I’m still addicted. To my needs, my emotions, my pain.
Sometimes, I forget — it isn’t all about me. I get lost in my own head. I live in my hurt and desire. I start to believe that the world’s being done to me. My head is a jungle. And, I can turn into someone unpredictable.
You have to believe in something bigger than yourself if you’re going to survive. — There has to be something outside of you that can save you from yourself. Because, when you get lost in your own maze, it’s hard to find your way back alone. We are all captives of ourselves.
Last week I sat across from one of my best friends, sipping tea. In sobriety, he’s the one person that can reel me back in. He’s not afraid to tell me I’m an asshole. And, sometimes, I want to knock out his teeth for it, but, mostly, I want thank him for keeping me sane. He’s been down the same road I have — he knows the detours — he helps me navigate through my ever-changing personal hell. And, over chai, he reminded me that, perhaps, it’s time to reacquaint myself with my bigger picture. Because, honestly, I’ve lost a step. I haven’t been the woman I want to be.
I still get lost searching for myself and I miss the point. I find myself down a rabbit hole and it leaves me wanting. I strain, trying to remember why I’m really here.
When I got sober, it wasn’t for me alone — it was for the people that are a part of my life. I have to remember what it took to be the woman that they deserve. I have to suit up. Smile. Give. Sometimes, I end up having to give more than I think I have, because everyone needs something. And, I want the people I love to have the things they need. I can’t always be about my own pay-off.
Maybe, I have been an asshole. So, I take my buddy’s reminder to heart. And, tonight, I find myself beside someone who needs me. Someone whose love reminds me of what my own love is supposed to be — when I’m not busy making demands.
When I let go of the ego that got me drunk, my sobriety allows me to be available for the people that give my life meaning.
And, when I walk out of my jungle, I see them again — my people — because, really, they’re what it’s all about.
I pull back the curtain. And, there she is — the Wizard.
It’s fucking weird. — Finding the truth. Getting back home. Realizing you’ve survived. Knowing you’ve found something worthwhile.
Behind my curtain? — An unexpected love. A great, new job. Stability. — Benchmarks of a life that, a few, short years ago, I never thought I’d be living. But, here I am. And instead of sitting back and drinking it all in like a nice, Jameson 18 year — I find myself peering down the yellow brick road again.
Because, if 3 clicks of my heels brought me here — where will 10 clicks take me? What’s left that still needs fixing? How can I be better? I need it. More happiness. More success. Brains. Heart. Courage! Just, more.
I make calculations. When will the next tornado hit? And, I wonder, is this how I’ll keep my life in Technicolor? By chasing storms?
It’s an obsession. The relentless quest to repair all my broken bits. — There’s no rest for the weary. The moment I reach a milestone — it’s back to the drawing board. Don’t you know?! If you’re happy, you’ve missed something. There are flying monkeys everywhere!
It’s tiring: Finding new flaws, failings, and apologies that need making. I’m all for self-discovery, but, I can’t have my life be an unending Mea Culpa. I don’t want to walk around with an oil can for the rest of my days.
Sometimes, you have to let go. Of everything. Even the things that, at one point, held you together. I’ve learned to be wary of the places where I’ve bled.
The cardinal rule of 12-Step: If you want to keep it, you’ve got to give it away. It’s part of the deal — returning the favor. And, I’ve learned that everyone gives back differently. We all come out from behind our own, different curtains. We all reveal something unique. Some of us talk. Some of us listen. Some of us write. Some of us usher our friends and family into safe places when things go south. Every path you can choose is a worthy one. So, you don’t need a map. You just have to see what’s right there in front of you. It’s not going to be perfect. But, it gets us home.
Yes, I’m home for Christmas. I’m 30. And — in some cultures — I’m what passes for an adult. Yet, here I am, on the couch in my parent’s living room, sitting cross-legged in my pajamas — wearing sparkly reindeer antlers.
For a just a moment — I judge myself harshly. I mean, how is it, really, that after all this time and after all the crap I’ve been through — grown-up heartbreak, real-life lessons, crap-ass jobs, meaningful-to-meager relationships — that I’ve returned home only to be reduced to some primitive version of myself?
Truthfully, I’m not sure. Which is why, this year, I’m trying to cut my bad self a little slack. I’m starting to realize that my self-assessments were never really quite accurate. Each sober day that passes, I make new peace with whoever this woman is that I’m becoming. I’m no teenager — despite the very-real-feeling that I will remain seventeen for all perpetuity. And, while it’s true that, most days, I wish I were something different — something more — I’m starting to feel more comfortable declaring my own instability.
The holiday season is a time for compassion. We’re supposed to go deep and give big. And this year, the only way I can give more of myself is to dust off those old, buried pieces of my soul — the ones that I deemed unfit for consumption. Perhaps I was too hasty in writing myself off. I think it’s time that I dug out my old gifts and gave my new, sober hardware a run for its money.
It’s time to start re-gifting. — Re-gifting myself.
So many of us hand out the same gifts, year after year. We give away the safe pieces of our heart — the pieces with smooth edges — the parts of us that we think are worthy. I’m realizing that it’s time to start putting more on the table. It’s time to bust out the sharp-edged-second-tier-heart-bits.
Sobriety has taught me how to give more of myself. And, sometimes, it’s uncomfortable. Showing up to the holiday party with extra baggage is scary. We give ourselves the illusion of being in control when we allow everything in our lives to remain the same. — And, let’s face it, there is something comforting about the neighbor showing up with the same-fucking-fruitcake every year — even if it’s become your annual tradition to drop it into the trash can like a brick.
I sit on the couch, my festive, sequined antlers twinkling in the Christmas tree lights, and I’m reminded that I need to re-purpose these negative feelings. Especially the ancient ones that were written into my DNA long ago. How we see ourselves is just the story we write in our own heads. It’s time to write something better. My family will always expect one version of Sarah — but the truth is, they’ll have to accept whatever Santa decides to throw under the tree. And, by actually facing my own shortcomings, I become less apologetic for the things I’m not.
This year, I encourage you to re-gift all the things that don’t serve you. Write something new. Find the unused parts of your heart. Predictable appearances are overrated.
“Spirit!” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
December 20, 2011 — My phone rang, waking me with a start. It was my mother, which I found odd because she knew to never to call me before noon. And, in that off moment of sleepy confusion — I knew — she had bad news. At the end of the line, a coast away, my mother choked out the words: My cousin had been killed the night before in a tragic accident. She had bought me a plane ticket home. I was going back East.
I had been drunk, almost constantly, for several months prior to his death. And, in the truly sobering moments that followed my mother’s phone call, I struggled to locate my emotion. I had rendered myself dull and numb. Tears dammed up behind my eyes. Words got caught in my larynx. Nothing in the room moved — except my arm — which swung out to my right side, off the bed, and grabbed for the open bottle of gin sitting on my bedside table. 7:43AM. I remember. I took a swig.
At work, my gracious coworkers had rallied for me. The skeleton crew that remained for the Christmas holiday had all divvied up my waitressing shifts without complaint. The bartender slipped me shots of whiskey during dinner service. It was the first time I ever drank on the job. After my shift, I sat at the pub around the corner from my apartment and I drank more. Bourbon. I left at last call and I only slept for a few hours before waking up and tossing my clothing into a suitcase haphazardly between swigs from my bottle of bedroom gin.
I arrived at the airport early and I sat at the bar while I waited to board my flight. As I slurped up the last, red sip of my 4th Bloody Mary through a long black straw, the man next to me asked me if he could buy me another. “I’m guessing you’re not having such a Merry Christmas,” he said. The bartender put my 5th drink down in front of me as the man got up. “Happy Holidays,” he said, wheeling his bag toward the gate. When I asked the bartender for my tab, she told me that the man had taken care of my entire bill.
I have never been so drunk on a plane. I ordered two 2 vodkas — the flight attendant handed me the 4 little minis like a vendor at a sporting event. I didn’t bother to mix them with my club soda. I remember holding each blue bottle up to my lips — one, then another, then another. I woke up from a blackout as we hit the runway at JFK International Airport. My head felt like it had been slammed between two bricks. My cousin met me at the baggage claim, where we collapsed into each other’s arms and cried. As we walked to the car she said, “Jesus Christ, Sarah. You reek of vodka.”
It has never been necessary to hide my drinking from my family. This behavior was routine — my routine — our routine. And, given the circumstance of my return, I wasn’t the only one taking nips on the sly. We shuttled from my childhood home, to my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey, and back again. We all wept and drank. We sat perfectly still between embraces, and we were silent between sobs. The Christmas decorations only noted the season. We’d all forgotten what day is was — the clocks had stopped and the calendar was just a piece of paper on the wall.
Christmas Day, just days after the funeral, I flew home to Portland. I drank more vodka on the plane. And, when we landed, I had my cabbie drive me directly to the pub. I didn’t bother to stop at home and drop off my bags. For last call, the bartender turned off the juke box and played Elvis’ Blue Christmas and I got up to vomit in the women’s room.
* * *
This will be my third sober Christmas. And, when I arrive at PDX to fly East, I will sit and wait for my plane at the gate — not the bar. I will sip my complimentary cranberry cocktail and I will page through a fashion magazine and listen to Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums on my headphones. I will lay my head on the folding tray and try to sleep until the captain illuminates the “Fasten Seat Belt Sign” and announces our descent.
At JFK, I will walk past the baggage carousel and see the same spot where my cousin and I fell into each other’s arms before she drove me home, stinking of vodka. And, while I wait in the taxi line, the dam will break and I will cry again for my cousin who is gone.
I will pull my bags out of the back seat of a yellow cab and I will hug my mother on the stoop of our house in Brooklyn. When I walk in our front door, I will smell the perfume of the Douglas Fir. And when I see that Christmas tree, lit, in the corner of our living room — nostalgia will stop my heart for a just a few beats. My father will come down the squeaky steps and fold me in his arms before he kisses my forehead and says, “It’s good to have you home Monkeybird.” And, in my eyes, he’ll see — It’s good to be home.
It’s also good to be sober. So, I won’t think about drinking until I open the cabinet to the left of the microwave. I always find my old bottle of Jim Beam while I’m looking for something else in my mother’s kitchen. I poured my cousin a secret drink from that same bottle on Thanksgiving Day, 2011, just a month before his death. It seems fitting that the bottle should remain unfinished. And so, I honor his memory with every drink I do not take.
These were shadows of things that have been. — That they are what they are, do not blame me.
So, I leave my bottle on the shelf for ghosts. Because, my parents never cared for bourbon.
Which is crazy. — I know.
[Italicized Prose Excerpt: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Artwork (before edits): Sol Eytinge, Jr.]
If you’re in the mood for a sentimental Thanksgiving retrospective — you’re shit outta luck.
There will be no jovial, light hearted fluff piece where I wax poetic on my many, zany family characters nor will I dramatize the hilarious-pseudo-tragedy of some overcooked turkey disaster. Because, this year, my family was in New York and I’m a vegan.
The one thing I must note, after the events of this Thanksgiving weekend, is the serendipitous nature of life — the law of attraction, fate, God’s will — call it what you want. Sometimes the universe will fork something over that’s too good for telling. The kind of holiday story that can be tied up with a big, red bow and stuck under our existential Christmas trees like a present for each one of us to open with glee, whilst sipping peppermint hot cocoa. The kind of story that does best living in our hearts. A holiday tale that sounds better between our ears than it does between periods, dashes, and commas.
Thanksgiving Day, I drove to a friend’s house with three huge bags full of frozen Tofurky pizzas, guacamole, and coconut ice cream. I slowed on Belmont Street. As I approached the Horse Brass Pub, I felt it — the cosmic pull. I felt my foot pulse on the brake. And, truly, I considered it — stopping there for just one drink. I could feel my fingers wrapped around a rocks glass. I could hear the scratched, smokey laughter of the three, old men sitting next to me. I felt the vibration of that solemn energy which always hangs in the air of bars on holidays. You can feel it — the nights where everyone who’s ponied up to the bar knows — they should be somewhere else. I recall the permission that just one drink could afford me — how I could forgive myself for a lifetime of letting my love and my joy escape me.
I’m not sure what moved me. Maybe it was the the thawing pizza and melting ice cream, or, maybe it was the thought of my friend sitting alone in his house, but, I decided to accelerate. I decided to forgo the one drink that would have turned into my entire holiday. As I drove past the bar, casting my gaze out of the passenger window, I saw them — locked gates. The bar windows were dark, their neon signs coiled and black. THANKSGIVING. Suddenly I became aware — stopping here — was never my decision.
Give thanks. It’s so much bigger than we are — this life. I’ve chosen to be sober in an attempt, however feeble, to have the best life possible — the life that I was meant to be living before I lost myself. But, more often than not, being sober is hard, and staying sober is harder. When I decide how to walk the path, too many times, I end up stranded. I watch my imagined life and how it continues to fall short of my expectations. I wander down the “safe” path when, all along, the universe has been calling me to travel the uncharted road.
So, this Thanksgiving, I decide that I am no longer going to decide. Right there on Belmont, I learned to forgive — I pardoned my inner-Turkey-bird.
During the holidays, I tap into the childish wonder I once possessed. I listen and I watch for magic. And, when I do that — the path finds me. The world falls into place, however haphazardly. And, I keep driving.
Because, the gate is locked, friends are waiting, and the bag of frozen groceries is melting.
That sudden and visceral desire to reinvent yourself — become something new. Someone new. Somewhere else. Anywhere but here.
In 12-Step meetings, it’s called a “Geographic.” But, for me, it’s simply: “Get me the fuck outta here.”
Some mornings, I wake up an Oregonian. I breathe in damp, green air and when I get home from work I kick my soggy, brown, cowboy boots off at the door. I take long walks at 4:45AM where I feel like I might be the last human alive on Earth. I stand under impossibly tall pine trees and feel, actually feel — real as any human touch — my own smallness. This place makes me right sized. I have lost everything here. And, I have picked up all my broken pieces and assembled a mosaic that even I can admire. In Oregon, my alone-ness crowns me a true pioneer woman.
Other mornings, I wake up, and I’m still a wild New Yorker. Blood pumps hot and fast through my veins, all of which wind through my Brooklyn-girl-body like Subway tracks. Most days, I swear, my car starts to drive toward the airport without any help from my hands. I’m ready to max out, not one — but all, of my credit cards. I’m ready to fly. To disappear into some vast unknown — one that I’m sure will envelop me, cradle me, shower me with all the love and fulfillment that seems to elude me here. I write imaginary letters to all my friends living abroad: “Do you need a butler? I’m available.”
Please. Someone. Anyone. — Get me the fuck outta here.
I’m pretty certain that, in some ways, sobriety has made me loonier than I’d been at the onset. Now that I’m free of the drugs and the booze — I want to be free of everything else too. I want to start over where no one knows me. I want to leave behind all these conceptions of myself that have been fostered for too many years. I want to call my mother from somewhere in Bumblefuck, France and tell her that everything was worth it. — The taxing phone calls. The pain. The tears. The broken hearts. The unrealized dreams. I want to tell her that the foreign skies have washed me with their rain. I want to tell her that I’m standing, soaked, in front of some ancient monument — smiling. Everything smells different. Everything feels different. I am young again in a place that’s too old to care. I yearn to choke on some other language, only to wake up one morning, breathing big, clean breaths — erupting — singing a song I barely understand to a sun I’ve never seen before.
But, instead, I text message my mother from the floor of my apartment in SE Portland, where I sit cross-legged in front of the tall, white heater. I wipe tears from the corners of my American eyes. And I think, maybe, it is better to run toward something than it is to run away from it.
The world is full of quacks. I’m starting to think this is a good thing.
Every morning, I walk over a small bridge that crosses the stream running through the local college campus. And, it has become my custom to stop and acknowledge these quacks — the campus ducks. There is a pair to whom I am partial. Mallards. They glide downstream until their rustled feathers are halted by the usual obstructions — fallen trees, large, mossy rocks, and other, floating fowl. They are un-phased by delays.
For a long time, I paid no attention to the feathered duo. I walked too fast — my heart rate up, burning my calories, set in my circular trajectory. But, one morning, as the ducks honked, announcing the dawn’s return, I flashed back to a memory of my grandfather:
Many years before he died, I sat in his living room. I’d taken a bar of soap from his bathroom and hid behind his couch with a wooden mallard duck that he’d displayed on his coffee table. I was a small child, and I had decided that “washing” the duck by grinding soap into its carved feathers would be a most helpful thing to do. When my grandfather discovered me, he was stern. His ducks weren’t toys. So, we stood at the kitchen sink together and he carefully removed the soap from the mallard’s etched wings.
In sobriety, I have always gone full speed ahead — no time to observe quiet waters. I quit my job. I went to rehab. I hit 12-Step — hard. I got a new job. I did the work. I never stopped to look around me. I never stopped to ask for guidance — especially not from quacks. I waited to be told the truth. I waited on orders that never came. And, when I lost my footing, I waited for a hand to reach down and pull me up. I never expected I’d learn my lesson from a pair of ducks. Yet, every morning, they honk out their reminder: “Slow down, be thoughtful in how you make your way around the trees and the rocks and other quacks that deter you.”
As the sun summits the tallest pines, I peer over the bridge’s railing. I look for my grandfather there — the mallard. I think that maybe his loyal companion is my grandmother. She died before I was born. But, I’ve been told how much my grandfather loved her — heard stories of his broken heart after she died — he was never quite the same. At his funeral, my voice cracked as I gave his eulogy. I hoped, if spirits do live on, that theirs were together.
Angels and idealism, I’m told, are for children. But, I still look for signs and symbols. I wait for messages. I have been called a seeker. I’ve been told, time and again: No external thing I seek will fix my broken things inside. So, on someone else’s word, I stopped looking. — But, the ducks keep showing up.
While home on vacation, atop a pile of cleaning products my mother had put aside, I saw a small, circular piece of stained glass. It appeared to be one, dark blue piece at first glance, but when I held it to the light, there they sat — a pair of mallard ducks. I asked my mother where she’d found it — It was from my grandfather’s house.
Sometimes, it’s best to dismiss the things we’ve been told. There are words and there are things that can be seen. I see the mallard. He is real. Visible. Audible. He invites me to remember the things that have come before and the things that linger. He reminds me: There is most certainly a spirit that lives outside myself, sent to mend the broken things. We are not alone.
At the bridge, I stop and breathe. I let the honking fowl punctuate the dawn. I remember my grandfather’s laughter. I embrace a childish ideal. If we remain seekers, there will always be ducks to find. So, I peer over the bridge’s edge and watch them. Rustled feathers. Gliding happily downstream. Together.
In my childhood bedroom, I sit cross-legged and allow myself to feel old.
It’s been years since I’ve seen this place. Everyone looks a little bit different. The landscape here has changed just enough to make things seem otherworldly. Like, I’ve returned to some alternate universe to find a different version of everyone I left behind years ago.
What has happened here? And, why is everyone getting married?
It’s my family reunion. I get a funny feeling that I can’t shake. I stand in strangely familiar surroundings — an observer and an alien. My awkwardness, performed in a nuanced fashion, is easy to disguise. Once, I was happily impaired as swarms of relatives buzzed around me — a host of inquisitive flies. Today, each encounter is centered. I see a different version of myself reflected in every set of eyes I look into — like watching an old VHS tape.
While standing in line for salad, I wonder if the only thing I have in common with these people is blood. I refill my red Solo cup with raspberry-lime seltzer right beside the keg where my relatives line up for the good stuff. Lager foam spills over the top of their cups and they push off the excess with their index fingers. They all ask me how life is treating me out West, and then, turn back to the keg without listening to my answer. I remember how easy drunken pleasantries were, I used to make them myself, between sips of frothy vodka sours. Maybe it’s me who’s rude these days, but, I’m less concerned with hurt feelings than I’ve been in years past.
The truth is, back West — it’s all unraveled. But here, in front of the macaroni salad — it’s whatever you’d like to hear.
My cousins pull me onto the dance floor at the bar where everyone has headed after a long day of family togetherness. They all do the twist, raising their arms up, cocktails spilling over the sides of their clear plastic cups onto the dance floor. I jostle my hips, stiffly, from side to side. This isn’t any fun sober.
In another universe, drunken dancing would have been the highlight of my evening. Tonight, I just want to go home. I tell my cousins I’m too tired, because I am, and I leave, alone.
I walk home on a dark country road. Another super moon dangles in the sky like a giant light bulb. The road, that’s usually pitch black at this hour, glows a hazy blue. The trees are lower to the ground here than they are in Oregon and the shadow levels us — there is something comforting in the congruence of our size. For a just a moment, we are all perfectly rooted in the Earth.
As I walk up the driveway to my house, I replay the day: As if it were choreographed, a parade of bathing suits, cut-off jeans, and summer dresses weave in and out of mismatched wooden chairs with peeling paint. My grandmother’s voice — caught in her throat at the sight of us all together. Tiny babies. Weddings planned and divorces finalized. Not-so-tiny-babies. Childhood brethren and sworn mortal enemies. It’s more drama than a good soap opera. Characters that move about wildly, without predictable trajectories. I stop to remind myself — everyone’s family is crazy.
Everything looks different through a steady lens. And, I feel it — an era has ended. Time is moving at different speeds. But, eventually — inevitably — we will all meet again. We will stand at the keg, whether we’re drinking from it or not. We will ask each other how things are going, only to realize — we never really cared to know the answer.
There is no single road that will take you back to my origin. My time is marked only by people and the smoke signals cast up from the wildfires of my heart. Sometimes the fire burns low — but it hasn’t gone out yet. While things smolder here, I yearn for the heat of my childhood fire. And, like a migrant bird that moves with the seasons, I know where to go.
Tomorrow, I fly East. Back to my home. There, I will plug-in to the people that have kept me lit up for as long as I’ve been gone, down, and lost. Extension cords across a nation. Beacons and anchors.
When I booked my flight, I imagined my trip as the great escape. My chance to flee all the ghosts that I’ve been dancing with for the past few months. I could see it — My mother’s actual shoulder, ready for my tears, instead of my neck craned over my own as I weep into the phone. My father, sitting on the couch, turning inky newspaper pages while the smell of coffee circulates under the ceiling fan. My cousins, making wise cracks on the deck, all with pasty white, Irish skin — reflecting the sun in their two-piece bathing suits — wet hair wrapped up in old, weathered beach towels. My grandparents, like pigs in shit — surrounded by their clan — we unite, flanking all sides of their home. These people, these moments — they are not meant to facilitate my escape, but, instead, to bring me back to life. They revive my spirit with a power I have never known in my solitude.
These are the real things in life to hold fast to — Family. Love. Home. — You will forget until your crooked lines remind you.
This year has been sobering. I’ve watched myself morph. I’ve watched the people around me walk in and out of shadows. I have new, deep scars that I will wear forever — with pride. And, to my surprise, it’s got nothing to do with the drink. It’s more to do with the fact I haven’t needed one. Yes, crooked lines were drawn, but each end meets its own Mecca.
Sometimes, the breeze off the Willamette River smells like a summer’s day in New York. I hold that air in my lungs. I long for the people that kept me once as a child, who love me still — miles apart. They still follow my path, like the tip of a finger on a map. They stay the course, however deviant. They see, in me, something simple. We live inside each other. My heart knows these people — we are the saviors and the saved.
Kindred — We know the easiest and the most difficult kind of love.
We have come as we are. We accept each other this way — The mess on the dining room table. The 10 extra pounds. The broken heart. The busted tail light. The empty wallet. It’s there. It’s ours. It’s us. On display. They take me. I take them. They love me. And I, — I love them back — their messes and their pounds and their hearts all the same.
So, just this once, I draw a straight line through the clouds.
Metal bird, take me as the crow flies — not to my escape — but to my return.
**ARTWORK CREDIT: Andrew Wyeth, ‘Crows, Study for Woodshed,’ 1944. Watercolor on paper laid down on board.**