Wednesday, October 16, 2013

One Head of the Hydra


          When I was little, I held 12 step recovery meetings with my stuffed animals. Buffalo Bear and Papa Smurf were trying hard to be good while the long skinny strung out looking ventriloquist, Charlie McCarthy, tried again and again to quit smoking. By the time I was 8, I’d called my best friend and told her I was going to be her sponsor. I’d grown up in recovery rooms and conventions halls with coloring books, crayons and a determination never, ever to be like my parents or their weird group of friends who talked about resentments and wrote out gratitude lists. At 13 I wrote an article for a local teen rag about how I was going to break the cycle of addiction, at least in my own family. The buck stopped here! I was “creative” and I didn’t want my creativity to be confused with getting drunk or high. Less than a year later, I found myself on the floor of a band apartment downtown swigging Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill from the bottle, wondering when and how I could do it again.
               From that night, my drinking progressed. I learned how to sneak out, which convenience stores sold to minors—or which adults hanging out in front of convenience stores would sell to minors. Drinking felt as natural as diving off a cliff into deep, cold water when you’ve been just a little too hot, too exposed and too uneasy with your land legs for too long. I stopped feeling like a nerdy, awkward freak and began to feel like my best self—daring, flashy—and whatever else might pass for cool.

              In college, drinking became my major, my thesis, my religion, my revelation, my final project. I was stopped drunk driving but managed to recite the alphabet backwards (something I can’t do sober!) and was let go. One Easter I caught my head on fire trying to get into a bath with candles and a bottle of Jim Beam, but was sort of able to hide the burns with a what-was-left-of-my-hair combover. I did all of the things a girl trying to live life with instruction from a few cases of Manischewitz, Mad Dog 20-20, Wild Irish Rose, Carlo Rossi, bottom shelf vodka, any kind of whiskey and boxes of cheap red wine would do. The list is long: use your imagination! Between the ages of 20 and 23, I tore my way through a couple of countries, states and boyfriends before landing back home, broken and broke, wondering how I’d gotten myself into yet another Jerry Springer/ Greek Tragedy hijinks. I decided to try therapy.

“You could try a meeting,” my mother suggested. “They’re cheaper than therapy.”
“But do you have to think you’re an alcoholic?” I asked.
“You can wonder,” she said.

With just the right amount of ambiguity, I went to my first meeting—without  stuffed animals or crayons. I picked up a white chip with every intention of giving it back. This could not be me—or my life. I was different. I was special! I was wrong.

That was 15 years ago today. I haven’t had a drink or done ANY recreational drugs since that Friday morning in October when I walked into a church basement and not only felt surrounded by familiar faces because I knew them, but because I’d earned my own seat among them. The ride since has been wild and bumpy with switchbacks, trap doors, surprises, a million characters, stories, side-stories, diversions, discoveries and journeys I couldn’t have begun to imagine—even as far out there as I went trying to find the world and God and love and myself at the bottom of a bottle.  

Since getting sober, I have done my best to direct my risk-taking behavior towards positive-artistic-creative kinds of risks rather than getting-drunk-and-hitchhiking-in-the-middle-of-the-night kinds of risks. As sure as I was that not drinking would lead me straight to the convent (even though I’m Jewish), sainthood has yet to happen—thank God. The good news and the bad news now, is that for better or worse I have the chance to feel all of my feelings. And that has its pitfalls! Who wants to feel everything? Addiction is like a hydra—chop off one head and two (or 768) more sprout in its place. I have an addictive personality that will latch on to anything. And has. And will. Don't try to take away my other vices! I quit coffee last spring and it was the worst 36 hours of my life. A lot of the time, my smaller self is the bigger part of my self. My first thoughts are rarely divine. But I have a better chance of showing up and participating in my life—without puking!—than I did before. I have a better chance of cultivating my intuition and my relationships and my writing than I did before. I get to remember what happened last night—even if I still can't remember where I put my keys. 

I keep my own gratitude lists now—at the top of which is the chance to show who and what I am, even if exposing that soft, tender underbelly is more terrifying than jumping off any of the cliffs I threw myself off before. Over the years I've found that turning lights on in a room to illuminate everything is scarier than turning them all off, but it's far more productive. In fact, it's the only way I've been able to see the hydra-- much less attempt to slay it, one head at a time.