Jim Beam: A Love (Goodbye) Story

All endings beg us to return to the beginning.

As I try to wrap up this blog, to tell the stories that matter to me — the ones that mean the most — I keep returning to Jim Beam. I’ve been unable to escape the thought of his squared, glass bottle. Like a person. A character. — Jim Beam, Bourbon Whiskey, was an essential player in my story. — Just brown booze in a bottle, sure. But, still, after all this time, I’ll refer to that particular bottle as: “Him.” Because, like a fallen sidekick, I still sometimes miss his help.

I miss how I never felt alone, knowing I had a bottle on the kitchen counter. How I could go to any bar — and there he’d be. Seeing a bottle of Jim Beam White Label behind the bar, even now, makes me feel like I’ve run into an old friend — an old lover.

What’s funny is, admitting this doesn’t make me feel ridiculous at all. Not one bit. Because, as I come to another ending in my life, I am aware now, more than ever, of how important it is to recognize the anchors that root us in our past experiences. Jim Beam — yes, to be sure — was just booze in a bottle. But, he was there. He was there, for almost everything in my life before I got sober. And, he was the bottle I tipped back — the bottle who saved me — when things were the most difficult they’ve ever been.

While I was thinking about it, I realized that getting sober is not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. — It was surviving the pain of heartbreak. And, during that period in my life, Jim Beam saved me from myself. There were so many times I turned myself over to that squared, glass bottle, completely, because staying present would have killed me, and nearly did.

I sat through countless 12-Step meetings where members told stories about how alcohol or drugs had saved them from themselves. And, of course, this is how things went awry. Booze can’t actually save you, not forever anyway. But, before things got bad, beyond the-point-of-no-return bad, there was a time where being drunk made my life possible. It gave me a reason to live — when I felt that I had not one. When it came to Jim, I never had to do anything to earn it. I had his love. Jim Beam always sat in wait for me, ready when I needed him. And, now, allowing myself to recognize that, to feel that, I understand why getting sober was so hard. There aren’t many people who will show up for you like that.

Alcoholism, the disease, isn’t about drinking. It’s about what we got from the drink. It’s what waited for me at the bottom of that bottle that defined my problem. Back then, I never thought to savor each sip, thinking the drink would love me back. But now, if I’m being honest, — somewhere inside of me — that was what I thought: I thought at the bottom of every bottle of Jim Beam I would find the love that had left me bereft. And, when I see that bottle today, it doesn’t make me feel sad. It makes me feel grateful. — Grateful that I am alive. — Grateful that my own heart didn’t kill me.

Love, like drinking, is most beautiful in the process. — Never in the result. Love and liquor are comforts you can count on — until you can’t anymore. One day, love is the only thing you believe in, and the next, it’s walked out on you. One day, a drink is what saves you from yourself, and the next — it’s killing you. You have to be careful how far you let things take you outside yourself.

Learning to be present with loss is the hardest thing any of us will ever do. And, we do it everyday. We lose people. Jobs. Places. Things. — Bottles. — And, worst of all, we lose the love that is built into each one of these things. There is no stopping it. No preventing it. The only thing we can teach ourselves to do, is to allow love to go. To leave us. And, to know, somewhere, we will find it again.

This blog, over the years, has been the place I’ve thrown all my love. Anger and calm and joy and death and transition and waiting and finding and EUREKA! It has been everything. And, I think, this particular goodbye is so difficult because, I know that it is because of writing this blog — week after week, month after month, year after year — that I know, not only how to say goodbye, but, why I need to say goodbye. I know now that goodbyes are never permanent. Just like Jim Beam, Saucy Sobriety will sit on the shelf — a reminder that, somehow, I survived.

At the bottom of this bottle, this blog, there is a sweet, unpoured sip that I will never taste. And, I will always wonder: Does that last little gulp contain all the love that I got so incredibly drunk trying to taste?

To which the answer is, obviously: No.

Because, Love was the process of getting to the bottom of it all.

And, that, to be sure, I have tasted.

 

 

 

 

 

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Emotional Bypasses & Literary Kidney Stones

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If you start running in woo-woo circles, you’re going to choke on the word “Acceptance” so many times, it’s likely you’ll vomit.

It’s one of those things that, since I got sober, I hear all the time. And, don’t get me wrong. “Acceptance” is great and all. It’s a foundation for a lot of stuff.

So, it has that going for it.

But, the thing about “Acceptance” is, it can only get you so far.

It’s one of those passive actions. It’s very, um, “Think-ey.” And, right now, I’m feelin’ pretty “Do-ey.”

This week marks the start of the 8th month in my Year of Happiness. And, I’m not sure why, but, this month feels like the big leagues. And the reason I’m getting “Do-ey” over here is because, well, it feels like it’s time. Time to get out of my head.

If you are, or were, a 12-Stepper, you know that the 12-Steps of Recovery start off in a kinda “Think-ey” way. But, it’s a trap! That’s how they getcha. They ease you into it and then — BOOM. They hit you with Step 4, hard, like a cast iron skillet to the head.

Working Step 4 (a rigorously honest moral inventory), things get pretty action oriented. And, before you know what’s happening, the gates to hell are opened, and all the recovery newbies are thrown into the fire that the devil lit himself. — Because, if you are really going to recover, then you’re going to get burnt. Like, really, really burnt.

It’s become very apparent to me over the last 8 months, that Happiness, like sobriety, requires quite a bit of action. And, the thing is, when you devote yourself to your own Happiness for an entire year, the things that make you Unhappy become very relevant, and very obvious — very quickly. That awareness, that painful, slow-drip of Unhappiness, has been the Catch 22 of this entire project. The elephant in the room. Because, if there wasn’t some part of me that needed the Happiness in the first place, this entire project would be for naught.

So, I’ve had to ask myself, as I roll into the final 1/3 of my Year of Happiness: How am I going to face these Unhappy things for the sake of my Happiness?  And, honestly, even as I type this, it makes me wince a bit.

Having a blog and being honest (and pretty public) about your life can be unnerving sometimes. Especially when you know that a project, one that you, yourself, have designed, is going to bring you (and your audience) face to face with things that are uncomfortable for you. Owning up is hard. But, owning up publicly is harder.

For me, this project is about more than making myself visible or making you, my reader, a voyeur. It’s about storytelling and shared experiences. It’s about feeling less alone in a pretty lonely world. And, it’s about being unapologetic about your apologies. Whether you live in sobriety or not, we’re not that different. Because, you know — HUMANITY.

I’ve devoted this month to Owning Up. And, no, you’re not going to get a Danielle Steel novel, or the police report from my arrest, or some wild’n’crazy confession. However, you are going to get stories. Stories that hurt. Stories I haven’t written yet, but have been sitting in my veins waiting to bleed out for awhile. And, these stories are going to be truly difficult to write. These are the stories that have been stopping up my Happiness-arteries for years and years. And, I’m choosing to use my Year of Happiness as a kind of literary, emotional-bypass surgery.

There are always stories that are difficult to pass. Emotional kidney stones, if you will. And, this month, I’m doing a very “Do-ey” thing. — I’m going to Own Up to the things that still haunt my Happiness.

So, maybe you’re wondering, why the grand overture?

Well. Owning Up is a bitch. And, frankly, I have to build myself up. I’m sure that being vulnerable and visible in new ways is an artist’s work. And, I don’t know that I’m calling myself an artist here, but, I do know that I enjoy thinking about things in new ways. I enjoy seeing (and writing) people in the places they once were and in new light, where I sometimes find them. Being sober has illuminated so much of my own darkness. But, sobriety cannot do the work of telling the stories that brought me to it in the first place.

All that light, that’s just acceptance. And, acceptance lives in the “Think-ey” side of my brain. It’s time for doing. Action creates change. And, change is what this year has been about. My Year of Happiness isn’t some hook to get you to read this blog. — My Year of Happiness is an experiment. A thermometer. A gauge. A way to see if we really can get from Point A to Point B in one year if we set the intention to do so.

November’s posts are going to get away from the self-help narrative that is often my jam. This month’s posts are going to read like narratives. And, it’s all in the name of Owning Up. In the name of wading through shit in order to get out of the basement. In the name of “Acceptance.”

Which is really to say: Happiness and Unhappiness are inextricably linked. Without one another, we couldn’t appreciate anything in our lives. And, I’m of the belief, this is by cosmic design. I’m also of the belief that we can get more Happiness by dealing with our Unhappiness than we can by just “Accepting” it.

I’ve learned that stories we don’t allow to come out, will continue to come up.

So, here’s to the “Do-ey” nature of regurgitation.

May it be the medicine that I (and, maybe even you) have long awaited.

Artwork: https://www.etsy.com/listing/86717763/vintage-book-art-print-anatomical-heart

A Ghost With A Chip On Her Shoulder

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4 years later, and I’m debating whether or not to go to an AA meeting.

My sobriety “birthday” arrives at the end of this week, and, every year since I stepped away from 12-Step, I have the same debate with myself. — I ask if my sobriety anniversary is really worthy of a special celebration, because, at this point — it’s all the same.

Sobriety: Day in, Day out.

If you had told me during my first year sober that I’d be having an internal battle about whether or not my sobriety “birthday” had any real meaning, I would have laughed at you. Back then, my timeline was my everything.

When I received my 1 Year coin at my AA home-group meeting, I was elated. It was, and may still be, one of the greatest moments of my life. — My energy was so heightened, I thought I might levitate. I had never accomplished so much just by giving something up.

So, I try to return to that moment. — Try to feel that coin melt into my fingers. I try to remember what sobriety meant to me when it meant something different — something more.

Back then, I was open to anything. I was ready to take myself on and turn myself over, part and parcel, in exchange for freedom. And, as a result, I made promises that I still continue to keep. — And, that’s the ticket. — Never let freedom out of your sights.

As I pull into September, facing a new move in just a few days, starting a new year in sobriety, and, trying my best to create a whole, new, happy me — I realize that I have to return to the state that allowed me to step up and experience myself and my life — fearlessly. This month, I hit the half-way mark in my Year of Happiness, so I’ve decided to devote it to being Open. And, I don’t mean Open in a wishy-washy way, I mean — Open to the things that terrify me.

When I got sober in September of 2012, I was so, incredibly scared. Some people knew that. But, most people didn’t. I am a decent actress. And, I’m also a tough girl. I’ve been applauded by many of my employers and friends for being “even-keel.” Which, in my world, means that I keep a smile painted on my face while, inwardly, I’m melting down. It’s a trait common to us people-pleasers. And, the more I recognize it in myself, the more I realize it’s just another form of self-destruction — not a skill worthy of praise.

Getting sober forced me to be Open to my actual emotions. For the first time in a long, long time, I let myself be angry. Tired. Fed up. Lonely. Miserable. Scared. Heartbroken. And, I let it show. After a year of letting all that garbage I’d bottled-up ooze out of my system, I sat in my “birthday” meeting. In a room full of people, strangers really, who had watched me boil over, I felt accepted, in spite of myself. Not only did they accept me — they applauded me. They handed me a coin and told me that I was amazing. And, for the first time, maybe ever — I believed them.

I remember a group member sharing about me that morning, in my “birthday” meeting. He told the whole room how he’d seen me walk in, the first day I showed up, with my hoodie pulled up over my head. How I’d slumped in the corner and looked at my feet. How I hadn’t said hello to anyone, and, when that meeting ended, how I’d rocketed out of the room to avoid having to talk.

Those first few weeks, he said, I’d been like a ghost with a chip on my shoulder. I’d been mad at the entire world, but, I wouldn’t show my face or open my mouth to tell the room why. — But, I still showed up. — Sobriety: Day In, Day Out.

He’d watched 12-Step go to work on me. He noted how I starting to stick around after meetings, smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. He’d watched me push my hoodie back to reveal my long, brown hair. He’d heard me laugh at other group member’s stories. He’d witnessed my walls as they started to crumble and how I’d let them. And, that morning, he watched me sit at the front of the room, in from of him — in front of everyone — holding my 1 Year chip, tears of joy steaming out of my Open eyes. “That’s what we do here,” he said. “We bring ghosts back to life.”

I’d like to tell you that being Open is a decision. Something easy. A task that you just “do,” like any other. But, it isn’t. It’s a process. And most of the time, you don’t even know when or how you’ll be cracked Open. For me, being Open has meant making myself available for things that are ill conceived, unstructured, and unlikely to pan out. Being Open, is being uncomfortable — and showing up anyway. Because the only way you’ll find something new, or better, is if you’re willing walk into something you can’t predict.

7 days into September, and, this month is already scary. New destinations, uncertainty, gigs that may or may not pay off, saying hello to people that are new, saying goodbye to people that I love, letting my heart feel stretched — maybe a little bit too thin — and allowing it, because the alternative is too difficult. But, allowing nonetheless.

So, I send my buddy a text message and let him know that I’ll be attending the meeting he runs in Brooklyn, which just happens to fall on my anniversary. Because, I don’t have have to be a 12-Step devotee to be Open to what the program has already given me.

I don’t need to pick up a 4 Year coin to feel sober or proud. The coin is just the bait. — Fool’s gold. I only need to hold my place in the chair. To take up space in the room. To pull down my hoodie and reveal my, now blonde, hair. To cry. To smile. To clench my fists. — To levitate.

Because, being Open — that’s what gets you to the front of the room.

Image: 7 months sober. On a really, really, angry day.

Be Heard, Not Seen

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It felt like a safe place to hide.

I sat in the small, sparsely filled room — joined only by a few old men and one middle aged woman. A younger man sat in front of the group, waiting to begin the meeting. He opened by reading from a laminated sheet that he held between his nicotine stained fingers. He would read from the very same script at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I would attend in that room. But, that day, it seemed like some kind of holy sermon, written that very morning. And, the words that escaped his mouth sounded like some foreign language I would never understand.

Earlier that morning, I had woken from a blackout. I paced around my apartment nervously. Something felt wrong. My skin crawled. I watched the clock.

The pub opened at noon on Sundays. While I was usually dressed and waiting to walk out my door at 11:55AM, I wasn’t on that Sunday. I felt like a bomb, waiting to explode. My heart tick-tocked in a strange rhythm. And, without any real reason, I was frightened.

I sat down nervously at my computer and, without knowing what I was doing, I Googled “AA Meetings in Portland, Oregon.” I was directed to a website that had listings for hundreds of meetings. It was nearing noon, and I saw one meeting, not far my apartment, was about to begin. Without showering or even brushing my teeth, I threw on my dirty jeans, an old t-shirt, and my heavy hoodie and stepped out into the mild, February air. I ran the entire way there. I stopped at the corner, and looked down at the address I had scratched out onto a crumpled Post-It note. I lit a cigarette and I wondered what the fuck I was doing. Who was I? I wasn’t an alcoholic. Right?  — I wasn’t so sure anymore. So, I stood on that corner and I waited for noon.

Halfway down the block, the young man, the old men and the one woman I would see later, inside the meeting room, stood around an old coffee can that sat at their feet on the sidewalk. They were all smoking cigarettes, too. They saw me on the corner, glancing down at them. Though I thought I was being covert, I know now that they could smell my fresh, alkie blood coming from a mile away. But, that day, — I was sure I was invisible.

If you were talk to me about it today, I would tell you that I have mixed feelings about 12-Step meetings. I would tell you that they have saved my life, and, that they have complicated and hindered my life on many occasions. But, I will never say that 12-Step is not a sacred space. It is. — Sacred. — 12-Step was the first place I became Visible in sobriety. It was the first place I stood up and acknowledged that, perhaps, my drinking and drug use were not as free and easy as I would have liked them to appear. AA was the first place where no one tried to change me. It was the first place where hundreds, literally hundreds, of people reached out their hands to help me. There was a time in AA that was, and will always remain, beautiful to me.

At noon, the smoking club filed up the dilapidated, wooden staircase into the meeting room. I waited for them all to disappear, smoking my cigarette down to the filter, before walking the half block to the little, wooden house and up its little, wooden stairs — alone. I stepped into the strange, new room, full of strange new people with as much bravery as I could muster.

The small group of attendees turned to look at me as I opened the squeaky door and walked across the room, tenuously. I sat in a chair in the corner. It had metal armrests and it looked like, maybe, it was a re-purposed seat from an old movie theatre. The room felt ancient. It smelled of mildew and stale coffee. The walls were covered with water-stained, 12-Step slogan posters. — Easy Does It. Think…Think…Think. But For The Grace Of God. Live And Let Live. First Things First. Just For Today. — I didn’t know what to make of this strange, new world. But, to my surprise, it felt like I belonged there.

“Is anyone here for their first AA meeting ever?” The young man asked, looking up from his desk at the front of the room. The entirety of the small congregation turned their heads, slowly, to look at me. And, knowing I was caught, I timidly raised my hand to half-mast. The young man nodded at me kindly, — “Would you please tell us your name?”

“My name is Sarah. I don’t really know if I’m an alcoholic.”

The room sang out in a hoarse, smoker-croaked-chorus: “Welcome, Sarah!” The young man looked me right in the eye, and, in that moment, I felt him see into the depths of my broken soul. And, in front of all those strangers, I began to weep.

“Hello Sarah. You are welcome and wanted here.” He said, never breaking his gaze.

***          ***          ***

I wouldn’t get sober for another seven months. In fact, I left that very meeting, walked straight to the pub, and I drank Jim Beam until the bartender refused to serve me any more. Back then, it was all I could do to shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen. And, I would let that sense of doom follow me around for many months more before I decided to look it in the eye.

In the beginning, sobriety required that I be Visible and Invisible, simultaneously. — If we want to find help, we need to be seen. But, until we are ready for it, we tend to hide. Sometimes, it is better to just be heard. 12-Step was the only place in my early sobriety that could cater to the dichotomous reality where I so desperately needed to exist. And, on that Sunday morning, I was heard, not seen. An anonymous alcoholic, I was welcomed without question. And, for the first time in a very long time — I got what I needed.

I was allowed to be whoever I needed to be. — And that Visibility was the first step, of many, in my long walk toward a freedom unlike any I have ever known.

 

 

Artwork: “Behind The Mask”, By: Anja; http://photoflake.deviantart.com/art/behind-the-mask-364066755

All The Truth You Sleep With

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Kate* sold her body for heroin.

Kate was also one of the unlikely teachers that I’ve found in my sobriety, showing me that truth will take root in the most barren places.

When I first got sober, I enrolled myself in a rehab program, and Kate was one of the many, weathered women in my recovery group. She looked unkempt. Distracted. And, I thought her to be something of a loose cannon. But, she had almost one year of sobriety — to my less than thirty days. I wanted to know how. There was something mysterious and unusual about her, and, I watched her carefully. She was short, overweight, and had tight blonde curls that swung back and forth, wildly, when she turned her head from side to side. She was covered in tattoos, most of which, she had gotten recently. She told me that she was in the process of covering up all of her scars. — Something that everyone in the group was trying to do, in some fashion or another.

Kate lived in a halfway house for women. She was on probation for prostitution, solicitation, and drug possession. She’d already served hard time. And, the court had just awarded her custody of her daughter, under the supervised care of her halfway house, after a long period of separation. — I had never met someone who, outwardly, was so much my opposite. She was twenty-three, but, she looked like she was forty. She had tired eyes and when she pulled her legs up under her, onto the couch in the meeting room, she exuded a knowing protectiveness. She didn’t want others to notice her. She looked both ways before doing anything, and, no matter who was present, her motions were preceded with extreme caution.

One morning, Kate showed up to group early. I was the only one in the meeting room. She met my eyes with suspicion, but, then, a smile swept away the clouds of her constantly gloomy face and she walked toward me. “Look,” she said, pointing to a large bandage taped over the length of her forearm.

“Oh my God!” I looked up at her with concern. “What happened?” She laughed and sat down beside me on the couch. She peeled back the bandage and revealed her newest tattoo: “You Are Only As Sick As Your Secrets” was gracefully penned, in ornate, red, scripted letters across the inside of her arm. — “Don’t you fucking love it ?!” She squealed.

Her new tattoo was a popular saying, one that you hear often in 12-Step or rehab. Kate was not the first junkie to make this her slogan, and, she won’t be the last. But, there was something about her reveling in her truth on that morning, that made me think about my own.

Kate had little formal education. Her parents were drug addicts and dealers. And, her life, from the very start, had been nothing but struggle. When I listened to her speak, I felt like a fool for sitting in the same room. — My battle was nothing compared to hers. — I was an affluent kid. Loved and cared for by my family. I wanted for nothing. Yet, here I was. In rehab. It made no sense. How had this happened? What had gone wrong? What had Kate done wrong? Surely, no one deserved the life she’d had. It pained me to even imagine.

I spent days and hours in my rehab group trying to make sense of her. I looked for clues. Observing how she spoke and how she moved. I listened to her story, which unfolded in every session, breaking my heart. — In comparison, my addiction, my dependency, my helplessness seemed like a pittance. No matter how I searched, I could never find the link that connected us. Until that morning, when Kate  showed me, and the rest of the group, her new tattoo.

“Who feels like sharing first?” Our counselor asked, her eyes scanning the room. Kate looked from side to side, and carefully raised her bandaged arm into the air. “Thank you for volunteering. Go ahead, Kate.”

Kate shifted in her seat on the couch, carefully cradling her arm. “You guys, I got this today.” She said, as she peeled back her bandage, yet again, and waved her new, red-inked arm from side to side, making sure the entire room could see it. “It feels really fucking good. Because, I was so sick, you guys.” She paused, gulping something back, hard. “All those secrets I had. Oh my God, I was so fucking sick. I never told nobody nothing about all the shit I did. Nobody knew all the shit that went down. Nobody. Not even my daughter’s father. But, I knew. And, I ate those secrets you guys. I ate it. So, here’s my truth, straight up: I fucked Johns for dope. But, I was really fucking them to escape dope. To escape all of it. That dope was my ticket out, guys. I thought it melted all my secrets. But, it just melded them. It just melded them into one big secret. You can’t get away from that shit, you guys.”

She paused again, looking down at her new tattoo. And then, two, big tears dropped, one from the corner of each of her eyes. She wiped them away quickly as we all  sat watching her, spellbound. — We had never seen her cry.

“You want to know how I got almost a year clean and sober? Tell all your fucking secrets, you guys. Tell them. Because, they make you sick. And, at night, it’s not just the Johns and it’s not just the secrets you sleep with — it’s all the truth. It’s all the truth you sleep with. —That’s the shit that clogs your fucking soul, guys. That’s the shit that will kill you.”

Then, she stopped talking. She looked at me across the circle in a way she had never looked at me before. As if, despite our obvious differences, we were the same. Just women. Just hurt. Just looking for the truth. The same truth. Dropping our dead weight there in the middle of the meeting room floor. — We were only as sick as our secrets. — And, now, Kate was free.

It got quiet for a long minute before we just continued on with our session. But, I spent the rest of that day, night, and week thinking about Kate. — Thinking about all the truth I slept with.

I could not fathom Kate’s life. But, I began to realize that, while I was drinking and using drugs — I could no longer fathom my own life, either. I had stopped being honest. I had lied at every turn to keep myself running at the same pace. I’d kept my secrets well — and, still, they’d caught up to me.

Honesty isn’t one thing. It can’t be. And, when you start telling your truth, it won’t sound how you expect it to sound. But, without it, you’ll have nothing. — You’ll end up with a bunch of lies you have to keep straight. And, then — you’ll have to go home and sleep with the truth.

The truth, when you’re living a lie, is a persistent and terrifying ghost.

Kate was right. Spill your guts, and know, whatever ends up on the floor, can free you. Show up for your life and peel back your bandages. Your scars — covered by tattoos or not — are there to remind you of what came before. — A monument for something real.

Sometimes, when I can’t fall asleep, I think about Kate. And I remember, even when I am scared, and my bed feels sad, and empty — I have all this truth, laying here, beside me.

 

*This name has been changed to protect and honor Kate’s anonymity.

 

Lies, Lies, Lies (And Other Shitty Side Dishes)

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Liar, liar, pants on fucking fire. — Yeah. I’m on to you.

The truth? — We’re all pretty big liars. It’s one of those things that no one likes to admit, but, we can’t really deny.

But, you’re not that bad. Right? You’ve only told your friend she looked ah-maaaa-zing when she showed up at your place wearing a hideous, monstrosity-of-a-dress, ready to “slay,” just a few times. You’ve embellished an otherwise mundane story to make yourself look like a hero. And, you’ve flashed a painful, pea-filled smile as you wolfed down your Aunt Edna’s barf casserole because, she’s fucking old, and you just couldn’t live with yourself if you hurt her feelings. — It’s okay. We’ve all done these things.

The lie I’m interested in is the lie where you tell someone that you’re great, perfect, fine and dandy — when, inwardly, you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That lie, is the lie where you end up burying yourself and your Happiness for the sake of polite conversation — and it’s unacceptable.

July, or, month four in my Year of Happiness, is about getting honest. And, sure, Honesty can be relative — I get that. I’m not in Camp “You’ll Burn In Hell” if you bend the truth here and there, especially for the sake of sparing your friend’s feelings, giving yourself a little confidence boost, or contributing to the maintenance of Aunt Edna’s long-surviving-casserole-pride.

I’m most concerned with the lies that we tell ourselves. Lies that present our Happiness, or lack thereof, as something other than it actually is. Lies that make excuses and apologies for our humanity and humility.

If you’re committed to your own Happiness, then you’ve started to change the things that you don’t like about your life — surrendering old patterns, believing in your power to recreate yourself, and becoming willing to journey into new, uncharted territory. — These are all things you can’t fake. In the beginning, your bark will be bigger than your bite, but, eventually, if you really want Happiness to show up for you, one has to catch up to the other. — Happiness requires walking the walk.

I hearken back to 12-Step here, because, the 4th Step, is an important one. In traditional 12-Step, the 4th Step is where you assemble a complete moral inventory. AKA — You make a list of all the shit that you’ve done, and, all the shit that you think has been done to you, and then, you spew your guts into a journal, for weeks, penning a unwieldy manifesto of reasons that you’re still mad at yourself and the rest of humanity.

The process is cathartic and disheartening and revelatory and painful and freeing. And, it’s the step that often turns people off of 12-Step recovery, because — it’s difficult. But, the thing is, getting honest is, without a doubt, the biggest part of buliding lasting sobriety — and Happiness.

Tread lightly. Sometimes the 12-Step version of getting honest can feel like you’re stuck singing an endless chorus of mea culpas. It’s all very self-flagellating. And, something I’ve learned out in the world, on my own, away from my 12-Step program, is that the biggest part of Honesty, is being able to acknowledge all the things you’ve done — and then let them go. We can’t keep revisiting the disasters we’ve left in our wake. — We have to learn our lessons well and then make a run for it.

The more honest we get, the less we have to carry around with us. It’s the baggage we sling over our shoulders and carry on our backs — resentment, bitterness, hatred, anger — that will never serve us. And, if you’re toting a ton of luggage around with you, chances are there’s some kind of truth you’re avoiding. — It will always catch up with you.

Honesty is more than facing the past. Honesty is finding a way to feel OK being yourself, in any state, without apology. Knowing that you can change, drastically, from day to day, and never feel the need to explain your position to anyone else. You’re allowed to be insecure in one way and confident in another — you don’t have explain the nuances of your inner being to people around you.

In many ways Honesty is on par with independence. Lies are just ways that we tie ourselves into a bigger narrative, making the people around us feel comfortable. We all want to fit in. We want to be a part of an important story arc. And, when we feel that we’re not, we’ll stretch ourselves thin to help us feel that we belong. But, Happiness is attached to the kind of Honesty where we become genuine. Sometimes, it requires flying solo. Sometimes the truth will hurt someone else, but, it still serves everyone in your life best, to just tell it like it is.

Come clean, to yourself. Be your own judge and jury. Acknowledge the little lies you tell yourself and others. Notice where you undermine your own joy for the sake of someone else. And then — quit it, Goddammit!

Honestly, honesty isn’t always as delicious as it sounds. But, like Aunt Edna’s casserole, life will be easier for you, and for everyone around you, when you just choke it down. And, who knows? Eventually — You may even acquire a taste for it.

 

 

Trading Stories With The Devil

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I will always be a drunk.

Screaming out of cab windows, falling off ledges outside of bars, vomiting in bathroom sinks, waking up without any idea how I made it back to the couch in once piece — these little moments, are built into my DNA. And, I’ve finally stopped wishing them away.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell you, or anyone, how to find Willingness. But, at the very least, I thought I might be able to explain to you how it appeared to me.

I was so certain that I’d learned some unknowable truth, pointed and poignant lessons from the tattered scraps of myself that, I thought, I’d left behind. But, like the countless other surprises I’ve encountered since embarking on my Year of Happiness, this week, I find myself standing knee deep in something new and unfamiliar. A feeling that felt impossible. A lesson where I’ve managed to learn everything, and nothing at all. — Willingness isn’t just harnessing the gumption to change, it’s possessing the kind of maturity that allows you to embrace the parts of you that will never change.

When I try moving away from my alcoholism, I talk in a new voice, one that gives me distance from the pain and naivety of some version of my former self. Every time I do this, I get interrupted. I am reminded I cannot get away from things I once was, and these conversations with myself are not unlike having conversations with the Devil. After all, the Devil has collected all my drunken stories, and when I find myself in a joyful moment, he’ll dangle them, like apples, in front of me. — Ripe, with stems still attached. — He coils his tail, watches, and waits. And, I’ll do my best to avoid his bait — each story a precious, juicy, drunken memory — but they call out to me, until I write them, until I drop them here. — Cores and seeds strewn across his fiery floor.

The Devil shows up when I try to write myself into the future. — He shows up before I tell you that Willingness is the key to changing everything. — “It’sssssssssnot.” He hisses. — His apples may turn your stomach, but, they always leave you full with some kind of truth.

Each story he’s traded me, contains the same reminder. — Whatever I am today, I remain, the product of my unchanging past. — My stories will never change, no matter how desperately I once wanted to rewrite them.

All the things I was — I am.

Willingness is the ability to see ourselves. — Grace enough to accept that we are helplessly flawed, and a strange, new power to love what we have become, in spite of ourselves. Willingness is a catalyst, but, it is also an agreement. — We can trade our drinks for the Devil’s wisdom. He’ll keep our stories. And, when we think we have learned everything, the Devil will open to a page and read. The places and characters, still, all the same. The hurt will still cut, a sharp blade in my side. And, each outcome remains unchanged, a gem in his collection:

He is gone forever and I call out sick for a week to drink gin, from the bottle, in bed. The Christmas tree has fallen, and I sleep in spilled whiskey beside it, pine needles pressed into my cheek. Jason and I dance to bagpipes, full volume, at 3AM and the neighbor calls the landlord. I can see that the cop who fingerprints me pities me and I cry when he takes the laces from my shoes. Tony turns the key and kills the engine, pulls me from behind the wheel, and carries me into the apartment, again. I leave the drugs in an empty pack of cigarettes on the picnic table outside the bar, by accident, and they are still there the next morning. — All this, and still, I am beautiful.

In 12-Step, the 6th Step is: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. — God, if he exists at all, is questionable. I am guided by the Universe, I think — really, who can say? But, whatever it is that fucks us all over and makes this great world spin, I hope it will never remove my defects. They are what set me apart. — Instead, leave me Willingness.

Willingness to love every poor scrap of myself, what is and what was. Willingness to believe that, beyond this moment, I can only become more — never less.

Trade stories with the Devil. Dance in the flames where you once crawled.

For, Willingness was never our freedom to be without — it was the celebration of everything we hid within.

 

Artwork: “The Devil” by @lisanthropie, from her Tarot interpretation series. (https://www.instagram.com/lisanthropie/?hl=en)

 

Hair Of The Dog

Photo May 31, 12 57 32 PM

9:47AM: I poured myself a third shot of vodka.

In the office, I sat alone at the beat-up, IKEA desk we’d purchased on Craigslist.  I felt appropriately contained in the tiny, windowless room at the back of the restaurant where I was the general manager. I’d come in early to write the schedule for the servers. The peak of Summer, it was hot. The air in the hall was thick with the rancid stink of the hamper, filled to the brim with dirty kitchen linens, which sat, a palpable presence, just outside the sliding office door.

The previous evening’s service had been a busy one. I’d stayed late with the chef-owner and drank. When the last customers left we turned up the music and laughed at our own jokes. Later, I took a cab home, drank more still, and blacked out. I woke up in my clothes, on the couch in my living room, my cat staring at me from her perch on the armrest. I splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, changed, and reapplied my mascara quickly before returning to the restaurant.

And then, I was back in that office, as if I’d never left. Three shots in. And, suddenly, I was terrified. After printing the schedule and pinning it up on the cork bulletin board, I felt sick. Was this how the rest of my life was going to be? Drunk, still accomplishing my tasks with ease? The static motion of mediocrity in which no one challenged my insanity?

One of the cooks walked up to his locker and looked into the office, his eyes darted from my face to the the bottle of Seagram’s Extra Dry that sat beside a staunch, little cocktail glass, still wet from my last sip, for which I made no excuse. “Hair of the Dog?” he asked, laughing. I smiled.

But, it wasn’t. It wasn’t Hair of the Dog. — That was what I had become.

That day, was the day I became Willing. Willing to do whatever I had to do to be something other than what I was. It hadn’t been the day of my arrest, five months earlier, it hadn’t been an embarrassing or violent episode, it hadn’t been a blackout. — It was me, realizing the devastating normalcy of alcohol’s place in my daily life. It touched everything and nothing at all.

My life had become varying states of disconnectedness. I could do my job, see my friends, feed my cat. But, I was gone. Somewhere that, even I, could no longer find. I’d become something, I was no longer someone. I was a machine, and the cost of my fuel had left me penniless.

Willingness, this month’s theme in our Year of Happiness, is a concept that is often lumped-in with something else: Desire. When we want something, when we truly desire it — we tell ourselves that we’re willing to do anything for it. But, that isn’t true. Willingness is something that goes beyond desire. It is the turning point at which one is enabled to act. — To change.

I spent months dissecting my own desire to get sober. I went to 12-Step meetings and then, immediately following, b-lined to bars where I got shitfaced. I would go for 24, sometimes 36 hours without a drink, and then would stand at my kitchen sink and gulp down a full tumbler of Jim Beam, neat, like a glass of water. I had all this desire. — But, was unwilling to change.

How I came to be willing on that Summer morning in the restaurant office, I still don’t know. People have told me that Willingness comes from divine intervention, desperation, or love. I’m not sure that my Willingness was born from any one of those things. And, truthfully, it’s not really important to me that I discover my Willingness’ origin.

When we talk about Happiness and a means to finding it, we cannot avoid facing our own Willingness. We’ve been told Happiness is a choice — and it is. But, it’s possible make choices without being willing to act on those choices.

Willingness is our final phase of reconciliation before action. Without action, nothing changes. So, Willingness becomes the final impetus, the push that will begin the journey from Point A to Point B. And, maybe you’re curious — What does Willingness look like? Where will you find it? What must you do to become willing?

I wish I had the answer to those questions. I don’t. Not for you, anyway. Willingness is perhaps the most elusive and personal concept we’ll explore during this series. Because, what drives us to change — is something buried so deep within us, that even when we try to communicate it to someone else, we struggle in finding the right words.

What was the difference between the feeling that I never, ever wanted to drink again and actually walking into that same office where I had been piss drunk, days earlier, and giving my boss one month’s notice because I’d enrolled myself in a rehab program? — I cannot describe it. Willingness is an unpredictable internal catalyst. It’s sly. My Willingness came to me when I was already three sheets to the wind. A voice whispering in my ear, telling me that I was more than a sad drunk, and that the vacancy I had allowed myself to exist in, was wasted space.

This month, I will not advise you on how to find the Willingness that makes it possible for you to unearth your own Happiness. How you will go about uncovering that mysterious piece, is the part of the story only you can write.

On that Summer morning, after all the cooks arrived and began their prep and my servers were on the floor mopping under tables and brewing big carafes of coffee, I stepped outside and sat in my usual spot at the picnic table closest to the side door. I propped my feet up on the bench, my black Vans with white polka dots punctuating my legs like a sentence. I lit a Parliament, and with each drag off my cigarette, I could taste the cheap vodka I’d drank earlier that morning.

And, I still remember looking up into the hot sun, knowing, if I could just make it one more month, I’d never have to feel that way again.

 

 

 

The Story I Didn’t Write

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When I moved back to New York City, I had a story.

I had a bunch of stories. Stories about what happened in Portland. Stories about moving back home. Stories about my plans moving forward. Stories about who I was and who I am and who I’m going to be.

But, time passes. Eight months, if anyone’s counting. — I sure-as-fuck am. And, this making-Happiness-a-priority business was the first  in an unexpected chain of events. Not the least of which is — the author of my story has changed. I’m realizing that Surrender, if you let it, will write your story all on its own. And, it’s an unparalleled kind of freedom.

When it comes to Happiness — stay out of its way. We spend a lot of time being our own worst enemies. We write all these stories about who we were and are and plan on being — and it doesn’t help us. In 12-Step recovery they’re always harping on about tempering your expectations. And, I hate that. I don’t like tempering anything. I tempered my drinking — wasn’t that enough?

It’s not about tempering Goddammit. No. Fuck that. — It’s about expectations in general. — Don’t have them. Don’t have some prepackaged story that you’ve ghost written for another version of yourself. Dream. In the moment. Go for it, right then and there. Don’t plan on anything. Write as you go. Or, don’t bother, let Surrender write the whole fucking thing for you. The story shows up. — It’s a magical business, storytelling. And, planning and tempering — who needs it when you’ve got magic?

When I touched down in New York, this was my story: I was going to be at home for a few months, settle in, save some dough, take a break, regroup, and move to upstate New York to start anew. Hills and mountains. Fresh air and quiet. I played with the variables. Different jobs. Small business. Big business. Maybe I’d take a little extra time off and make the big push to work on, heck, finish, my book. I didn’t know a damn thing. But, I just kept on writing that story. I kept turning up the heat. — Do it Sarah. Get there. Finish this. Make the move worth it. But, worth what?

Eight months. I watched the tree outside my bedroom window go through a full life cycle. I battled a pretty gnarly bout of anxiety and depression. I wrote. I didn’t write. I became a barista. I rode the subway. I applied for jobs. I interviewed for jobs. The story I’m living now is nothing like the one I was writing in my head on the flight here.

Since embarking on my Year of Happiness, I’ve been trying to figure out how I should go about surrendering my story. It’s tough. I’m so close to it. Attached. It’s personal. We spend a lot of time fine tuning our own stories. It’s hard letting them go. They are part of us. But, you know how the cliché goes — when you stop trying to write the next chapter, it writes itself. Happiness wants you to find the words. And, when your heart figures it out — it’s such a relief, Surrender. I can’t even tell you.

On my birthday road trip, I sat in my hotel room after spending hours walking up, down and all around Charleston, South Carolina. I had blisters and a nice sunburn. It was one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Slow, romantic, surrounded by water, and clad in seersucker. Suddenly, I felt panicked. I became desperate to write that city into my story. I pulled up LinkedIn and Indeed and Monster and all the other job-hunting sites on the interwebs. After an hour of desperately clicking link after link in a wild frenzy — I broke from my craze and, I started laughing hysterically. I was a fool, and I knew it. I felt it punch me right in the face. — It was in front of me the whole time.

New York City.

In my old story, I had a lot of rules. I couldn’t stay here. I could stop here, but, I couldn’t put down roots. Not again. In my old story, it cost too much money, had too many old memories, too many bars I wouldn’t be drinking in, it was too crowded, too dirty, too hot, too cold. But, in my little room at the Charleston Holiday Inn Express, I remembered the real reason I came home eight months ago. — It’s too good to give up. — Every pricey, precious, boozy, bottle-necked, begrimed, humid, hyperborean inch of it.

Surrender, sometimes, is listening to the thing that your heart told you to do a long time ago. Before you started writing stories.

I am New York City. At my core. — Whatever it is and everything it isn’t.

I surrender to the city that broke my heart. And, I surrender, again, to the truth of the thing, which is — that same city saved my heart. It’s a magical business, storytelling.

And, in this story, the one I didn’t write, — I stay.

While The Forgettin’s Good

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It still catches me off guard when I hear myself saying the words out loud. — “I don’t drink anymore.”

Like whoa.

It’s not the kind of thing you can say in passing. And this week, I found myself telling my “How I Got Sober Story,” twice. Friends and acquaintances find out that you’re sober and, immediately, they want to know more. How? and When? and Why? and Whyyyyyy? Sobriety is something that almost always requires an explanation. And, I do it. I explain. Not because I feel like an explanation is owed but because, to some, sobriety is this unthinkable, incomprehensible, impossibility. And, I feel obligated to dispel that notion.

Sometimes I forget I’m sober. I forget, I am the odd man out. And, maybe that’s the big-time-bonus after a long stretch of sobriety: Forgetting. — Forgetting everything.

While I played my tale of woe on repeat this week, for the first time, I felt something new. An astranged feeling — a disconnect. The cousin of insincerity, if you will. As the words left my mouth, I had to remind myself that those things that happened did, in fact, happen to me. I hardly recognize the woman in my own story. I don’t know how I ever knew her. It’s almost as if I couldn’t know her. — The small world where she used to live. The poor choices and the meager portions she allowed herself.

I think part of this revelation is, I’m no longer going to 12-Step meetings with regularity. So, I’ve been distanced from that narrative. A lot of rehashing goes on there. I’ve taken myself off the loop. And, after taking this big step back, I’m happy about deciding against wading into the murky lake that I once splashed around in with masochistic delight. My sorrow, these days, is watered by a different well. And, until this past week, I hadn’t taken the time to notice, much less appreciate, the big changes I’ve made.

I’m focused on my endgame. I forget to look around. This is why all those 12-Steppers were encouraging me to be consistent about meeting attendance. I need to be reminded. I need to remind others. And, on some level, that’s true. But, like most healthy relationships, breathing room is always a good idea. Truth be told, I think the space I’ve put between myself, my disease, and all that mea culpa-ing I was doing has allowed for this recent, rewarding reveal. I’m starting to discover that if I stop talking about being a mess. — I stop actually being a mess.

We all could stand to forget a thing or two. Our messes included. Go on, forget it! Forget the definitions we so rigidly create. Forget the people we hold accountable for so much of our pain. Forget the crap that still hurts.

Of course, we can’t forget everything. If we did, we couldn’t appreciate our big changes. We’d devalue our endgames. But, forgetting isn’t letting go. And, forgetting isn’t forever. — There’s always room for remembering. Later. We can put the pain aside and return to it later, with reverence. I promise. If we don’t make room for the new, good things, then the other things, sometimes the big things, slip through our fingers — not the least of which is time.

My sober story needs to be more present. Which, when I think about it, was always my goal. It’s important to remember how I got here, but, it’s also important to put away the things that don’t serve me anymore. It’s no longer about how I couldn’t hack it back then. It’s about now. It’s about what’s working.

It’s possible to tell your own story without throwing knives. It’s OK to make revisions. As the writer of your life, it’s a kindness that’s deserved. — Earned.

Next time I tell my “How I Got Sober Story,” it will be new and improved, rooted in the now. I’ve made some detailed mental notes. The first of which is: Just remember to forget — while the forgettin’s good.