Gaslit

When I was seventeen, I made out with a boy named Pat. He was a massive gamer geek who lived in a crusty apartment with a bunch of other massive gamer geeks who, as a group, could not bothered to look up from casting spells or killing trolls in their online fantasy world to even grunt a hello at girls like me who occasionally found ourselves at the apartment, against our better judgment, sitting around on crusty couches bored listless in the blue glow of computer screens and Kevin Smith movies. Pat even looked a little like a troll, short and lumpy, though I reassured myself he looked like a young, soft Gold-era Ryan Adams.

Like I imagined Ryan Adams to be, Pat was also kind of a bristly jerk and I steered clear of him until I found out from a friend that he had complimented my ass. At least I think he complimented it. “Pristine,” is what he called it. Flattered, I relayed the information to my best friend, who is smarter than me, and immediately took the wind out of my chaps.

“So, he thinks your ass is…clean? That’s weird.”

“No, he thinks it’s perfect. Like, the platonic ideal of an ass.”

We consulted the dictionary definition. “Pristine: in its original condition; unspoiled.” We checked out the synonyms: “virgin; pure; unused.”

“He’s saying that nobody else has touched it. That’s what he likes.”

“No way. I was wearing my good jeans.”

“Hm. You might be right. You do have a good ass.”

With that settled, I decided to make out with Pat. My self-esteem was on the ground after being recently dumped by my first boyfriend and pining away in unrequited high school love for another boy for over a year, and the news that somebody was paying attention to a part of my body that I had only ever thought of as a liability made previously-invisible Pat blink on like a Lite Brite. Oh look! A distraction! Not a cure for my heartbreak but a mild salve. Something to do.

So, me and my long legs and good jeans and pristine ass made out with lumpy little Pat and, honestly, it was pretty hot, at least as far as this wildly hormonal and underexperienced teenager was concerned. It was fun. I didn’t like Pat, but I definitely wanted to hook up with him again. I told a friend, the one who had passed on the good word about my ass, hoping she might pass my interest back to him.

When she did and got back to me a few days later, Pat’s response floored me: he said it never happened. He denied the whole thing, first to our friends, and later to my face: that we were alone together, that we kissed, that we rolled around in bed together for over an hour.

I was prepared for rejection or disinterest–that was the long and short of the story of my romantic life up to that point. I was prepared to be a little sheepish about the fact that I was interested in this weird dude. I wasn’t expecting to be humiliated. I definitely hadn’t planned on spending the days and weeks to come defending–and ultimately questioning–my own sanity. Did I misinterpret the originating comment about my body? Did I commit some grievous teenage error by talking about our hook-up? Did he not have as much fun as I did, as I thought he was having? Was he not lucky to have me in his bed, to put his hands all over me? Did I make up the entire goddamn thing?

I walked away from that encounter embarrassed, of course, but also a tiny bit unhinged. It makes sense, though.

Eventually the girl who doesn’t believe in herself is going to stop believing herself.

“We Don’t Do The Same Drugs No More”

I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?

It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”

It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.

Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.

A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.

I went to a therapist instead.

I went through a round of CBT.

I got back to running.

I got sober.

In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.

Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.

So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:

“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and

“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,

“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”

The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.

Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.

The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.

I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”

I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”

“Congratulations!” she said.

When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing  open my old wounds.

Breathing In The Spring

Today is one of those jaw-unhingingly gorgeous days. Seventy-five and sunny with a breeze blowing off the river, I want to suck it and let the juice run down my neck. Women in thigh-grazing dresses. Men in shorts. Scrappy dogs tugging at leashes. Tourists clogging up bridges. High-rise residents sprawled in muddy grass. Old men in khaki vests and fishing boats.

Usually, for me, season changes carry with them a whiff of oblivion. Spring was for getting stoned in the bushes, baking in the sun. Later, it was for summer wheats, Bell’s with a slice of orange. My family moved to Phoenix when I was six years old and my mom used to call me outside to smell the orange blossoms. I inhaled, barefoot on the concrete, taking in the trees and the sight of flowers brushing a cinder block wall, and went back inside with itchy, bloodshot eyes. I was allergic. 

I pass a dozen happy hours on the way to the train after work. Today, the windows are thrown open and I catch the sound of revelry and smell of hops. Some sober women are undone by the scent of red wine; for me, it is beer and belonging. My best drinking dream involves sipping an IPA on a porch full of friends drenched in the setting sun. It’s pure gold, and pure fantasy. I never sipped anything, and the day always turned dark. Also, I drank alone. 

Today, I walk by eleven bars before I think to breathe in, hard, like I’m after a second-hand high. The beer smells so good. Better then orange blossoms. I turn my head, chance a glance at a tabletop of half empty glasses, and I keep walking. I’m not itchy anymore, but I know I’m allergic.

The day is so beautiful that during the lunch hour the riverwalk outside my building is lined with office workers, kicking off their shoes, thumbing the pages of a book, picking at a salad. My feet know better than my head where serenity lives, though, and they march me into the loop, under the elevated train tracks, and into the non-descript building that houses the AA central office. You can’t even see the water, let alone feel the breeze on your skin. I walk inside and make a beeline for the elevator that will take me to the third floor and the windowless meeting room. I grin and wave at the doorman. 

“You know where you’re going, miss?”

“Yes. I really do.”

Take Me Home

You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled. 

As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway. 

A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?

Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.

My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.  

Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.

One One One

I don’t check my clean time counter app often (ever) and haven’t paid attention to my day count since I celebrated one year in January, but today I spontaneously checked the app and lo and behold: I am one year one month and one week sober. I guess it would be even cooler if I checked tomorrow, at one year one month one week and one day, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. It’s only been a few 24 hours. 

I don’t put much (any) stock in so-called angel numbers, but the internet tells me 111 is a number of manifesting. The angels are telling me to watch my persistent thoughts as they will become my reality. 

As an alcoholic with maybe a touch of self-diagnosed OCD all my thoughts are persistent thoughts. Lately, I’ve been oscillating between obsessive focus on what I want but can’t imagine having–publishing a book–and the consolation prize–relapse. 

I’ll take the out of the blue thought to check the clean time counter and the fact that I noticed the one one one at all as a sign to tilt my thoughts toward the former.

I gave up Facebook for Lent and in the extra time I had in only six days I wrote the story that’s been simmering inside me for over a year: the story of leaving the Mormon church. Where will it go? Here? On another website as a standalone essay? In a book? A compilation or a memoir? 

Tell me what to do, Internet.

Saved

People don’t know what to make of mixed-faith marriages in which one of the partners is Mormon. Mormons can’t fathom how a true believer could put her salvation in jeopardy by marrying outside the faith. Non-Mormons can’t fathom why any normal person would get mixed up in that weird, fundamentalist business.

Knowing (assuming) this was how people looked at my relationship, I offered compulsive, preemptive explanations for how my non-Mormon husband and my Mormon-self came to be a couple, varying the amount of detail depending on the circumstances.

The acquaintance/dinner party version: “You see, I wasn’t practicing when we met.”

The opening up to a friend version: “I wasn’t practicing when we met, but he made me want to be a better person, so after a few years of dating, I went back to the church.”

The girls’ night TMI version: “I wasn’t practicing when we started dating, so of course we slept together, but then I went back to church and told him we had to stop, and he stuck around, and if that isn’t love, you tell me what is.”

The late-night confessional version: “I was a train wreck when we met, addicted and suicidal and spiritually dead, but he made me want to stop getting high, and gave me something to live for, and when the fog cleared I realized I still believed in a Mormon God.”

The story I told myself to justify not getting married in a Mormon temple and breaking my parents’ hearts: “He saved me.”

Whatever the story or the audience, there was a layer of nuance that never made it into any retelling: there wasn’t exactly a clean break between my old messy life and my happy new one.

My new boyfriend was not Mormon, but he definitely did not do drugs and he barely drank. When we were together, drinking seemed like the last thing on his mind. I found this puzzling, since it was always the first thing on mine. I’d spent nearly every day of the last three years drinking or getting high or thinking about drinking or getting high and, at twenty, I was not at all ready to give those things up. At the same time, I sensed that my obsession with (read: addiction to) getting loaded was not only abnormal but incompatible with having a healthy, committed relationship with a clear-eyed, clear-headed person. In fact, I was so sold on the narrative of happily ever after that when the obsession did not diminish after I fell in love, I thought it was a harbinger of doom for the relationship. Or at least a harbinger of me being super fucked up. So I never said a word about the pull I still felt to disappear into a bottle, or how much it hurt when I couldn’t, and I stuffed down uncomfortable questions every time they bubbled up.

Questions like:

  • Why did I feel the need to down a bottle of sake I had stashed under the front seat of my car during the seven minute drive from my house to my boyfriend’s apartment?
  • Why did I keep booze in my car?
  • Why did sitting on the couch watching British sitcoms and drinking tea on a Friday night make me want to crawl out of my skin?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when my boyfriend did suggest a drink, did the single cocktail he inevitably mixed leave me feeling restless and irritable?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when I did still go out with my girlfriends, did I always end up wasted, puking, belligerent, mean?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when I found myself out with other men, did I end up in compromising verging on dangerous situations?
  • Why did I always lie about how much I drank and who I drank with?

Though it would take me years to get a handle on my relationship with alcohol, I only ever got high a few times after we got together. One of the last times, I was taking Percocet that I stole from my roommate, had been taking it for a few days, maybe a week, and was lying in bed next to my boyfriend waiting for the effect to set in when it hit me that I did not want to spend the rest of the night floating, disconnected from the person that I loved. I jumped up and ran to the bathroom, jammed my fingers down my throat, and tried to throw up the pills before they kicked in. It didn’t work, but that night marked the first time that the desire to be present had ever outweighed the desire to be high. When I went through the same thing the next night, I managed to flush the pills. A few years later, we left Arizona and I left the drug years behind for good.

The full story of my transition from party girl to good girlfriend does not go down as easy as the fairy tale. For one thing, the story didn’t end when I landed a partner. My problems persisted. Eventually, I would learn that all of the uncomfortable questions I dodged in the early years of our relationship had one answer: Because I was an alcoholic. And love does not cure alcoholism. In my case, it slowed the progression, but it did not change the effect alcohol had on me and did not change the way I moved through the world.

For another thing, nobody saved me. I saved myself, at least at first. Most people who aren’t ready to give up drinking choose partners that don’t interfere with their lifestyle, if they are able to be in relationships at all. I knew back then that I wanted more, so I detoxed alone, white knuckled my way through cravings, and clawed my way back from relapses, so that I could be with the person I loved.

More Grimms’ than Disney, unsettling lessons lurk at the core of the real story.

Lessons like:

  • I did ugly things; there was nothing fun or glamorous or even interesting about my substance abuse; drugs and alcohol almost destroyed my relationship with my now-husband, the father of my child. These memories become more useful as the shame born from them fades and I am tempted to romanticize the past or convince myself that this whole sobriety thing is an overreaction.
  • I hit the wall with drugs long before I did with alcohol; I learned first-hand they were a dead-end; there is nothing there for me. These memories become more useful as my brain roots around for escape hatches and loopholes to this whole sobriety thing.
  • I didn’t get sober for my husband because I couldn’t get sober for my husband; I tried; it didn’t work. This knowledge is useful when we get in an argument and I start to weigh the pros and cons of drinking at him in revenge.
  • My husband is not my savior. This knowledge is useful because it lets him off the hook. Our relationship stands on its own merits.

I thought my husband would save me. When I fell in love and still wanted to die, I realized that I had to save myself. When I eventually quit all the drugs and booze and still wanted to die, I realized I needed something even bigger than myself. But that’s another story.

To The Woman Who Is Trying To Stay Sober While Trying To Get Pregnant (And Failing)

​I am so, so sorry. 

I know what it’s like to be betrayed by your body, to rage against it. In Feb 2014, I relapsed after 9 months of not drinking because I did not know how to cope with the fact that I couldn’t just will my body to make another baby. I wanted to disconnect from myself and from my desire to grow my family so badly that drugs seemed like the only option. I spent the rest of that year trying to get pregnant and cycling between trying very hard to be good for two weeks at a time and then promising myself that I could get drunk when my period came. I usually ended up getting drunk before that even because I knew that as soon as a pregnancy test confirmed it, I’d have to quit. When my period came late, as it did often but only after we started trying, only after 15+ years of running like clockwork because biology is a funny bitch, I drank even more, in preemptive defense, to kill my disappointment by killing my hope.

I know what it’s like to blame yourself. Almost two years later, I still can’t get pregnant, and it is an ongoing battle to fight off the looming despair and the lure of the idea that infertility is my punishment for not treating my body better, for drinking and drugging away my prime fertile years, for succumbing to anxiety, for losing sleep to work and worry. 

I know what it’s like to hate your husband for not giving you what you want, which is permission to break a promise you made to yourself, to want to leave a good man so that you can get shitfaced. 

The good news is that I also know what it’s like to be solid enough in my sobriety that even the worst news can’t derail it. I know what it’s like to take care of myself, with food and sleep and hot fucking showers (and I am somebody who still recoils at the phrase “self-care” and the cheesy image of a woman in a bath inhaling essential oils). I know what it’s like to say no, not today to the invitation to wallow in grief and what-ifs. I know what it’s like to keep moving forward, with dark humor and grim determination and a tiny bit of hope and pint of nothing but a ginger beer. 

I’m proud of you for not drinking, and for looking for help instead. You will make it through this and be all the stronger, more complicated, and more interesting for it. You’ve got layers, baby. Let’s keep them dry.

All my love,