There is no script for this.

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

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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?

Restoring Sanity

Step 2: [We] [c]ame to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

Why movement activists need a higher Power:

“A very strong reason I am so attracted to the community at [Union Theological Seminary],” explained Michelle Alexander, “is that I believe the experience will enable me to clarify my spiritual beliefs, deepen my understanding of systematic theology, and expand my thinking about the possibilities for prophetic advocacy and movement-building across faiths, races, and cultures. I would like to imagine that a wide range of people of faith and conscience who sing songs from different keys may be able to join in a common chorus that shakes the foundations of our unjust political, legal and economics systems, and ushers in a new America.”

-Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow:Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, explaining her motivation for leaving her professorship at Ohio State University to take a position as a visiting professor at the Union Theological seminary.

Michelle Alexander is an amazing scholar, writer, thinker and feminist that has inspired pretty much all my work for the past 5 years.  Her quote above explains why movement activists need faith. In the eyes of a burned out activist and recovering alcoholic, her words help me understand the connection between my efforts to stay sane in the era of Donald Trump, and my attempts to find a higher power in Church basements with recovering alcoholic women. 

So, below is part of my story about finding a higher power—step 2 in the 12 steps of AA.  I hope this part of my journey allows me to find the inner strength needed to stay engaged in social justice work for the long haul and to push back against the inertia of cynicism and that ever tempting desire to throw up our hands and say, “fuck it.”    

So, thanks Michelle Alexander, for being such an amazing scholar and for making bold, inspiring moves.  You are giving me faith that I am on the right path.

Enjoy!

The bus chugs up an anonymous highway somewhere in the middle of Maine.   Town after monotonous town passes by.   The sky is bright white and gray.  An unremarkable and overwhelming light filters through the tall rectangular, dirt stained windows that line the side of the bus.  My forehead pushes against the cool glass. I squint to try to block out the light.  My eyes sting.  I wish that I had sunglasses or those oh-so adorably nerdy transition lens glasses to help dilute the potent dullness that surrounds me. 

It’s that in between time of year here in Maine—transition time.  Tight, angular buds line bare tree branches—latent energy waiting to burst,  fingers balled up in tight fists—silhouetted against the neon gray light.  There isn’t a cloud in the sky and I can’t see the sun.  The dreary anonymity of the landscape reminds me of my hometown in Upstate New York.   Growing up, I remember the grayness, the in-betweeness would drag on for months and months and months.  I always resented nameless, sameness of that place.  I text Sugar and tell him I miss the hot, diverse, grungy mess of our California hometown.  Exhausted and weary, I haven’t arrived and my heart misses my home. 

“Why did I take the red-eye from California to JFK to Maine?  Where exactly was I going?  I thought Punxsy lived on an island?   Why was I so far from the ocean?,” my thoughts start running around in circles as the bus moves closer to my final destination.  Out of nowhere, I am suddenly feeling panicked, worried that I missed my bus stop.   I throw my jet-black computer bag over my shoulder and move swiftly to the front seat.  “Did I miss the stop for Rockland?,”  I ask the driver, feeling like a kindergartener on my first day of school.  “No, ma’am.  Rockland’s the next town.  We’ll be there shortly.”  Relief.  I slip back in my seat next to a cooler full of plastic, single use water bottles.   

Punxsy is standing next to the curb as the bus pulls into the station.   She is bouncing up and down, unable to contain her excitement.  My heart expands and lifts as my mind recognizes her familiar face.  Her sloppy uneven curls hang frame her face as she smiles ear to ear.  Punxsy is both heavy and light at the same time, free and grounded.  I step off the bus precariously balancing my computer bag, purse and rolling suitcase on my arms.  Punxsy jumps forward to greet me.  She is holding a bouquet of white flowers that look like a cross between carnations and daisies. I am swallowed up by her pale green hunting jacket as she wraps her arms around me.  I stand on my toes and feel the bones of our chests press together.  This place feels so foreign to me and Punxsy feels like home.   

——

Punxsy is my soul sister.  We’ve been friends for over 10 years.  Knowing the a new job, a marriage, kids, houses and the many other all consuming joys of adulthood are in my not so distant future, I knew I had to make this journey.  Punxsy is also a seeking, adventurous soul whose expansive, positive energy would surely help me with step 2 of the AA program: figuring out how to believe in a higher power. 

Punxsy lives in  rustic, bare bones, feminine goddess cabin in the woods surrounded by bare deciduous trees.  She spends 6 months a year on an island off the coast working at a small start up experiential education facility.  She rents this small 600 square foot cabin where she lives alone.  “I was either gonna rent this place or place near by that didn’t have any running water,” she says as the gravel crunches under the wheels of her Subaru and the car halts to a stop. 

The cabin is a sanctuary filled with knick knacks, sea shells and mismatched thrift store furniture.  Everything feels sacred, yet entirely replaceable.  Posts and beams meet to form the steep A-line roof and hold in all the expansive, warm energy in place.

A framed photo of Punxsy sits on the shelf above her stove in her boxy little kitchen.   In the photo, her shoulders are covered by oversized, tan hunting coat.  A bulky brown sweater pokes up around her neckline.  A soft stubble of brown hair pokes through the taunt skin on her shaved head.  She smiles a sort of half smile, her lips parted slightly as though she is trying to say something.  Her eyes are heavy and faraway.  She is patient, calm and seeking.  She is a woman who shaved her head, so she could get closer to whatever it is she is looking for.  Her photo tells me that I have come to the right place and am on the right track. 

Giving yourself to a higher power is part of the 12 step process.  It’s step 2 and 3.  Listening to all the stories in AA meetings,  it’s clear that if I am going to heal and stay sober, I needed get serious about this “higher power” thing.  Until now, my forays into defining a higher power have been mostly intellectual and quite shallow.  I meditated here and there, dabbled in Buddhism, fervently rejected Christianity and mostly hid beneath the cloak of agnostic and atheist intellectual superiority. 

Growing up, I was the only agnostic kid in my school filled with hard-core, born-again Christians.  I remember coming home to my mom in tears and telling her that a kid at school told me she was going to Hell, because we didn’t go to Church or believe in God.  “You are not going to Hell.  You are staying right here with me.  Those people are snakes in the grass.  SNAKES IN THE GRASS.  You can’t trust them and don’t listen to them,”  my mom told me as she wiped the tears from my cheeks.

So, from then on, I believed it was better to rebel than believe in anything.   In fourth grade, I sat outside the classroom while all the students said the pledge of allegiance, because I didn’t want to say the words under God.  As a senior, I remember calling out my AP English teacher for only assigning readings with Catholic or Christian allegories.

But things are different now.  I am over my hang-ups and feeling quite well…desperate.  I want to find this higher power thing.  I want to nail it down, to feel it. I know I need help and guidance. I need someone to hold up a flashlight and help me find my path.  Luckily, these “flashlight holders” are built into the AA program.  They are called sponsors.

My AA sponsors, who refer to themselves as my AA Grandmas, have been coaching me through the 12 steps.  My sponsors have been best friends for 30 years and come as a sort of “package deal.”  One is a sweet woman who is so incredibly sincere and eager to help alcoholics.  She speaks about this concept of “rigorous honesty” and I want to understand it like she does.  My other sponsor is a nun, a Catholic sister of social service, who spent 20 years as active alcoholic and homeless advocate in the convent.  She told me she spent most of her life “going through motions” defined by the Catholic Church, mouthing words, reciting Bible verse and never really feeling must of anything.  Over 20 years in a convent and no contact with a higher power?  So, she joined AA and did a “30 in 30”—attening 30 AA meetings in 30 days.  At the end of the month, she realized that her higher power was love and she surrendered her life to love.  She is old now, maybe in her mid-eighties now and has been attending AA meetings for 28 years.

Part of my plan for finding my higher power was taking Punxsy to an AA meeting.  We search the Maine AA’s website and found a Friday night and found a “Women’s Serenity Group” meeting.  “Perfect,” I thought to myself. My meeting back home would be taking place at the exact same time.  The part of my brain and soul believed this coincidence was some sort of sign.  An excited, anticipating energy floods my body and says, “yes, it’s working, this is way it’s supposed to happen!” 

Before the meeting, Punxsy and I sat down at a cafe and drank spicy chai tea.  Our hair was wind blown.   Our skin was covered in a thin layer of salt that hangs in the cold coastal Maine air.  “So, tell me what I should expect at this meeting,”  Punxsy asks as her leans forward in her chair, crouching over steaming cup.  I give Punxsy the cliff notes, a rundown of the play by play outlined in AA facilitator’s binder.  “It’s an open meeting.  Anyone’s allowed to come.  Don’t worry.  Women love to see new people at meetings.”   A nervous and excited energy floods over us.  We’re expecting something big to happen. 

As we drive to the meeting, I text my sponsors and let them know I am heading to a women’s serenity group meeting in Maine.  I want them to know that I am doing the work, that I am on track and it’s all going according to plan.

Punxsy and I spend the next 30 minutes driving in circles around tiny, anonymous residential streets.  We pull up to the building where the meeting is supposed to be held.  It’s 6:24 and the meeting was supposed to start at 6:30.  The building is dark, there are no cars in the parking lot.  Everything feels still.  We both know no one is there, but I get out of the car and knock on the large glass door anyways.  I slide back in the passenger seat, shoulders slumped, feeling defeated.

Our type A personalities don’t want to accept that we won’t be going to a women’s meeting afterall, so we take action.  We call the AA hotline, YMCA and drive knock on the doors of all the surrounding buildings just so we can feel like we did everything we could try to make it happen.

It’s 6:42 and Punxsy and I are sitting in an empty parking lot filled with gray gravel in front of some random unimportant building in rural Maine.  The thick blanket of defeat suffocating our excitement.  Punxsy turns her head to me and says, “I can’t imagine how you must feel right now.”  The sincerity of her voice and gaze is overwhelming, so I block it out.  “Ahhh…it’s no big deal,” I say.

We drive back to the cabin feeling defeated and frustrated.  We yell random things like, “we don’t even have any more seltzer water!” and dance around our disappointment.  Inside, I feel heavy sadness.  I try to push the heaviness away, but it keep landing right in the pit of my stomach.  I stare out the window and wonder.

When we get back to the cabin, Punxsy starts making dinner.  We’re having pesto and fiddleheads, a special fern that is in season during this dreary in between time in Maine.  A warm light fills the kitchen.  I sit in a rickety thrift store chair watching Punxsy.  My stomach feels like it is filling with concrete.  My throat gets hot and tight.  The sadness swallows me up again.

Staying sober requires reaching out to your tribe of supporters when feeling overwhelmed rather than numbing out with booze.  This requires naming emotions—a skill I never really practiced until now.  My MO was always to stuff emotions way down deep and continue working to “make the world a better place” and then drinking or smoking to provide some instant relief.

I text my sponsors and tell them I feel frustrated and sad that we couldn’t find the meeting.  “Frustrated” and “sad” seeming like such oversimplifications.  The words hardly describe the mass of hot constricting energy that is filling up my chest.  But I force self to send the message and describe the situation simply.  Easy does it, Crashley.  Easy does it. 

“Just have your own meeting,” my sponsor texts me and back. “And be safe :).”   

You have to climb up a steep wooden ladder to get to “second floor” of the cabin.  Wrung by wrung, I climb the ladder and I grab my “Big Book,” the AA bible, from Punxsy’s loft.  I stand at the top of the ladder and force myself to take deep breaths. 

My feat land heavy on the cabin floor.  Punxsy still making dinner—bouncing around the kitchen, steam rising from a pot of boiling water,  blue flames heating a bright silver pot.  I sit down at the kitchen counter.  I want to tell Punxsy how upset I feel, but the words won’t come out.  Big, heavy tears fall down my face.

Since getting sober, I realize that sadness leaps out of me in these tidal waves, knocking down the walls that tried to hold it back.  The Universe seems to dealing out emotions in these very large unmanageable portions days.  Emotion hits me at the weirdest, unexpected times. 

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Punxsy, but I told her everything.  I told her I felt so sad, because I was looking forward to sharing the experience of a meeting with her.  I had been waiting two weeks to say certain things out loud to a group of strangers, to a circle of alcoholic woman, to my tribe. 

Specifically, I wanted to tell my tribe how much it hurt when I saw my exes “Save the Date” on her Punxsy’s refrigerator.  My ex, we’ll call him Crow, and I had dated for 7 years from the ages of 19-26. Crow and I were best friends, companions for a long time before my world started to unravel.  We grew up, traveled the world and adventured together. 

Crow and I broke up right when my started graduate school and my sister had her psychotic break.  I got the news about my sister while I was in NY at Crow’s sister’s wedding.  I was 3,547 miles from home.  I still remember the street corner I was standing and the sound of my mom’s stunned voice coming through the phone—my sister was in the hospital, there was a party, drugs and now she was in the hospital.  My mind froze and the world blurred to black and white and gray. 

My memories of this time when everything started falling apart are kind of blurry.  I remember stopped sleeping and Crow grew distant and so our relationship ended.  I hadn’t spoken to Crow in nearly 5 years.  He started dating a woman who looks just like me 5 months after we broke up and now they were getting married.   

Crow, like many people, still considered Punxsy a good friend, so he invited her to the wedding even though they hadn’t kept in close contact.  So, here I was, in a cabin in rural Maine, a piece of my past ripping into the present. 

Crow’s Save the Date announcement was a small half sheet of white paper.  The invitation read “OPEN BAR” in large white letters on the front.  There was a photo of Crow and his fiance holding half drunk pints of beer next to snowy mountain.

My mind told me it was proof that I was on the right path, that I had found the right person, that I was meant to be sober.   I believe this is true and I wanted to be at peace with the Save the Date, with Crow, his fiance and their big happy drunk wedding, but my heart felt something else. My heart said, “FUUUUCK YOU.”     

Feelings of sadness and loss about Crow had been rising up inside me in ways I hadn’t ever felt on this trip.  This was not part of my plan.  I didn’t want to deal with this right now. FUCK!  I felt so mad at him for leaving me when I needed him the most. I remember the woman I was back then—feeling so completely and utterly confused and alone visiting her sister in psychiatric wards and trying to be a “good graduate student,”  trying to hold it all together. I felt pissed that “normal” people could have “normal, happy, drunk weddings” and that instead I had a family life that was well, complicated, so complicated that the bringing together of people in a happy celebration is not something I am capable of imagining.  I have no reference point for normal. Sugar and I recently got engaged and when I think of the “my” wedding might look like, my mind literally goes blank. 

Since getting sober, memories are dropped from the sky and I have to look at them.  Feelings seem to pop of out of nowhere, materializing from thin air and wrapping around my heart and mind.  It’s like a benevolent, gentle and sometimes shocking force saying “Remember this? Now it’s time to deal.” 

Crow’s “OPEN BAR” Save the Date handing on Punxsy’s fridge in Maine was one of those “special deliveries.”  My tribe of female alcoholics would understand deeply what this message meant—what it looked like to my newly sober heart and mind, what it meant to think of happy families coming together.  I had pictured myself sharing this story with Punxsy and the other women alcoholics in Maine, but instead, I sat crying at her kitchen table.  The feeling stuck in my stomach, not sure where to go.  This is why I needed to go to a meeting in Maine with Punxsy.  This is why I sat at her table and felt completely lost.

“My sponsor said we should have our own meeting,”  I tell Punxsy as tears roll down my cheeks.    “Great!  I’m totally down. Let’s do it.”  Punxsy replies.  Her infectious enthusiasm truly knows no bounds.

Punxsy hands me a bowl of pesto pasta and fiddleheads and looks at me expectantly.  I wipe my nose and slip into the familiar skin of “meeting facilitator.”  I call the first meeting of the rustic, divine feminine goddess in Lincolnville, ME to order.  There are only two women at this meeting: Crashley and Punxsy, so assume the role of secretary and meeting chair. I open my Big Book and create a sign-in sheet on the first blank page. Punxsy and I write our names in blue ink.  I have her sign my book, because I know I will want to remember this forever.

I read the 12 steps and Punxsy reads the 12 traditions.  Hearing those familiar words read out loud fills me with a sense of ease.  The tightness in my chest softens.  The foreign becoming the familiar.  Punxsy would later tell me that this is the power of a ritual.  Rituals allow to connect and transcend to a familiar space.  An agnostic learning the power of ritual in a cabin in rural Maine.

Punxsy and I read about step 2 in the Big Book out loud to each other while eating fiddlehead ferns and pesto.  We pass the book back and forth taking turns reading each page and stuffing our faces with carbs.  I struggle sometimes with the language of the Big Book.  It was written in the 1930’s, so I disagree with the pronouns and the words and phrases often twist up my tongue, but tonight with Punxsy, it all seems to flow. 

The Big Book’s writing on step 2 discussed a newcomers reluctance to accepting a higher Power.  The chapter is a set of anecdotes that describe all the ways people resist accepting a higher power.  I can relate to anecdote about the “intellectual” that assumes a higher ground by arguing about the impacts religion has had on humanity as a whole and other oft-touted arguments.  A lack of humility and openness are what prevents the intellectual from accepting the existence of a higher power.  It keeps the intellectual stuck in the world of ideas unable to transcend.  “Yup,” I think as I read the words out loud. “That’s me and most of the people I know.”

After we finish reading, I assume the role of “meeting chair.”  At AA meetings, the meeting chair shares a personal story about a topic related to sobriety and then asks the group to share.  For the first time in my life, I talk out loud, unfiltered and honest, about my relationship to a higher power.  For the first time in my life, I feel ready to let go of my intellectual hang ups.  I am ready for help.  I don’t agree with the pronouns and all the He and the God and the whatever the fuck else is wrong with the text, but I also don’t care anymore.  I just want to change.  I want to have faith.  I want to believe in something.  I want to have a higher power that I can trust, name, feel, a force I can’t describe.  A high power that only belongs me.  I say all of this out loud to Punxsy.

Before I left for my Maine vision quest, my sponsor told me a story about a woman who handed her life over to a door knob.  A door knob opens.  A door knob closes. So, she put all her faith in a door knob.  I loved this simple metaphor.  I pictured a door knob coming to me in times of need.  I told Punxsy that there was a part of my that was waiting expectantly for something like this to happen.  An image to pop into my mind, a perfect metaphor, to reveal itself to me.  I was waiting for the sacred experience, but it just wasn’t happening. 

As I continued to ramble on about this “higher power,”  something started to click.  I read once about the power of a “still, small voice” in one of my favorite sobriety memoirs.*  This idea of a still small voice resonated with me.  It matched my experience.  There is a voice that comes into my head sometimes.  A still, small, soft, feminine voice.  It’s a voice I can trust.  It’s very steady, gentle and speaks truth.  When I am having trouble finding this voice, I always know where to look.  I find the voice in literature, in PodCasts, in the voices and experiences of my soul sisters.  The still small voice comes to life in the basements of Churches surrounded by women who daring to be unafraid, to speak truth.

I model the role of meeting chair by asking I ask for volunteers to speak and share their thoughts about their relationship to a higher power.  Punxsy raises her hand.  She’s really “in character” as a meeting participant.  I laugh and ask her to share.  She talks about many thing, but what sticks with me the most is her belief in the need to surrender.  “Thy will be done,” she says, the still, small voice speaking through her. 

Punxsy and I close the meeting by reading the 12 AA promises.  I search for “AA promises” and read from my brightly lit Iphone screen.

The AA promises:

1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed

before we are half way through.

2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.

4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.

5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience

can benefit others.

6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.

7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.

8. Self-seeking will slip away.

9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.

10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.

11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.

12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for

ourselves

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us –

sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

We hold hands across the kitchen table.  I recite the serenity prayer and Punxsy echoes the words back to me.  I raise our hands and say our customary closing “keep coming back it works” while bouncing our fists up and down to the rhythm of words.    

“Oh my god, you do a little cheer at the end?!?! That’s so fun!”  Punxsy says as she squeal with excitement.

Yup, Punxsy.  That’s what we do.  It’s so fun. 

  —- 

*Glennon Doyle Melton writes about the power of a still small voice in her book Love Warrior.

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Sugar holding our new baby duck, Batty.  NNNNNNN…DUCKY!

Post Trumpmatic Stress Disorder and Coming Together: Part 2

I glance up at the clock.  It’s a simple clock—black and white, round, powered by 1 or maybe 2 double A batteries contained in a little square, plastic box. The little hand is on the 7, the big hand is on the 6.  7:30.  The meeting is supposed to end now.  The energy starts moving, hips shift back and forth in creaking plastic chairs, knees bounce, eyes dart along the ground looking for half drank coffee cups and purses.  I glance around the circle searching for clues about what happens next.  “What now?  What happens to all of this energy?  Where does the honesty go?  How do you close after such an outpouring?”  My mind worried. 

I get anxious at the end of meetings.  I fear the idle standing around and lingering that inevitably happens.  Most of the meetings I have attended are professional, usually filled with education and other social service administrators all connected by a vague mission of “building healthy communities for our children.” Meeting after meeting ends and it’s time for “networking”—small, sterile conversations about our overly committed schedules, grants, job vacancies, new programs. When I was working, I would often make up excuses to leave meetings early just so that I could avoid this awful ritual.  Honest conversation sometimes happens in parking lots between like minded colleagues, but never inside the meeting.  Meetings are about politics.  Meetings are about everyone playing their part and representing their agency.        

At 7:32, we all stand up and hold hands.  Our beautiful blonde facilitator asks another woman, Amanda, if she would close the meeting.   Amanda is an attractive masculine woman standing across the circle from me.  She looks young, probably in her mid-thirties.  Her short hair cut is parted to the side and gelled perfectly back away from her sharp, angular face.  She wore dark blue denim jeans and a perfectly pressed button down shirt.  Her watch matched her belt buckle.   

Amanda nodded in agreement. She inhales so deeply she almost has to stand on her tippy toes.  “A moment of silence for those of us who are still suffering,” Amanda says as she exhales.  Everyone bows their head in unison. 

I immediately think of our beautiful blonde facilitator and her suffering.  She is standing next to me.  We are now holding hands, sweaty palms touching.  The “playbook,” the big white binder, sits on a chair next to her.  Less than a half an hour ago, she was in tears—the kind of tears that jump out in strong, sporadic bursts as you try to hold back, but can’t.  I instinctively put my hand on her shoulder as she cried.  Thinking now about the profile of her face and the way her whole body cringed with pain as she spoke makes my eyes water.   Today is her mom’s birthday.  Her mom is a drug addict and alcoholic, and has been battling the disease her whole life.  She talked about being sober for 1 year and running a marathon the day after St. Patrick’s Day last year.  I can relate to this type of running—the running you do when you are trying to get away from something.  I also signed up for a marathon right around the time my brother relapsed and started to feel really lonely in my small, white college town.  That was almost 1/2 my life ago now.   

My thoughts reconnect with the circle.  It seems obvious now that a moment of silence is the perfect way to move forward after an outpouring of honesty and sincerity amongst strangers.  To take a moment, to acknowledge the pain and suffering is there and to move forward together.  The acknowledgement lets everyone know that their pain is seen, felt, heard and is now held by us all. 

I have never seen this type of honesty and sincerity after a “cross sector collaborative meeting for youth violence prevention” though we are always talking about life and death.  Sure, there are times when speakers, mothers who have lost their children to the streets or youth themselves share their gut wrenching stories.  But these mothers and youth are representatives of something most people in the room don’t understand.   They are tokens.  Their audience of administrators listens sympathetically and thinks “that was a tragic story” while driving back to their air conditioned offices.  No one ever takes a moment to really stand there with our children, youth and mothers and hold their pain.  It’s not on the agenda.  It’s not a measurable outcome.  This is why I usually fear the end of meetings.   This circle of strangers is teaching how to handle the end of something meaningful with grace—how to look it in the eyes, hold it and feel the weight together. 

“Now we will recite the serenity prayer,” Amanda says.  A chorus of voices, heads bowed, murmurs this prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change,

the courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I mumble parts under my breath.   I can’t remember the exact order of these 3 short phrases though I have heard it many times before.  In fact, at the suggestion of my therapist, I printed the serenity prayer and posted it on the bulletin board in my office.  This was before I admitted I was an alcoholic and attributed all my problems to being overwhelmed with work.  Working with homeless and foster youth in very poor violent places, I was always trying to push boulders up mountains,  trying to fit grand visions into institutions that couldn’t hold them, and in turn, I felt very drained and frustrated.  So, I drank every night.  At least this is the story I told myself.  

    Everyone lifts their hands and says, “keep coming back it works.”   Our facilitator asks us to move the chairs back around the tables.   The energy dissipates quickly like a burst of wind after a door slams.  We are released.  We can let go.   

A woman, I’ll call her Angel, approaches me immediately after the circle disbands.  She looks both soft and tough kinda like Amanda.  Her hair is bright white, cropped short, perfectly parted and gelled.  She is wearing overalls, deck shoes and white collared shirt.  The back of her shirt is slightly see through.  Triangles of lace from her bra peak through the fabric on her back as she stretches to tie her shoe. Sexy, strong, I thought.  She is chewing a toothpick and looks me dead in the eyes as she walks towards me.

“Yeah, my mom didn’t talk me for like a year when I first came out as an alcoholic.  Don’t worry it will get better.  I’ve been sober for 27 years and my family is still fucked up.  My Dad’s 72 and smoking oxycontin with his 24 year old girlfriend.  Just crazy stuff,”  This is the first thing Angel says to me.  No small talk here.

  “It gets easier as you go along.  And then the really good things start happening, so make sure you come back.  It gets so much better. My mom is like that, ya know, spiritual and stuff, but she also didn’t want to admit she had a problem with drinking, so she didn’t accept it when I did.  It’s hard when you start getting sober, because you wanna go around being like “hey, this is best thing ever,” but not everyone is going to get it,” Angel continues. It gets better.  Those words stick with me.

I hustle quickly out the basement door.  “Good to see you Ashley!  We hope you come back next week,”  says a woman in her mid fifties as she hunches over to open the door to her Ford taurus.  I smile, thank her and shuffle my feet quickly to my car. 

My butt hits the driver’s seat.   I am stunned.   I inhale and exhale quickly.  I am on autopilot as I fumble around my purse trying to find my Iphone.  Who might understand what this feels like?   This sense of being completely naked, open, seen.  Candy would get it.  I tap the envelope icon on my phone and write a bewildered, short message to her:

Subject line: First Meeting

All women.  Lutheran church.  Amazing.  We’re coming together!

Sent from my iPhone

I hit send and think of Candy.  Candy is a tremendously kind, warrior woman who has been a best friend for over a decade.  I have seen Candy on mountaintops, completing her masters degree in education with a focus on social justice and science, and in gutters—crying wondering why she can’t love herself and find someone to love her.

Candy was the first person I reached out to when I realized I had a drinking problem.  Sitting on the couch, crying, drinking a pint glass of wine filled with ice cubes after working a 10 hour day, I held my phone in the crook of my neck and bumbled something like “I am a drunk!”  I slurped down a lukewarm watery wine mixture and felt completely unhinged.

  Candy is the type of person who really “get its”—not in an intellectual or sympathetic way, but in a deeply lived and felt sort of way.   She radiates a compassion and kindness that is palpable.  I feel it through the phone as we speak.   

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about that night.  Now, I realize that phone call was just about me making a confession to someone I loved.  To someone who I knew would “get it.” Candy didn’t try to give me advice, but rather, stayed with me, exactly where I was, acknowledging the hardship I faced, holding my hand as I looked up at a giant mountain I didn’t think I could climb.   

Candy is my only friend who is also an alcoholic. I remember Candy got sober for the first time after her 30th birthday.  She blacked out and said and did somethings she regretted.   So, she gave up alcohol—all alone surrounded by a community of hard drinkers.   That night as I confessed to her on my couch,  she told me a story about being three months sober, going on a booze cruise and drinking soda water surrounded by drunk people.  She stayed sober for 5 months that time.  I remember thinking “sober on a booze cruise, five fucking months without a drink?!?” as Candy spoke.  It all sounded miserable and impossible.

I am 4 months and 9 days sober now and I think I’ll make it to 5 months after all.

I have been to 4 women’s AA meetings since writing my previous post.   Everyday I wrestle with the energy I feel in those Church basements and and only beginning to understand how it is changing and healing me.   I try to hold it, the energy, the feeling I felt in that Safeway parking lot.   I’ve had a million ideas about what I would write about and now it’s all just slipping through my fingers as I try to put it into words.   Maybe this energy is the thing that Stardust is talking about when she talks about God—a force without form, so expansive, so large, so loving it can’t be held. 

I know this much.  What I am feeling is openness and beauty.  It’s strangers, women, coming together in Church basements for 28 years practicing rigorous honesty.  It’s the layers of addiction that wrap around people’s lives for generations.  It’s the grandma watching her 5 year old granddaughter chase her drunk mom around their trailer, and remembering when she was 5 and chasing her drunk mom taking on all those adult feelings when she was just a baby.  It’s the soft spoken, husky woman wearing the Raiders sweatshirt who has been sober for 4 years and suffers from chronic shoulder pain.  She cries as she tells us she has been in pain for years and has been too scared to take medication, because of the addiction.  It’s the unforeseen, uncontrollable tears that roll down my cheeks as Dorian tells me she would love to be a part of my support team and that I can call her anytime day or night.  I have spent less than 2 hours with this woman and I sense she really means what she said, so I cry.

So, how does all this alcoholism, pain, addiction and AA meetings connect to the orange guy?  The poor excuse for a person that is dismantling everything we love and cherish?   Movement activists talk about the power of love to bring our divided nation together.  Linda Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March on Washington, suggests we should replace hope with radical love.   Van Jones, with his gorgeous brown skin and bald head, talked about the power of love to heal and bring us together.  He tells us only a “love army” will conquer trump.   Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “darkness can not drive out darkness only light can do that.  Hate can not drive out hate, only love can do that.”  I always loved that quote.  As I watched the Women’s March on Washington live stream with Candy and Stardust cuddled on a couch at our Air BnB in Oakland,  I heard movement activist reminded us about love.  I wanted to believe it all.   I wanted to feel it, but now, I know I never really had.

Intellectually, I have always believed in the power of love.  Metaphysically and philosophically, it always made sense to me, the laws of attraction, the power of a positive vision and so on.   So, I have tried to practice love in my work and in my relationships, and mostly, I feel like I have failed.  I won millions of dollars in grants to transform the culture of schools and communities—only to have the entire operation co-opted by perverse political agendas.  I have scaled back and worked in small communities conducting a homeless census of farm worker families, sharing stories of families with infants and children living in shacks and paying $600 a month in rent, and trying to help men and women who can’t read or write in Spanish nonetheless English receive their “one time homeless emergency assistance” through social services.  This family has four children.  They were born here. They have rights.  They just can’t remember to save receipts, fill out forms or crawl blindly through this piecemeal, byzantine bureaucracy we call a safety net and they don’t deserve to be sleeping in sheds. (Thoughts of refugee mothers being torn away from their children at our southern border creep in. What about my undocumented friends?  What about these children? Images of an orange monster yelling about  Mexican rapists and murderers flood my mind.  Good thing I am not drinking right now!!) 

It’s not that all the work I have done is for nothing.  (I can hear you trying to reassure me through the computer screen!)  Conversations, ideas and attitudes slowly change.  People start to get organized and I felt, at times, happy to be apart of it all.  There were fleeting moments when I felt my heart open up and connect to something greater than me.  There was that time our parents showed up at our board meeting and cried because their children didn’t ever want summer school to end.  

Yet, if I am honest, I wasn’t ever able to do my work from a place of real love.  I was too frustrated, too sad, too pissed, too tired. I cared and felt too much.  I was insecure and sought approval from institutions and people in power.    I wanted to change things, to fix the unfixable.  So, years passed, grants came and went, programs started and stopped.  I wanted to do so much more than I was able.  I got tired, stopped sleeping, burned out, drank, clenched my teeth and kept sending emails and going to meetings and seeing kids and families and cried in bathrooms alone. 

This, to me, doesn’t sound a lot like radical love.  So, perhaps, what I am learning in those church basements is about what love looks like and feels like, love between strangers, love that doesn’t have a political affiliation, a love that overcomes addiction, a love that heals divides.     

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Meet the newest addition to the homestead.  Sugar and I have been affectionately calling this little fuzzhead Shit Foot or Caca Pie.  (That’s Spanish for Shit Foot.)  We call him this, because he always steps in his own poop (in case you needed someone to spell that our for you!)

Post Trumpmatic Stress Disorder and Coming Together: Part 1

“I think I had something like a religious experience,” I texted Stardust, my beautiful, brave, devout Muslim activist guru friend, as I pulled into the Safeway parking lot and shifted my car to park.  I was on my way home from my first, all women’s AA meeting.   “About to pray.  Can’t wait to hear all about it,” she responds.     

I stared out the dirt streaked windshield of my Honda Insight.   The silhouette of a homeless woman riding a bike passes across the horizon.  She steers her wobbly bike with one hand, hunched over.  She pulls a cart full of all her worldly possessions with the other.  I breathe in through by nostrils and let the air fill my belly.  Precarious.  I think.

I have this out of body feeling as I sit there staring blankly in my car.  It feels like that excited energy of figuring something out for the first time.  It feels like legos snapping together. Hard plastic rectangles going “click, click, click” as the pieces find their place.  It’s also calm, like a heart beat.  A subtle, gentle smile spreads across my face. 

I am not quite ready to be home, so I am sitting in a Safeway parking lot.  I am not quite ready to leave this feeling or to figure out exactly what it is.  I don’t want to pin it down and put it in a sentence that could be a sensible response to the question that Sugar, my sweet loving partner, will inevitably ask,  “how was your meeting?”

A wise woman wrote, “I became an addict partly because of my wiring and partly because of the way the world is wired.”   I am definitely “wired” for addiction.  I am a middle child.  My brother and sister both have a dual diagnosis of drug and alcohol addiction coupled with mental illnesses that often results in crippling psychosis.  For the past 15 years, my family and I have been in and out of mental institutions, “half way houses,”  MediCal sponsored treatment facilities, posting signs on streets for missing siblings.   So, in many ways, I have spent my life emotionally engulfed in the chaos that addiction and mental illness wreak on families.  I play the role of the “high functioning” child—a sensitive, whole hearted “go getter” with a blossoming career in social justice, a masters degree, a steady, high profile job.  I tricked myself into thinking the addiction and mental instability couldn’t touch me if I moved fast enough, was successful enough,  worked hard enough, achieved enough.  I was wrong. 

I recently got sober, gave up my job, moved and decided to start everything over. One of my goals in moving to this new city was to join a support group for addicts.  I went on the AA webpage and searched for an all women’s meeting in the area.  There was one across town at a Lutheran Church every Friday night at 6:00pm. 

As I pulled up to the Church parking lot, I saw the basement door was ajar.  It’s 6:07. I am late and feeling frazzled.  I rush through the door and immediately step into a circle of 30 or so women sitting in plastic, blue chairs.  The floor tiles look cold, pale and gray.  A baby coos and crawls around the center of the circle.  My eyes scan the room for an empty space.  I panic for a half second feeling like the odd kid out as I don’t see a place to sit.   There is only one chair open and it’s next to a young, gorgeous blonde woman.  She looks gentle.  She gestures to me to sit and smiles warmly.  I walk across the circle and plop down.   

I breathe in a feel my body ease into my plastic chair.  It creaks a little I shift my weight side to side and start to get comfortable.   The beautiful blond woman, our facilitator, is sitting next to me.  She is reading words, verbatim, from a large white binder.   This, I gather, is the “playbook” for how to run an AA meeting.  In my role as a “high functioning” person, I tend to take care of people, especially during in meetings.  I facilitate large group professionally and am constantly thinking about agendas, objectives, politics, personalities, making sure everyone is heard, next steps are clear, notes are taken, action items are reviewed.  My workaholic mind doesn’t let go of these ideas easily,  so I am happy to be sitting next to this beautiful woman, reading the “agenda” over her shoulder.  It puts me at ease.  All the nervous questions spinning through my mind, “how does this work and what’s going to happen next and who is charge and who is facilitating,” are answered for me in that playbook writ large in 14 point font.    

The meeting begins with what feels like a blur of business items.   Someone passes around a donation basket.  I watch everyone take one dollar bills out of their pockets or purses and try to follow their lead.   Their fingers grip the bills in the anticipation of the basket landing in their lap.  I look in my purse and only have twenties. I am embarrassed and self conscious about this.  I hide the bill in my sweaty palm and try to secretly slip into the basket when it comes my way. 

The business items continue.  Someone says something about literature being available on my table near some coffee.  The facilitator asks if there are any guests or new comers.   A woman two chairs down from me raises her hand.  She introduces herself.  I later learn that she is four days sober and feeling like she is crawling out of her skin.   Her husband is a heavy drinker and doesn’t see the point in changing.  I think about what a hard road this will be for her—facing all that booze and feeling alone—her most important partner not seeing the point in sobriety.  I immediately feel thankful for Sugar.  He is a “normal” drinker and gave up drinking in support of me.  Sugar is my cheerleader and has made this so much easier for me.  I’ll count my blessings many times during this meeting.  For now, blessing #1, Sugar.

I raise my hand as well and introduce myself using what I learn as the AA introduction protocol, “Hi, my name is Ashley, I am an alcoholic and I have been sober for 3 months and 19 days.”   “Welcome Ashley,” a chorus of female voices says in unison and the energy hits me right in the chest.  Everyone claps and a few people hoot in celebration for my 3 months and 19 days sober.  Sitting here now and thinking about these women and their generosity of spirit towards me, a total stranger, makes me well up.

The last business item is to celebrate sober and annual birthdays. AA celebrates 30, 60 and 90 days plus every year someone is sober.  “Has anyone had a birthday in the last 7 days?,” the beautiful blonde facilitator reads from the white binder.  She scans the room, finds no response and hands the meeting over to the “chair.”    

The meeting chair is a woman wearing faded blue jeans, a loose blue shirt with an anonymous haircut that parts down the middle.   She looks weathered and wise.  She is leaning forwarding with her shoulders slumped confidently toward the group.  I can tell by the way she holds herself that she has done this many times before.   She opens the group and reminds us all that it is St. Patrick’s Day.  (Side note: I just typed the word St. Patrick’s Day and felt a pang of longing.  For a moment, I wished there was some whiskey in my  tea!  I remember drinking whiskey and tea after a long days work.   I’d pour the whiskey  from these giant bottle of Bulleit Burbon I bought for $49 at Costco.  I used to mix tea, Bulleit and roll a spliff after a hard day of nonprofit work.  I sat outside my trailer and felt like an irreverent cowgirl as I shed my pantsuit and put my moccasins.   It was my favorite time of the day.) 

Back to the meeting.  Our meeting chair is half Irish and half Italian, so St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal for her and her whole family.  She starts the meeting by reminding the group about how hard it is to get through the holidays when you are sober.  She tells a story about her favorite Irish pub in San Francisco and what it was like on St. Patrick’s day.  “There were Irish dancers and singing, but no one gave a fuck about that, because we were there to drink.”  There is a hum of agreement.  I feel my whole body relax as she tells her story.  I understand my role at this meeting—I sit, I listen, I relax.  This, I think, I can do.  Stories, after all, are my medicine.   I could listen to honest, revealing, soul shaking stories all day (and I usually do!  Hooray for podcasts and noise canceling head phones!)

The honesty, openness, kindness, rawness and humility of the women in the basement of the First Lutheran Church are what gave me that feeling of lightness and “religiousness” I didn’t want to let go of, the feeling that I was trying to hold onto in the Safeway parking lot.  The stories I hear for the next hour and half shake me in way I am still trying to understand.   

I have more to say about this and some ideas about how it connects to the motherfucker in charge (you know WHO! BASTARD!) and how we all need to find our own Church basements now, but I will save that for Part 2.  OOOOO…..CLIFFHANGER! 

             In my meantime, enjoy my latest invention for teething puppies, THE DOG POPSICLE.  Game changer.  See below. 

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90 days sober, Trump and the letter T

T

“They look for people who are T shaped,”  said my spiritual, activist guru friend said as we waited to turn left at a stoplight.   The turn signal tick tocked.  The tall, geometric building of San Francisco’s financial blocked the sunlight that was just peaking over the horizon.    “They want people who know a little bit about a lot of different,” she said as she made a T-shape with her arms and flittered her fingers up and down.   The way she moved her fingers reminded me of teeny, tiny insects skimming across the top of water.  “And they also want people who have deep knowledge about one specific thing.  You see its like a T, you have to go across,” her fingers flickering back forth, “and down.”

The light changes red to green and we turn left.   “So you are going to write today?,” my spiritual activist guru friend (who will henceforth be referred to as Stardust, because she has some special magic in her).  “Well,”  I reply.  “I told myself I would write today, but then I realized I haven’t been thinking about writing.”

We pull over.  Stardust hops out, gathers her purse and asks me to pop the trunk as I slide into her driver seat.  I am dropping her off at a workshop on something that sounds super radical and innovative like “the future of citizen centered government.”  It’s a workshop sponsored by IDEO, the design thinking company where she wants to work. 

Stardust spent five years studying and writing about youth and social movements in Egypt.  Now, she is now fluttering from place to place, job posting to job posting, tip toeing across the top of her T and hoping something will stick.  Hoping to find a place where she can “go deep.”  Hence, the workshop and impromptu trip to San Francisco.   

I have known Stardust for many years.  We were friends and study buddies in graduate school.  We both studied movements—her focus was on social movements, mine was on migration.   We had the same mentor and advisor who we both hold dear.

  I hadn’t been in touch with her for many years outside of the occasional Facebook message though I always thought about her and admired her.   She, like me, went “deep” into her thesis research and ended up in graduate school for 3 extra years traveling to Egypt, Davis, and eventually landing in her parent’s home wondering “what now?.”   Unlike some noncommittal academic wanderers, five years later, she wrote book about the role of social media, youth and the Egyptian revolution.  She is still waiting to hear back from publishers. 

I finally texted Stardust when I hit a rock bottom.   It was the night after my surreptitious  vodka chugging followed by a blacked out rant about Trump and feminism and why men needed to give more of shit about what was happening to women.  I woke up and knew I had to quit.   I stared at my partner, bleary eyed across the kitchen table, and said, “I don’t think I can drink.”  Tears falling down my cheeks, breath stuck in my chest.  “I don’t think you can drink either,” my partner said lovingly.  We smashed all the wine glasses in a paper grocery bag in the kitchen. 

My hands were shakey that day.  I was dehydrated and terrified.  “Hey, you can’t drink, no big deal!” my partner, who shall henceforth be called Sugar, said as he lovingly put his hand on my shoulder.  I has been trying to cut back for months.  I’d set rules like “no drinking Monday-Thursday” and then I’d break them.  I started hiding bottles of sake in the car and drinking them before I went in to have my “one glass” of wine.  It was time to face the truth.  On the surface, I was very successful—running a program for homeless and foster youth, exercising, paying the bills and underneath it all, I was a mess. A big hot mess.  I was breaking up in ways I had only begun to understand. 

The day I stopped drinking, my mind bounced manically.  I felt restless and exhausted all at once.  I thought about all the times when I wouldn’t be able to drink— no having a toast at a wedding, no margaritas at the Whole Enchilada after a hard week’s work, no more ladies nights fueled by endless glasses of Chardonnay and self-validation.  I couldn’t think of one person in my social circle who didn’t drink.   Then it hit me, text Stardust.  Stardust didn’t drink!

Stardust is not only an author and activist, she is also a devout Muslim.  So hence, she is and always has been sober.  Sober, spiritually awake and shaken to the core by the election results, she was just the woman I needed back in my life.  I was having trouble connecting to my lots of my close friends in part, because I was such a hot mess and because I felt like the election meant something different to me than it did to them.  Everything about me and the world felt different after the election.

I sent Stardust a text message at 9:30pm.  I had only been sober for 12 hours.  I don’t remember exactly what I wrote in my text, but I’m sure it sounded kind of raw and desperate. Stardust knew I needed help and she called me right away even though we hadn’t spoken years.

I curled up on my bed with the phone tucked between my shoulder and ear.  I didn’t have the guts or maybe wasn’t quite ready to tell Stardust about my drinking problem, so we talked about the election.  I told her about how scared I was.  I told her about all the things the children were saying—about being scared that they would lose their mom and dad.  About the white kids asking the Mexican kids when they were going to be sent “home.”    She said she could hear it in my voice, the shakiness.  She was someone who understood what it was like to feel shaky. 

I remember the moment Stardust found out that Mubarak had been overthrown and there was uprising in Egypt.  We were standing in my hallway of a large, marble academic building—me, Stardust and our other study buddy, who I will call G-money.  Stardust’s hands trembled, her eyes looked out past the horizon at something no one else could see.  I stood next to her and couldn’t fully understand what she was saying.  I looked at her, vacant and expectedly, wondering, “what the hell happened?  What did I miss?”  Embarrassingly,  I’ll admit that dictatorships, revolutions and terror of the middle east weren’t things I had thought much about, but in that moment, standing next to Stardust, I knew I was witnessing a person transform.  This whole revolution in Egypt was a really big fucking deal for Stardust. Part of her had been ripped open and now she was just standing there, not sure what she would do next.  We had many late night conversation about how she didn’t know what she wanted to study or what she was doing in Davis, CA, but that that all changed with one headline—“Egypt erupts in jubilation as Mubarak steps down.” 

Six years later, here I was, curled up in my sheets, shaking, clutching my smart phone, asking Stardust for help, bumbling through thoughts, skipping across the top of the water, afraid of what might be just beneath the surface, feeling like I had forgotten how to swim.  Stardust talked me to for an hour that night.  She reassured me that everything would OK.  She told me about a verse from the Quran that said something like, “ we don’t know if this election will be a good or bad thing.  Only God knows.”   They way she said it was way more eloquent.  I am occasionally cynical, but I could believe something like that because it was coming from Stardust. 

So back to today, I dropped Stardust off at her workshop, parked the car and started wandering around San Francisco’s financial district desperately looking for coffee, and wondering what I might write about. 

It’s my 3 month soberversary.  It’s been 90 days since I quit drinking.  Older, wiser, sober folks have said that the first 90 days in the hardest and that we should celebrate this important milestone.  Celebrations are important to maintain sobriety.  I didn’t have a real plan to celebrate. But as Stardust and I drove to the city, I remembered this milestone was coming up soon.  I reached for my purse and opened the “I am sober” app on my I-phone and sure enough, the screen read, “Congratulations!  3 months sober.  Share this milestone.”  I showed Stardust the bright screen and smiled ear to ear.  “Three months sober today!,” I said gleefully.  She took her right hand off the steering wheel and gave me a high five.  She said something in Arabic that sounded like “ma brutha.”  It meant congratulations, she explained.

When Stardust asked me what I was going to write about today, on this important, sober milestone, I didn’t know.  My mind felt like it was just jumping around the top of a letter T.  The first month of Trump’s presidency had come and gone and so much had happened that I felt like I couldn’t write about any of it.   I had been skipping from headline to headline unable to grasp it, feeling overwhelmed.  The unravelling was so fast I felt unable to connect one thing to another.  All I had were these frozen moments that reminded me everything had changed.     

There was the day when 3/4 of the parents left our playgroup, running home with their toddlers, because there was rumors that ICE was at the Reynosos’ market down the street.  Among the few people that stayed were two veiled Muslim women and their little babies.  Our tiny community has a very visible devout Muslim population.  Two women, heads covered in colorful scarfs, bodies covered in flowing  fabric, stood there in the middle of the room, pushing strollers back and forth, their children playing with colored macaroni noodles on the miniature table.  Almost all the Mexicans had gone home, scared.  I sent Stardust a text, “FUCK! ICE raid.”  She replied, “Is there any sanctuary spaces near by?  I don’t even know what that means.”   Me neither, I thought. 

  My boss walked around main street talking to people and trying to figure out what was going on.  She came back and told us ICE wasn’t here and it was all just a rumor.  We could go back to work.  So, everyone put their heads down and kept going.  But we couldn’t hear the familiar sound of children squealing and playing anymore.  No one talked about it.

So, I didn’t think I could write today.  I thought I couldn’t connect point a) 90 days sober to point b) Trump, the racist, Facist scum sucking pig.  But I guess when you trust gut and reach out to the right people, it all starts to connect.  Together, we can travel from the surface, the top of the T, to a deeper, more meaningful, slower space.   

Thanks, Stardust, for asking me to come to San Francisco with you this morning, telling me the wonderful significance of the letter T and then asking me what I would write about.  Te amo.

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As promised, a photo of the Gorgonzola Cheese-whiz monster himself, Gizmo!  Oooshey, booshey, you are getting so big!!  On the right, you can see the leg of Gizmo’s friend, Slug.  Slug is an epileptic American bull-dog.  Slug also farts frequently and it smells like “rotting intestines.”   

Breaking Points and Superpowers.

            Since starting this blog, I have a developed a few superpowers.  My most obvious superpower is that I have managed to stave off alcohol for 1 month and 24 days.  I passed up a glass of red wine at my “office” Christmas party. Yes, I made it through the entire gingerbread house making competition without a single sip!  Usually, I absolutely hate party games, board games and just about anything else that might get in the way of me drinking and sharing my opinion with the entire world.  The sober me is thankful for stupid shit like gingerbread making competitions, because these activities keep me from nervously obsessing over everyone else’s glass of white wine!  I also celebrated my 33rd birthday with seltzer water.  That’s right.  I drank 12 cans of La Croix in 2 days. And it was really fucking awesome.  Hmmmm… pamplemousse.   

Another superpower I have developed is: self-awareness.  Super duper self-awareness.  This super duper self-awareness superpower has helped me realize that since becoming a “blogger,” there is now this slightly unwelcome voice in my head that is listening to every conversation and thought I have and wondering if it could be an interesting blog topic.  This voice also reminds me to just write, to be me.  Not Cheryl Strayed or Elizabeth Gilbert.  Not a slightly forced metaphor about a map.  Just me.  Sarcastic, grammatically incorrect, raw, ecstatic, stream of consciousness me.  This super duper self-awareness has motivated me to listen and just sit the fuck down and star pounding the keys when I feel the urge.

Now, these superpowers didn’t come easy.   Every superpower I have came from a tremendous shit show of a break down.  For me, when I reflect on my break downs, each one sits in my mind like a black and white polaroid.  Something happens and everything stops and then nothing is ever the same again. 

I have had 2 of these moments in the past 1.5 years.  In June 2015, I started a support program for homeless children in a farm worker town.  As part of this program, I conducted the community’s first homeless census and found that 1 in 5 children qualify as homeless in our small town.  I also found a family of 6 living in a dilapidated shed and stopped sleeping.  After a year of applying to every housing support program in the county, the family still ended up in their car. 

The other moment was waking up on November 10, 2016.  I drank 2 glasses of wine and took a tylenol PM as the election results rolled in.  The alarm beeped at 6:21 am and I stumbled out of bed and paced around the house with my boob hanging out of my coffee stained bathrobe.  My mind raced.  I shouted to my partner, “I am just going to pay the rent on a new office, so I can have a place to keep clothes and other donations for our homeless program. Fuck it.”  I mind raced, trying to find solid ground, asking unanswerable questions about what would happen and what could be done.  I paced more. My thoughts raced.  I collapsed on my couch, gasped for breath and sobbed.  Tears falling down pale pink cheeks and leaving bathrobe fur all matted and wet.  “You are allowed to be upset, but you scare me when you panic like this,” my partner said as he held me close. 

Tomorrow is another breaking point.  We aren’t sure what kind of breaking point it will be, but we know it’s gonna happen.  Saturday will be the largest demonstration in US history.  With some many people coming together, something has to start moving.  Something has to break.   

I recently reconnected with a sober, spiritual guru, activist friend.  She wrote a book about the Egyptian revolution and knows a shit ton about social movements.  She is a bad ass.  A chigona!  She reminded me about the metaphysical and spiritual connections that start movements. We talked for hours about how that “coming togetherness” coupled with a fierce gaze that never loses sight of power and privilege is where our movements must begin.  What the fuck is going to happen now?

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Addiction, Donald Trump and Other Sources of Shame

When Donald Trump became our president, shame became an inextricable part of us.

                On November 9, 2016, the emotional and ideological landscape of our country was transformed.   We woke in a land that was unrecognizable.  To survive and move forward in this strange new reality, we must create new maps.  So together, we are connecting new dots, tracing out new contours.  We hope these lines will lead us towards a new horizon, toward a better future we can’t quite imagine or see.

                  Creating this new map must begin with making sense of what is means to be here, right now. Now that our initial disbelief is not longer tenable (this is really happening) and the moments of gripping fear momentarily subside (California will protect our undocumented families and launch its own damn satellites) and red hot rage stops coursing through our veins (cue videos of baby animals!!), there remains one emotion we can’t seem to shake.  It punches us in the gut when I scroll through new headlines or our Facebook feed.   It sits with us like a second skin.  It’s an inextricable part of our new national identity: shame.  For me, at this moment, it’s helpful to take a look at shame, what it means for me and how it shapes the our new topography.

                   If you want to learn about shame, ask an addict.  Shame is something addicts know very well.  The downward spiral of addiction looks something like this: craving, resisting, indulging, soaring high, crashing, forgetting, waking up, temples throbbing, mouth dry, stomach gurgling, regretting and a slow descent into the slough of shame. Rinse. Repeat.

                   In the aftermath of an addictive binge, we find ourselves groping around a dark room trying to discern the many sources of shame.  Our minds frantically dance around, picking up frayed wires and trying to figure out where all the loose ends might lead.  We scan the room for clues.  We check our cell phones frantically.  We try to read our partners body language. (“Did I get in a fight with my partner last night?  Do I have to admit that I secretly chugged vodka, because I was scared drinking 2 negronis wasn’t enough?  What will I feel ashamed for later? Am I an alcoholic?  What else don’t I remember? Fuck!)  Once the mania calms and the discomfort sets in, shame comes and for the next four years, it’s here to stay.

             I have been sober for 1 month now  (woo hoo! my first soberversary!), so all of my shame is still very close to the surface.  Experts in the world of addiction recovery say there is only one way to release yourself from the shackles of shame: you have to say a lot of shit out loud to a lot of people.  You have to connect to others, to find a deep source of humility and admit the things you said and did and in order to begin to release some of the built up pressure.

             This whole sobriety thing is new to me, so I am still learning how to talk about my shame.  My shame stories come out in unexpected ways.  Sometimes, I just blurt it all out in one go.  Other times, I dance around the truth until someone forces me to look at it.  For example, one of my soul sisters called me from the East Coast last Sunday.  It was 8:30am PST and began the conversation with my proud proclamation, “look at me girl!  I am now part of the not-hungover masses!  There are a lot of old people up at this hour!,” I blurted out as a quickly paced across Asilomar Beach.  I hadn’t spoken with her since I had admitted to all my loved ones that I am an alcoholic (read: previous blog post if you haven’t!).  I felt like I needed to say something, up front, that acknowledged this new part of my life.  Yet, it wasn’t until the end of our 97 minute conversation that I got up the courage to tell her about how I realized I was an alcoholic (read: sneaking vodka from my landlords cupboard and getting black-out drunk and screaming, crying and spewing out a bunch of disconnected thoughts about feminism, masculinity and Trump, and not remembering any of it).  She, like a wonderful soul sister does, immediately validated my experience, “You’re so brave.  I would never have the balls to steal vodka from my landlord.”  She laughed, inhaled and said, calmly and sincerely, “Thank you for telling me that.”     

               This was the perfect thing to say.  I knew she was not encouraging my behavior and she helped me feel like I wasn’t a piece of shit.  Because that was shame does to you.  It tells you that you are shit.  She thanked me for sharing that wound with her and made me feel like I was still worthy of love and friendship. 

                  Needless to say that all I wanted to do for the next hour was blurt out all my shameful secrets.  Instead, I walked across the beach feeling disoriented and slight stunned.  I kept putting one foot in front of the other and listening to the sound of the shore lapping on the beach.  My partner kept asking me questions, but I couldn’t compose a response or even speak in complete sentences.  Disconnected thoughts bounced around my brain.  My soul sister was so supportive, so why did I still feel so strange?    

             I’ll spend my life trying to understand shame.  Here is why I felt so light headed after my soul sister conversation and here what I know now: Shame grows from secrets.  The more secrets we keep from ourselves and others, the more shame we feel.  Over time, the secrets build up. Shame is heavy like lead. The weight of shame becomes familiar. 

           So, in my confession, a weight had started to lift. In it’s place, there is some emptiness.  Now I feel some disconnected, frenetic energy bouncing around in that space.  My high functioning addictive personality tries to fill emptiness quickly with goals, grants, aspirations and social events.  But now I am slowing down.  Stripping the bullshit away.  Letting that shit go. 

            I hope that this energy, this empty space gives me the courage I need to keep talking, writing, connecting, to continue drawing my own map in this land that is entirely unknown to me: the brave new world of sobriety and the disgusting, shameful world that is now lead by Donald Trump.   

                This feeling of emptiness and exposure, of not knowing where to put all our shame and not knowing what happens next, is something we all feel right now.  The threads that formed the fabric of our national identity have been torn apart and can’t be sewn back together. There is a part of me that believes that irreparable damage is a good thing.  It forces us to confront the simple truth: things are not OK.  I am not OK.  We are not OK.  We haven’t been for a really long fucking time.  Let’s pull the skeletons out of the closet, America. Let’s look around, at ourselves and our community.  Let’s start sifting through this rubble and come together in a more honest and truthful ways. 

             When the clock strikes midnight tonight and we say good bye to 2016, I hope to send some of my shame with it.  I hope that we have the courage to keep connecting, to move forward towards that line where the sky meets the sea.  To keep making our new map together.         

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As promised, many photos and videos of baby animals will be included in this blog.  Above is a photo of Gordon Gonzo Gizmo Gorgonzola (Gizmo or Gizzy for short).  We have had him for 3 whole glorious days.  Everyday is filled with puppy love and incessant puppy psychobabble.  I have referred to Gizzy as “moop bucket, cheese whiz, marsupial monkey pants” and a variety of other nonsensical nicknames aka gibberish, puppy psychobabble.  The only disappointing thing about Gizmo is that he seems to be nocturnal. Above he is featured with his favorite pink elephant.