre-and post-holiday therapy. Family dynamics! Traffic! And apparently we're still into cooking the "perfect" holiday meal (let's get back to that in a moment, shall we?). They quote a therapist:
"Carney, who is Skyping with out-of-town patients who need a holiday booster shot, says people start talking about Thanksgiving anxiety in October, and then spend post-turkey sessions discussing who said what to whom. 'The debrief is a big part of the therapy, 'he said."
First, mental health is a very real thing all year round, and holidays bring an additional level of challenge. It's vital to take care of your mental health and call upon every therapist, priest, rabbi, and support system you may have. For those dealing with grief, illness, recovery (drug/alcohol and or food), it packs additional layers. If you need help, reach out to a trusted source -- please.
This is my third holiday season sober. The first two were incredibly difficult (see: having to leave the family dinner table to weep and call my sponsor). But two holiday seasons sober has taught me:
I have the power to do things that I don’t want to do.
And so do you.
That's right: you are a decision maker. And you do have the power to respond differently to the things you do have control over. This includes the holidays.
- If it's so stressful to do these holiday things you've always done, don't do them. As in draw some boundaries and stay home. What is really going to happen? Are you going out of fear and obligation? Look, I get that. I know you might hear, "But this could be grandma/Fluffy/ my last ________." That's guilt. That's fear and shame based. And yes I know that's how family can roll. But you can also respond differently.
Do you care about your family? Do you make time for them at other times during the year? Do you actually enjoy spending time with them? If the answer is no, then seriously, doesn't it sound nicer to stay home on your couch, or spend the day in nature, or serving someone in need?
Maybe at the holidays you are trying to build a bridge. Trying to repair strained relationships. Trying. I get that. But miracles can and do happen all year round. And they happen when they happen. It might not happen during the window between Thanksgiving and December. OK.
Brene Brown says adults should be able to give ourselves "permission slips," the way teachers give kids. Like give yourself a permission slip to do whatever you want. She actually says you should write them down, and if that works, go to town.
- If you decide to go (again, you have the choice) and can't bear to hear your crazy Uncle Walter (yes that's a Ben Folds reference) go on and on about how noble our deranged president is, don't. As in, you actually don't need to have conversations you don't want to have. I'm not saying throw eggnog in his face, but why can't we say, "You know what, Uncle Water? I'd prefer not to discuss that. Please pass the green beans". Boundaries? Oh, your family doesn't do those well? That's because it's hard work. And not everyone has done, will do, or is doing the work. And if you really feel yours are being compromised, or you are going to leave agitated or down, circle back to my first point.
- A note on food: I mean that is a huge part of the stress, right? Try to find a lifestyle publication that doesn't have a headline about "Stress Less Thanksgivng ______." I dare you. (Sure, I'll stress less as I'm walking through the woods picking up foliage to weave a custom centerpiece or searching for small batch single origin cranberries.) Maybe you like to cook and entertain. Maybe you don't. Maybe it changes year to year and based on the circumstances of your life that holiday.
Here comes that radical thought again: if you don't want to cook, don't. If you do, wonderful! Nourishing your family and friends over a communal table is a beautiful and time honored thing. Guess what: I'm not doing it. In fact, this year even heating up the pre-prepared meal from Whole Foods was too much for my family, so we will go out for a lovely meal. Yes there might be some grumbles about the menu selection or lack of leftovers. Oh well.
My mom has chronic and disabling illnesses that really do make day to day challenging. She expressed some sadness that we’re not doing a big at-home spread. I told her I literally don’t care what we eat, just that we’re together. (I know, I like my family a lot so you might not take advice from me.)
No one should have to. I am going to create space put their health, sanity, or well-being at risk to create a meal that's going to be inhaled in 20 minutes. Again, if you find great delight in doing things, if it's life-giving and brings you pleasure and honors your family traditions in a way that brings you joy: wonderful. But if not: why are you doing it?
Why are we still feeding into the notion of this “perfect Thanksgiving” concept. Like the world is literally on fire. So why aren’t we minimizing the stresses that we can? Why aren’t we standing up for ourselves and using our voices and just saying what we want? And doing that, knowing that in doing so, we’ll be better protecting ourselves for experiences that we choose. For celebrations we want. For this marathon of life.
This weekend, as I took down the last of the boxes of Christmas decorations, I was thinking about that one time I screamed at Santa. Guess what was involved?
It started like this: every year, I hosted a grand Santa party at our house. Children came in the guise of a "cookie party," only to discover the man in the big red suit was the surprise guest of honor. But wait ... there's more! As the children sat on Santa's lap, he pulled out a gift just for them from his sack. The gifts had been procured from their parents weeks and months before, as I worked on this elaborate event for months at at time.
It made me happy to do this for the kids; that much is true. I liked giving a gift them and to our friends, who got Santa photos with their kids without having to wait in line at the mall. I had "inherited" Santa and the cherished first Saturday in December from a friend whose daughter had aged out. The Santa was really, really good, with a thick, real beard and twinkly eyes. He was so good he was booked solid for years.
Planning the party was stressful, and I made it more stressful on myself, but I also said things like the window for belief was small, and I was so lucky to have this great Santa. How could I give up that coveted first Saturday in December?
All true things. Also true: planning the Santa party also took up nights, weekends, and energy that I didn't really have. At the time I was working 12 hours a day, often in other cities. Often while having an extra glass of Chardonnay or three to take the edge off. I just kept going, plunging myself into planning a party that involved hot gluing for weeks, creating a photo booth, commissioning hand-lettered invitations like the one above.
That photo is from a post in 2012, in which I lamented how busy and tired I was and how I needed the wine to get through it all. I wrote:
"The wine happened because I was in between packing for a week-long trip, and laundry to get everyone ready for the week, and some work. So there's that."
I cringe as I read this. As if the wine just "happened." As if I was a martyr for hosting a party. As if I was working woman of the year. As if celebrating Christmas was something I had to do to get through.
I thought it was totally normal to drink it all of the time, and because I was such a busy and important person that I *deserved it.* There was a mimosa bar at the party, and a mimosa bar that was my life. "You would drink this much if you had to do what I do," I said, or I thought. It makes me sad now, but that's with hindsight, several years of recovery, and the knowledge of how many women fall into the same trap.
It makes me sad to see this photo of me holding my baby nephew, playing this role of harried hostess. "Another Santa party in the books!" posted to Facebook. Sigh.
I believed my own hype. I posted these photos and wrote cheeky status updates an endless cycle of, "See? I have it handled."
A few years later, one summer day St. Nick emailed me to say we needed to change the date of the party. He had given away the first Saturday in December. Could I do a date in November? Could I do a weekday morning? The audacity. If I'm going to be honest, I can't remember if I called St. Nick or if I emailed him, but I was a total jerk and told him he'd ruined Christmas. I yelled at Santa. Whether it was via phone or words, it doesn't matter. I yelled at Santa.
Hiiiiii, that's me.
That was me.
When not a delightful hostess I was a mean drunk. Those photos were not Christmas card worthy. But, that was then. This will be my third Christmas sober.
I hardly recognize the girl in the photos, except for one thing: the look in my eyes then. "Help." No one was coming to help -- I would have to save myself. And I did. And I do.
If I'm being honest, and I am, because I just told you how I had to get loaded to plan Christmas parties, I will also say that I feel a little empty now unpacking the decorations. We've long outgrown Santa parties in my house, regardless of how this one ended. My son is in middle school now and I don't plan parties because I "should." I don't know why the decorations make me feel off, but it probably has to do with the memories they bring back, back when I was running around trying to make everything so lovely and ignoring the storm that was brewing inside of myself. Yes, that is why.
I haven't yelled at any Santas lately, or commissioned any hand lettering, or designed a photo booth. I have stayed sober another day, and started building a life I didn't need to escape from, not with one sip or with the pageantry of an event to distract me from the truth. It seems like a good place to start, this first weekend of December.
This week, I had lunch with my college friend Emilie. Emilie is a book buyer at East City Books, an independent bookseller on Capitol Hill. We were talking about addiction memoirs and she asked me if I knew Leslie Jamison. Jamison's 544 page tome is called "The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath." Billed as part "memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and journalistic reportage," I have been eagerly awaiting its April publication date.
Emilie pressed Into my hands an advanced reading copy. It was like Christmas.
Current dumpster fire politics aside, my feelings about DC are deep and wide. It is the city where I began drinking in earnest. The year was 1996 and I was an intern for Senator Fritz Hollins of South Carolina. Though aged himself, he was youthful compared to Senator Strom Thurmond, the one an aide told me to "watch out for."
I wore blue polyester suits with gold buttons and pantyhose, my hair in a half-up, half down style of the 90s. I wore those itchy suits and respectable pumps while I sorted constituent letters about the telecom bill and partial-birth abortions. I also learned how to keep pace with the Citadel cadets with whom I lived in a row house.
It was a competitive internship. At night so was the drinking. I told the boys I had red Pat Conroy's "Lords Of Discipline" to prepare me for living with them, to which they scowled. They also did not have comment when I asked them about the recent landmark change that allowed female cadets to join their ranks. There was one thing that we did have in common, me the suburban quasi-goth stuffed in a polyester suit and them, these conservative, spiky haired boys. Alcohol.
I was not a big drinker before my junior year of college and that fall internship. At least I don't remember being. That's the thing about memory -- it blurs over time. I know that if I write my book (the one I've been talking about for ages) I will have to do what a journalist does and go back and get the facts straight from other people who were there. But I remember it tasting like poison, and the vodka mixed with orange juice tasting sharp and unpalatable.
Something changed in the fall of 1996. Nursing a heartbreak that had me playing The Cure, living in a house some referred to as "The Real World" (an on point cultural reference for the time), and stuffing down my lifelong anxiety and fainting disorder (it's called dysautonomia), the recipe was not good. When the cadets brought home 24-packs of cheap beer, I drank. The taste was still horrible.
At home during the summer in Florida, the last summer my parents lived there, I'd drank Rolling Rocks. During the day I worked as a newspaper intern and at night went swimming with my Catholic school friends. With chlorine in our eyes and alcohol in our bloodstreams, it was the last vestige of my childhood home. My parents would pack up and move to Alabama soon after and I would head to my internship in DC.
In DC I learned to drink shitty beer and White Russians, the way that the Hill staffers did. We went to the Monocle, a legendary bar across from the Senate buildings. Here I learned to stuff myself into suits, to put drinks in my body I did not like, and to fade out of my feelings and into the darkness of an altered state.
In DC I had my first brown out and my first blackout, terms I didn't understand until I read Sarah Hepola's Blackout three months before I got sober for the first time. This was a full 20 years after I started to experience the devastating effects of binge drinking. In the two years since I got sober, I've started to learn more about the incredible complexities surrounding substance use, substance use disorders, and addiction, including the multitude of factors that renders some more vulnerable than others. I've learned more about what is mine to own, and also things that were not my fault. (The past six months of #MeToo have been revelatory.)
Emilie asks if I am writing my book. The book. Not really. I've been doing things other than that, the freelance writing and the family care and the self-care, to which I came quite late to the party. Then there is that tape I play in my head that says it's all been written, and no one wants to hear from me, another white girl with an alcohol problem. Emilie points out that even though the stories are similar, the voices and perspectives of the storytellers are different.
Leslie Jamison has been compared to Sontag and Didion. I won't even show some of my clips from the last two years of my career (like the ones that made garbage disposals "sexy"). I clutch the advanced copy of her book and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I wonder if I can write this book. I wonder, if like Elizabeth Gilbert says in "Big Magic," that it's passed. Or has it not yet arrived?
This is what I think about as I walk down the same street as the one where I learned to stuff my feelings, to bury them so deep. I could be a 20-year old stumbling out of La Lomita, where the server brought us underage drinkers pitchers of strong margaritas. But I am not. I'm a 41-year old mother who stuffed everything down for 20 years, who built a career out of telling stories for everyone else: the newspapers, non-profit, the magazine, the advertising agency. Slowly and slowly on this career and life trajectory, I did things that took me further from the truth.
I am holding this 544-page book stating on Pennsylvania Avenue at a new time. A time where my shame has been long punctured, and where in its place has been placed a kernel of grace for a girl who did the best with what she knew.
What is my perspective in this new landscape, the one in which a country is in the grip of an addiction epidemic? The one where more women are struggling with this thing that takes lives? This thing that tried to kill me. Where sobriety is considered a trend by some, maybe something they've already given up post Dryuary?
I play the Cure's "Fire in Cairo" and clutch the book. It's like I'm 20 again, but know a few things and have the grey hair to prove it.
The next day I meet my friend Kevin. He's the publisher of three newspapers. including the Baltimore Beat. Two weeks before he asked me to write a piece for The Beat's Liquor Issue. It was a bold move to include a story like that in an issue about, well, liquor. Here's the thing: I'm not a prohibitionist. But I do care about the stories we tell about booze. At lunch I tell him how thankful I am that he asked me to write about my project, an examination of alcohol messaging in women's lifestyle publications and brands.
I tell Kevin I don't want to be pegged as someone who writes solely about addiction and recovery. I have this whole other career, one involving writing about travel and culture and food and other health issues. But alcohol is intertwined with each of these. It's like stepping into recovery opened this vantage point, a lens through which I see everything. It has opened up the matrix I was part of for an entire lifetime.
Sometimes when I tell my story in twelve step rooms I tell the story about what happened the night of Bill Clinton's second election, 1996. I wore a black taffeta and crushed velvet party dress and drank unlimited free White Russians at the Monocle. I didn't know who won the election until the next day. It was my first blackout.
I drank in DC not just as a college student, but as a young woman, visiting friends and later building my writing career. No more pitchers of margaritas, it was craft cocktails and bottles of wine with friends who had made their way up in this town. Then, in the fall of 2015, with a few weeks of sobriety, I came for a baby shower, white knuckling it past the Prosecco, triggered by just the air in this town. But everything triggered me then. Now, writing this from Alexandria, I have more knowledge and sobriety. Now within 24 hours of landing I find a meeting.
Midweek a friend comes over. Her name is Laura Silverman and we have never met, but we feel like we have. She's the founder of The Sobriety Collective, "Where Creatives Recover Together." She brings a bottle of elderflower and rose lemonade and I order in vegetable biryani and butter chicken and we share our stories and talk about where the recovery world is going. She's been sober for more than a decade (with the badassery of getting sober at 24). We talk about the rise of sober bloggers, podcasters, influencers: a robust ecosystem that did not exist (save a handful of early adopters). There is room at the table for all of us, we discuss.
I'm packing my suitcases to return to Birmingham. I'd like to say I've made peace with this city, but this city comes with me wherever I go. I go with me wherever I go. But I make a truce. I have walked this city's streets again. I have wandered its bookstores, consumed all of the coffee, and watched as familiar landmarks go by outside car windows.
I have made slow amends to the girl in the crushed velvet party dress from 1996.
I am thinking about my place in this landscape, this new landscape of women in recovery. I'm asking her what she wants to do. On Pennsylvania Avenue, with my nose running a bit and the light fading, I release that 20 year old with a grace that does not come from me. I stuff nothing down. I tell the truth. I walk on Pennsylvania Avenue.
It's National Recovery Month. Which, for a lot of us, is every month.
Two years ago this month, I started getting sober. (It had nothing to do with an awareness campaign. Just timing.) A year ago I wrote about sobriety publicly for the first time. So I have spent a lot of time learning about this space, and this year I want to share five things I believe about recovery right now, September 2017.
I write this as someone who has lived one part of this story; a person who spent the better part of a decade covering health issues, and one who, because of the these two things, accidentally started writing about sobriety, recovery, and addiction.
These are five themes that rise to the surface for me this month. Points within may change next month, next week, or tomorrow. But these do seem to be overarching themes that I'm coming back to again and again:
1. We’re in the midst of an epidemic. We are dying in record numbers every day.
21.7 million Americans currently struggle with some sort of substance abuse disorder. You have probably, surely by now heard of the opioid crisis, and the fact that deaths from drug overdoses is now the leading cause of death in Americans under 50.
And though opiods like heroin, fentynyl and myriad pain pills are receiving more attention, an estimated 88,000 people each die year from alcohol-related causes. High risk drinking is up, and alcohol use disorder is up by 50 percent. As a population, some of the greatest increases are among women. According to research reported in JAMA, alcohol use disorder is up among women by 84 percent (Story here).
We are dying in record numbers: moms, dads, black, white, this epidemic slashes through socio-economic, geographic and cultural divides. It is not a “them” problem: it is an us problem.
2. The causes are complex.
This is not a simple story. It’s a story about neurobiology, genetics, big pharma, big marketing, cultural messaging, and a world in chaos. It’s about what we were born with, what we were taught, coping mechanisms, a world that continues to foster shame and stigma. It’s about people desperately seeking a way out: of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. And seeking a way in: for connection, for feeling “alive,” for belonging and freedom. It’s about complex socioeconomic and cultural factors. It is not an easy story to understand, unpack, or tell.
As with other complex issues, there are many good sources of information and many not so good sources. As one digs into the literature, blogs, and media, one must do it with discernment. A few questions to ask when evaluating stories around use and addiction: what is the author or creator’s viewpoint? What foundation is he or she grounded in? What research has been done to back up the information?
3. We do recover. There is hope.
1 in 10 Americans are in recovery -- more than 20 million Americans. There are many, many pathways to recovery. However, not everyone gets the help he or she needs, and recovery, as complex as it is, doesn't have a one-sized fits all solution.
Recovery today is both similar and different than in the past. Similar: the need for care, community, support, and work by the individual and his or her support network. Different: the way we connect with others (e.g., the rise of digital social networks), less stigma (in some cases), and more multi-modality systems of treatment. However, access to care continues to a complex barrier.
Judgement about why a person chooses one avenue of recovery over another is not helpful. Supporting, resourcing and loving people is.
4. We are waking up.
All over the place. People are engaging in discussions about what it is in the first place that draws us to tuning out. What is it that’s led us to a culture where it’s “the norm” to pair yoga with wine, children’s birthday parties with beer, signature cocktails with ... everything. People are noticing how drugs (yes, including the kind you can get in bottles at the grocery store) make them feel, look, and act lesser than their true nature. Some are starting to opt out long before use becomes “a problem.” Some younger people are opting out and choosing sobriety before they even start drinking or using. Sobriety is even becoming something to aspire too (see: the rise in sober social events, and allusions to sobriety in celebrity culture).
Again, the digital age has aided in this, with information sharing happening faster than ever before, with safe spaces for a person to explore what it means to life an alcohol/drug-free life. Today there are tons of blogs, podcasts, Instafeeds that celebrate sobriety. And the fact that this life is big, full, and actually better than when we were using.
5. How we (you, me, media and social media) talk about alcohol and other drugs matters
This is a big one, one that unfolds and evolves each day. One thing is for sure: the language we used to describe alcohol and drug use matters. Earlier this year the Associated Press stylebook issued new guidelines for journalists, like not using “addict” as a noun. “When the media start treating people with addiction with the same respect that they use for other patients— and when we cover addiction care with the same skepticism about possible quackery used in other health reporting— perhaps the rest of America will start to accept that addiction is a medical problem and that moralizing and punishment have failed.”
There is no consensus about the language around use and addiction. It’s a subject widely discussed in the recovery community, particularly the age old question of to identify or not to identify as an addict or alcoholic, and in what spaces (e.g., in anonymous 12-step rooms vs. to the world at large). Furthermore, some people who have given up alcohol or drugs don't self-identify as alcoholics, alcoholics, or being in recovery.
The most important thing is that we think about this language, and that people in recovery have a seat at the table in the creation of media accounts surrounding drug and alcohol use and/or addiction. It's a complex, present, and every day discussion. Ask them to be a part of it. Ask us. Because this is an "us" issue, not a them.