“the work” and what is true (# 141)

Earlier in this decade, when my first marriage ended, I had two significant relationships that each lasted several years. One was with my high school friend (the recovering alcoholic who relapsed) and one with an emotional unavailable graduate student who kept breaking up with me when he got stressed out. Both of these relationships brought me insight and growth as well as considerable pain.

During this time period I also dated a number of other people more casually, each of whom provided a variety of lower-intensity learning experiences. In the part of my online dating profile that asked what I spend a lot of time thinking about, I answered “what is true.”

Through it all I saw my therapist as consistently as I saw any man. Trying to answer that burning question.

Sometimes in these sessions I succumbed to self pity. I would lament the fact that I was ready and available for a relationship while these guys were not. And I talked about how I resented and resisted the notion that our culture tells divorced women that we must “work on our selves” in order to hopefully, finally, one day find men with whom we could have the enduring relationships of our dreams. The relationships we deserved, goddammit. I resented any implication that we divorced women were especially “broken”–that there must be something in us to be fixed otherwise we would not have ended up out here, adrift and alone.

I was vocally pissed at the idea that while I was sitting on the couch “working on myself,” men were doing whatever the hell they wanted, and they never had a problem finding women who would have sex with them or, better still, take care of them emotionally, financially, or in whatever way.

In hindsight, I can see that while my gripes had a grain of truth to them, I was missing the larger point. The larger point is that no one but me is responsible for my happiness. I cannot make other people more enlightened or more available to have good relationships with me. I can’t make romantic, partnered love a priority for another person if that desire is not core to his being.

Gradually, while doing “the work,” I realized that “the work” needed to serve no other purpose other than bringing me peace and clarity of mind–that was the work’s truest benefit and sole aim. I was not a broken person getting fixed to be a better woman or relationship partner, instead the work was learning how to  follow a path of my own choice and creation, with grace, conviction, and self-possession, no matter what.

The path was getting clear about why I got divorced, scrupulously clear about what I wanted in my life, clear about how to make decisions that would take me closer to things I desired, and clear about my part in the half-lifetime of decisions I had already made.

Fundamentally, this work was about acceptance. When I understood and accepted myself and my needs, I did not have to or even want to accept people or relationships that were not truly aligned with me. Dating became a whole lot easier when I arrived at this place of clarity and acceptance. I learned how to let go of “potential,” which really meant not right for me right now, gently and gladly.

There is a whole a lot of truth and freedom to be found in the cliched phrase “It’s not you–it’s ME.” But you have to own it and internalize it. You have to feel proud and sure when you say it. Not sheepish.

This journey, I now find, closely parallels my more recent journey to change and end my relationship with alcohol. For years, I resented and resisted the idea that I would have to do the work–any work. I was quietly, stubbornly pissed off that I should have to do something (like stop drinking) that was not necessarily being required of other members of society.

But I was getting in my own way, again.

Now, I am joyfully ditching any notion that I am perhaps a bit broken. That is simply irrelevant, even if it is true. I am ditching the resentment I sometimes feel about doing what must be done. Instead, I am accepting that alcohol is fundamentally unable to provide me with the kind of energy, creativity, connection, and clarity I seek. Drinking alcohol is not aligned with me, and I am finding I can release this habit gladly and freely. It’s not a sacrifice or something I begrudge. I am grateful for the clarity I have gradually been cultivating, about so many things, in recent years.

Alcohol is what it is. I am what I am.

I can’t change alcohol’s true nature, I can only choose whether I let alcohol change me for the worse by taking me off my own path and away from what’s true for me. That choice is no longer acceptable to me, any more than a bad date or an unhealthy relationship would be.

This is true freedom, acceptance, and self-esteem.


on feeling feelings (# 120)

I have been reading and listening to all kinds of things that keep tying back to the importance of feeling feelings. I listen to the Unruffled podcast, the Bubble Hour podcast and, sometimes, Spiritualish. The topic comes up again and again.  This seems to be a crucial aspect of recovery from drinking, especially for women. I wonder if it is the same for men.

Feeling feelings is an interesting topic for me–but my most intense experience with it does not arise from my experience stopping drinking and facing life alcohol free, though it does, actually, arise from my past relationship with an alcoholic. What I have to say here is a recovery story, I believe. It’s a story of how I almost lost touch with my soul and how my soul began to speak again.

Personally, I used alcohol to escape–escape from responsibilities and expectations. My patterns did not involve overtly using alcohol to numb any feelings about particularly painful things, like trauma or physical pain or difficult relationships. I have been fairly fortunate that way. Even when bad stuff happened to me, like a break-up, I was generally careful not to get drunk as a coping strategy. I was consciously worried about alcohol serving an anesthetizing purpose for me. I knew it was risky and I avoided alcohol at those times.

Instead I tended to drink the most when I needed to blow off steam after the stress of planning an event, finishing a project, or working hard. The problem was that just existing started to feel stressful and hard, so I drank. I deserved it. Or I was having fun and celebrating, like I did after the excitement of meeting my now-husband and getting remarried, when I found reasons, at times, to drink exuberantly. What’s the problem  . . . I’m happy! 

Back to feeling the feelings. In a previous post, ancient history, part 2 (# 46), I wrote about the early phases of my relationship with a man named Mal. At the end I hinted that there would be more to say about him. There might be, but I am going to fast forward over some of that, right to the bitter, rock-bottom end.

I will offer a little context first though. In 2011, Mal and I reconnected for the first time in 15 years at a reunion of school friends. After months of passionate e-mail writing, just like old times, we embarked on a marriage-ending (mine, not his) affair. It lasted three years, during which we were living in different cities several hours apart. At the time we reconnected, Mal was a recovering alcoholic who had not had a drink in 9 years. He was  even working as an AODA counselor.

At some point during our time together, he started drinking again. Heavily. Life-threateningly. To the point of hospitalization on several occasions. This whole relationship sounds terrible and doomed, and indeed it was doomed, but interestingly I was mostly sober throughout the whole thing (technically, if not emotionally). I never drank with him. I occasionally had a drink or two out with friends in my city, but I was pretty steeped in concern about alcohol during my relationship with Mal, both at the beginning when he was sober and later when he was drinking again. So I didn’t drink much during this period of my life.

By the end of 2013, I was divorced and moving ahead with my single life, and Mal’s life was full-on imploding.

There are many details to unpack, but suffice to say that the last year of our relationship was A Total Unrelenting Shitshow. By then, I was well past the rosy notion that we would somehow find a way to be together and live happily ever after. Knowing the frightening depth and truth of his alcoholism (think Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born, and, yes, Mal, too, is a musician), I could no longer imagine a world where I might be able to introduce Mal to my children or my coworkers, never mind live with him. That said, I was still totally hooked on him. I could not imagine life with or without him.

At one particular low point, not long before he ended up in a month of residential rehab, I was feeling so anxious and stressed I could barely breathe or focus. Mal was mostly unreachable on his end, but he would be calling me (often at work) drunk or in crisis. I was constantly reacting to fresh horrors, and I knew it was unsustainable. To continue this way would jeopardize my job and my sanity. I was seeing a therapist who was helping me tease out what was acceptable for me and what was unacceptable for me. In my bones, I knew I was chest-deep in unacceptable territory.

One day, I came home from work with about a half hour before I was planning to go to tango class. (Tango was my one bright spot in this bleak time.) I was a wreck. Practically bouncing off the walls with anxiety. I think I was worried that Mal would ask me to drive 150 miles to pick him up somewhere. Whatever it was it was bad, and it was insane.

I am not quite sure what inner wisdom was guiding me in those terrible moments, but I decided I had to stretch out on my bed and force myself to imagine life without him. Imagine life never talking to him again, if necessary. Could be if I chose this, or if he died, or if whatever reason.

So that’s what I did. I lay down and pictured life without Mal for about 15 minutes. I felt the pain of this picture through every inch of my body, into my toes, into my clenched fists, into my knotted stomach. I grieved the loss of him. I despaired. I accepted that my great love was ending in ruin. Tears rolled out of my eyes, and I made myself breathe. I consciously sent breath throughout my body, to all the clenched and knotted places. I started to feel that I would be OK, that I could live through this, that I would live through this. I would love again.

I felt a weird peace and knowledge come over me. I had been unhappy, miserable, and completely and utterly foolish, but I had not done anything I was irrevocably ashamed of (yet)–not even getting divorced. I had lived, thus far, with integrity to myself (even if everything seemed fucked to any rational outside observer). I was grateful for knowing Mal and grateful for the parts of myself that shone more brightly because of knowing him. I knew I had learned something important about the limits of love and the limits of my self.

I did not know then exactly when or how Mal and I would say goodbye, but I knew our story was, for all intents and purposes, over. My soul was finally willing for it be over, and my soul was so, so, so tired of letting my heart cling tooth and nail to the fantasy. I got up from the bed, wiped my eyes, and went to dance tango (which is, come to think of it, another beautiful way to feel feelings in the body . . . ).

I did not leap up. I did not dance a little jig. Yet my heart felt lighter, and a little pocket of space had opened to new possibilities instead of absorbing more pain.

Since this experience, I have done pretty well at remembering to feel difficult things. I know from this experience that feeling–sober, conscious feeling of feelings–is the only way through the hard stuff. Without feeling deep into the body, feeling pulsing through the breath and the blood, the pain stays stuck and the head stays in its reacting groove. The only healthy way out of a place of reaction (which is ALL about flinching and clenching) is to surrender, and accept, and even, as in my example, invite the painful feeling. Bring it out of the ever-circling head and welcome it into the body where it can course freely, without constriction. The truth is: Pain needs more oxygen, not less, and eventually pain that moves will pass.

Something truly beautiful is occurring now that I am no longer drinking. As I said, I figured out how to feel hard stuff because of this painful experience before I stopped drinking, but it is only now that I have stopped drinking that I am figuring out how to feel the good stuff consistently and at a cellular level. I don’t need to jack myself into a even bigger buzz amped by alcohol (or perhaps lust-love, as with Mal).

Instead I can sit still and feel sweetness in me and around me. Freedom from alcohol and the peace I have consciously invited into my life and body create the proper conditions for joy.

ancient history, part 2 (# 46)

ancient history, part 1 (# 7) is about the beginning of my first marriage. Part 2 visits my life as a teenage girl and young adult.

The more you start to need a thing, whether it’s a man or a bottle of wine, the more you are–unwittingly, reflexively, implicitly–convincing yourself you’re not enough without it.

–Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

I met Mal thirty years ago. We were high-schoolers from different states, brought together at a semester-long program in yet another state. We became fast friends, sharing interests in Chicago blues, philosophy, Ireland, and, broadly speaking, art and literature of excess (i.e., having sex, drugs and/or rock and roll as major themes). We were attracted to each other intellectually as much or more than physically.

At the school we were “just friends,” and each had other romantic interests. After school ended, though, we stayed in touch and I found ways to incorporate Mal into the rest of my high school life. For example, I went to an all-girls high school, and my group of six close girl friends needed a couple of extra guys to flesh out our prom contingent. Some of these girl friends already knew Mal from the semester program, and, as it turned out, back at his home high school Mal was best friends with a guy, D, who happened to be friends (from summer camp) with my then-boyfriend A and me. So, for this prom, it made a weird sort of sense to rope Mal and D (whom NONE of my girl friends knew) into trekking to our city to serve as the 5th and 6th males of the 12-person prom posse.

My boyfriend A liked Mal, but A was always wary of my connection with him, and rightly so. At the prom afterparty, I recall A barged in and yanked me away from Mal when he thought we were dancing too close. I also recall that Mal had a hard-on while we were dancing, and I liked that.

A and I remained a couple for 6 years–all through college and our first year out, yet intersections with Mal punctuated those years. Mal and I drifted in and out of contact and physically hooked up on three separate occasions. At one point in my last year of college, which was around the dawn of email, Mal and I eagerly adopted the new technology and used it to facilitate an increasing frequent, flirtatious and obsessive correspondence. We were constantly trying to impress each other with our writing and our adventures. We were enthralled by each other’s voice.

My grandmother lived in the same city where Mal was going to college, so for spring break I came up with the brilliant idea for A and I to take the train halfway across the country to visit my her. One night, A and I made plans to go out with Mal, who was by that time an accomplished musician. We showed up at his door with a bottle of Jameson and started drinking. We went out and saw Mal play at a bar, and then proceeded to yet another bar. At some point A abandoned consciousness of the emerging situation and put his head down on the table, while Mal and I kept drinking and talking. We finally cabbed back to Mal’s place, put A to bed and spent what remained of the night making out in the kitchen. We all went out for breakfast together the next morning.

When I was young, I thoroughly enjoyed the drama and tumult of my romantic life. All this turmoil gave me endless material to write about, talk about, and process. It made me feel special. Vital.

I believed that “experience” was everything and justified anything. I also revered honesty and believed that it did not matter, so much, what one did, as long as one was honest about it. The problem was that I was not scrupulously honest with myself or anyone else. I was honest enough with A about facts for him to have plenty of reason to be anxious about my love, but not honest enough with him about feelings for us to have a truly intimate relationship.

I was not totally honest with A about the fact that young Miel truly felt that drinking and talking with a guy was the best way to explore potential connection.  Furthermore, in my mind, getting drunk and fucking was the natural consequence of drinking and talking with a person with whom I felt a connection, and this natural consequence, this fated trajectory, this inevitability, was, for me, quite possibly the height of romance (in the doomed sense of the word). I was not honest about the truth that I was willing to trade fidelity for “experience.”

I venerated “experience” but with the benefit of hindsight it’s clear there was a numbing predictability about the type of “experience” I preferred to have as a young woman. Intellectual, intoxicated and, ideally, erotic. Mal was not the only guy I got drunk with and fucked in the name of connection, experience, fate, and romance.

The Vicomte de Valmont says in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, “It is beyond my control.” These words, cruel as they were in that story, resonated with me. The concept of being in the grip of forces greater and more powerful than the self. I always felt that stories of fate, or better yet soulmates, were the best ones, even when they were the saddest. Greek plays, the legends of King Arthur and Tristan and Iseult, the novels of Thomas Hardy, Paul Auster.

As a young female drinker, I loved the way alcohol, above all else, could take me beyond control, my small careful sphere, and catapult me into another world of impulse and action, where I could hurtle faster toward my destiny. I craved a potent way to escape my web of constraints so I could find and fulfill my true fate. I guess I didn’t think I could get there without help.

Sometime around 1997 I fell out of touch with Mal for many years. However, as fate or free will  (you can decide later) would have it, that particular book remained open, and I eventually picked it up again.

to be continued . . . 


the girl (# 36)

I have an almost-16-year-old daughter. She smokes pot. More than I know, most likely. I wish she didn’t do this, but I don’t know how to stop it.

I wanted to stop drinking, in part, to set a good example and be more present and attentive. Also, I stopped driven by fear that some night I am going to get a call from my daughter to pick her up somewhere. I don’t want to risk being drunk when that happens. I want to be clear and steady.

Not too long ago, my daughter asked me if I had ever been drunk. “Yes,” I said. “I’ve never seen you drunk,” she responded.

While it’s true that I reserved my heaviest drinking for times when my daughter was not in my care, it’s completely untrue that she has never seen me drunk. Many times, I have consumed wine in a low-key but steady fashion throughout an evening. Sometimes she asked me what I was drinking (let’s say it was a gin and tonic or some such) or asked to try it. No, I would tell her. It has alcohol in it. So it’s a little funny to me that she never picked up on differences between buzzed mom and regular mom.

Although she might not have noticed it, I know that my drinking affected her on some level. It had to have. It made me more rushed, more irritable, and less present during key years she needed me. In the initial years after my divorce she was around 10 to 12. I was frazzled from my job and single life in general. Some nights, I was desperate for her and her younger sister to go to bed so I could enjoy a drink and a smoke.

I am sad to say that I was rather selfish in those years. Very preoccupied with work and my romantic life. I didn’t really want to pause to connect with my oldest daughter. I resisted depth. I think I was afraid of opening up an emotional can of worms that I was ill equipped to handle. So I rushed through our time together, taking care of the business of our reconfigured family life in a basic way but also a rather detached way.

Ah, there is so much more to explore here but I will have to do it slowly and carefully. This is difficult. I have a lot of guilt about how thing are turning out with her. It’s hard to separate what I perceive as fall-out from my parental failings from what I also know to be true: She’s a teenager, for crying out loud, and some rebellion and experimentation are inevitably going to be part of the deal.

My biggest fear for my daughter stems from my long-standing observation that she has never seemed to be passionate or excited about anything. She has never seemed motivated. Not by sports, not by school and not by the many other activities she has tried and rather swiftly abandoned. She has been adrift for years, from what I can see, and I am afraid that smoking pot and doing various other immediately gratifying things will fill up all the empty spaces inside her. Once those habits are established I am afraid it will be that much harder for her to find satisfaction and success in activities that take effort, persistence and practice.

I just don’t know what to do for her at this point. I am addressing and rectifying my own issues as best I can right now, but I am afraid that is going to be too little, too late to help her. I’m worried.

on flaking (# 18)

As I reflect on the last couple of years and examine why and how I began drinking more and thinking about drinking more, I observe a gradual erosion in my habits and values.

For most of my life I have prided myself on showing up, on time and prepared, no matter what. For example, when I was in my early twenties I went to graduate school in Ireland. The program was attended by a roughly even mix of Irish, British and American students. Plus one Canadian who served as a very earnest and cheerful foil for our sarcastic black-humored bunch. The program was viewed as kind of a blow-off by some, especially the other Americans. A perfect reason to live in Dublin for a year and drink a lot in the name of soaking up literary culture. These people skipped a lot of classes, but could be counted on to appear at the pub every night.

While I too appeared at the pub every night, I never missed a single class and I always did all the reading. I was very proud of myself. One time I slid into in my seat after drinking Jameson for most of the night with an Irish guy of long and complicated acquaintance (a story for another time . . . ). My classmate E whispered, not without admiration, “Jaysus, what have ye done? Ye reek of the distillery.”

Gold star for me. The girl who shows up no matter how much she reeks.

Yes, if I committed to show up somewhere, I would. Without fail. It really annoyed me when other people would bail on plans at the last minute. One time about five years ago, my best friend and I had tickets to go see a play. It was going to be a bit of a process—the place was an hour’s drive away. Several hours before we were going to leave, my friend called and said she thought she was coming down with something and it would be best if she stayed home. I offered to do the driving, but that did not sway her. I was FURIOUS. I am pretty conflict averse, but I was so pissed off and disappointed that I am ashamed to admit that I pretty much hung up on her. No, “Hope you feel better. See you soon.” Nope. I was pissy and childish. Only after I scrambled and landed a replacement theatergoer could I take a deep breath, consider her feelings, and call her back to apologize.

At some point, I talked over my hideous response to this situation with my therapist. I was expressing that it was it was very important to me to show up and that if the shoe had been on the other foot, I would not have bailed on my friend. My therapist got me to continue flipping this around: What if I was truly sick? Would it be right to go? Would my friend appreciate hanging out with me, when I was possibly unpleasant company and possibly contagious?

So, yeah, I saw that my friend made the right choice for her, which was the most important thing in this situation; and maybe, maybe, it actually was the right choice for me, too, even if it felt like a disappointment and inconvenience.

My therapist prodded me to consider that showing up for the sake of showing up is not always a virtue. I was not entirely convinced, but I began to see that sometimes it might be ok to give myself permission not show up for things, just as my friend had given herself permission to stay home and rest instead of going to a play.

But a balance must be struck. Giving oneself permission is slippery, especially when alcohol is involved.

In recent years, I look back and see a sharp trend of me “giving myself permission not to show up” especially for social events, tango events, or workouts, when really I was just preferring to use the time to drink at home or torecover from drinking too much. In the past, if I RSVP’ed, say, to a Facebook event, I would be there. Bells on. More recently, my RSVP meant “I might be there but most likely not.” I could easily justify such behavior in the context of Facebook. People regularly RSVP to things they are merely interested in—there is no real obligation to show up and no intention to attend.  The etiquette of RSVP’ing has relaxed considerably in my lifetime, in many settings. We generally don’t expect a whole from each other anymore.

But deep down, I felt terrible when I would flake on things, no matter how inconsequential the flaking was. Acting like a flake ran counter to my values and my internal sense of myself as a person of my word. In fact, by drinking and flaking, I was becoming as pissed off with myself as I had been with my sick friend a few years ago.

Now that I am not drinking, I am trying to strike the right balance between giving myself permission to do what feels right in the moment (as long as that does not include drinking) and keeping my commitments. I am still finding way back to my favorite activities. I am faithfully showing up for exercise, in multiple forms, every day. It’s harder with social events and tango. Some days, I just don’t feel up to socializing, and then I give myself permission to sit an event out. I am getting better at only agreeing to do things when I am sure I can follow through.

I don’t want to be a flake anymore. It’s an ill-fitting suit for me. But showing up reeking is not the solution either. Going forward, I will be there and be square.

family portrait, with bottles (# 9)

During my entire childhood, my parents rarely drank, to my knowledge at least. I remember once tagging along at a holiday party. My mom drove home, which was remarkable to 7-year-old me because she never drove when my dad was in the car. And, yes, my  dad was a passenger on this occasion, but he was otherwise occupied by disgorging the liquid contents of his gut out the window, while the cold night air rushed the stench of it into the backseat where my brother and I pretended to sleep.

The next morning, my dad matter-of-factly hosed off the bespattered car in the driveway before squiring my brother and me to some kids’ class at museum and then to a coffeehouse for chocolate cake. It was a Saturday almost like any other.

I eventually came to understand that my dad’s father had “the Irish curse.” He was gregarious,  clever, jolly, sentimental, but. . . there was a big, big but.

My grandpa was an excellent letter writer and raconteur with a bottomless store of tall tales about his obsessions: bears, trains, Paul Bunyan, Irish history, baseball, and old Chicago. He was at his best with his grandchildren. I loved him.

When I was around 30 I learned that when he was nearing but not yet at retirement, with one child, my aunt, still at home, he got canned from his job as a vice-president for a foundation for showing up drunk, often. He then tried to launch a new career as a realtor, but he lacked the focus to make a go of it.

I learned from my aunt that my grandpa used to lock himself in his bedroom for days on end with nothing but a black mood and a bender’s worth of whiskey, leaving my aunt, who then in high school, and my grandma tiptoeing around saying prayers and pretending everything was as it should be.

Thus it was that my dad (although clearly capable of a binge) made a conscious effort in adulthood to gain the upper hand over his family history, largely avoiding but never entirely renouncing alcohol. Meanwhile, my grandpa sealed his unraveling by falling and hitting his head during a boozy fishing trip, while in his late 60s. He was never the same: It was as if he’d had a stroke. My grandma couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of him. Though a devout Catholic, she legally separated from him, probably for financial reasons, so he could get set up at a nursing home.

My grandpa stayed there, permanently brain-damaged, until he died a few years later. My dad took me to visit him once, I must have been about 12/13; it may have been in 1985. Disconcertingly, he was ranting about the White Sox losing the pennant to the “damned Yankees”. . . which occurred in 1964. I never saw him again.

My grandma kept up her pattern of dutiful visits to the end, but mostly she got on with her life, playing bridge with friends, working part-time at a dress shop, and going to church. She got an apartment and reupholstered her favorite chair in pristine white fabric, simply because she could finally control her environment enough to keep a pretty white chair white. She actually told me that.

Skip ahead two decades, back to my parents.

My mom and I have never had a close relationship. Early on, she tried too hard and was too nosy with me. Her efforts to bond with me, her eldest daughter, were awkward and didn’t go over well. I do credit my mom with giving me a childhood as happy and secure as a shy, perfectionistic bookworm could have. Family dinners every night, freedom to roam around a safe neighborhood all afternoon with a pack of kids, lots of books to read and creative projects to do, encouragement to find and follow my interests, healthy structure/rules, the whole bit. Given my mom’s depressive tendencies, I really don’t know how she summoned the energy for all those years of hardcore stay-at-home parenting, when her natural state is curling up on the couch with a book. I suspect that those years gave her real purpose, and once they were over, she floundered.

She did not drink when I was growing up.

Problems emerged started in 2002 or 2003. By then, my dad had had a quadruple heart bypass. At some point his doctor had suggested that my dad drink an occasional beer to help keep his arteries smooth. Around the same time, my mom, who was very overweight and somewhat depressed her whole adult life, had a gastric bypass surgery. She shed pounds and started to feel more active, cheerful, and social. When my parents were meeting friends for dinner, my dad would nurse a single, modest, medicinal beer, while my mom ate a golf ball’s worth of food and developed a taste for liquid refreshment like Manhattans and martinis.

I lived far away by then, so I had only an intermittent window on what was going on, but I could see my mom was drinking with gusto. My now-ex-husband thought the new habit agreed with her. Typically tense and snappish, my mom became expansive, humorously opinionated, and playful under the influence. Still, there were warning signs. It must have been 2005 or so when my parents came to visit us. That Friday night, we headed to a popular restaurant. The wait was horrendous, and we had a toddler in tow. My mom had several drinks while we waited. Finally, after about an hour, we decided to leave. On the way out the door, my mom took pains to inform the hostess in slurred, but no uncertain terms that “the shervice was very shoddy.” Jeez-us! With that, I was out the restaurant door and halfway across the parking lot propelled by the rocket fuel of pure embarrassment.

My mom’s doom was assured and rapidly attained when she discovered two-buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s, and began marinating in goblets of cheap red wine every night at home, instead of occasionally over-indulging in strong cocktails. Up and down the stairs she’d trudge, from kitchen to upstairs TV room, refilling her glass to the brim each time, sloshing it on the carpet (since replaced, thank god). Eventually, she’d conk out snoring in her chair, shake herself awake, and drag herself up to the third floor to bed. The situation was becoming alarming.

I never said anything to my dad about it—my family members were never ones for frank communication about our failings when we could let unpleasant things fester in silence. Still, I often wondered what my dad thought about this new chapter in his life. My dad spent his entire adult life trying to be the responsible opposite of his alcoholic father, only to watch his wife, who had never been a drinker, become a lousy, stinking wino inside five years.

Once, I caught a part of an “Oprah” episode about people who had bariatric surgery and wound up replacing their food addiction with another addiction—to booze, drugs or sex—because the underlying emotional hole had never been treated or filled. I speculate that this is part of what happened to my mom.

Visiting my parents was a real treat for few years. All my life, already, I had passionately resented my mom for being overweight and not taking more control over her life and health. And now this! I became a silent ball of fury. I could scarcely look at her. I also realized that I really couldn’t leave young daughter in my mom’s care at night, so that meant my now-ex and I were trapped around the house, instead of availing ourselves of grandparental babysitting. For the most part my dad acted oblivious to the situation, but late one night I did overhear one brief, bitter, and pointless (because my mom was so loaded) fight between them.

The worst, for me personally, was when younger daughter was born. My mom came out to stay for three weeks to “help.” She did help some, with cooking,  shopping, etc., but not like she had helped when my older daughter was born, six years earlier, before her drinking started. This time, she was entirely preoccupied with not running out of wine, white-knuckling through each day until the hour when she could reasonably uncork the first bottle. With a new baby in the house, my ex and I weren’t drinking a drop, so it was painfully obvious how much drinking she was doing.

Late one evening, with a wholly unnecessarily nightcap in her wobbly hand, she splattered wine all over the wall next to our stairs on her way up to bed. My 6-year-old pointed out the mess to us in the morning. You see, we had just repainted that wall before the baby arrived. My ex hastily touched up the paint before my mom resurfaced that morning. No one said a word. I was hugely relieved when my mom left.

About eight months after that, my dad called to tell me that my mom was in rehab. It was the first and only time my dad and I had an honest conversation about what had been going on, and how we felt about it.

My mom has been sober for about ten years now. My ex used to joke that it’s too bad my mom had go and piss all over what could have been a beautiful relationship (in moderation) for her twilight years.

Yes, my mom is back to being her tense and snappish self, but there is more lightness of spirit there. I feel respect for her, and I no longer feel viscerally angry in her presence.

My mom did/does AA. I can see that she has been learning to be less reactive.

She’s still very prickly and private, though. Always has been. I suspect she and I will never discuss what happened with her, never mind why it happened and what it all means. I know the steps require my mom to make amends in some way. Maybe she will with me someday; I hope she does, if it would be helpful and necessary for her.




ancient history, part 1 (# 7)

I got married (for the first time) when I was 27. The first husband was not right for me in multiple crucial ways. The marriage lasted about 12 years, nonetheless.

Deep in my gut, I knew one deal-breaking thing from practically day one, though this detail did not stop me from moving forward: I was not sexually attracted to him. I liked his face very much, but not his body.

The morning after we first had sex, I remember looking at down at him objectively from a third-floor balcony as he was walking shirtless across the grass in the yard below. I remember feeling detached and somewhere between neutral about and turned off by his body.

The other deal-breaking detail I did not identify until we were practically divorced: He is a very black-and-white thinker. Once he has formed and pronounced his opinion on something, he is utterly done discussing the topic. I am a very flexible thinker. A devil’s advocate. A cartographer of gray areas. Every thought or idea remains subject to revision, or at least refinement.

I thought this relationship stood a chance despite the attraction gap because the man was growth and goal oriented. He had overcome some challenges in life and that impressed me. He had also traveled and lived in another culture, which had broadened his experience and world view. I sensed he would be a good father, which he has indeed turned out to be. He was 9 years older; the same age difference between my own parents. He was diligent in pursuing what he wanted. Which happened to be me, in this particular case.

I expressed to him one morning very early on that I was not really in a place for a relationship just then. Things were chaotic and I just had to figure my stuff out. Perhaps I needed the day to myself. He told me, “I think I should just stay and hang out. I like being around you, and it seems like you like being around me. No big deal, let’s just keep hanging out today and see what happens.” Now this proposition strikes me as a little creepy and invasive, but then it struck me as perfectly reasonable. I think I was even  flattered by his interest. It did not even occur to me to say, “Um, no. Actually, I would really like you to go home now.” So we just kept hanging out.


Finally learned that I don’t have to keep hanging out with anyone if I don’t really want to. Fifteen-plus years later. After lots of dating.

Not long before my wedding, one of my oldest and best friends had a frank conversation with me. “Are you sure about him? she asked. “I don’t think he’s intellectual enough for you. You two just don’t seem to have enough in common. I’m having a hard time seeing you two together.” I recited all of his good points. I said that I was confident he would work on the relationship to any extent needed. I said he was fun to be with. I said I was sick of intellectuals and it was good  for me to be with someone who was practical and grounded. My friend was not really convinced by my justifications, but she did not press the issue then or ever again.

The reality of the situation was that I had gotten together with him on the heels of a major heartbreak. My whole marriage arose from a rebound situation. I was too young and too naive to believe I could–and should–take more time to figure who I was and what I truly needed from life and from a life partner. Being wanted was what I wanted, at that point.

When I met my first husband, I had moved to my city 18 months before. I relocated there to continue a relationship with someone I had met in a master’s program overseas who was from that state originally and was about to start a doctoral program there. I loved that person intensely. He was intellectual, we shared many interests, we had a great erotic life. But, 13 months after I arrived, he broke up with me suddenly. There had been no warning of his discontentment whatsoever. We were already living in the same building and we were actively looking for a new apartment to live in together.

I was crushed. I planned to move back home to my parents, but at the last minute I decided not to leave that city. I had a good job and I thought I would become even more depressed if I gave it up to live with them.

The heartbreaker and I resumed an intermittent sexual relationship after a few months, once it became clear that I was not leaving town.  The pressure about living together was gone. I don’t know. Perhaps not the smartest move on my part, but as much as I cared for him, I did feel 100-percent clear about the romantic relationship being over since I knew could never truly trust someone who was capable of hiding his feelings so completely and blind-siding me like that.

I had a few sessions with a therapist at the time. She commented, “Is it possible that this break up is a good thing? After all, a person like this could just as easily have packed a suitcase and left you without a word 10 years from now when the two of you were married and parents of two little children.” She was totally correct.

The long and short: I was still occasionally having sex with the heartbreaker while also dating a couple of new people at the time I met my first husband.

In a bar.