Day 1,439: Desire Isn’t Lack

Have you seen the streaming series I Love Dick? It’s a dark comedy (based on a 1997 cult novel) about husband-and-wife artists at a residency in Marfa, Texas. The wife, Chris, falls fast and hard for Dick, the macho artist who runs the institute. Dick is totally uninterested in Chris, which doesn’t stop her from writing him scores of increasingly unhinged letters.

“Dear Dick: Every letter is a love letter,” the first one starts, because Chris’s goal is to seduce. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) Later letters are defiant: “Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” (Spoiler: it’s not.) Then they move into stranger, richer territory: a celebration of Chris’s by-now rampaging, catastrophic desire. “Dear Dick: Desire isn’t lack. It’s excess energy. A claustrophobia inside your skin.”

“Desire isn’t lack.” Were you raised to think that desire can be additive? I wasn’t. I don’t blame my parents. I blame the entire fucking world for raising me with advice like be happy with what you have and some people would be thrilled to live your life and a hundred years ago women couldn’t do x, y, or z at all, so be glad you at least get a chance.  

Don’t get me wrong:  gratitude is good. And people mean well, mostly (I guess). But it all comes down to: your wants are wrong. Both genders get this message, but it’s hardly news that female desire is especially apt to be viewed as unsettling, even monstrous, if it’s not contained. (When’s the last time you heard anyone say “Well, girls will be girls” over a failure of impulse control resulting in harm to someone else?)

Intellectually, I’ve known for decades that there was nothing wrong with my desires, my female desires. I went to college in the era of so-called “sex-positive feminism.” Like any bold young woman of the time, I flounced from bed to bed (to floor, to beach, plus one tree this one time), up for anything, without demanding those letters and sodas soon to be immortalized by Liz Phair. (Well, plus I was already kind of a junior drunk–who wanted sodas?)

In fact, I didn’t demand much of anything, because my only real desire, or at least the one that drowned out most others, was to be wantedTo fill that gaping need from my childhood with men’s approval. To be worthy of the male gaze, which I was learning to challenge in my literature and film classes even as I pursued it outside the classroom, or sometimes from a guy right across the seminar table.

I got really good at being wanted. It’s not that hard. It’s more or less performance art, albeit not the kind that wins you a residency in Marfa. Even in my egalitarian marriage I couldn’t help but try to make myself into the perfect blank slate for however my husband might want to see me in the moment. How could I stop, when I didn’t even know I was doing it?  And the harder I worked at being wantable and lovable, the more my own wants faded away, because I hadn’t saved any energy for them. Certainly in my last decade of Big Drinking, which roughly coincided with my 30s, I was far too preoccupied with making my life seem Totally Fine and Normal to want much of anything. By the end, I would have told you that what I wanted didn’t matter anyway.

Then I stopped drinking. Some months afterward I started to like myself (so weird), and some months after that I started to notice that I had the ability to want stuff, all kinds of stuff: to write, to run alone in the woods, to make eye contact with people. And some months after that I realized with a small shock that it’s not just male eyes that have a gaze–that I have one, too, and it’s not necessarily always trained on the exact person I am married to. Which is where I got on the road to realizing that desire can be blissful and mystifying and awkward and a major pain in the ass, but one thing it isn’t is a lack. It’s more. It makes life bigger, or maybe just more crowded. Denser in the margins.

Oh, and desire–both projected and received– is fun. Well, at least it is as a parlor game, or a flexing of muscle. I guess I should have known that at some point I would meet my match. That I’d stumble onto desire with, you know, meaning and that the combination would knock me on my smug, female-gaze-y ass.

(I should acknowledge at this point in the story that there is a fine line between discretion and irritating coyness, and that you might not think I’m landing on the right side of it.)

I landed not so long ago in a case of highly inconvenient, non-parlor-game desire, of a severity known as “lovishness.” Maybe “landed” is too passive a word, given that the road in took many months, scores of conversation hours, was the product of hundreds of small decisions made by both parties. And yet in retrospect we recalled a moment of mutual, literal dizziness, as if we had been dropped from a great height into a new territory and were still a little airsick. So: yes. Landed it is. I landed. He landed. And we stared at each other in a woozy mix of swoon and friendship and fear.

I had not planned to experience a desire bigger than my ability to philosophize about it. Lovishness seriously freaked me out.  “I know this is supposed to mean I need to work on my marriage,” I told a wise girlfriend. “But I like my marriage! We’re happy. I just kind of want this other thing too. Maybe I just need to work on myself. Maybe my lunacy is so deep that I can’t even see the problems this is a symptom of.”

My friend waited patiently for my shame-spiral monologue to end. Then she said: “When married women have feelings for other men, we always get told it’s because we’re not working hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work on anything. Maybe you’re just having a human experience.”

“I guess I thought I’d had all my human experiences by now,” I joked. Well, I tried to make it sound like a joke. even though on some level I wasn’t. But I’m a different kind of human than I was 1,439 days ago. I’m, like, here. I see and feel stuff.

“You’re just so awake,” said the man whose emotional landscape had become layered with mine. This was months ago, before we’d talked about the thing we already should have been talking about. At the time I thought to myself: well, yeah, duh, because I’m sitting within arm’s reach of you. But I knew that wasn’t the whole reason–that I wasn’t some blank-eyed doll who only came to life under the gaze of the right man. I knew he’d seen it in me because it was already there to be seen, because I am. I’m awake. And being awake is even harder and scarier and more tiring than I would have expected. It demands courage and skill at pushing on impulses to test and question them. Which is a fancy way of saying that you can honor and respect even your fiercest desires without necessarily storming off to fulfill them right that minute. You can let them settle in a bit. Get used to them. Talk about them (uh, this part is especially important in situations like mine, and may you be as pleasantly shocked as I was by the security, open-mindedness, and sheer modernity of your spouse. It’s kinda hot.)

A newly sober woman I know was struggling one night not to rush out and buy a bottle of wine or six. A mutual friend, also sober, said “Look, the alcohol will be there later if you still need it. What’s the big hurry?” That’s how I’ve started to think about inconvenient desires. Okay, fine: it’s how I’m trying to start to think about inconvenient desires: that the big ones (which, oh God, this one was) don’t just up and vanish. There’s no need for a panicked, reactive rush, because the desire will still be there when I figure out what to do about it.

“Do you feel like you could control this?” the man said during a particularly fraught post-landing conversation. “Because I have no illusions that I could control this.” Of course I can! I wanted to say. The emotions, the narrative, the damage mitigation–leave it all to me, babe, and we’ll have ourselves a harmless little fling and part as the best of friends. 

I looked into his eyes for a long time while I tried to convince myself of these things. “No,” I said finally. “I don’t think I could control this.” Which was one (utterly miserable, deeply resented) step away from reactivity and towards the rational, non-destructive, but still heartbreaking decision that had to be made. Because as he was brave enough to recognize before I did, we were no longer in fling territory. This was a letters-and-sodas situation, the kind that can ruin good lives.

I’m still too much in the middle of it to know a lot, but I do know this: there’s bound to be another inconvenient desire some day, and then another and another (assuming that life is long, e.g. I’m not suggesting a constant parade of sexual rapacity), each one carrying its own sparkle and trouble, decisions and accountabilities. Because humans have human experiences. And I have become fond, most days–though not so much lately–of being a human. The kind who gazes back, and pays attention to what she wants, because what she wants matters, too.

“Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” It’s not pretty. But it’s beautiful.

 

Day 1,276: Dissident

Am I a dissident now? I thought yesterday, reflecting on national events that have not exactly worked out to my liking. It’s not an everyday word, dissident–it makes me think of tanks and gulags, Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov. Not me, walking around on a dignified low boil, making practical contingency plans I hope I won’t need.

And yet, it kinda fits. Present me with any role–corporate worker, woman, wife, sober person, American–and I’ll find something fundamental to take issue with, if not outright reject. And if I couldn’t find that thing to cross my arms against, I’d probably invent it, God help me. Like one of those actors who find themselves reworking lines as they speak them, I’m constitutionally unable to just play the goddamn part as written.

But I’m low-key about it–I’ve got credit in the straight world, to borrow a line. Comparing my adolescence to my sister’s, my father once said: “She would argue us into the ground over every rule and curfew. You’d just nod and then go off and do exactly what you wanted.” You’d have to be paying real attention to see me as a dissident,  and hardly anyone would watch that closely–including me, I guess, or it wouldn’t have surprised me so much to realize Yes, you’re a dissident. You always were. Now it just matters a little bit more. 

Being sober is also a small act of dissidence that feels like a bigger one these days, something writer Megan Koester absolutely nails in a scathing new essay in ViceThe whole thing is worth your time–it’s the entire reason for this post!–but here’s the line that knocked me flat:

“I know people who have been dead drunk for days, a reaction I find logical. To stay loaded is to remain in stasis, pausing the video game that is life while figuring out your next move.”

That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling–that in this first extended period of, you know, spectacular political upheaval and global uncertainty since I cleaned up my act, life has somehow insisted on marching forward even as I struggle to process it all in real time. There’s no cycle of numbing/suffering/shame to distract me from the sense that a whole lot of things seem set to blow. But there’s also no distraction from the fact that in recent weeks I’ve also cooked good meals and written and gone to the movies and bought (and worn!) killer lingerie and laughed at my younger dog’s first experience with snow and had startling moments of connection with other people. All of this is happening. All at once.

September 11, 2001 is the date I became a daily drinker. For no good reason–I lived in a peaceful college town over a thousand miles from New York,  and didn’t lose anyone in the attacks, and didn’t know anyone in the military. But I was anxious and horrified, and a giant glass of wine each day seemed like the rebellious, life-during-wartime thing to do. Why not, right? We were all going to die soon anyway.

Except here we are. And my sense now is that the truly radical life-during-wartime thing to do isn’t drinking. It’s, well, living life during wartime. At least I think that’s what a dissident would do.

Day 1,262, Part 2: Thank you.

I wrote today’s first post before going back and reading the many, many blog comments I received in the wake of “Enjoli.” I hadn’t looked at them before because for some of the reasons I talked about in my last couple of posts, I just needed to be in a quiet space for a bit.

But now I’ve read them all (and hopefully approved them all) and all I can say is THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to write. Your words made me cry, and yes, I am in public right now. (You might have warned me, people.) Especially those of you found inspiration to get sober or stick with new sobriety from my essay. My God, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. Just know it does. I hope you’re all still plugging along in (as Belle would say) your little sober car. And if you’re not but you wish you were, then just start again. You’ll be smarter and have better tools than you did last time. Never stop starting over if you need to (but also know that if you can just gut it out during the hard early days, it’ll get SO much better and you’ll never have to have a Day 1 again).

We’re all connected.

Love, Kristi

Day 1,262: Here, there, and everywhere

You know how when you procrastinate about doing something it can start to make you feel guilty, and then you procrastinate even more, and then you feel even guiltier, and so on into a vortex of black nothingness?

Yeah. But I’m back! Guiltily. As you’ll see, things have been kinda busy, not that that is any excuse. 

First, the big news: my  first book, an essay collection titled Want Not, will be published in winter 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I signed the contract four months ago but typing the words still makes me feel a bit out-of-body. To have a book published at all, let alone from a publisher of personal idols like Michael Cunningham, Lydia Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michelle Huneven–even three years ago I couldn’t have imagined this would happen. But it is.

The essays in Want Not are personal ones that look at drinking and sobriety (and the wanting and not-wanting that drives both) through a variety of lenses: some funny, some sad, most a bit of both. If you’ve been reading me for a while, some of the pieces in the book will be familiar to you, but many will be totally new. Which is my way of letting you know that if you don’t purchase at least one copy you will be missing a ton. 

Of course, the downside to publishing a book is that you actually do have to write it. That’s unfortunate, and accounts for me no longer having much of a social life, aka blog. But I’m still out there! “Enjoli” fever brought a lot of opportunities my way and I said ‘yes, please’ to a few of them. One of my favorites is this “How to Not” series for the Awl, where I explain how to avoid drinking in a variety of (as a friend puts it) setting, circumstances, scenes, events, and milieus:

This is an ongoing series, and I love suggestions! I need suggestions. So if there’s a milieu, circumstance, etc. that you think I should write about, hit me up.

I’ve also done some really fun (for me, anyway) podcast appearances, including the cleverly titled “Enjoli Virus” with Laura and Holly from HOME/Hip Sobriety. And writer Claire Rudy Foster and I took over the Since Right Now podcast twice, once the normal way (normal=Skype) and once at my house all hopped up on coffee.

And last but not least, I’m in the January 2017 issue of Glamour! Here’s the first in-the-wild sighting, sent by a friend from her hair salon in North Carolina (which also serves doughnuts:

 

glamour

If I were you I would probably go out and buy at LEAST 2 copies of this Glamour, making sure to move any remaining ones to a prominent place in the newsstand rack.

That’s all for now from me. How are you?

 

Day 1,165: Now, where were we?

Well, hi there! It’s been a month since I published this essay, which was also the subject of my last post here. In case you haven’t been following along–because why would you?–it went viral. Really really viral. A blow-by-blow would  be both dull and likely inaccurate, but suffice to say that after literally thousands of emails from readers, writers, agents, editors, men who live in basements, and people I knew in kindergarten, when Neko Case tweeted praise I thought ‘okay, this has reached maximum awesomeness and maximum weirdness in one tweet.’

Famous last words. The next day brought a takedown from Slate, which I learned about when a friend texted me saying “When Slate hates you, you know you’re doing something right.” (For the record, not the greatest way to let someone totally new to celebrity know that a major media outlet is complaining about her. You’ve gotta ease into it, people!) Time and the New York Post took vaguely off-topic swipes too, and I’m currently showing up in people’s Google news feeds right on top of Donald Trump’s head, which frankly is closer than I really ever wanted to get.

So it’s been a wild ride, and maybe someday I’ll have more to say about the totality of it. But since this is a blog about being sober, what I want to share today are some ways the experience impacted me as a sober person. Because I’ve been paying attention and there are parallels all over the place, and maybe some of them will be useful to you in your own wacky life:

  1. Doing the next right thing works. When I got a Facebook message saying “Have you seen Time magazine?” I was already overwhelmed and in the middle of a stressful workday. Sure, there’s no such thing as bad press, but there are bad moments for hearing about your bad press, particularly when you have been a public figure for all of five seconds. I scanned the Time article (not really all that bad, more clueless than anything else), then sat at my desk frozen, wondering how I was supposed to function in a meeting in 12 minutes with my entire world continuing to turn itself inside-out.

    Then, thank God, a voice inside said you have 12 minutes. Use them. And I lammed it out of my office building and spent those 12 minutes walking around the block. Not thinking, not trying to be any certain way, just walking alone in the sun. And just that simple act of moving my body calmed me down enough that I made it to my 2:30 meeting merely wildly distracted, not wildly distracted, panicked, and goggle-eyed. (Baby steps, okay?) That’s just one instance of how zeroing in on just one small, immediate action has helped to keep me as grounded as I can reasonably expect to be while things swirl around me.

  2. What other people think of me is none of my business. Here’s a partial catalog of words I’ve been called since “Enjoli” published: hero, genius, star, dry drunk, liar, bitter, truth-teller, bitch, rich bitch, whiner, sage, smug, stunning, slut, judgmental, blind, man-hater, woman-hater, jealous, friendless, wonderful, astonishing, mean, brilliant, brave, goddess, victim, warrior, cunt.

    Yep. At every turn, someone is describing me–not just the 10-page artifact I published, but ME–and it’s rarely in middle-of-the-road terms like competent writer or thoughtful person or a little bit bitchy. It’s all drama and superlatives, because my essay inspired strong feelings, and those strong feelings want a person to attach themselves to. But it’s hard to be the host for all those qualities, especially the ones that confirm things I secretly already fear about myself. So you know which ones I’m accepting as truth?

    None of them. I’m rejecting all of them as applied to me, the person. If they apply to anyone, it’s to the consciously wrought version of me who narrates my equally consciously wrought essay (just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s a diary). And people can call that chick whatever they want, because the writer doesn’t control what happens between reader and text. (Much as she might like to.) Just like when I quit drinking, I have to define myself for myself, or the center’s not going to hold. (Not to mention that for a writer, praise can be as deadly as criticism.) So much as I would love to walk around thinking what a brave, talented, truth-telling goddess I must be…gonna let all those kind words drift gently back to my work where they belong.

  3. People are (mostly) wonderful, and stories save lives. I’ve received thousands of emails and other messages this month. I’ve now mostly weaned myself from reading them, because it’s just too much for an empath like me to carry around. But I’m walking away with more faith in human beings than I’ve had in decades. Because I’ve heard from men and women; the 30-years sober, the 2-days sober, normal drinkers, alcoholic drinkers, non-alcoholics who just don’t drink anymore; Mormons and Muslims and the alcohol-allergic and other lifetime teetotalers; male and female tech workers; women who fled tech in horror; Indians and Scots and Aussies (lots of Aussies) and Italians; fathers of daughters; drunk-driving widows; bartenders, and on and on. (And yes, including a handful of truly loathsome, abusive human beings.) And their stories, in aggregate and alone, are amazing–as is their generosity in sharing them with a total stranger. I feel more a part of the human community having read these stories.

    And it’s cemented my belief that if you can, you should consider recovering out loud. Emphasis on consider. I don’t know your life circumstances, or what you’re up for emotionally, or how people around you will react. What I do know is that there are TONS of us out there, but a lot of us feel alone and/or ashamed. And odds are good that whatever part of your own story you can tell–anonymously, even–will be heard by someone who needed it. Just something to think about. 

  4. Slow things down. I learned pretty early in sobriety that frantic activity and FOMO are routes to misery. Uh, and then apparently at some point I forgot, because I’ve been panicked at times this month with the quantity and quality of professional opportunities that have landed in my lap. I have more interesting, fun options than anyone (certainly anyone with a day job) can take advantage of and stay sane–and that scares me to death, because deep down I’m also convinced that the friendly person behind each of those opportunities is one “no” or “yes, but later” from saying “well, fuck her” and writing me off for life. It took a close friend saying “Look, these aren’t aunts and uncles you have to write your thank-you notes to–they’ll be around when you’re ready” to make me remember it’s okay to think strategically, and choose carefully, and all that other stuff people do when they believe in their own worth and aren’t just, you know, saying yes to the first boy who asked them to prom.
  5. Binary thinking kills. When I was drinking, everything was black/white. Either I had a catastrophic alcohol issue, or no problem at all. Either I could drink to relax, or I’d be tense forever. Either I was the niftiest person alive, or the worst. Sound familiar? I still struggle with binary thought patterns, but at least I often recognize them now. And here’s some stuff I’ve read or heard in response to my essay:
  • She thinks sobriety is the only way to live an authentic life.
  • Anyone who has an issue with this essay is probably an alcoholic in denial.
  • She’s blaming men for all her own problems.
  • She raises some good issues, but fails to provide the solution, so fuck it.
  • She acts like women are the only ones who have a tough time at work.
  • She acts like women are the only ones who struggle with alcohol.
  • She acts like women are the only ones who feel stress.
  • Any man who doesn’t like this essay is probably a misogynist.
  • If she was a real feminist she wouldn’t judge women who drink. Feminists support other women no matter what.
  • Women who say they only drink socially are lying to themselves.
  • She must really hate fun.

    People! All of us! We must stop. Life is in the gray areas. I know this. You know this. Let’s live like we know this. We will all be saner and kinder and happier. Even the assholes.

To be continued. (Maybe. 😉 )

 

Day 1,124: No Faith Required

I started a heart-rate running training plan yesterday and it’s already killing me. The idea of HR training is to expand your aerobic capacity and reduce burnout by doing most of your running at 140 beats per minute or less. As your hearts learns to supply oxygen to your blood more efficiently, you can go further and faster at the same level of effort. Sounds good, right?

It was maddening. Even running as slowly as I know how–and looking, I suspect, like the Pink Panther–I hit 140 fast and often. I spent an hour on the trail and walked at least half of it. (I’m not throwing shade on walk breaks, by the way–I love them. I need them. But the operative word is “break,” and this is not what that was.) By the halfway point, my internal monologue went something like this:

Just because this has worked for a lot other people doesn’t mean it will work for me. What if my heart has some anomaly where it doesn’t get more efficient? I’m going to spend weeks walking 15-minute miles and nothing will change except for my fitness collapsing because my body isn’t designed for this plan. Anyway, I’m under too much stress right now to run slow. How am I supposed to decompress like this? Oh, I know–I could make my own sort of hybrid plan, where sometimes I do the workout as written and sometimes I run as fast as I want! I know the coach says that will sabotage training, but what does she know about me, really? I’m special. My heart is much better and much worse than the ones that normal people have. 

Does this sound at all familiar? It did to me, and I started to laugh (grimly, I will have you know, because officially I was still pissed about walking so much). It sounded like me, thinking:

  • I don’t get how all these sober bloggers sound so happy. They’re probably just trying to talk themselves into it. Or maybe they’re just inherently much happier people than me. They had one little problem and they dealt with it. I have a hundred problems and without alcohol I’d still have 99.
  • The data about alcohol and breast cancer seems a little overstated. I mean, I exercise and eat organic food and have no family history, so even if I drink too much I bet my risk is still below average.
  • Same with the liver stuff. You never hear about people like me having liver failure. It’s always older men who drink during the day at those bars with ATM machines and no windows. Like William H. Macy in Magnolia. My liver is not the kind that fails. 
  • Anyway, even if I wanted to 100% quit I doubt I could. Those sober bloggers aren’t dealing with the kind of job stress I have. Or the way I grew up, walking on eggshells all the time, getting hit, plus getting blamed for getting hit. People like me can’t just stop drinking. We’re not strong like those other people. 
  • But oh, I know! Maybe I can just moderateHave some rules, like only buy half-bottles of wine, or drink a glass of water between every glass of wine, or only drink red since I don’t like it as much. Oh yeah, this is a great idea–a plan that fits my special needs. 

That’s right–as a drinker I didn’t even really believe that medical science applied to me. And, to judge by my heart rate temper tantrum, I guess I still don’t. I still think I’m too special to benefit from proven, codified methods.

And you know what? That’s okay. I’m still going to stick with this plan and see what happens, just for the hell of it.

With sobriety, maybe you’re right where I am with the cardiovascular system–utterly convinced that you can’t have the peace of mind, the freedom that those smug bloggers do, because you’re an anomaly/special snowflake/freak of nature. You want it, but you have zero faith that doing the things we did will make any difference.

And guess what? That’s okay too. Sometimes it’s just asking too much to have faith in advance of your own data. Sometimes you have to take an action, then another, then another–feeling slightly foolish along the way–before the evidence appears.

So maybe we can do it together. What do you say? I’ll go out and plod down the trail, even though I don’t think it’ll work. You’ll do anything to avoid having a drink, even though you don’t think it’ll work. And when we both have some data, we’ll meet back here and talk.

You in?