Day 1,779: You’ll See

For several years I’ve been in this life phase called “friends keep adding me to secret menopause Facebook groups where women gather to share information, vent, and validate the living shit out of each other.” I hate it. Sure, at first I was game. I’d jump in and introduce myself and start reading posts and then within, say, ten minutes I’d be gripped with a sense of impending doom like you would not believe. Sometimes it verged on panic–racing mind, shaking hands, tight throat. And honestly, panic seemed like a reasonable reaction to the fact that I’d just learned my goddamn life was about to end. 

Not right away, of course! No, first there would be perimenopause: five to ten years of sweat attacks, chronic insomnia, depression, rage, massive weight gain, equally massive beauty loss, brain fog, lethargy, purposelessness, and an end to all interest in sex. All at onceThen my life would end, and when it ended I would emerge into a peaceful earthly afterlife where I would be sexless, powerless, and completely invisible…but wise. A level of wisdom that would make up for the complete destruction of everything else. And I would be able to share this wisdom with, I guess, my fellow invisibles, and we would all wear invisible red hats and feel smug that we didn’t actually die.

I mean, Jesus, I feel my chest tightening up just typing this.

I was 46 when I was ushered into the secret Facebook society of doom-followed-by-sexless-wisdom. Things had already started to change. I couldn’t rely on my body as a 30-day kitchen timer anymore. I’d had a hot flash here and there. I had grown a single wiry chin hair that came back every time I plucked it. It was easier to gain weight and harder to lose it. In other words, I was almost certainly already in that long tunnel of horrors known as perimenopause, and I knew it. It just didn’t seem like that big a deal, I guess. After all, I was also writing, and working at an interesting job, and running, and lifting weights, and starting to have the best sex of my life. I certainly didn’t feel unattractive–yeah, I guess my 30-year-old body was skinnier (and by “I guess” I mean it was definitely skinnier), but I hated my 30-year-old body, hated taking up any space at all, and I didn’t use it for much back then. It could barely get through half a Tae Bo class, let alone a half-marathon. Maybe I didn’t have the ‘glow of youth’ anymore, but I finally had a real sense of style, and anyway, I’d spent most of my glowing years red-eyed from crying over some boy.

Basically I felt just, you know, fine. But then I’d get sucked into these menopause pages, each woman’s story more awful than the last, like some sick form of Jenga, and come away convinced that maybe I just hadn’t been hit by the freight train yet. After all, how could feel okay when so many other women were in full-on crisis? How could feel vital and sexy when literally hundreds of other women were sure they were losing their minds? Once or twice I hesitantly ventured that maybe for some of us, the process was fairly mild. “Just wait!” I was told.

Once I admitted that I didn’t feel at all invisible–that I felt vocal, powerful, beautiful. “Just wait,” someone said. “It’s coming for you, too. You’ll see.” (This is verbatim, and can I just say, what the fuck, lady.)

That’s about when I decided that the secret menopause groups weren’t right for me. Emphasis on for me. They were clearly a source of valuable information and community for many women who were suffering awful symptoms and weren’t getting straight talk from their doctors. But for me, they risked drowning out my actual lived experience. My inner voice wasn’t strong enough to withstand a chorus telling me this was really hard, that I would be suffering. Sometimes the chorus–which was often focused on how to gut out the symptoms with no medical relief, the same way some people approach childbirth or depression– seemed to say that I should be suffering, or else I was doing menopause wrong, being a woman wrong (yet again). I closed my browser windows and resumed living my pretty good life as a person who maybe just didn’t fit the mold.

After maybe eighteen months on shore leave, I dipped a toe back into the waters recently when I interviewed a woman my age who has written extensively on perimenopause. On the page, she’s so frank and blunt and funny in describing her issues and how she’s addressed them (for instance, did you guys know that in addition to attracting moisture to the skin on your face, hyaluronic acid will also un-dry your vagina? I know!!! It sounded crazy to me too, but apparently it works!) that I wasn’t sure what to expect in person. But when I found her in the cafe based on her description–corner table, blue dress–my first thought was “Why didn’t she just say to look for the hottest fucking babe in the room?” She was gorgeous. She was sexy. She was wide awake on the planet. And as we chatted for an hour about feminism and power and sex and hormones, I kept having trouble squaring the brilliant, funny, devastating babe across the table with her writing about feeling crazy and ugly and unfuckable. It was only later, walking back to my car in Pioneer Square, that I thought well, that’s her lived experience, and maybe it doesn’t show on the outside, but that doesn’t make it any less real. (I also chalk some of the gap up to the fact that she took action on the things that were bothering her–there is real help out there, people.)

So what does this have to do with sobriety? Well, because for the two or three years before I quit drinking, I read a lot about sobriety, and though the  details varied some, the prevailing collective narrative was something like this:

  1. It’s going to be an absolute nightmare for a while. It will take everything you have just to hang on. Life will become unrecognizable.
  2. But then eventually everything will be fine!
  3. But seriously, it’s gonna be so fucking hard for a while.
  4. Oh, and your addiction will be lying in wait for you every moment of the rest of your life. Just sharpening its claws and waiting for you to drop your guard.
  5. But you should totally get sober anyway because it’s great!
  6. Just don’t feel like it’s too great or Pennywise the Addiction will suck you back into the sewer.

This prevailing narrative made me…a little anxious. A little in need of just one more drink. Thank god I finally found a gentler, more optimistic voice, one that didn’t sugarcoat early sobriety, but also didn’t make it sound so militaristic, so unrelentingly brutal (so…male). That gentle voice gave me the courage to try being sober for a hundred days. And when I did, I found that it was hard. I did have some skin-of-my-teeth moments. Life did change in uncomfortable ways.

But all that hard stuff? It still happened within the context of my personality and temperament and life circumstances. I wasn’t ripped out of my core self. And when I remembered to pay attention to my own lived experience, and not just what I was “supposed” to be feeling, I realized that even the hard parts weren’t half the nightmare I’d expected. Don’t get me wrong–talking to other sober people was and is a huge part of my recovery, and early on I often spent two hours a day just reading sober blogs. But I was somehow able to take comfort in the commonalities I found with my new sober buddies, and still leave room for our differences.

Also–and this is important–I didn’t try to talk myself into thinking it was harder than it really was. I didn’t assume that feeling good meant I was doing it wrong or right. I just thought it meant that for whatever reason, I was having an easier time of it than some of my new friends. (And maybe a harder time of it than others.) I felt lucky, but not smug.

I’m 48 now. Next time a nurse says “And when was the date of your last period?” I’ll say “Sometime in the last four to six-ish months, maybe? I mean, do you really expect me to know?” I’m thinking about just having that chin hair zapped. A few times a year my entire body continues to heat up from the inside–I can actually feel it moving outward toward my skin–and then I sweat like a motherfucker for a few minutes. Because it doesn’t really disrupt my life, I find it fascinating. (If you’re around me when it happens, I’ll probably narrate it for you because it’s just so weird.) I run and lift and eat like a fairly intelligent person and still my belly is, you know, even less awesome than it was at 40, when I was already nothing to brag about. I have a book coming out. People ask me to talk because they want to know what I have to say. I feel a little sad that I probably can’t have a baby anymore, and then I remember that I don’t actually want to have a baby, at all, that all I really want to do is name other people’s babies for them. No, that what I really want is for all options to stay open forever, and I guess that’s just too bad for me.

I feel sexy and beautiful most of the time–in my living, feeling, full-of-curiosity totality, not as a snapshot or an isolated body part. I move through the world like someone who feels beautiful and mostly the world is a good sport and plays along. And then a little bit of the time I feel like the plainest, most invisible woman on earth, and I’d chalk it up to menopause except that I have been paying attention so I remember I’ve been cycling through those two states all my life. In both states I continue to have jaw-dropping sex that my younger self–even my 46-year-old self, let alone the 36-year-old one–couldn’t have anticipated. My drinking self certainly had no idea.

And then there’s that: I’m sober, and I think about my sobriety every day and I look after it, but I don’t live like a fanged monster is waiting to grab me back when I left my guard down, because living like that I exactly how I won’t stay sober.

How won’t stay sober. It might be different for you. If you want to find out, don’t let anyone scare you and don’t let anyone make you think it’s trivial, either. Because beyond the core stuff that seems to apply to most of us–community helps, having if-then plans help, putting recovery first helps– they don’t know! No one really knows what your sobriety will be like but you. It’s like that menopause lady said: “You’ll see.” Except in this case, the rest of us don’t know what you’ll see. You’ll have to come back and tell us.

Day 1,731: Longcuts

“Why does this never get any easier?” I groaned to my trainer last week in the middle of deadlifting.

He looked confused. “Well, because we keep adding weight to the bar. You could only lift half this much a year ago.”

I had to concede his logic, even if it didn’t really answer my question.

 *****

The main thing about me is I never think I’m making any progress. Yesterday, for example, I happened to read about the six 2018 books chosen for a special “Buzz Book” panel at a major book industry conference. That’s six books total, across all genres, out of thousands published in a given year. It had never once occurred to me that mine could be one of the six… until I saw that it wasn’t. And then I sort of deflated. Your book is just not the kind of book that creates buzz, I told myself. It’s a weird book, by a weird person. Just get used to that. 

I moped around for a while and then I saw the online table of contents for the spring issue of a literary magazine that recently accepted one of my essays. In fact, I thought they’d accepted it for the spring issue, except uh oh, why wasn’t it listed? Maybe they changed their minds after accepting it and just forgot to tell me, I thought. Because the essay is actually so forgettable that they didn’t even remember someone wrote it. 

“Hey babe,” said my unsuspecting husband, coming in from a run in the park. “Oh hey,” I said, then explained the ways in which my career had fallen apart in the past hour. “It seems very likely that I will dwell in mediocrity,” I said gravely. “I have walked away from a successful career with money to an unsuccessful one with no money.” (Did I mention that I left my day job a few weeks ago?)

“Or maybe you’re putting a ton of weight on two very small data points,” he said. “One of which would have been like being struck by lightning, and the other of which may very well be an error.”

“Oh please,” I said. “I have had years of cognitive behavioral therapy. I know all about binary thinking and catastrophizing and projecting and the rest of it. That doesn’t mean my career can’t still be falling apart. Hypochondriacs do get cancer, you know.”

Seeking someone who would understand just how bad things had gotten, I texted a writer friend about being dropped by the literary quarterly. “Why don’t you drop a friendly email asking what’s up?” she said. I had to admit it sounded reasonable. So I did, taking pains to sound breezy and oh-hey-just-curious. I got a response less than an hour later, saying my piece is scheduled for the summer issue. Because hypochondriacs do get cancer, but they also flail around in a panic a lot over nothing.

*****

Panic, self-doubt, fear: all just standard stuff in a writer’s life, right? Except consider these facts:

  • In the late 90s, the last time I was trying to place work in literary journals, the one that’s publishing me this summer rejected me nine or ten times. This time around, they asked me to write something for them.
  • The only reason I could freak out over not being one of six Buzz Books is because I have a book coming out this summer, from one of the finest literary publishers in America, the publisher of my dreams, who have made my manuscript into a gorgeous book that has been circulating and getting industry blurbs and other enthusiastic comments that make me dizzy. 
  • And the only reason said manuscript exists is that I wrote it. For eighteen months I spent every weekend and most nights writing, and the book was on my mind in some way 24-7, like an earworm or a tinnitus buzz. My brain became a two-story house and I learned to live on both floors at once.
  • And the only reason I could write a book is that six months into sobriety,  I sat down on impulse one day and wrote a page of a short story, just to see if I had any muscle memory left after a decade away from writing. And then I did it again, and again. I kept sitting down to write because it felt good. I told my husband I didn’t care if I ever got published, or if anyone ever even saw what I wrote; I just wanted to be doing it. And I meant it.
  • And if you’d told me on that day that I’d ever leave my day job, I wouldn’t have believed it. And not just because I couldn’t have foreseen a writing career for myself. Because I thought someone as mediocre as me was lucky to have a job at all, that I’d somehow been tricking my employer into keeping me around. I was two years sober before I started to clearly see how good I was at my job, and over three when it dawned on me that my employer was probably never going to value me the way I needed to feel valued, and over four by the time it hit me that instead of just resigning myself to feeling overlooked, I could leave, make a new life for myself where I could shine and be seen.

That was four years ago. Four years from “Do I still know how to write a good sentence?” to “Why was my book not one of six chosen from thousands to showcase at BookExpo?” Four years from “Who else would ever hire me?” to “Who wouldn’t want to hire me?” The person I was four years ago would say “My God, 2018 Kristi sounds like an ego monster.” But 2018 Kristi (which should totally be the title of a Prince song) isn’t an ego monster. She just knows what she’s worth, and she knows it because she did every fucking bit of the work to get here. There were no shortcuts; if anything, there were longcuts, because the hard way is the way I always go.

I guess I must like the hard way.

*****

But the hard way is slow and progress only piles up in retrospect. Years ago, ending an obsessive long-distance love affair, I couldn’t see that two days without talking or writing was twice as long as we’d ever made it before. I could only white-knuckle each hour and dwell on how that would never change. Finishing a difficult essay last month, I complained to anyone who would listen about the agony of only knowing what I think through the act of writing it, so that what I know and my ability to express it are never quite in balance; it’s a race with a photo finish.

Not to mention, I raise the stakes all the time. In yoga, I was first taught to do a headstand with my feet on the wall for balance. Over time, I moved a few inches away. Then I started kicking up in the middle of the room. Then I could kick up in the middle of the room and add on variations: leg splits, a twist from the torso, a half-lotus.

“Why does this never get any easier?” I said one day to my teacher, who laughed.

“Why would it?” she said. “You keep moving forward.”

I’ve started writing what I hope will be my next book and the mess of it is making me crazy. I don’t want to have to flounder around in the dark, searching for the voice and the structure. I want to have it all figured out right now and just, you know, type it up. Maybe I don’t actually know how to write a book, I thought the other day. Then I remembered something my friend Claire said, because she’s been where I am now:

“The second book is much harder,” she said. “Because you proved the first time around that you can write a book, and now you want to write a great one. It’s a quantum leap in ambition, and therefore in difficulty. Be prepared.”

I listened when she said this and I nodded gravely and I thought I was prepared. But of course I’m not prepared, because I’ve never been prepared. To quit drinking, to write a game-changing book, to leave a job, to leave a lover, to serpent-twist my legs in midair. I trust that I’ll catch up with myself, somehow, in the ways that matter most. And I keep moving forward.

Day 1,651: Start Stopping

It’s New Years Eve afternoon. I’m at a coffee shop working on a commissioned essay about small matters like marriage and sex and desire and monogamy and how I’m a natural at three out of four. The writing is going…not great, okay? Plus I just ate a pretty disappointing croissant and the little boy behind me is singing the alphabet song over and over, with a dramatic, jazz-hands finish at “W, X, Y, and Z.” It was cute for a while. Sunset is at 4:27 today, which is an improvement over yesterday–but still, I mean, come on. We’re humans, not moles. We deserve better.

My social media feeds today are full of posts about how 2017 was the worst year in memory because of Donald Trump and I confess I don’t quite know what to make of that. Don’t get me wrong–I find the prospect of Donald Trump dying in prison almost pornographically thrilling. His stupidity, his reflexive cruelty, his little white fish-mouth all appall me. Forget mere politics–his presidency offends me on an aesthetic level in how it elevates a way of being in the world that negates wonder and mystery and transcendence. (And once you’re on my aesthetic bad side, you’re pretty much fucked.) Still, seeing him blamed for so much emotional damage awakens my unattractive urge to lecture: don’t give him that much power! Take the long view! Make a monument of your pain! (Because for one thing, he’ll still be president tomorrow. The year may be ending, but he carries over.)

But then I think, what do I know? I’m white, straight, and financially stable. I live in a big blue city.  As a woman, I’m, well, at least less vulnerable than a lot of other women. Sure, if I were otherwise in the demographic crosshairs, it’s entirely possible I too would be saying Donald Trump ruined my year. But he didn’t. It was a good year. It nearly fucking crushed me. I got mostly smarter, a little dumber. I trusted the wrong person and saw that betrayal, like most awful things, is survivable. My field of vision got wide and I shrank from it and then crawled back out and stood up. The bedrock under me turned out to be more solid than I knew, and thank god, because everything that wasn’t bedrock turned to confetti I’ll be picking out of my hair for years. But confetti has its own grace and sparkle.

And I’ll tell you one thing. All of it–the bad croissant; the missing sun; the gorgeous, hammering year–it’s all better than my best New Year’s Eve near the end of my drinking. By this time on those days my mind would be on two things:

  1. Wondering how drunk I’d get, and how bad I’d feel on New Year’s Day. Because once I had that first drink, how many more would follow depended on a mysterious alignment of circumstances, timing, and the secret harmonies of the universe or something, and very little to do with me.
  2. Intending to be a “healthy drinker” the next year, which to me meant having no more than two glasses of wine a day, every day. Intending because I didn’t have any real plan. And to be because I didn’t want to have to do anything. I just wanted to magically be different. 

I mean, who wouldn’t, right? But it was never going to work. Partly because I was never going to be a moderate drinker; moderation took a ridiculous level of effort and focus that killed all the fun. But mostly because I was coming at my so-called intention from a place of massive and (retrospectively) hilarious inertia. In the rest of my life I was a panicked striver, climber, analyzer. But in addiction I wanted nothing less than a revival-tent experience that would make dealing with my problem not just doable, but effortless. I wanted my soul to change before anything else did.

I said my mind was on two things most New Year’s Eves. Eventually there was a third: that nothing was ever going to change, that I would be setting empty intentions for the rest of my life because I was powerless to do anything but hope.

If you’re having the same New Year’s Eve thoughts I used to, my Happy New Year message to you is: it isn’t going to work. You’re not going to intend yourself into moderation or sobriety. And you’re probably not going to trick yourself there via other avenues like dieting or race training, either. If you do manage to back your way in like that, great! But if you’re in really deep, like I was, I suspect your brain is already coming up with workarounds and in six months you’ll be thinking Wow, I trained for a marathon and still didn’t quit drinking! That’s so weird. What should I try next? Yoga? Going back to school? Having another baby? 

The way to stop is to stop. There will be a bottle or glass filled with liquid you want to swallow more than you want to do anything else in the world and you won’t swallow it or even touch it. And it will feel so wrong to not touch it. But that’s how you start stopping. You do something that feels wrong, and you have faith that it’s actually right, that you can’t trust your own brain just yet. Or you don’t have faith and you keep it up anyway, because it doesn’t take faith to change.

That’s not all that’s required to heal from whatever got you here, of course. There are a lot of paths to what they call recovery, most of them involving a lot of uncovering of who you are under that shellac of booze and fear. But most of those paths also start the same way: with you stopping.  You rip the fucking band-aid off and you leave it off.

Recently I was talking to a friend who beat a long-ago cocaine habit. “I thought about it 24-7 for days after I quit,” he said. “And then not 24-7, but still lots of times per day. And then, three weeks in, I went a whole day without cocaine crossing my mind. Realizing that was an unbelievable feeling.” His face lit up when he talked about it, decades after the fact. I could feel mine light up too. “I loved that feeling!” I said, and we both laughed at the memory of it, the head rush of that first taste of freedom from the thing we’d thought we couldn’t live without.

You can get that head rush too. I promise. You can be laughing about it years from now. But first you have to start. You have to pull the band-aid off.

 

Day 1,605: Book Cover Reveal!

Psst…wanna see what my book looks like? It looks like this: Coulter_NothingGood

I used to work in publishing, so I can tell you that landing the right cover can be tough and involve lots of revisions and arguments. (You’d be surprised how many writers aren’t crazy about the final cover they end up with, simply because the cover that sells a book most effectively may not match the personal vision a writer has been living with for years.) I was already a huge fan of Alex Merto and thrilled he’d be designing my cover. Still, I half-expected to hate the first round of explorations, and opened the file nervously.

Six concepts were included, and I loved FOUR of them and liked the fifth. There was only one that didn’t work at all for me, and even that one was conceptually cool and thoughtful–I just didn’t think it was right for the book. My husband and I sat at the kitchen counter, stunned. “How can they all be this good?” I said. “It’s not normal.

This one, though was the clear winner among winners for both of us–and for my editor, my agent, and the handful of friends I consulted.  And so it was that we landed my dream cover in one round. It’s not lost on me that I went into the process insisting I didn’t want to use any obvious wine imagery, for fear of it looking cliched or too cutesy. I guess a great artist can take the thing you’re sure you won’t like and turn it on its head, because I get more excited about this cover every time I look at it, and I’ve looked at it a lot.

(Same thing happened when I bought my wedding dress, by the way: I marched into the shop grimly determined to buy the plainest, least fairy-princess dress they had, only to eventually walk down the aisle in a gigantic tulle skirt.)

Oh! You can pre-order my book now too, if you’d like. I think you probably should do that. It doesn’t come out till August 8th, so just think of it as buying yourself a late-summer present way in advance. (Another insider tip: healthy pre-orders on Amazon and other online booksellers can help physical stores gauge how much interest there is in a book and make them more likely to stock it.) There will also be an e-book version, of course. But the paperback is so beautiful, and compact enough to tote around in your bag or backpack, so you can take it everywhere you go. (But seriously, I had a vision of a book portable enough for someone to carry around and dip into at lunch or stoplights or whenever, and that’s exactly how it turned out.)

And yes, an audiobook is planned, and it looks like I’ll be reading it myself! (Sorry if you were hoping for Michael Caine as narrator.) I’ll post a pre-order link for that once it’s available.

Isn’t this just amazing? I’m amazed. I’m also still sober. And these two states are connected.

Day 1,586: Tara Still Burned

We interred my father-in-law’s ashes last week. He died eight years ago, but my mother-in-law never got around to scattering the ashes and in the meantime, the Catholic Church made some kind of rule change about who gets into heaven based on how their ashes are handled. I wanted to say, “Oh, come on. If heaven exists, he’s been there for years! What,  they’re going to evict him because of something someone on earth does wrong?” 21 years of marriage to a lapsed Catholic from a very un-lapsed family has brought a lot of those “Wait, what?” moments into my life.

But anyway. We interred the ashes, which made me think back to my father-in-law’s death. “We were both still drinking then,” I said to my husband later. I think back to sitting with his body before the funeral home guys arrived, or receiving visitors that afternoon, or milling around at the memorial reception, and in my memory I always have a glass of wine in my hand. And not just me. Everybody was drinking; well, at least all the Catholics were. (Sorry! I’ll stop.)

My husband nodded. “We were indeed.”

“Do you think you’ll feel tempted to drink the next time something that bad happens?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. What’s the point?”

***

That’s what it’s come down to for me too, almost four and a half years into sobriety. What’s the point of drinking? Was there ever one? It seems like such a random thing to do, especially in times of trouble. To think “Something happened that I don’t like, so I will consume a depressant that also makes me dumb.” I mean, I guess there’s no real harm if you’re not an alcoholic, if you’re just consuming, like, Scarlett O’Hara’s nip of brandy. But it doesn’t change anything, either. Tara still burned. Rhett still left.

I’ve been thinking about this because the last few months have been troubling for me, and not even in a full-on crisis way, where I could spring into action–more like gray spaces and liminality:

  • I finished my book. It’s in my publisher’s hands now, being edited and designed and proofread and so on. It took me two and a half years to write. Now it’s done, and I’m glad–I needed to be done. But I’m also lost, because it was the center of my life, my lens for seeing the world, and nothing has taken its place yet. What do I orbit around now? I don’t know.
  • Also, it’s finite now. A book starts as nothing but possibility, but eventually–unless you want to be one of those writers who turns in a 3,000 page manuscript ten years late–it has to become a settled thing, an artifact whose beauties and flaws are set. And in a childish, unrealistic way I deeply resent that. I don’t like closing doors. I miss when my book was boundless.
  • I’m scared no one will read it.
  • I’m scared lots of people will read it. To make this book work, I had to put aside the question What will people think of me? I didn’t want to worry about making myself look good, or grasp too hard for the likability often demanded of female characters. I wrote the frank, non-cloying book I wanted to write, and turned it in. And then, after my first meeting with the (huge) marketing and PR team, I went Ohhhhhh. Right. This is going to be offered to the public. The public with people in it. It’s a memoir, after all. I can’t pretend I didn’t actually do the stuff I did.
  • Things are weird in non-book life too. My day job feels both turbulent and static at once in a way I can’t quite pinpoint. I’ve always believed in making my own meaning out of my career, versus waiting for someone to feed it to me. And I know that from time to time, meaning vanishes and needs to be found or re-made. That’s normal–cyclical, even. But this round of it feels unusually frustrating–like I’m alight with brain energy that wants to be solving complex problems but is only being called upon to do easy things.
  • And OMG, the guy I wrote about over the summer–well, I may never fully understand what happened, but I guess he decided his narrative of what happened between us needed a villain, and hey! there I was. It led to him treating me in a clinical, somewhat dehumanizing way that genuinely shocked me because it was so unlike the man I’d known for two years. Given what he’d shared of his history with women–well, that and the few times he sort of congratulated himself for managing not to blame me for our shared situation–I guess I should have foreseen that at some point I’d flip from being an actual person to just some problem to ‘safeguard’ (his word) himself from. But I just didn’t. On top of the shock, I was very angry for a while. But when our paths cross now it’s something oddly like pity I feel that after all his talk of courage and lasting friendship and having a spacious heart, when it really counted he just…shrank. Folded. The way he trashed my trust and good will is unacceptable, but it still makes me sad for him to see him diminished like that.
  • What else? Oh, family stuff where I’m struggling to be helpful without completely trashing my boundaries. A half-written novel I’m trying to get back to while I secretly wonder if fiction even matters in this burning-down world anymore. Not one but two dogs in Cones of Shame (allergy season hotspots). And this guy named Donald Trump–perhaps you’ve heard of him–who seems to be poisoning the groundwater every single fucking day that his mean, racist, rapey, treasonous, astonishingly stupid black hole of a self runs this country. I worry that just existing in his airspace is grinding me down into a subtly worse person. I really do.

*****

So, it’s a lot. How am I coping with it? Well, writing, for one. Running. Intense cross-training. Sleep, walks, friends, therapy, sex, a small bump in Effexor dosage. Live music–19 bands since May, to be precise!–poetry, dogs.

Also: sugar, brooding, excessive clothes shopping, and highly distracting fantasies, with some self-pity and catastrophic thinking just to round things out.

What’s missing? Yep. And not just booze, but the thought of booze. I’m not saying “God, I need a drink” and then consciously choosing Nordstrom or Orangetheory or a concert as a substitute. By now, I’ve genuinely internalized these other strategies for calming down or cheering up. Even a year or two into sobriety, I couldn’t have imagined that.

I also couldn’t have imagined that this level of discomfort would actually be, well, okay. I mean, I don’t love it. But I’m able to step back and see that it didn’t come out of nowhere. I’m in a phase of huge change in nearly every part of my life. More change than when I got sober. And most of it is a joy, or has the potential to be. I’m so curious about what’s going to happen. But even joyful, curious change can kick your ass. I’m getting my ass kicked up and down this year. And I’m fundamentally all right. The center will hold.

And here’s the key thing: even if I weren’t fundamentally all right, I don’t think I’d be drinking. Because I know to my bones now that alcohol doesn’t fucking workEverything that’s hard in my life right now would be so much worse. The guy entanglement would have been a train wreck, and I’d be the one acting like an ass afterward, not him. I’d be chronically exhausted. I’m sure I would have left my company by now because I never would have figured out how to take care of myself in such a rough environment. I’d be in a tailspin over Donald Trump, convinced he had robbed me of all personal agency, vs. just being a catastrophically dangerous president (which is plenty bad enough).

The only thing that would be easier for me as a drinker? The book stress. Because there would be no book. There would be no writing at all. I’d still be convinced that my fundamental purpose on earth had been a youthful phase. And I’d still be passively waiting for something else to take its place. And nothing ever would.

If you’re drinking to solve a problem, know that it isn’t working and it never, ever will. I’m not saying you should stop drinking; that’s your business. Maybe you don’t even drink at harmful levels. It’s still not solving any problems. It’s not helping you sleep. It’s not helping you get to know people, or have better sex. It’s not making bad things un-happen. It’s just blurring your view of those things during the time the alcohol is in your bloodstream. And when it’s out of your bloodstream, whatever you were running from will catch up to you. If you are drinking alcoholically, odds are good that you’ll end up running from more and more, slower and slower.

Here’s the other thing to know: you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to feel all that stuff gaining on you while you struggle to keep moving forward. Because on the other side of drinking, you will be all right. Not as fast as you’d like. But faster than you think. Will you become clean as the driven snow? I kinda doubt it, babe. You might take up smoking, or commence a deep study of chocolate, or get really angry. You might even, uh, become a sober married woman who still manages to get involved with a married man. (Can you believe some people?!) But you can slow down and walk, and see your problems at their actual size, and think about how to hold them with at least a little grace.

And you will be okay. You will.

Day 1,495: Stonewall

Someone was rude to me in a work meeting last week and I called him on it. It wasn’t a big drama. He cast a condescending aspersion, I calmly corrected it and requested he not do that again, he muttered an apology, and the meeting moved on.

Except the me part of the meeting. As the tide of the moment receded, I sat there a little stunned. Who just said that? I wondered. Did I?  

*****

I learned young that defending myself out loud led to pain. My young parents didn’t know what to make of me, their hyper-attuned, hyper-verbal starter kid. Even my first word was two words: pretty flowers. On car trips they’d pay me not to talk, and I don’t blame them a bit. What I do take issue with: the sweeping judgments on my character that flew so freely in our house. They didn’t attack over things I’d done. They attacked for how I was. Too anxious, too sad, too scared, too ungrateful.

Look, I’m under no illusions that raising a scapegoat was fun. But in my defense, I only ever asked to be raised as a child. I did not request special assignment as the Locus of Discontent. It pissed me off. I knew I was better than the words they used to describe me, and because I was both hyper-verbal and too young to see around corners, I argued back. It never worked out well for me–at all–at all–but I kept pressing my own bullheaded little case because I knew. I was eight years old and I knew I deserved to be seen more clearly.

And then I stopped. I just got too fucking tired to fight with angry, scary adults all the goddamn time.  Or if I occasionally couldn’t resist, it was in the spirit of a soldier who knows she’s about to die in battle and says, you know what, fineHeedless and pre-numbed.

*****

I lived. No one’s hurt me in those ways in decades. I rarely even jump at sudden movements anymore. And as part of my adult toolkit I even learned how to pretend to have a productive conflict with another human being. I read all the books about the I statements and not globalizing and empathy and whatnot. In marriage and especially in sobriety, I’ve even learned how to sort of back my way into an actual grownup argument, with real feelings and everything.

But there’s an overload switch in my brain and sometimes it flips. It is especially flip-prone when someone is mad at me, and “mad” can mean anything from momentarily annoyed to seriously disappointed to fuck-her-and-the-horse-she-rode-in-on. And because I now have people in my life who actually see me, sometimes “mad” just means “I know there is so much light and humor and wisdom inside you, Kristi, and I guess I was just wondering why the flying fuck you aren’t showing any of it to me right now. Thoughts?”

That’s a good kind of mad. But my switch flips and I go mute. Or close enough to mute for the girl whose first word was two. I can’t talk because I can’t think. And I can’t think because I am measurably stupider in this state. The part of my brain with the words and nuances and opinions about politics and novelists and jeans and chicken has been shoved aside by the part that’s just looking to get me off the battlefield before I get humiliated or hit or locked in my room.

*****

It’s not fun, right? It’s not rewarding to try to hash something out with a normally chatty and open woman who is suddenly staring glassy-eyed just to the left of you. It’s not fair when you express your own difficult emotions as clearly and kindly as you can, only to watch this chick who is famously good with words go full-on aphasic and treat you like you might be packing and trigger-happy.

But what can I say, except that sometimes I’m not there? I leave without wanting to. The kid I was is trying to save me. I don’t need her to but she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s still trying to prove herself. Maybe this is how she gives shape and meaning to all her pain (because otherwise, what the fuck was it for?). She’s bullheaded, after all. And surprisingly forceful.

Until a few years ago I didn’t know what was happening. Or I knew–I’m not disassociating, not truly gone, just mute and embarrassed. But I hadn’t connected the dots. I was 44, sober for just over a year, when I realized I wasn’t just a stonewaller or a bad fighter; I was scared of real harm. Finally I learned to, as they say, use my words. I’m overwhelmed right now and having trouble processing. Or Can we just sit for a minute while I catch up? Or to anyone close enough to know the shorthand: just I’m not here right now. I’m sorry. I’m just not here. 

*****

I messed up a man’s life this year, and he messed mine up too. But we are decent and earnest and thoughtful people, the kind of people who generally take care not to wreck stuff. We set out with our separate checklists of repairs, and at the same time tried to look after our originating friendship, which had been the kind that you just don’t find outside of college, or maybe your 20s. Some of my repairs turned out to be more like renovations, but not the catastrophic kind, more like adding some windows than gutting the kitchen. (Others were–are–slow, expensive, and grueling. But I should have seen them coming from a hundred miles away and instead I marched right into them. I don’t get to complain.)

I didn’t know the specifics of his repairs, because we’d agreed not to share details with each other. But based on not much more than hope and naiveté, I decided that the trouble I’d catalyzed in his life had probably been short-lived and shallow–my disruptive presence a blip–and that the tentative new back-to-friends reality between us would solidify. Did I want to be that easily forgotten? God, no. Especially not by him. It hurt to even contemplate. But if it would help to set his world back on its axis, well, who was I to resist the sacrifice.

So we bumbled along, trying to reset our friendship in a start-and-stop way. And then one day I said in passing Looking forward to our coffee tomorrow! and he said Oh yeah! Actually, do you have a second to talk? Right now? Somewhere private? And five minutes later we were leaning against the granite facade of an apartment building while he explained that actually, well, no. No coffees, no conversations, no quick walks around the block to catch some sun. Not for now, anyway. Not when he still had so much left to resolve.

Even as I listened my switch was starting to flip. The ambush-like timing had primed it and the actual words did the rest.

What he said: I need more time to process everything and I can’t do it while I’m still spending time with you. And It’s nothing you’ve done. And I need to take responsibility for my own life. 

What I heard: My life was great until you came along. I don’t want you anywhere near me and I wish we’d never met. 

He finished explaining himself and waited for me to respond, because he didn’t know Elvis had left the building. I turned my face toward the granite wall and just kind of…watched it while I tried to think of how to defend myself against the things he had not actually said. He patiently watched me watch the wall, which was really very nice of him. And then finally I came up with some words:

I’m just sort of looking at this granite. 

Yeah. That’s how I rose to the occasion. What I meant: I’m not here. I’m sorry. I’m working so hard to stay but sometimes the kid won’t let me. I’m sorry. I’m just not here. 

What he heard: Granite. 

*****

It wasn’t long after that someone was rude to me in a meeting and I called him on it. It wasn’t a huge drama. I just did it and then sat there stunned. Who just said that? You did, I thought. Cleanly and clearly. That was you. 

It’s not that the kid’s gone, but she slacks off more these days. Maybe her threat meter is more finely tuned. Maybe she’s just tired of defending me, the same way she got tired of defending herself. Or she shows up only when she knows I’m truly vulnerable (GraniteGate) and lets me handle lower-risk situations (meeting dude).

And even during GraniteGate, I broke through eventually. I rallied, sort of. By which I mean I was ineloquent and defensive and likely a general pain in the ass, but I was there, doing what I could, and she let me stay. And when our talk ended and he said Do you want to walk around the block once before we go back?, she just watched quietly while I said–cleanly and clearly–Yes. But I think I want to do it alone. 

Day 1,466: Sympathy for the Devil

Saturday was my fourth soberversary. I went into the archives looking for my third anniversary post, thinking I’d write something about what’s changed since then. Turns out I didn’t write an anniversary post last year. But I did write one starting like this about a month before my third:

“My heart: I’ve been working hard to keep it on lockdown. To use it tactically, like Aleppo pepper or some other wonderful spice that will take over a dish if you let it. And only on the page. Because I’m on the march, with no time for surprise feelings. I have goals. I have things to prove to people who were mean to me in 1978 and 1990 and also this April. I have losses we can’t talk about. I have chips on my shoulder like you wouldn’t believe. I’m sculptural with them.”

People: do you know what this means? It means NOTHING HAS CHANGED. 

I mean, come on. Can’t a girl evolve a little in a year?

Okay, it’s true that a lot of stuff has happened in the meantime. For instance, those goals I mentioned? The big one was to find a publisher for my book, and as you might already know, I did. (And not just publisher, but my dream publisher.) The final manuscript is due at the end of the month, which, yes, I KNOW IS VERY SOON, THANK YOU. I’m on it.

My other goal was to take some time away from my job, and I did that too: a four-month sabbatical, to work exclusively on the book once I’d sold it. I’ve always had a job: vacations aside, this was the first time in 20 years I haven’t gone to an office five days a week. I was afraid all that free time might drive me crazy, but it didn’t. I loved it. I loved having the book to devote myself to, and the empty space around the book for letting it breathe, and letting myself breathe, too. I could go all in on the writing–to where it really hurt–knowing I had the luxury of recovery time. It felt absolutely right. (I’m back at work now, and that’s fine too.)

And of course a few months after I wrote the post above, I published “Enjoli” because I felt invisible as a writer and had, also per the above, a chip on my shoulder (one of many) about it. And “Enjoli” turned my whole life upside down. That was weird, right? Sometimes I think oh come on, get a grip, essays go viral all the time. And maybe they do, but still. To go from anonymity to the BBC to German translation to being trashed in the New York Post and so on in the space of a week was weird. Almost a year later, I see that the great blessing of the “Enjoli” experience is that the range of reaction was SO vast that it was a crash course in learning that I truly can’t control how my work is received by readers. Which feels a little horrifying, but mostly liberating. I think it means I can just keep doing my own peculiar thing in the best way I know how and trust that someone will care, and that they’ll care a lot more than if they were getting a watered-down, please-everyone version of me. And that’s convenient because honestly, my interest in being America’s Sweetheart is at an all-time low ebb, and that’s saying something.

Finally, God knows (and if you’ve read my last post, you know) I’ve had some loss, too. Loss doesn’t feel any easier than it did a year ago–harder, actually. But last year’s losses were ones I couldn’t talk about. Not so for the new ones. I insisted on talking about these. With my husband because I didn’t want to hang out in the shadows anymore, pretending to be the perfect wife instead of an authentic one. With my friend because continuing to talk around the feelings between us had come to seem as dangerous to our friendship as acknowledging them. These were risky, hard talks and also really good ones. I feel in some ways like a new and more textured woman, a new and realer wife. (With time, I hope maybe a new and deeper friend.) Like something has permanently shifted and made more space to move around in.

And of course, that only happened because despite what I said last year, I failed in pretty spectacular fashion to keep my heart on lockdown. I tried. But man, I just fucking blew it. I let surprise feelings in, the kind I said I had no time for. At key crossroads I stopped and took a deep breath and consciously allowed myself to be vulnerable and really enjoy the happiness in the moment, knowing I might regret it. Which I don’t, exactly. Sure, some days it just hurts and I have to slip out of the office for five minutes to sit in my car in the parking garage and regroup. Some days I just wish I were a little tougher, or at minimum a little smarter. But other days I’m walking downtown with “Sympathy for the Devil” on my headphones, and I feel as self-contained and sinuous as a snake and the irresistible future uncoils in front of me, and I wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened.

But where’s the balance between those states? Is there a safe-ish, gentler way to manage an expanding heart? Because I won’t lie: a year since I announced mine was on lockdown, that’s been sounding pretty good again. Well, I guess lockdown is a failed strategy. But what’s to stop me from assembling a team of the most brilliant scientists on earth to create a special lacquer that will make my heart as glossy as a candy apple, and just as hard to crack? As I start year five, that’s the question that haunts me: whether I can resist the lure of contraction and find a way to live with curiosity and grace in this new openness, this wider self and life, even when I feel lost and alone inside it. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.