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 1,651: 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.