This is a post about what its like to be 6 months sober and feel emotionally wrecked. Happy Birthday Crashley. Here’s to dealing with tough shit and not drinking or smoking to push it all away.
“There is no script for this,” my mom said. She repeated this phrase three times during our ten minute conversation. My mother’s mind seems to working like a broken record. Skipping, turning and always ending up at the same: “There is no script for this. I did everything I can and I can’t do anymore,” she says chocking back tears.
I was calling to tell my mom that I had been in a relatively serious car accident. We got rear ended, Sugar’s face hit the steering wheel, his teeth went through his lip, our puppy was flung from his crate in the back seat and hit the dashboard, bouncing like a rubberband. He landed in my lap and started licking my face as though nothing happened. Our car was totaled. Police and firemen were assholes primarily concerned with filling out reports rather than actually helping us.
The morning after, blood stains and broken nerves remained. I called my mom, because Sugar kept asking, “Have you called your parents yet?” So, I call.
I also become a broken record. “I am sorry, Mom. I know you are upset. I am so sorry. You did do everything you could and you are a good parent.” My mom cries, babbles, her mind turns, spins and repeats: “I can’t do this anymore.”
I feel my chest tightening. I need to get off the phone. There is an ambient anxiety, a low buzzing tension, that has been hanging in the air since the accident. I can only reassure some else for so long before I start to feel shakey. AA is teaching me about boundaries. I am learning how to draw lines with compassion. I feel all clumsy and awkward when I try to set boundaries, but I am working on it. “I was just calling to tell you about the car accident, because I guess that’s what people do. The tell their parents when they get in car wrecks,” I say, stuffing down rising anger and sadness. “There is not script for this,” she replies in broken sobs. She repeated, for the fifth time, that we needed to get a rental car from the insurance company. I somehow managed to get off the phone without screaming or crying.
There is no script for this. I have been thinking these words a lot over the past few days, wondering about what this phrase actually means. When addiction, alcoholism and mental illness sit at the center of your life, this is how life feels—like a giant map with no legend or north star, no predetermined trails or well worn roads. For those of us affected by this “double whammy”—addiction and mental illness—there is no script. We are constantly improvising—faced with situations that are unimaginable to most. In our world, things are always breaking, falling apart. We find ourselves on our knees picking pieces off the kitchen floor, gluing them back together, knowing they will probably break again, knowing the pieces won’t ever quite fit together, knowing that there will be new scars, knowing that we will find ourselves here again—on our knees, staring at kitchen floor, a dust pan in one hand, broken pieces falling into a black, plastic trash can.
Mental illness and addiction have been sitting at the center of my life since I was 15. This past week—the birthday week, the 6 month sober anniversary—has been a week of shattering. My brother relapsed and went on an aggressive 1.5 month drinking binge. He was missing for almost 2 weeks. My sister had a psychotic episode, was assaulted outside of a gas station where she was begging strangers for cigarettes and ended up in the hospital on 5250, because she threatened to kill someone. They don’t live in my town, so I heard this news over the phone, mostly through disturbing voicemails left at strange hours.
I don’t have the heart to delete the messages from my family, but I also know better than to listen to voicemails by myself anymore. I sit down on the couch next to Sugar, put on speaker phone, press play and listen to my brothers angry, drunk diatribe about how my sister is a whore and got picked up by police at a gas station. I can hear the booze in his voice. “That can’t be true. He is just drunk and out of his mind,” I say to Sugar—shutting off that little voice in my head that is saying, “but maybe it is true. Maybe that did really happen.” I forward the voicemail to my parents with an FYI. I make banana pancakes for breakfast. I say nothing else about it, because there is no script for this.
In addition to quitting my job and moving, a big part of my recovery has been practicing yoga and meditation. There is a Buddhist meditation practice called Tonglen. I watch a 4 minute YouTube video about Tonglen when I am feeling overwhelmed with the state of the world. Now is definitely one of those times. Shining through the tiny box on my computer screen, I listen as Pema Chodron, a beloved monk and healer, describe the purpose of Tonglen. “We do Tonglen for a world that is falling apart,” she says calmly. “On the in-breath, you breathe in whatever particular area, group of people, country or even one particular person, is hurting. You breathe in their pain. On the out breath, you breathe out the hope that their hearts and minds will feel big enough, so they can live with their pain.”*
I did Tonglen for my family everyday this week. I did Tonglen for my sister. Every time my butt hit meditation cushion—tears free flowed down my face—boiling hot rivers. A burning so hot and expansive filled my chest. I sat there with the pain, with that incredibly discomfort, because that’s what my sister has to do. They won’t let her out of that psychiatric ward for two weeks. She, too, is locked up—trapped by her own mind and the stark white walls of the psych ward. So, I must sit here, on this cushion, in this fire, and let this wildfire of pain scorch my insides, because it’s the only thing I can do.
A number I don’t recognize shows up on my phone. A nurse tells me my sister would like to speak with me. My sister tells me the same horrific story I already heard from my brother’s voicemail and my mom. So, now, I know that all this horror, the assault, the trafficking, the relapse, is true. “I am sorry you are hurting, dear,” I say. “I can’t take your pain away. I wish I could. But I can do Tonglen for you. I can breathe in your pain and breathe out sending you space in your heart and mind, so you might endure.” “Thank you so much, Crash,” she says. “That’s the best thing you can do. It’s better than any visitation or anything.” I don’t if I will ever get my sister back. It’s been almost 10 years since she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. But for now, I have this: a tragic, feeble breath that creates space for pain and a thank you from my sister.
There is no script for this. I think about these words as I am driving to yoga class. I take a right on North B street and see more homeless people than I can count. It’s a scene that’s all too familiar. Grocery carts, sleeping bags, drunk people screaming, people with schizophrenia talking to themselves or trees or poles, a woman with dark weathered skin that is the color of dirt wearing a bikini and broken flip flops.
But there is a script for this! I think angrily as I turn left onto E st. This is what happens when we push people who are not like us away. The people—the addicts, the mentally ill, the poor, the disabled, the “others”—this is what we do to people and it makes everything worse. This is what happens when we push people away. It’s the rule, not the exception, and there is a better way. (Building housing the homeless, educating people about mental illness and addiction, fighting stigma, providing people with a source of connection, engagement and purpose, believing that “the others” are also worthy. These are all part of a better way. But that’s a topic for another post.)
For the mean time, until we have the political will and the compassion in our hearts to build a more inclusive community and society, some of us, the lucky ones, will find our way to Church basements, we hold hands with courageous strangers, we practice rigorous honesty and authenticity. We tell our stories. We listen deeply. We cry. We let our hearts break wide open and we carry the weight of all this broken, unfixableness together. We sit in the fire and bear witness to suffering. Then we leave the Church basement and we will carry the weight together—anonymously.
There is a script for this. And part of that script is that we have to believe that is possible to heal, no matter what has happened to us, no how far down the scale we have slipped. And while each and everyone of us is responsible for our own healing, for patching up our wounds and ending the cycle of addiction, despair and trauma, we can’t do it alone.
So, I hope whoever is reading this post takes a chance at being vulnerable, at opening up, in some small way, to say the thing out loud to someone. And if you do, I would love to hear about it!!
After the car accident, I walked two blocks to a tiny well lit strip mall with my puppy. Sugar needs ice for his busted lip and forehead. The only places that are open at this hour are a bar and a liquor store. Figures. I ask a very friendly drunk woman to hold my dog while I run into the liquor store to get some ice.
I haven’t been to a liquor store is 6 months. The me from 6 months ago would have grabbed a 6 pack of Sierra Nevada Torpedos and a 5 nips of whatever disgusting liquor was at the counter check out. I rushed into the store, grabbed water, Aleve and a gigantic 10 lb. bag of ice. I didn’t even think about drinking until I got to the checkout. I saw those nips of booze that every liquor store display like candy. I thought about how the old me used to pretend like I actually “just wanted to try” these tiny 1 oz bottles of whiskey. I remember the stories I used to tell cashiers, because I felt ashamed for showing up everyday. That night, the night when our car was totaled, Sugar busted his face and Gizmo flew through the air, I didn’t grab a 6 pack of Torpedos or nips of booze. For that I am very thankful, and somewhat proud of who I am becoming.
* Pema Chodron’s Tonglen meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwqlurCvXuM
Gizmo, aka Moonbeam or Moonie, is a water dog. We love you, Moonbeam! (I don’t know why I call Gizmo Moonbeam. I just started saying it and it stuck.) Puppy psychobabble—where will it lead me next?