The original F-word

Inside: Happy Birthday from your best friend.

Today I am fifty years old.  FIFTY.

And, just as my high school yearbook predicted, I’m an unemployed alcoholic.

I KID. Well, it’s halfway true.  I have returned to temping while I wait for someone to pay me for being awesome. Too bad I couldn’t have just been a temporary alcoholic, huh?

The card up there was given to me by my best friend Ben twenty-five years ago, today.  Ben died from complications of his alcoholism last May and it has left a dark and abysmal chasm in my heart.  I have no idea how I’ve kept up with that stained and tattered beaten-up yellow thing for all these years. (Ben, I am still talking about your birthday card, you jackass) This will be the first time in over 25 years that I haven’t received my annual snarky birthday message. I find myself absently glancing at my phone to see if I’ve missed his call. It’s been almost a year and his absence still, at times, takes me off guard. I mentioned this to a sweet and wise friend and she replied, “good days can be when we miss them most“.  The simplicity of this truth surprised me. Of course I’m going to miss him today. We’ve celebrated half of my life together.

I’ve had grand birthdays, and lonely birthdays. My high school birthdays usually revolved around ice cream, scary movies, and me and my girlfriends agonizing over some terrible quiz in Cosmo. By my early twenties my birthdays usually involved hitting the bars in Hollywood full force with my posse and then ending with someone trying to pry my drunk ass off the back of a stranger’s Harley. Of course, that was pretty commonplace at the time, anyway.  I’ve spent many birthdays at the lake laughing through the night with dear friends, and even spent a birthday on Alcatraz. Ten years ago today there was an epic surprise party thrown for me at my favorite dive bar of all time and I’m surprised I’m not still nursing that hangover all these years later.  Now, before you balk and get all Ralph Furley on me with your “stop whining for the love of god, you’re still a young whippersnapper”, remember, I almost didn’t make it to 48.  I arrived at 48 much like the space shuttle when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere – shaking violently with shrapnel flying everywhere and trying not to shit my pants.

Now, I’m not going to get all morose and somber on you, but I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that this birthday has a bittersweet ring to it. The joy in this occasion is obvious but what else is glaringly obvious to me is how much time I’ve wasted in those fifty years. Maybe it would be better reworded; how much time I spent wasted. This, I know, is a game I cannot win and it would behoove me not to play it at all.

Yet I do. It’s usually in the wee hours of the morning when the shitty committee comes out in my head and runs a reel-to-reel film featuring all of my mistakes, discarded opportunities and regrets. Often, it’s a double-feature.

Does everyone get reflective with introspective bullshit when they approach a milestone birthday or it is just me obsessing? Sometimes while driving I muse  about what could have been. What I could have done. Who I could have been. What could I have accomplished in all those years while I was so raptly and selfishly engrossed with my reckless and audacious lifestyle? I overheard someone once in a meeting say “getting sober is basically growing up in public”. One could concur that I, too, have a lot of growing up to do. So, I look at the past fifty years. What I’ve done, where I’ve been, and who I’ve become.  And here’s the thing, don’t get me wrong; I’ve had a ridiculous amount of fun – too much, you might argue. Memories dance through my brain like an out-of-focus montage. I’m ashamed of a lot, proud of a little and lucky as hell. So that begs the question; what’s next?

Well, I’m glad you asked. I can’t dwell on the past. Like I’ve said before, I’m really good at tripping over things that are behind me. No more. I have to forgive, starting with myself. I am not the same person I was and sometimes the best apology is changed behavior. I am determined to make up for lost time, and if I can’t do that, I guess I’ll just try to live every day forward trying to be grateful, humble and authentic.  If I can help someone, I will.  I mentioned when Ben died last year that I feel like now I have to make my life count twice as much, like somehow I have to live enough for us both, as if I haven’t already. I still feel that way.

So here’s to the next fifty years.  I promise you, Ben – we’re just getting warmed up.

The present of presence

We alcoholics are big on gratitude and that’s really kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it? I mean, if you’ve been to rock bottom and managed to make it back, you’re REALLY thankful. Most folks I know in recovery are grateful for big things and little things and EVERY thing and I am as well but the more time I put between me and the The Trainwreck That Became My Life,  I am consumed my gratitude and will bend the ear (and gag reflex) of everyone I know and tell them all about it.

If you stick around recovery programs for a spell you’ll hear words and phrases used over and over again. Phrases like “show up” and “live in the present” and words like awake and aware. Drunks are infamous for not really being too keen on the present. In fact, rather than be present we’re often self-medicating by downing a pint of vodka in lieu thereof. Why do you think we drink until we pass out? Because we don’t want to feel what we’re feeling, whatever it is. Sadness, loneliness, obsession, anger, resentment, loss, and pain. For years I told myself it would be okay if I could just “get through” whatever it was I was trying to survive; like an old farmhouse where I felt like an invisible apparition, or a new family and non-familiar surroundings. Paralyzing grief over the loss of my Father, or relationships that were failed or strained. You name it, I had one coping strategy, and that was booze.

I still look through the old photos of the ghosts of Christmases past and feel the pangs of regret when I realize I don’t remember much about those holidays. Sure, I have some funny anecdotes, but more often than not I was checked out thanks to booze and usually ashamed of my performance and/or consumed with heartache from something I may have said which usually was out of insecurity or just plain meanness. Worse yet, sometimes I felt nothing afterwards.

This year was different. This year I was IN IT, for better or for worse. Of course when you’re present for the good stuff you’re also present for the crap and that can be challenging at times, sure. This year I didn’t just think about myself (for once) and kept my head (for the most part) out of my own ass. I cooked and cleaned and I helped where I could. I didn’t share every single thought in my head that was snarky and unwarranted and there was a time when I would’ve prided myself on how fast I could have torn down each situation, for nothing more than self-satisfaction and malice. Then again, none of my relatives are Trump supporting racist fucking douchebags, so it was relatively easy for me to hone my zen. I’m sober, you guys, not freakin’ Wonder Woman.

This year I got to spend time with people that I love and I did so without whining and grumbling about my ridiculous sacrifices or rolling my eyes at every comment. Was I perfect? Oh hell no. Was it easy? Mostly. It’s a change of perspective, really. When you’re constantly obsessed with the past and busy projecting the doom and gloom of the future, it’s hard to enjoy the here and now and that’s something I still struggle with and try to work on, on a daily basis. It takes practice, trust me.

This year I was present. This year I didn’t get rip-roaring drunk before when it was time to carve the turkey. This year I was able to laugh with my friends and family and enjoy spending time together because we all know that yesterday is gone and tomorrow isn’t a promise. All we have is today and when you really boil it down, what really matters here? I don’t know how many Christmases my Mom has in her and I hope it’s like 27 or so but the fact is, it’s a real number. It’s a real number how many days or years I have in me, isn’t it? Same with you.

I spent enough of my days wallowing in self pity and resentment. I wasted enough time being wasted, one could say. An old friend of mine used to remind me that it was easy to forget what’s important, so don’t. Simple enough, isn’t it? And that’s another thing I’m grateful for, the never-ending reminders of how it was, then, and how it IS, now.

Now is better.

Christmas Spirits

So last night I went to a Christmas party hosted for and by my knitting friends and the lovely store where we gather. Yes, that’s right, I’m a knitter, and lately, I’ve even learned to crochet, so one could argue that I’m a hooker now as well. The party was delightful and it was so nice to celebrate the season with so many folks that have meant so much to me over the last few years. There was quite a spectrum of women represented (we do have dude knitters, they just weren’t at the party) and I’m often humbled that I’m even included in their company. Professors, stay-at-home-moms, retirees, working gals, world travelers, and more. Every single woman there was an ass-kicking superstar and I’m so lucky to be under their sturdy and strong wings. We often liken the shop to Truvy’s Beauty parlor in Steel Magnolias as it’s where we all gather and celebrate, commiserate, support each other, and occasionally we DO, in fact, knit.

Most of the gals in this menagerie know my story. Well, the cliff notes anyway. I assume they’re learning a bit more if they’re reading this little blog. NOT UNLIKE MY MOTHER.  Anyway, I had a choice (well, did I?) when the shit hit the fan in 2015 to be honest about my addiction and consequent situation, or to lie like I’ve been doing (mostly unsuccessfully) for the last 30 or so years. I don’t know if I chose honesty or if it chose me but the fact of the matter is that the truth was just easier.  Remember Viola Davis in that gut-wrenching scene in The Help where she confronts the ruthless Miss Hilly and says “All you do is scare people and lie to get what you want. Ain’t you tired, Miss Hilly?  Ain’t you tired?!?”  Yes.  Yes I was.

So, with that, I’m extremely fortunate. My friends and even most acquaintances know that I am an alcoholic in recovery. And per my nature, they all know they can laugh with me at my challenges as well as celebrate my victories, and that, my friends, is priceless. They know they can ask questions, as well. I’m “out” of the closet liquor cabinet, one could say. However, I totally understand that many folks aren’t and that the holidays can often be filled with anxiety ridden events revolving around alcohol. I know a lot of people that struggle with alcohol also struggle with turning down a drink at a party, especially those new to recovery. “What will everyone THINK?” And that’s a fair assumption because really, when we were drinking we definitely didn’t turn down a drink and who in their right mind would?!?  Well, don’t get your tinsel in a tangle, there’s good news. I’ve not been out of the cabinet long but one thing I learned quickly is this; no one else cares. That’s right, I said it. NO ONE CARES IF YOU DRINK OR NOT.

Now, this does not include active alcoholics because they just may give you some flack because your ability to say no may turn their high-powered accusatory finger back on themselves.  I hear time and time again where people are flummoxed on what to say when offered a drink. I was no different. Last year at this time I went through a ridiculous week of sleepless nights leading up to my work Christmas party where only a few folks knew my truth and the rest did not, and they were a heavy drinking lot. What will I do if someone sends me a shot? What will I do if the president of the company wants to toast with me? WHAT DO I SAY?!? And guess what you guys? The president himself sat at my table and when the waitress came by for our drink order I ordered a soft drink and. . . nothing happened. Well, something happened. The gal brought me a diet coke and we commenced eating our holiday dinner. TA-freaking-DA.

Now I realize it can be nerve wracking to some and it goes against the social grain to turn down booze at a party but more and more I realize that it is not about ME at ANY gathering. Everyone else is so consumed with themselves that they are really not focusing on what you have or don’t have in your hand to drink. This was foreign to me of coursebecause as someone recently said, alcoholics are egomaniacs with an insecurity complex. Another friend of mine in recovery laments, “I know I’m not much, but I’m all I think about.” 

Well, that goes for most people, I’d say. We’re all just doing the best we can every day and social anxiety and awkward holiday parties are just part of the package this time of the year. Try saying “no thanks”, it’s simple and it works wonders. You can always say you’re driving and most normal people will respect that. In my case I could never say I was the designated driver BECAUSE I NEVER, EVER WAS. I’ve told a stranger that I’ve retired from drinking, when asked if I’d tried a certain sangria.  That worked and even got a chuckle.

I was at a party a few weeks ago where a lady asked me who I was and what I did. It was at the end of the evening and you know how sometimes inappropriate things just fly right out of your mouth? No? WELL BELIEVE ME, THEY DO. I casually replied with “Me? I’m an unemployed alcoholic.”

She retorted, “Oh no! You’re unemployed? I just recently got a new job myself.” I shit you not.

Like Nancy Reagan said, just say no. Well, maybe say “no, thank you”, I mean, unless you’re dealing with a pill-popping heroin pusher after school and then you can probably lose the Miss Manners etiquette and run like hell.

And no matter what you celebrate, to all, a good night.

In the beginning

Actual journal entry – 1989

During this process I’ve rediscovered some journals that I’ve kept over the years. It’s been cringe-inducing to read the rants and musings of my 20-something self, but also insightful and at times, hysterical. I hope to use some of these ancient missives in this blog and this was one of the first entries I stumbled upon. It stuns and saddens me that I knew 28 years ago that my drinking wasn’t normal.

I’ve left the spelling and syntax untouched as I feel transparency is tantamount to honesty. 

04/10/89

Days as cold, grey and cloudy as my mind. The cool morning air and stacks of smoke billowing from the dirty inner city, as I find my way home. The cafeteria is a blurred, scattered conversation that I’m not part of. These people have had showers, and more than likely, sleep.

Sometimes it’s a lot easier to keep fucking up your life than to deal with the hassle of keeping it straight. Sometimes in the afternoons you find it’s difficult to remember who you saw or spoke to that morning, or in fact, exactly what you did. After all, you know better than to attempt to remember last night. You always feel more alive at nite, anyway. It’s dark and smoky and there’s something cold and alcoholic in your hand and you know that you can pretend all that you want tonite, and then pretend you didn’t tomorrow.

The nites in between are the best. The slow nights with the regulars are cool, but almost everyone feels they should be somewhere else. It’s a shared feeling, and we drink to it. There are nites when you can’t breathe and everyone is there, and you couldn’t care less. The nites in between are the unexpected ones, the ones that keep you going back. All the “right” people show up, the nite is young and the drinks flow almost freely. You feel that life is fair and good and lucky to be a part of it – and you feel like you fit, if only for a little while.

Then there are the days sometimes you find you can’t stand, and it’s 6:30pm. You laugh, and order another round. You toast to irresponsibility, watch the sun set through dirty windows, feel the lights as they flicker on, and wonder where tonite is headed, and you.

Every now and then you’re alone. Not often, but sometimes 15 minutes to 3 hours can catch you and you look around and inside. You see bills unpaid, and no $ to pay them with, if you’d even thought about it. Six classes missed and it’s only Wednesday. Unreturned phone calls, and a stack of laundry piled up the the closet shelf. So what do you do? It’s Wednesday $ night, and you grab something off of the top of the laundry heap, hope it doesn’t smell too bad, and run to Gus’s* to bounce a check and start the ball rolling.

Again.

 

* Gus’s was a joint on the strip in my college town that would cash checks for students. You know, back in the day when there weren’t atm cards and the like OMG I SURVIVED THE DARK AGES YOU GUYS.

Ask me how I got here.

How do you know if you’re an alcoholic?

I get asked this all the time. Even recently by a nurse. When someone finds out about my trainwreck of a past ahem, history, I always encourage any questions they may have. For such a common problem, alcoholism is still very much a dirty secret for many. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to publish a public blog declaring their status as a raging alcoholic. Go figure.

Webster’s Dictionarya chronic, progressive, potentially fatal disorder marked by excessive and usually compulsive drinking of alcohol leading to psychological and physical dependence or addiction.

For me, pretty much everyone knew I had a drinking problem, especially in the last few years, so it wasn’t really a surprise to anyone what happened to me. No one was scratching their head, let me assure you. Rarely does an alcoholic hide it as well as they think they do, and I certainly can vouch for that.  Sooner or later, the jig is up and rock bottom is different for everyone as well.  The lucky ones don’t get to the depths of despair before reaching out for help. However, I was always a late bloomer.  Late to the party and the last to leave, me. I knew I was an alcoholic, but it kinda felt like having high cholesterol. . . just keep an eye on it and manage it accordingly.  Seriously, this was my thought process.

I’m Irish. It’s a thing. At least I thought it was.

And here’s the other thing; you could ask every alcoholic out there and they’d all have a unique and individual response to that question. . . how do you know if you’re an alcoholic? 

A lot of folks also will offer “if you want to stop drinking and you find that you cannot“. That one has always seemed kinda obvious to me, but trust me, in the insanity of alcoholism nothing is obvious to the alcoholic. “You make alcohol a priority over your responsibilities” is another. “Normal people don’t worry about their drinking” is also a favorite.

I don’t know. I defer to the always astute Morticia Addams…

There is no normal, in my opinion. In the last two years I have met alcoholics of all ages, sizes, creeds and colors. Decorated war veterans. Professors from universities. Indigent folks and yes, some even homeless. Stay-at-home mothers. Business folks of both genders. Alcoholism does not discriminate. Alcoholism doesn’t care what town you’re from or how you grew up or where you went to school. It doesn’t give a flying flip if you’re a kindergarten teacher or a inmate on parole. It’s a misconception even now that most of us do not in fact sleep under overpasses and hiccup bleakly from the gutters surrounding bars in dark and shady neighborhoods.

No, I guarantee you know an alcoholic even if you don’t know you know. You do.

The good news is that we’re all in this together.  Every single person I’ve met in my journey has taught me something.  No one is more qualified to relate to an alcoholic like another alcoholic. This I know for sure.

So, sure, you can take an online quiz. You can try just drinking on weekends. You can try white wine only for awhile. Can you stop? Do you even want to?  How do you know if you’re an alcoholic? It’s a simple question although the answer is can be remarkably complicated.

Here’s my answer to that question: If you stop drinking and your life improves dramatically, then you may be an alcoholic.

I’m Jen and I’m an alcoholic.  It’s nice to meet you.