for my sister, part I

A few weeks ago, my sister sent me an email about my one year. She said she loved me and I said it, too. I hadn’t heard from her in a while. I left her a voicemail on her birthday over a month before. I said that I was dealing with a lot of anger toward our mom for not protecting me more when we were kids. I meant not protecting us, but I didn’t say it that way because I didn’t want to assume she saw it like me. Assumptions like that are dangerous because you could be disappointed. You probably will be.

A while ago my best friend said that I might want to acknowledge that I’m the first one in my family confronting the reality of our past. Acknowledge that’s a lonely place.  I’m walking out there alone. And that’s ok. Someone has to go first.

The thing is, no one may follow. I may be first and last.

When my sister and I were young, we dreamed of emancipating ourselves from our dad when we reached 14. We had seen it on TV – kids divorcing their parents or deciding in whose custody they would want to live. On court dramas. They were always 14. My sister turned 14, then I did. We were too scared. We didn’t even ask if it was a real thing.

I have 1 year sober, but my sister has more than 10. She still goes to meetings and has a sponsor. I’ve gone to a few with her. She made amends to me and said it was the hardest one because she knew her using affected me the most. I didn’t know she knew that. I felt grateful.

My sister had often said that she wanted me to walk her down the aisle, because I had been there for her more than our dad had. Or she said it a couple of times, which is a lot, since I don’t see her much anymore. She said she was going to have a small ceremony. She wasn’t going to invite him.

When we were about 11 and 12, our dad got into bicycling. He liked to find trails in Southern California that were 20 or 30 miles. He thought it was something we could share with him. He thought he could help us get in shape. He wanted it to work and for us to love him. What actually happened was he left us early on each ride. He didn’t believe my sister had asthma. She would always have to stop. I stopped, too, so she wouldn’t be alone. He’d wait for us at the end of the road and scream at us for walking our bikes. I just pretended I didn’t want to ride.

The time came, last October, her wedding, and she was too scared. Or she changed her mind. Or she never really intended to do what she said, but thought I might like to hear it.

The week before her rehearsal dinner, which I had originally agreed to go to, where he wasn’t even going to be, I started shutting down. I started forgetting what I was saying mid-sentence and never remembering. I would forget appointments and meetings completely, not even aware that the time for them had passed. I would fall asleep in therapy. I felt terrified, like someone was out to kill me. I woke up screaming.

So I didn’t go. Not because I was mad, though I was, but because it wasn’t safe.

My sister has been sober for 10 years. I remember what she was like when she was using. I remember calling 911. I remember how she looked at 89 pounds. How she talked. That chemical smell.

I think of my dad walking her down the aisle. The photo I saw of them, smiling, at her wedding, that I didn’t intend to see. I remember, years before, listening, my ear to the ground as he yelled at her in the garage. I don’t know why I listened.

I remember the letter she sent me when I was in rehab. I don’t really remember what it said, but I remember her handwriting.

I think about us getting older at the same time. The years. I didn’t notice them until now. I left her a voicemail on her birthday and she sent me an email a month later. Time passes. I could see her next and she’d be thirty. I could know nothing about her.

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stopped working

The other day I heard someone say: “I didn’t come to AA because of the consequences.  I came because the party was over.”

Last night, at a meeting, the speaker said that her rock bottom wasn’t blacking out every night. The bottom was blacking out without even feeling drunk first – when alcohol stopped doing what it once did. Stopped protecting and empowering her.

When I took my first drink, I was 19. I was in college. I had 3 shots of Bacardi Vanila and they went down smooth and tasted better than I could have guessed. My roommates were proud of me. Until that moment, I had been crazy. I cleaned every speck of my room many times a day. I was committed to keeping my life perfect and clean. I got nosebleeds from stress. I looked in the mirror and told myself to never do anything wrong again. I prayed to God to change me. I hated myself. Out there, though, in the kitchen, after the shots of rum, I was free. I liked myself. I took off my clothes and danced around. The first drink and there was this: I belonged.

The man for whom the party was over also said that he was a consequences-handling machine. I see that I was, too. I could minimize and rationalize and forget anything. I could lower the bar.

I’ve been talking a lot about the consequences. About dark nights. About hitting the center divider on the freeway. About making lists of what I could do to be ok: donate my car, drink only beer, don’t go to work parties. I see now that there’s something else to remember: it stopped working. I stopped feeling warm and excited and like I belonged. I felt desperate and resentful and confused. I felt hollow. Drinking now would not only bring me to the consequences, but it would do nothing else.

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somewhere else

I will probably be posting about rehab a lot this month. I went in April. I asked my boyfriend to ask his therapist for recommendations and he suggested a program in Minnesota. That sounds so calm: I asked him.

It was still snowing in Minnesota, but I didn’t know that before I arrived. I packed 2 suitcases full of anything I might need for any weather or situation. I brought formal wear.

There’s a rule that allows any Minnesota resident to go to treatment for free. This means you get a mix of people who are desperate for recovery, those who are court ordered to try to recover, and those that want to get off the streets and don’t have anywhere else to go. For those of us coming from out of state, it’s $20,000 for 28 days.

On the plane, I was calm. I was still thinking it might be something like a spa. Might be a quiet place to read. I ordered a diet coke and the woman next to me, someone in some medical field, said: “You know that turns into formaldehyde at room temperature?” I said yes and quit that, too. I had an urge to tell her where I was going. I felt guilty about the urge. Maybe I was glamorizing it. Maybe I was going there in the hopes of becoming more interesting. I live constantly with this self doubt. When I am being genuine and sincere, I wonder if instead I’m being dramatic.

The truth is, I desperately wanted to get help. I wanted to stop living life underwater. I was terrified of dying at 26 from preventable causes. I wanted my boyfriend back. I wanted to write again. I wanted to crawl out of the wreckage of so many dark nights.

It was in the Minneapolis/St.Paul International Airport that it hit me. It was there that I decided I might not want to go. Where I considered checking into a hotel for a month and coming back and drinking moderately. It got worse as I got into the cab that the treatment center had sent for me. It was not nice. The Minnesota landscape was chill and barren. There were too many shopping malls. Too many Targets. I hadn’t ordered the cab myself. I couldn’t ask it to go somewhere else.

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Today I have one year sober. There was a time when I thought, without question, that this was impossible. There were other times when I didn’t think it would be this hard. I am grateful to be alive. I am lucky for it. It does not really feel like I had much to do with it. I have been doing a lot of hard work. I am grateful to know everyone in my life. I am grateful that I am not as alone as I sometimes feel.

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in real life

On Wednesday, I will have had a year sober. It makes me anxious. Not for fear of relapse, though that’s there, but something else. I’m afraid I’m not doing it right. I still think I’m supposed to be someone else. I feel alone in recovery. It’s not true that I’m alone, but that’s the feeling.

It’s actually a feeling of shame. I believe I’m supposed to be more open with people. That I’m supposed to evangelize recovery and live in gratitude all the time. There’s the me in my head, the perfect version, who goes to his home group, probably a men’s meeting, every week, with the usual crowd. The one who goes to dinner with fifteen people after the meeting, who shares about fellowship and about AA being fun. That one is best friends with his sponsor. On Wednesday, he will be speaking about what a year has taught him and people will look up to him. He will get sponsees and feel good about it because he has gone through the steps and is ready to carry the message. People bring him cakes. There’s he, who celebrates, and then there’s me, in real life.

The last time I met with my sponsor, I told him I was embarrassed to still be on the fourth and fifth steps. I feel discouraged because life feels so hard for me. I don’t want it to, even if I see myself making it so. He said that one time he did the steps in 3 weeks, one time it took a year. There are different people and different circumstances. He says the misery is in thinking I can do it right, in thinking I have control over it, in thinking it’s up to me.

Wednesday, what will probably happen is that I will go to a meeting and I will feel a little sad. I will post a short post on my blog. I will check in with the moment and express it in a few sentences, without effort, like I did on New Year’s Eve. I will share in the meeting that I feel weird about having one year. I will cry. I will wonder if I will hear from my sister. I will call my sponsor and feel nervous about what he will say. I will read texts and emails from my friends and remember that I’m not alone and that I’m not supposed to be someone else.

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only recover

I was driving home and listening to a pop song about abuse and the cycle of abuse. She says: “You never thought about anyone else, you just saw your pain, and now I cry in the middle of the night for the same damn thing.” She says: “My heart can’t possibly break when it wasn’t even whole to start with.”

I visited my close friend yesterday, the one whose aunt is struggling with addiction, and he said how her kids said they didn’t feel seen, didn’t feel like their mom wanted to be there for them unless it was to fight to get them back. When she has them, she locks herself in her room. She forgets to feed them. I read a quote from Tara Brach that said what children need most is to be seen and to be loved, and to the extent that that’s not there, there’s severed belonging. That’s what that song is talking about when it says my heart wasn’t whole to start with. It’s about not being seen or loved. About being forgotten. About locked doors.

On the drive to visit that close friend, I talked to my other friend about my dad. He said it must be hard to hold how my dad treated me along with how he was treated by everyone else when he was young. I said it was. It’s complicated. It brings up self-doubt. How can you live with compassion and trauma? How can you set boundaries with an abusive parent when you’re thinking how they only ever saw their own pain? That in coping with what was denied to them, they denied it to you? You can only resolve to not make the same mistakes. You can only heal, only recover.

Today is the anniversary of Mike’s suicide. I think about him often. A year ago I got a text from my boyfriend that Mike, his roommate, was missing. I got a call that he was dead. I drove his girlfriend across the bay bridge, the golden gate shimmering to the left of us, the most beautiful I had ever seen it, only that morning witness to Mike’s leaving this world.  I took her to his mom’s house. I stood in the doorway. Today we are honoring him and I’m remembering what it means to be alive. I couldn’t sleep last night because my boyfriend was out with someone who I don’t like him hanging out with and that’s his choice, but I was hurt that he didn’t talk to me about it openly. He left out the details. He rejected my call. This morning he talked to me openly. He apologized. I felt so grateful. I thought about how short life is. I thought about my dad projecting everything he hated about himself onto me. About him hating me, too. I thought about how I’m not making the same mistakes. How I’m healing and recovering. I thought of Mike, feeling like he didn’t belong. I thought about the drive across the bay bridge. I feel so grateful that we have the chance to live.

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Last night, I went to a bar. I ordered a diet coke and the bartender said “One of those nights?” and I said “Yeah,” with a sigh, even though I didn’t really know what he meant. Even though it had been one of those years.

It’s not a good sign, going to a bar, in month 11, after my last post, after a very rough conversation with my boyfriend, after deciding not to go to a meeting.

I went to a place where I knew I wouldn’t see anyone I know. I drank my diet coke in the back and watched 2 guys play pool for about 5 minutes and I left. I stood outside for a long time, texting myself so I didn’t look too sketchy, or too open to anything. Then I went home. It’s what I would call a dark night. It’s not something I’m looking to repeat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about going out. I went to a meeting at a place I had never been before and a young guy who had two weeks raised his hand. He said he keeps getting two weeks and relapsing. Because all of his friends drink. Because he wants to feel normal. Wants to go out with them.

When I had trouble getting past two weeks, my therapist suggested healthy alternatives to going out. I made lists of them. Go to a meeting. Read. Call a friend and ask them to hang out with me sober. See a movie. I didn’t do any of those things. I lay on my bed and thought about how lonely my life would be.

Tonight, St. Patrick’s day, a man talked about what happened. He said “I knew it was over, but I didn’t know what was next.”  Another said last year St. Patrick’s day took him out. People talk about events that took them out. They mean out of sobriety, out of the present moment, out of the program. It’s somewhere very far away. I thought about when St. Patrick’s day took me out 2 years ago, in Dublin, when I knew it was over but I was nowhere close to done.

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